I just got back from my first train trip in the US! We took an Amtrak train for the two-day trip from Toledo, Ohio to San Diego, California.
We sprung for one of the largest compartments they offer, the “bedroom.” It sleeps two, and includes a private toilet and shower, but is pretty tight quarters. When I was doing research, scouring for photos prior to the trip, it was difficult to get a good idea of what the rooms are really like. I thought, “I can do better than that!” Turns out, even with my wide angle lens, it’s harder than you’d think. Still, I hope this provides an idea of what to expect.
Bedrooms are located on the second floor of train cars, taking up most of the width of the car, with a narrow hallway along one side. The rooms have sliding doors with a small window allowing you to see out into the hallway.
The photo below was taken standing at the entrance to the compartment:
You can see the top bunk folded up at an angle on the left, and just a bit of the sink to the right. The sofa can be pulled out to create a bed. Setting up the bunks for sleeping isn’t difficult once you get the hang of it, but let your car attendant at least show you how the first time. They’re happy to help you reconfigure in mornings and evenings throughout your trip. Both bunks have thin mattresses that go on top of the already padded surfaces.
From the opposite direction, leaning against the exterior wall of the room, looking towards the door. The bottom bed is fully extended in this photo. It’s large enough to be comfortable for most adults, and the mattress that’s currently stowed in the top bunk would sit on top to cover the gap.
The doors lock from the inside, but not the outside. This means that when you can’t lock your room when you leave. I felt a little uncomfortable with this, but we didn’t have any problems.
Turning a little to the left, you can see the sink, and the compartment that encases the bathroom, with a tiny bit of the bathroom door on the left edge of the photo (sorry the photo is so blurry!). There’s very little storage and counter space, so my Victorinox cosmetics case, hung from a coat hook, was a lifesaver!
Moving further to the left, here’s the toilet and shower. It’s a little plastic room with just enough space in front of the toilet to shower. I had no problem showering, but it is difficult to dress or undress in the bathroom. There’s plenty of room to do so outside of the bathroom, just keep in mind if you choose to share the room with a friend, you won’t have much privacy.
Seated on the sofa, looking out the compartment’s windows. There’s a chair on the other side of the fold out table, and the bathroom is to the far right. Meals are included in the cost of your room ticket, and you can choose between eating in the dining car, or having the attendant deliver your food.
The observation car and dining car both offer nice views of the passing scenery, but I was happiest curled up in my room watching the golden foliage go by. Despite spotty internet and having forgotten to pack a book, time passed surprisingly quickly.
Taken from inside the bathroom (one could theoretically use the facilities while enjoying the scenery passing by), you can see the chair that was at the right edge of the last photo. The bunks are to the left.
I felt a little bad about taking photos with our junk strewn everywhere, but this is much more realistic! There’s so little storage that clutter is inevitable. We packed a carry on size bag, and my large Raden suitcase. There’s a shelf above the chair that stowed the carry on bag, but my large bag was mostly in the way for the entire trip. Next time, I’d pack a smaller bag of necessities and check my large suitcase through (it has to be under 50 pounds, but there’s no extra cost to check a bag).
Looking slightly to the left, still in the bathroom. You can see the sofa/ bottom bunk, and my big suitcase preventing the bathroom door from opening completely. (Awesome moon pillowcase found on Etsy)
There’s a little control box next to the window with light controls, button to call the attendant, and volume controls (the PA system for announcements pipes right into your room). It’s obviously pretty dated– as is the entire compartment– but other than the volume/channel controls, everything worked fine.
Food in Amtrak Dining Cars
With the exception of breakfast, meals in the dining car are scheduled by an attendant, who will stop by your compartment and offer you a choice of seating times. Unless you’re traveling in a large party, you’ll be seated with other people.
The food was better than airplane food (at least what they serve you in steerage), but overall a weak point in the experience. Much like airline food, some things seemed pre-made and reheated, and the quality wasn’t the highest. This is coming from a food snob, I don’t think it would bother everyone. However, if I were traveling on Amtrak again, I’d think about bringing along some healthy non-perishables (there’s plenty of junk food available for purchase from the cafe underneath the observation car), or even grabbing a dinner to go during the Chicago layover.
The rail system in the United States is very freight focused, and Amtrak (which shares rails with freight trains) has limited routes. This means that even though I live in the capital city of Ohio, the closest station is 2 hours away (and that route would have meant driving south, only to have the train take me north again). I ended up opting to drive 3 hours north to Toledo, Ohio, where I caught the Capitol Limited to Chicago, then the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, and finally, the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego.
Initially, I admit, this seemed like a pain in the ass. But this isn’t like air travel, where layovers involve being trapped in an airport, miles from the city center. Train stations are generally centrally located, and often in gorgeous, historic buildings. In Chicago, we stepped out the doors of Union Station right into the middle of the city!
And then there’s the lounges. In large cities, Amtrak has a Metropolitan Lounge for first class customers. They have refreshments, snacks, comfy seats, and frequently offer bag storage.
Since our layover in Chicago was 6 hours, we dropped our bags in the storage room of the lounge and set off to explore the city, starting with an amazing cured meat spread at Snaggletooth. (This one is sort of cheating on the walkability brag, since it required an Uber ride to get there, but very worth it!)
Back downtown, we were able to explore Millennium Park, visit the Bean, the incredible BP pedestrian bridge, stroll down to the Chicago Athletic Club for drinks on the roof, and walk back to the station, with lots of time to spare.
Our layover in Los Angeles (also a Union Station, and also gorgeous!) was originally just a couple hours, but we caught a later train in order to see a bit of the downtown.
Union Station is an easy walk to both the charming Mexican market of Olvera Street, AND Little Tokyo. So we took full advantage and stuffed ourselves! Tamales for breakfast…
Followed by mochi from Japanese confectioner Fugetsu-Do, who’ve been in Little Tokyo since 1903:
And topped off with a stop at Kula Revolving Sushi:
We had a little time to hang out in the Metropolitan Lounge back at the station. It’s smaller than Chicago’s and without showers, but a quiet and pleasant space.
The final leg of our trip, the Surfliner, winds very close to the Pacific ocean in spots! Seats aren’t reserved, so ask the conductor if you’re not sure which side of the train to sit on for ocean views.
This was the one stop where we didn’t get to explore the surrounding area, instead hopping in an Uber, and heading to our hotel. We were in San Diego for a conference, so my time was mostly taken up with that, but I shared a little from San Diego on Instagram.
Overall Thoughts on Amtrak
While it’s a little more expensive, I love traveling this way! After this, and my trip on a private jet, it’s so hard to put up with being crammed into coach seats, and all the stress that goes with it.
Everyone was incredibly nice. In sharp contrast to airline employees, Amtrak employees were consistently pleasant and helpful. Even when she was obviously sleep deprived, our car attendant was sweet and happy to answer our endless barrage of questions. (Tipping is recommended for good service).
If I could swing the price, I’d book a separate room for each adult on future trips. The bottom bunk was quite a bit more comfortable than the top. It’s larger, with room to sit up, and just felt nicer. The top bunk is a little claustrophobic for an adult, and was freezing, even when my companion was toasty in the bottom bunk.
Take advantage of layovers (or create one). If you’re traveling by rail, you’re probably not in a hurry, so use the slow pace to your advantage. Go out and see the city during your layover, or even ask during booking about getting a later connecting train for a longer layover. If I took this route again, I’d think about staying overnight in Chicago or LA.