I took a 35-hour Amtrak train from Denver to San Francisco, and there were some highs and lows.
I loved the affordable ticket price, extra legroom, and stunning views throughout the trip.
But there wasn’t any Wi-Fi, the bathrooms were cramped, and the whole ride was slow.
I got to depart from Denver’s historic Union Station.
Located in the heart of Denver’s Lower Downtown (LoDo), Union Station was the perfect place to begin my journey.
The building is over 100 years old, with high ceilings, gorgeous chandeliers, and a variety of shops and restaurants.
I got coffee and breakfast at Pigtrain Coffee Company and admired the shop’s collection of train paraphernalia.
The tracks and platforms were airy and light-filled and looked much more modern than the historic building.
The boarding process was easy and convenient.
Once I found my platform, I waited in line for a few minutes with some of my fellow coach passengers. Then I received my seat number and was able to board.
I appreciated how quickly and easily we were able to get on.
Because Amtrak agents walk through the cars to scan tickets after everyone’s boarded and seated, there weren’t any long waits before boarding like I often experience during plane travel.
Not having to take off my shoes or remove my laptop to go through a security checkpoint was also definitely a plus.
I did have to fill out a COVID-19 form the day before, but that was easily done through the Amtrak app.
There was way more legroom than I’m used to.
Anyone who’s spent time on a plane knows that the legroom is minuscule — and only seems to be getting smaller.
I was relieved to find that I could fully stretch out my legs in my seat on the train, making the journey infinitely more comfortable.
The seat reclined, too, and it even included a footrest.
The views were phenomenal, especially through the Rocky Mountains.
The stunning views are a huge draw for long-distance train travel, and they didn’t disappoint on my ride.
As we left Denver, the tracks switchbacked up the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, opening up to grand vistas of the city and the plains beyond.
After passing through a few tunnels (the California Zephyr goes through 43 of them along its route), we were treated to views of distant mountain peaks and lush forests, with aspen trees that turned bright yellow for the fall.
The train followed the Colorado River, and we passed through dizzyingly deep canyons with the water rushing below us.
The views didn’t stop once we emerged from the mountains. We entered Red Rock Country, and the rock formations and swirls of color around us were mesmerizing.
By the time the sun set as we crossed over the Utah border, I was fully awed by the beauty of the West.
I spent hours sitting in the observation car.
A major perk of the ride was not having to sit in my seat the entire time.
Although there are windows in the passenger cars, the light-filled observation car is an entirely different experience. I sat here for hours, sipping coffee and reading or working on my laptop while gazing out at the views.
The pandemic was still a concern, and we all had to wear masks, but it was also nice to be around other passengers — the observation car was a great place to socialize.
Plus, it was just upstairs from the cafe car, making it a convenient place to eat or snack.
My ticket was only $74.
It’s hard to beat cheap.
Amtrak offers frequent sales (as well as student discounts), and I was able to snag a $74 ticket during the fall 50%-off sale.
I considered getting a sleeper-car reservation, but at more than $600, it just wasn’t feasible for me.
Flying normally costs me $100 and up, so I thought the savings were worth the long trip.
I felt good about lowering my carbon footprint.
It’s no secret that flying contributes a significant amount of greenhouse-gas emissions. According to The New York Times, about 3-4% of the US’ emissions come from commercial air travel.
By comparison, rail travel produces up to 73% fewer emissions than flying and 83% fewer emissions than driving, according to Amtrak.
Traveling by train was worth it for me just to know that I was doing what I could to cut down on my personal carbon footprint.
On the other hand, the food from the cafe car wasn’t the best.
Although Amtrak trains have restaurant cars where you can sit down and get a made-to-order meal, because of the pandemic, they were restricted to people with sleeper-car tickets on my trip.
As a coach passenger, my only food option on the train was the cafe car, which held a variety of prepackaged snacks and microwave meals, like mac and cheese, hot dogs, burgers, and chips.
Eating that food for two days definitely wasn’t fun, but I was glad that it was there, as much as I wished I could get a hot meal in the restaurant car.
At least the cafe car had lots of coffee, tea, and wine on hand.
Traveling in coach meant sleeping upright in my seat.
I had to figure out how to sleep in my seat, which was comfortable but wasn’t exactly the same as a real bed.
You also don’t get any privacy. But luckily, the seat next to me was empty by nighttime, so I was able to spread out over two seats.
I can proudly say that I slept through the night.
Although I had cell service most of the ride, there wasn’t any Wi-Fi.
Some Amtrak trains now offer Wi-Fi, but mine wasn’t one of them.
You can look at it as a chance to disconnect and enjoy a slower pace of life — and I did that to an extent, catching up on some books I’d been wanting to read and enjoying the scenery — but I had some work to get done and ended up doing much of it on my phone using cellular data.
Next time, I’ll remember to download some shows or movies beforehand.
The bathrooms were tiny, which wasn’t ideal for such a long journey.
Not much of a surprise here, but the bathrooms were cramped and not super comfortable.
Anyone who’s flown on an airplane would be used to them, but traveling for 35 hours rather than a quick flight meant that I had to deal with the inconvenience much longer.
There also aren’t showers, which is definitely something to consider on a trip that spans over a day.
I appreciated that the bathrooms were at least generally kept clean for the duration of the journey, and they never ran out of toilet paper or other supplies.
The train was very slow, and we got delayed.
Amtrak trains travel very slowly, especially compared to flying.
Traveling slow allowed me to enjoy the scenery. But I was definitely frustrated with the pace at times — like when we had to backtrack due to a boulder on the tracks in Utah or wait for a freight train to pass in front of us in Nevada.
The scheduled 33-hour journey ended up taking about 35 hours because of delays.
The stops were very short and there wasn’t a lot to do on the platforms
Most stops the train made were very short, 10 minutes or less. Although longer stops would’ve made the whole trip even longer, I kind of wanted to get out and explore a little as we passed through different cities and towns.
At the stops we did make, most train stations were empty, and there wasn’t even enough time to go to any restaurants or shops that some had.
The observation car filled up pretty quickly.
The first leg of my trip, from Denver to Glenwood Springs, was filled with families and couples, which meant there were lots of people filling up the observation car.
Amtrak workers did their best to make sure people rotated out so everyone got a spot, but it was tough to miss some of the best scenery.
Representatives for Amtrak didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
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