As a near nomad at this point, I often have to get creative with making my work trips line up correctly. I needed to be in San Francisco for a tradeshow on Saturday and I needed to be in Reno for a board of directors meeting on Monday. Try as I did to make my Delta flights line up, I was starting to get desperate. I looked at multitudes of other airlines, something I rarely do… and discovered that it would take me two connections and cost upwards of $500-900 JUST to get from SFO to RNO. (The direct flight equivalent of a 1.5 hour flight). Nope nope nope. I discovered that the Amtrak ran from Cali to Chicago and stopped in Reno on the way. For a mere $53.
I was so excited! I have always loved the Amtrak from DC to NYC (taking it again in a few days), and was really excited to try out the famed California Zephyr. DINING CAR. (surely someone else must find this fun!) I would need to take a bus from San Fran to Emerysville (approx. 40 minutes to an hour), and then take the train from Emerysville to Reno. (6 hours). I anticipated a lovely, scenic route, lots of private time to get my work done, and a relaxing way to travel for a very inexpensive price. Things didn’t go quite as planned.
Firstly, the train was late. Like an hour and a change late. There was no Red Cap service, and the train station employees thought I was a lunatic for asking. I think I immediately got labeled as a travel snob. Fair enough.
When we finally boarded the train, we were not allowed to choose our car, but were given a small selection of seats to choose from based on our departure area. It makes sense, but it was disappointing. The train… kept delaying. We’d stop for sometimes hours at a time. The total time on the train was 9 hours, plus the delay and bus ride, equalled a near 11 hour day. There was no wifi. I repeat this. THERE WAS NO WIFI. And we were driving across mountains, so there was no cell reception or cell signal. FOR OVER NINE HOURS. And the people… there are a very specific breed of people who ride the train from California to Truckeroo or Reno. Most of them are drunk, high, or some combination of both. The people who were seated behind me smelled like they were homeless and acted like they were both extremely high. Joy. In fairness, it was Burning Man, so people were headed my way which may have explained the drunk and high. Still. It’s a long train ride with poor ventilation considering the other passengers.
- Yes. It was gorgeous and very scenic.
- The staff could not have been nicer. I absolutely adored the lovely woman assigned to my section. She told me that she is working for nearly 2 days straight on this train trip. She naps in 30-40 minute increments over the course of the trip. Gets a good night sleep if they arrive on time (they never do apparently), then gets up and rides 2 days back. She’s a saint.
- Wildly inexpensive. One way on Amtrak from DC to NYC is usually $112-$150
- It’s an experience to check off your bucket list.
- Interesting people watching and if you’ve never travelled that part of the country, it’s a good way to see the area.
- No wifi. No wifi. No wifi.
- You are trapped in a tin can with no way to dim the lights (like an airline does) and the people on a train have far less hygiene than on an airplane.
- There’s no cell reception. See no wifi.
- Food options are limited. The dining car has a reservation system, but they don’t start serving until dinner. The small cafe car is downstairs, but has more options than a standard cafe car on the Acela or northeast regional… but not many. Still all packaged and not great.
- The train is moving to fast and there is a glare on the windows to be able to get fantastic photographs. (Mine below have been edited to remove the window glare).
- They are constantly on delay, so don’t take this transport if you have to be someplace by a certain time.
- If you decide to take the California Zephyr, load up on food snacks before hand. The food cars aren’t open the entire ride. Additionally, you may end up seated cars and cars and cars away from the dining car and cafe car, and there are definitely enough sketchy characters on the train that I wouldn’t want to leave my bags unattended for terribly long.
- Travel light or “check” your bag. See above, I wouldn’t travel with large carryons or personal affects. This will give you more freedom of movement to go sit in a dining car or the “lounge”
- Consider one of the private travel cars. It’s certainly more money, but might give you a more pleasant experience
- Bring a gift for your car attendant. Even if it’s a small box of chocolates. They go through so much without being appreciated for what they do, and they’re really sweet and attentive staffers.
- Be prepared to unplug with a book and some head phones. There are charging plugs, but the internet connection is so spotty as you go up and around mountains that even with a wifi pack, it might not get service.
- Be prepared for long delays. They happen every ride apparently.
- Dress lightly (it gets really hot), and then have a light airplane blanket or hoodie to wear.
- You may be seated next to a stranger the entire ride. See consider getting a private travel roomette.
- Make sure you get up a move about from time to time. It’s very easy to cramp up.
- Bring a sleep mask. Until it gets dark outside, the cabin will be very bright.
Ultimately, if you’ve watched that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie and Samantha take a ride across the country in a deluxe sleeper suite and it is basically hell on earth for 3 days of torture, yes, I believe that it’s all true. I don’t know why I didn’t follow Sex and the City’s advice.
If you need an inexpensive means of getting from point A to point B along this train route, it is extremely affordable with very scenic moments and great staff.
Here are some photos from my journey to make you feel conflicted about whether or not it is worth it. If you are a frequent flyer and travel snob like me, I cannot emphasize enough that you know what you are getting yourself in for. You need to go into this adventure unlike me with the right mindset, and if so, I think you’ll really enjoy the journey.