Riding the rails! From Virginia to California on Amtrak

A dream of mine has been to ride the train from the East coast to the West coast and back again. I recently got to fulfill that Bucket List wish and traveled from Norfolk, VA to Sacramento, CA and returned to Norfolk on the train a few days later. It was everything I dreamed it would be and more. Stay with me while I share with you everything you’ll need to know, from soup to nuts, about how to plan your trip and what to expect on the way.

The first thing you need to do is to book your travel!  

Choose! Choose! your travel dates!

Before you start booking if you don’t already have an Amtrak Guest Rewards number, go online and sign up for one now. This will earn you free trips in the future.

The number to call to speak to a booking agent is 1-800-USARAIL. You can explore dates and travel destinations online, but I always find an agent has more information and is quicker to solve travel issues than the computer is.

I was flexible with my dates and found that to be quite necessary once I started speaking to an agent. There are always going to be trains moving but unlike airlines with available seats, Amtrak prices tend to fluctuate depending on how full or empty the train is booked for that particular date. Summer travel is almost always more expensive. Be prepared to shuffle your dates around in order to get the best price available.

Once you book your date also be aware that you can change the date, but if you want to cancel you will only get back a certain percentage of the cost of your ticket. So be sure before you commit.

Ask questions! Much of what I learned was because I spoke to several agents while making my travel plans. I also looked online and watched numerous Youtube videos, but no one was as helpful as those Amtrak agents. They really know their stuff!

I was on the phone with my second Amtrak agent when she started talking about the lounges in the different stations. She was telling me all about the different amenities they offered when I interrupted her to tell her I had no idea what she was talking about. She informed me I was traveling First Class and the lounges were there for my traveling comfort and I should take full advantage of them on my trip.

Since I was traveling in a Sleeping car I was considered a First Class passenger. This gave me certain privileges on the train and also in the train stations where I had layovers.

Let’s talk about those enormously long layovers you’ll see on your travel itinerary. I was bowled over thinking I’d be in one station for almost eight hours, but I have to confess the time flew by! I had lunch with a great friend during one layover and by the time I got situated and checked my phone on the free WiFi available in the lounge it was time to get back on the train!

In Washington, DC my friend Paula and her son Armando met me when I arrived and we walked into the city and had a fantastic lunch with other friends during my layover there. Union Station also has some of the best shopping and I picked up a few great gifts for my husband too. Now that was worth more than any layover I’ve ever had!

Those long layovers will save your butt sometimes.

Since the 1800’s the rule of the tracks is freight takes precedence over passengers. This means that on any given day there are freight trains moving on the tracks, the passenger train has to move over and wait for the freight train to pass. This could take 15 minutes, or two hours. Those long layovers mean you won’t miss your connection train if the one you’re on gets behind schedule.

Choo! Choo! All aboard!

Some of the larger train stations can be a bit overwhelming and scary. Do not get intimidated and always stop any Amtrak employee and ask for help.

I usually board the train in Norfolk, VA or Newport News, VA. Both depots are fairly small and easy to navigate. They have small indoor waiting areas with ticket agents and trackside boarding with just one track. Easy peasy.

Big train stations like Penn Station in New York City or Union Station in Washington, DC are almost as confusing as the airport in Atlanta, GA. When you disembark at a large station you can ask a train porter to point you in the right direction. Once inside look for the scheduling board to see if your next train is on time or delayed and what track or gate you need to be in order to board at departure.

If you’re traveling First Class you can ask for a tram to pick you and your luggage up on the track and take you straight to the First Class Lounge. The lounge offers free secure luggage storage if you want to explore the city, go shopping or find a restaurant to grab a good meal.

Some lounges offer light fare such as finger food, fruit, snacks and even oatmeal for breakfast. Every lounge has one of those fancy coffee makers so you can have a latte or an espresso, a soda machine with ice and several different kinds of waters to choose from. In the afternoons some lounges even setup a bar for adult beverages. Each one is built for comfort and to make your time there a joy. At the Chicago Union Station you can even take a shower if you need one.

The Lounge Attendant makes announcements throughout the day for trains that are leaving and which gate to go to. One of the perks of being in the First Class Lounge also means you board the train first so pay attention to those announcements so you don’t miss your next train.

In Chicago I was running around trying to figure out where I was supposed to be boarding and an attendant asked for my ticket which I had handy. Once he saw my long itinerary he smiled and congratulated me on traveling so far and for so many days with Amtrak and then he escorted me right to my gate. You gotta love that!

Chew! Chew! The food on Amtrak!!

First Class passengers enjoy some nice perks on the train. Free coffee, tea, juice and bottled water, all you can drink, all day. All of your meals are included in your fare too. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all served in the Dining Car or you can dine in your cabin.

I experienced all manners of food service on my trip from the Snack Counter Service to the Bento Box Eco Dining to the Dining Car with reservations for dinner.

The first leg of my trip was on a passenger train in Coach. The only food available is in a Dining Car with a Snack Counter. There is a menu with warmed food, but everything is microwaved light fare and prepacked. A few of my favorite things to get at the Snack Counter would be the hotdogs or the cheese and nut tray. If you upgrade to Business Class you get free beverages and that includes everything except alcoholic beverages. Jack Daniels, Finlandia, etc. There are adult beverages on every train from mixed drinks to beer and wine, so indulge if you feel like it!

The Eco Dining is new to Amtrak and only available on certain routes. I was lucky enough to partake from Washington, DC to Chicago, IL.

A balsa wood Bento box is prepacked with a breakfast, lunch or dinner.

I wasn’t crazy about the breakfast box because there was only one choice for everyone and everything in the box was loaded with sugar. There was fresh fruit, but it was still sweet. Perhaps a second Bento box with salty breakfast options would have been better. If you’re on a train that has this kind of meal plan pack yourself some nuts and maybe some Melba toast with brie to have with your sweet Bento breakfast box.

The lunch boxes were the same as the dinner boxes and here’s where I’m going to talk about meat and fish on the train.

If you really like fish and shellfish and know what it’s supposed to taste like, don’t order fish or shellfish on the train. You will be so sorry you did. I could have thrown the salmon against the wall and that filet of fish would have bounced back and gave me a black eye!

If you order a steak please order it medium cooked. Medium rare or rare is going to be a trial for you to cut and I’ll tell you why. They served me something they were calling a short rib one night and that thing was scary! But the meat is all microwaved so it’s not the most tender bite in the world.

Contrary to popular belief there is not a working kitchen on any of these trains. 

There is not a Master Chef down below in a Chef’s jacket preparing your gourmet meals on a fired up grill with lots of butter and saucy sauces. No! There is a microwave and a warming box and that’s it. The chef is usually one of the porters zapping that food as fast as they can manage. Everything you’re eating is prepacked and then microwaved on the train.

This arrangement makes total sense to me. Can you even imagine putting a 4 quart pot of water on the stove to boil for pasta and the train hits one of those massive bumps or swerves on the track?! That would be a real hazard!

When I was making my travel plans I looked up the California Zephyr menu online and salivated over some of the choices. I was so impressed they carried gourmet chef inspired dishes and could not wait to sample each and every one of them. Boy was I disappointed! Out of the three Chef created meals only two were ever available and those ran out quickly. There were never any mussels available and on one train we had a choice of either a hamburger or a hotdog because nothing else was available.

Towards the end of my journey I was sticking with the vegetable dishes and salads and avoiding the  meat and fish altogether.

What I am saying is this; if you’re riding the train for the food, then don’t ride the train.

I wasn’t riding the train for the food so all of this to me was just an experience of trial and error. I didn’t starve that’s for certain. I did try everything on the menu if it was available so I know what all of it tastes like.

I was riding the train for the experience and the thrill and part of that was dining in the Dining Car.

There aren’t linen tablecloths like you see in the movies. The tables are covered in white butcher paper with baskets of creamers, jellies, butters, etc. Beverages are served in paper or plastic cups with lids and the dishes are thin disposable plastic with the Amtrak logo on the rims. The silverware is real in the Dining Car, but if you dine in your room you are given plasticware. Don’t try to cut the steak with a plastic knife.

You are also seated as available. In other words, if you show up and there’s a vacant seat open in a booth with three other people, you’re going to be sitting with those three strangers. The Lead Service Attendant will tell you during the announcements that this is the way they seat diners and adds that it’s a great way to get to know some of your fellow travelers. So get ready to be friendly!

Make sure you’re also prepared to tip your server. Even though you’re dining for free as a First Class passenger, you still want to tip the person serving your food. There are prices available on the menus so you can figure out a nice twenty percent gratuity.  If you’re wondering why there’s prices on the menu if you’re eating for free it’s because there are Coach passengers on every train that also dine in the Dining Car and they’re paying for their meals.

There were also times when you had to hang onto your meal to keep it from sliding off the table or you grabbed your drink to keep it from spilling and that’s all part of dining on a moving train. Quite an adventure!

In your Sleeping Car you will find a coffee station upstairs. This is usually one of those huge urns always full of fresh coffee. Some Sleeping Car Attendants have juice available or bottled water you can take back to your cabin too. If you find you are a bit peckish in between regularly scheduled meals there is a Snack Bar available downstairs in the Observation car where you can buy snack food and some warm fast food items and all the beverages available on the train. The Snack Bar is not free food for the First Class passenger so bring your wallet.

Snooze! Snooze! What’s your room look like?!

There are two types of sleeping cabins on Amtrak. There’s a bedroom and a roomette. The bedroom has it’s own toilet, shower and bathroom facilities and plenty of sleeping berths. The roomette was what I had and it is seats during the day and the Sleeping Car Attendant comes in at night and turns the seats into a single bed complete with a mattress, sheets, pillows and blankets. You can curl up in your own tiny space and watch the world zoom by outside.

My roomette was cozy with plenty of room for my luggage. Extra luggage can be kept in a holding area downstairs and is easily accessed, so there’s no need to check your bags unless you have a lot of excess baggage, or you just want to check them.

Since the roomette doesn’t have bathroom facilities you share a shower and bathrooms with the rest of your sleeping car. For the number of people in your car this is quite sufficient and they stay relatively clean. The shower was surprising. It’s in it’s own room with a place to sit down and disrobe. Some trains provide Gilchrist and Soames amenities like shampoo and body wash and shower shoes and there’s always extra bars of soap available in the shower room and plenty of clean plush towels. The shower is quite large, but be prepared to hang on if you shower while the train is in full motion. There are plenty of handle bars inside for you to keep a good grip and a shower seat in case you need to sit to shave your legs or just to feel safe.

My roomette also had an upper bunk in case two people are traveling. I didn’t sleep up there but it looked comfortable.

While you are in the Sleeping Car you are a guest of your Sleeping Car Attendant. This person takes care of every need you have while traveling. There is a Call Button in your room and they will come whenever you ring for them, day or night. This person turns your beds down at night and while you’re eating pancakes in the Dining Car they are picking your room up and putting the bedding away to prepare your cabin for the day’s activities. They clean the four or more bathrooms in your car and keep the shower cleaned and stocked. They make fresh coffee and even take your room service orders to serve you any meal you choose to eat in your room. They do it all! When you complete your journey do not forget to generously tip your Sleeping Car Attendant. The standard is about ten dollars per night spent on the train, but dig deep and tip them well. They deserve it!

Boos! Boos! What could go wrong on the train?!

There are some “What ifs” when it comes to train travel. What if they run out of food? What if you miss your connecting ride? What if there’s bad weather or a track gets washed out?

If they run out of food, which did happen, they have these handy snack packs they hand out until we can get to the next station and reload. You will never go hungry on the train.

If there’s bad weather they reroute the train and take a different set of tracks. The worst that can happen is you’ll see different scenery and your trip might be extended, but if you’re like me you won’t mind because that’s just more time to spend on the train.

If you miss your connection I have to tell you that Amtrak is a classy act. We missed our connection in Chicago because of drama. One night a passenger got a little rowdy and threatened one of the Coach Attendants. The Conductor stopped the train in the desert and we waited until a Sheriff found the train in the dark and arrested the passenger. This set us back about two hours.

When we arrived in Chicago we were taken directly to Passenger Services and given vouchers for cab fare to and from the hotel, hotel vouchers and a meal ticket. You know how the airlines make you stand in long lines and beg for a place to sleep when their planes are delayed? Well Amtrak is not like that! There was never any question that we would be taken care of. They put the airlines to shame. I was incredibly impressed!

The hotel they put us in was the Swisshotel in downtown Chicago and it was sa-wanky! This was my view from the 41st floor.

Those dastardly freight trains caused another delay in my travel so I was rerouted to Richmond, VA where a car was hired to drive me to the train station in Norfolk, VA. It ended up being a $600 cab fare, $300 each way, that Amtrak took care of. Now that’s five star treatment!

Views! Views! What is there to do on the train?

Is there anything to do while you’re on the train? You bet! There isn’t any WiFi and phone service is spotty once you start traversing mountain ranges and tunnels. There isn’t any television unless you’re streaming on your own device and like I said, that’s spotty. Bring books and magazines to read. If you have a travel mate bring games or a deck of cards. I was on my own  but I already knew that in my spare time I was going to nap and I napped like a champ!

I have a bad back and brought my own ice pack. They will happily fill your pack with ice in the Dining Car, so if you have any kind of ailment like that make sure you come prepared. There’s also an electric outlet in your room for charging your devices and also for firing up a heating pad if you need one.

The best activity is simply enjoying the view. I found myself spending hours just looking out the windows. It’s pretty amazing when you start crossing the Continental Divide.

A great place on the train to see the gorgeous landscape and to take some nice pictures is in the Observation Car. This is usually located right next to one of the Dining cars and has seats that swivel towards the wall-to-ceiling windows for a blow-your-mind panoramic view.

I spent two nights on the California Zephyr traveling from the East coast to the West coast and along the way there are stops in small towns and large cities. These stops are never for very long except when the Conductor wants to give the passengers a Fresh Air break. They encourage passengers to stretch their legs on solid ground, walk around and actually get some fresh air. The smokers love these stops because they can have a cigarette. There is no smoking of any kind allowed on the train.

Walking on the train is a lesson in balance and patience. Hallways are small and two folks passing at one time is impossible! You end up backtracking or stepping into a doorway to let others pass, especially if they’re carrying food and beverages. The Sleeping Car Attendants teach you to walk with your feet far apart and not to hesitate to hold the walls, booth tops or rails provided for support throughout the cars.

The doors in between the cars can be a frightening place to traverse! Large buttons that read “Press” are easily found and once you press one you’ll see the brains behind the operation, so to speak. Everything in this tiny mechanical universe is closed off and draped, but the sounds and the movement are unmistakable, you are in a moving train!

Traveling by rail is a matter of preference with how you want to use your time crossing large parts of the country. Some passengers like to take stops along the way to explore the different towns and board the train again once they’re done, while others are content to ride the train the whole way there and back. I am the latter of those two passengers. While I enjoyed the scenery, my trip was only about riding the train, everything else was either an aside or a really pleasant surprise.

Some of the highlights of the California Zephyr ride are the gorgeous city landscapes of Washington, DC and Chicago, IL. I was fascinated traveling through those tiny compact neighborhoods and watching from my train window as these large cities went about their day. We rode through small mining towns and some ghost towns that were abandoned after so many years of thriving. Our train was mooned by folks tubing and rafting the Colorado River and we rolled through over 31 tunnels that have survived since the 1800’s and some built later in the 1920’s through mountains, gorges and canyons. Some areas the canyon walls rose above the train for a thousand feet or more on each side! We crossed over two time zones and hundreds of miles of terrain and every minute of that ride was sheer joy for me. I’d do it again tomorrow!

If you’re planning to book train travel in the future I hope that anything I shared here was helpful. If you still have questions please leave them in the Comment section and I’ll answer you right away. Thanks for enjoying my update. I’ll see ya out there on the rails someday real soon!

My train selfie



About Madeline Scribes

A writer with a sense of humor. If anyone can laugh at life, it's me.
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11 Responses to Riding the rails! From Virginia to California on Amtrak

  1. Impower You says:

    What a neat experience! Thank you for sharing. I love riding the train. I haven’t done a coast to coast trip, but I rode it extensively when I was back east last year. There is so much more service than here in Cali.
    I loved the car with all the windows. On a long ride between Albuquerque and L.A., I went there when I couldn’t sleep.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol Brady says:

    This looks amazing! As a child, I frequently traveled from Pottsville, PA to Philadelphia via train with my grandmother. She was a telephone operator for the Reading Railroad. I loved those trips. Of course, it was only a couple hours one way but it was always fun. I have always wanted to travel across the country via train like this. If I ever get the chance, your information will be quite useful. Thanks fof sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Carol says:

    What a lovely post, Madeline I love train travel and it is definitely an experience here … But I still love it …:) x

    Liked by 1 person

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