Train Trip to Chicago from the Bay Area

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Taking Amtrak from Chicago back to the Bay Area

Nov 2006

For many years, I have had the fantasy of taking a cross- country trip on a train in a sleeping car like the old Pullman trains of the past. I have a meeting in Chicago in early December and would like to consider flying to Chicago for the meeting, and then, meeting my wife and taking Amtrak back to the Bay Area (the ''California Zephyr''). The price of a ''bedroom'' for two (including meals) is about $1100.00, but the accommodations, as described online, appear fairly spare and cramped. Has anyone made such a trip on Amtrak recently? If so, feedback would be appreciated. Robert

We have taken numerous trips on Amtrak, but mostly up and down the west coast on the Coast Starlight. I have taken the train from Seattle to Chicago as a kid, but that was a long time ago. I have very fond memories.

First of all, the bedrooms are cramped. I suggest a Deluxe if you can swing's the least cramped and you have your own bathroom. The food is pretty mediocre, but certainly palatable. The experience is fabulous! It's so fun sitting eating dinner in the dining car watching the world go by. It's fun sitting in the lounge car reading a book and talking with people. Your bedroom may not be spacious, but you're not stuck there, you have places to wander.

Oh, and be prepared to be late, very late. Amtrak leases track from other railroads, and they have to wait on sidings while other trains use the track. It's really annoying. Union Pacific is the worst offender, in my experience. Have fun! It is a blast! Jennifer

We took the California Zephyr from Denver to Reno two summers ago - my husband and I and our two kids (ages 4 and 15 months at the time).

We loved the scenery and the romance of the train travel. I think sleeping on a train is so wonderful - the rocking motion, etc. And its so much more relaxing than either flying or driving. We had a family bedroom and the space worked well. In fact, the long lower bunk was wide enough for my husband and I to sleep on together, and we used the upper bunk to store things. You will need to store your larger suitcases outside the cabin regardless. Our kids took the two little bunks and really enjoyed it. But I did think that the basic two-person compartment, which we saw from the outside, seemed a little snug. There is basically no floor space -- the seats/bunks take up the whole area.

We also planned to stop off in various places along the way, including an overnight in western Colorado and a stop-off in the Lake Tahoe area. I think if we had been continuously on the train all that time it would have made us a bit stir-crazy. I will say, however, that we got off a little early, in Reno. We had planned to get off in Truckee, spend a night near Tahoe, and get back on and go all the way to Emeryville. But by the time we got through Nevada we were running about 10 hours behind, so at that point we bailed out and switched over to driving the rest of the way. I am glad about the part we did on the train, but be aware that it is at times quite late.

Good luck with your trip
Fan of train travel

A few years ago my husband, 2-year-old son and I took the California Zephyr to and from Iowa. I would *never* take the trip again with a small child, but I would definitely take the trip again with my husband. If you look at it as an experience rather than a method of transportation, it is well worth the money.

Good points. If you enjoy reading, sleeping, talking with your wife, doing absolutely nothing, etc., the train is wonderful. You can spend hour upon hour just looking out the window at America as it rolls by. If you're the friendly sort, you can meet other travelers. The food is serviceable, and it's a blast to eat in the dining car as the aformentioned scenery rolls by. The noise and motion of the train can help you sleep really well.

Bad points. I'm afraid your fantasies of an old-fashioned Pullman car experience will be dashed! The sleeping compartment is beyond tiny -- you'll laugh when you see it. It's really just two seats facing each other with the only standing room in between them. It works for two adults, it's just very, very cozy. One thing you could try, though -- the train has an Accessible bedroom that they reserve for people who actually need it. Around a week before the trip (call to confirm the timing), if that room hasn't been booked, it becomes available to anyone. They then let you upgrade for a very reasonable price, and the room is (relatively) much bigger.

You can choose to have your meals in your room but it's a lot easier to use the dining car. However, if you use the dining car, you're going to be sitting and eating with strangers. I'm somewhat antisocial, so this was a drawback for me. But maybe you like that kind of thing.

The last thing to remember is that Amtrak is inefficient and clunky. You are almost always late to wherever you are going; the train can break down and/or lose air conditioning/heat/electricity (aside from meaning you might be cold/hot/in the dark for a while, it also means they might not be able to refrigerate/cook the food). The train uses the same rails as every other train in America, so it often has to stop and wait to let the other trains go by.

All of that said, I would take the train trip from Chicago in a heartbeat, and look at it as an adventure. You can see some of the country, do absolutely nothing for three whole days, and spend a lot of time with your wife. Tori

We took a cross-country Amtrak trip 11 years ago - my husband, son (who had his 10th birthday on the train) and myself. We left from Oakland on the Coast Starlight to LA and then I don't remember the name of the one that went across the bottom of the U.S. to Winter Haven, Fl. It took 4 days. We were on a budget (I think it was $450 roundtrip for the 3 of us) so didn't have a sleeper and it was pretty uncomfortable in terms of sleeping accomodations (basically reclining in our seats) but it was a major high point in all of our lives. I think the fact that we didn't have a sleeper, forced us to mingle more with other passengers. It was so incredibly enjoyable to meet folks picked up along the way going across the southern U.S. and stopping at places we probably would never get to otherwise and seeing scenery that was untainted by human activity. We still talk about that trip and enjoy very much viewing our videos. Such a wonderful adventure though the sleeping arrangement was a little too spartan. My son made friends with other kids on the train (coincidentally one of them shared my son's exact birthday) and they'd wander freely. There were movies to view, a snack car, a dining car (with HORRIBLE food), people playing card games, my husband and son spent a lot of time with other folks teaching each other card tricks, and wonderful porters. I'm happy just thinking about it again. If we were behind schedule (which other folks mentioned in their replies) I guess that part didn't make a significant impact on us. If you're in a hurry, maybe it's not the best way to travel. In my experience riding trains over the years, waiting is often just part of the total train ride experience. Joan

Every child should have at least one trip on a train to remember!

Amtrak is very cheap when you book well in advance, and it isn't necessary to get a private bedroom--the seats are extremely wide, long, comfy and tilt way back. They are sufficient for an adults for a few days, and certainly fine for kids. Bring your own blankets. Food is adequate, kid-friendly & overpriced but not terribly so. There is plenty of room for your own cooler if you prefer to go that way. Some people order takeout at the longer stops that are in cities--ask the porter. Beer and wine are for sale.

If you bring a laptop or DVD player, there is actually plenty of room to operate it. (Grab a seat with an electric outlet next to it as soon as you board.) I used to train to LA and work on the train, with piles of files next to me. (Impossible to do on an airplane.)

Typically the scenery is fabulous. The trains snake thru places they don't send cars. In Colorado you go thru long gorges with the Colorado River right next to you on one side and a cliff face on the other. The Coastal Starlight to LA travels right next to the water for many miles--you can watch the surfers and sometimes see whales.

Multi-stop tickets are extra but there are some wonderful places to visit. The northern train that ends up in Seattle goes to Glacier National Park. The train to Chicago from Emeryville goes thru Colorado ski country. (When you plan this, be sure to factor in the arrival time--could be the middle of the night.) After a certain age your kids will be OK on their own. Mine got card/video games going with other kids in the snack bar car. I checked in with them occasionally, but mostly read and enjoyed the scenery.

The biggest drawback: Amtrak is almost never on time. (Freights get priority, so the trains are often sidetracked--literally--for long periods.) This can be an advantage if your arrival is scheduled for the middle of the night--otherwise, it is something you have to factor in. Call before you leave for the station, and have anyone meeting you on arrival do the same. If renting a car, talk to the rental agent about whether they are willing to leave it at the station for you if the train is late. If not, carry motel names with you so you can call ahead for a room if you need one.

The website is (I think) and it is worth visiting just to see where they go. Train fan


Taking a toddler on a 48-hour train trip to Chicago

June 2003

My husband and I will be taking our then-17-month-old on a 48-hour train trip this summer from the Bay Area to Chicago. We've never been on a passenger train before, so we don't know what to expect (and aren't getting much info from the Amtrak website). The train is the superliner California Zephyr, and we will have a teeny-tiny 3.5 ft. by 6.5 ft. sleeper car.

Can anyone out there tell me what it's like being on the train, particularly in terms of having a small child along? Is there anything on the train that would interest a guy his age, or will we spend our hours walking from car to car with him? And finally, is it possible/safe to leave him in the sleeper car in the evening (asleep, of course, with a monitor turned on) so we could go into another car and watch a movie, or something? Wish I Had Done It Before Baby

My oldest daughter went on her first train trip from Oakland to LA when she was just over 2. They claimed to have a kids car, but it was pathetic, so I wouldn't count on that. We hung out in the lounge alot, and we walked from car to car alot. We also brought lots to do and spent time in our sleeper car playing. She had a blast, and it was fine as a parent. She napped fine as well, although we didn't leave her. Weren't alot of other kids in our immediate area, so didn't get to play much with other kids. Overall, a great trip for us. Hilary

The nice thing about train travel is that the long, long cars are connected. You can walk your toddler back and forth through several cars, wearing him or her out! On the Zephyr, I believe there are observation cars, so that you and your child can look out at the passing scenery. You may not spend a lot of time in that 3.5 by 6.5 sleeper cabin, but I predict you'll have fun with your child! Ilene

We traveled with our almost 2 year old in a sleeper car from the Bay Area up to Seattle Washington. Be prepared for the constant movement, rocking, and noise of the tracks. For sleeping we liked the downstairs sleepers better than the upstairs because the movement was less. Upstairs I felt like I was sleeping on some kind of Pioneer wagon. Very unsettling when you go over tracks that have dips. The car rocks from side to side. I couldn't sleep at all. Then we decided to move to a down stairs sleeper and found it to be much more calm. By the way our daughter had no problems sleeping on a train. Some say that the downstairs is more noisy cause you are closer to the tracks. I didn't find that to be the case. Bring sleeping pills if you are a light sleeper, and ear plugs. Our train had a ''kiddie Car'' which was a room for kids. They had toys, and videos. Our biggest challenge was our sleeper. It was the basic standard room. The cheapest one, and it was real tiney! It was not the greatest place to hang out with a restless 22 month old. We spent many hours walking up and down the train, hanging out in the parlour car and kiddie car. If you can afford it I highly recommend one of the larger rooms. Oh, and talk to your pediatrician about what you can give to your child for motion sickness. At some point during our travels, our daughter got very cranky and cried a lot. One of the tendants that worked on the train said that it might be motion sickness. Apparently some kids get it on trains, so just be prepared. 3loons

We took a major train trip across the USA when my oldest son was 10 months old(we made lots of stops visiting people along the way, so we weren't ever on the train for more than 2 days at a time). One difference between us and you may be that my son was not yet walking, just crawling so it was easier to keep him in one place.

We LOVED it. My son loved looking out the windows and crawling through the cars. We'd go from car to car, sit here, sit there. We had one of those tiny sleepers. It was tight but cozy. We didn't leave him at night and go anywhere else so i can't answer that part for you. Bring lots of snacks and toys. My husband and I have very happy memories of that trip. happy travelers

My husband, 2-year-old, and I (9 mos pregnant) took Amtrak from the Bay Area to Seattle round trip, and though we mostly enjoyed the trip, I would never do it again! Here are some answers to your questions:

1) Your train may have a child's play room with toys. The toys in our train were extremely grungy and not appropriate for his age, but it was a godsend because it was a big open space for him to move around in, and play with the toys we'd brought.

2) Walking up and down the halls and negotiating the joint between train cars was not easy with a toddler (of course, I was heavily pregnant, so I might be exaggerating).

3) We had a regular sleeper and then a ''family'' sleeper on the way back, and the family sleeper was much better. Two windows instead of one, and a nice fold down bunk for naps.

4) It's loud on the train! I found it very difficult to sleep (although, again, I was pregnant). I thought the clickety clack of the train would lull me to sleep, but found it incredibly distracting (also, it's coupled with bumps and jolts).

5) As a sleeper car passenger, you are riding first-class--but it's not equivalent to a first-class experience in a hotel, or even in a plane. The food was reasonably good, and it was nice to have the advantages of the parlor car. I would certainly never attempt such a trip with small kids WITHOUT being in a sleeper. But don't expect too much!

6) I certainly would not leave a child alone in the sleeper. The train could stop suddenly and pitch your kid out of the bed. In a fire you would not necessarily be able to get back to the train car you'd left. Unlikely events, sure, but you wouldn't leave your kid alone in a house while you went to a movie for the same kind of reasons.

sorry to have focused on the negatives here; for us it was once- in-a-lifetime in more ways than one. It was amazing to wake up in the morning, look out the train window and see elk grazing along a river. Wish I'd done it before the baby

Our 30-month-old son loves to ride the train. One of his favorite phrases is ''I ride Amtrak''. (His dad is nuts about trains, so maybe this is genetic). We've taken him on all-day train trips back east a number of times, although never on an overnight train (we did do an overnight trip on the Coast Starlight before we had a kid). Trains are way better than airplanes as far as being able to get up, walk around, entertainment value of scenery, etc. There are also food/snacks on board. Granted, our son is endlessly fascinated by trains and especially the view out the window, so he is quite content to look out the window for hours on end. The long distance trains have a dining car that serves restaurant style meals (menu is limited) that are not bad; and usually also a cafe car that sells sandwiches, snacks, yogurt, juice, milk. We found he sleeps well on board. The muffled rhythmic train sounds and swaying cars are very soothing. We usually had his carseat since the train was part of a bigger trip and he was very comfortable sleeping in his familiar seat. The sleeper compartments are ''cozy'' (very) but at least have small tables to play on. Also sleeper car passeners usually have access to a lounge car where you can spread out a bit. Personally, I wouldn't leave the child alone in the sleeper even if asleep. Although no one could take a child off a moving train between stops, he/she might wake up and be frightened, or there might be an emergency of some kind - who knows. For toys to bring, I'd follow same advice as for airplane travel: books, stickers, a few new things wrapped. Maybe legos or blocks for that age? A couple Thomas the Tank engine cars would be cool too. mom of junior railfan

Feb 2002

RE: Overnight train travel with 4 and 6 year old?

I have taken two Amtrak trips. The first from Chicago to Oakland when my son was 5 months old and the second from Oakland to Sacramento with my 2 year old and 2 month old sons.

Convenience - schedules are limited Child-friendly - I find train travel easier than car or plane travel because you can walk around and don't have to sit in car seats. Comfort - comfort is costly. The double sleepers are REALLY small. The deluxe sleepers are great, but very expensive. Safety - People are very friendly on the train and I felt safe - you can leave your stuff at your seat and it won't get stolen. I was worried about my 2-year old bumping his head when he walked around when the train was in motion, but he didn't.

You might want to take a short trip to Sacramento and test things out. Good luck! Helena