California Zephyr or Southwest Chief, which do you recommend?

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cirdan

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I need to hear your valuable opinions in helping me choose between the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief.

I live in Europe and manage to come to the USA from time to time on vacations or for work and mostly manage to find an excuse to ride Amtrak when I do so.

On my upcoming trip, I've got my partner joining me for the first time.

It hasn't been easy convincing her to come as she doesn't like long flights so coming to the USA is in itself a big one for her. And then she generally thinks I've been exaggerating on all the positive stuff I've told her.

She has worked with some Americans in the past and I know nobody here is to blame but those guys were a real nasty bunch and I think that has reduced her opinion somewhat which is another reason she didn't really want to come.

So to cut a long story short, this is a chance to make or break her opinions. She likes doing long rail trips with me, so I've sort of thinned it down to either the SC or he CZ.

I've done part of the SW myself on a previous trip (Chicago to Albuquerque) and loved that. The risk with the CZ is I haven't done it myself so I'm torn between repeating something I definitely liked and testing something that I don't know.

So what's the landscape like along the CZ? I'm not really that much interested in forests and mountains and things as we have plenty of those in Europe as well and have just finished a major tour, but I loved the SC because it had many bits that were more desert-like, something we don't have, and also crosses the vast plains and agricultural heartlands, something else we don't really have.

Does the CZ have bits like that as well?
 
Ande another question.

So far I've always travelled in roomette. A roomettee for one person is really comfortable. I just wanted to know how cramped it gets when the upper berth is also in place.

Can you look out of the window from both levels.

I was actually planning to upgrade to a proper bedroom but was shocked at the price.

Thanks
 
I think Roomette is feasible. The upper bed is only down overnight. During day there is comfortable space to sit a watch and of course you will spend a considerable time in the dining car ;-) and sightseer lounge. If you are lucky on part of your travel the next roomette might be vacant and you might sit there too :giggle:

See the spaces and facilities of the Superliner here on my complete virtual tour: http://www.kaemena360.com/home/amtrak-superliner.html

Regarding landscape I would opt for CZ. you will have the plains in the afternoon like the SWC and next morning after leaving denver a jaw dropping ascent of the rockies. There is so much to see between Denver and Emeryville and so many different landscapes from rocky mountains to pinewood and typical SW red desserts.
 
I'm not really that much interested in forests and mountains and things as we have plenty of those in Europe as well and have just finished a major tour, but I loved the SC because it had many bits that were more desert-like, something we don't have, and also crosses the vast plains and agricultural heartlands, something else we don't really have. Does the CZ have bits like that as well?
I'm not an expert on the CZ, but all reports are that it's chock full of boring old mountains and forests West of Denver. If you want super exciting deserts I'd choose the Sunset Limited. Well, not really. I'm pretty much sick of deserts myself but if that's what you want then the Sunset Limited has them in all their barren glory. :lol:

So far I've always travelled in roomette. A roomettee for one person is really comfortable. I just wanted to know how cramped it gets when the upper berth is also in place. Can you look out of the window from both levels. I was actually planning to upgrade to a proper bedroom but was shocked at the price.
A roomette is certainly doable for two once you get the hang of it but it's still cramped in my view. As a result you might end up spending most of your day in the lounge where you can stretch out a bit. You can only look out the roomette window from the bottom bunk. Amtrak's bedrooms now cost as much as first class airfare or about the same as a private varnish experience so I can certainly understand your decision to avoid them.
 
Having ridden both the Chief and the Zephyr, I'll always vote for the latter because its scenery is unbeatable. But the Chief is an excellent train and its route has its sights. You will not be disappointed choosing either.

If you are not morbidly obese, you will find the roomettes quite usable. I am a septuagenarian and my wife is almost there, but we both like the roomettes (and the bedrooms too, but not their prices). You can't see the scenery from the top bunk in a Superliner, that's true, but that's a minor detail for us.

If you take the CZ, reboard the train at least 20 minutes before departure from Denver and claim seats in the lounge car (on the right side facing the locomotive) for the spectacular pull up the Front Range and into the mountains.
 
I also have not ridden the SWC, but my experience on the Zephyr was amazing. The Rockies are not like mountains you find other places, and the scenery is (as has already been stated) tremendously varied between Denver and Emeryville. I also think that the longer journey (you wake up the third day and cross the Sierra Nevadas, instead of arriving in LA) and destination (the Bay area) is superior for your money as well. I've not ridden the Chief, but I have driven LA to San Francisco and back, and the north is definitely my favorite.

To me, the Zephyr is like a three part story. You begin in the Midwest, cross the Mississippi just before dinner into America's heartland. You wake up the second morning in Denver, and it is as though a new narrative begins. You cross the red and orange rockscapes of the Rockies, through Moffett Tunnel, and then a gorgeous sunset in the Utah desert. When you wake up the "third day", you are in the deserts of Nevada, preparing to yet again climb into a different and spectacular mountain range. As you descend into California on the other side, it is a lovely contrast as you pass fruit trees, some farmland, and generally a very colorful landscape. Of course, if you've been to San Francisco, you know what a great city that is to end up in. It really is a heck of an experience - you see so much of America in such an efficient manner.

That is just my two cents. I still really want to ride the Chief too!
 
I have not tried the Southwest Chief, but I did ride the Zephyr as part of my cross-country train trip earlier this year. The scenery was just spectacular. It was nice to wake up on the second day in Denver. There was so much scenery west of Denver. The Rockies are gorgeous! You get a wide variety of scenery from the plains of the Midwest, the Colorado Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, california farmland, and Nevada desserts.

I'm sure you'll enjoy it either way, but I would love to do the CZ again!

I actually prefer the roomettes (very cozy), but I splurged for a bedroom on the CZ portion of my trip since it was such a long ride. The extra space was nice, and I really liked having my own bathroom and shower.

You can find my trip overview and pictures here:

http://discuss.amtraktrains.com/index.php?/topic/36837-cross-country-ae-cl-cz/
 
I also have not ridden the SWC, but my experience on the Zephyr was amazing. The Rockies are not like mountains you find other places, and the scenery is (as has already been stated) tremendously varied between Denver and Emeryville. I also think that the longer journey (you wake up the third day and cross the Sierra Nevadas, instead of arriving in LA) and destination (the Bay area) is superior for your money as well. I've not ridden the Chief, but I have driven LA to San Francisco and back, and the north is definitely my favorite.

To me, the Zephyr is like a three part story. You begin in the Midwest, cross the Mississippi just before dinner into America's heartland. You wake up the second morning in Denver, and it is as though a new narrative begins. You cross the red and orange rockscapes of the Rockies, through Moffett Tunnel, and then a gorgeous sunset in the Utah desert. When you wake up the "third day", you are in the deserts of Nevada, preparing to yet again climb into a different and spectacular mountain range. As you descend into California on the other side, it is a lovely contrast as you pass fruit trees, some farmland, and generally a very colorful landscape. Of course, if you've been to San Francisco, you know what a great city that is to end up in. It really is a heck of an experience - you see so much of America in such an efficient manner.

That is just my two cents. I still really want to ride the Chief too!

Thanks for this and all the other good advice,

I'm definitely leaning towards the Zephyr. Also the later departure from Chicago end could mean some time being put to good sighseeing use.

I'm still undecided though as to whether we'll settle for a roomette or go for the bedroom. On my past trip I hardly spent any daytime in the roomette anyway as I was mostly in the observation loungue when I wasn't in the dining car. But then I'm concerned about the roomette being quite tight in double occupancy mode (so far I've always had it to myself). I am considering maybe booking two roomettes so we have one each. Are all roomettes on the upper level or is there any way I can ensure I do get both on the upper level?
 
There are some roomettes on the lower level. If you call to make your reservations, the agent should be able to ensure that you get two rooms across the hall from one another (provided that there are two open). If you're going to go that route, definitely check the prices, as a bedroom may be cheaper than two roomettes.

Also keep in mind that in one roomette, one of you will be seated facing the wrong direction. That bothers some people, but not others.
 
If it were me, I would save the money and just purchase one Roomette. We had both in the past, and everyone has different taste. But for me - we only would sleep in the Roomette, much like on a backpacking trip. You set up camp - and if you have a tent, you go there to sleep for 7 or 8 hours. Then get up and go... On a western rail trip, I spend every other minute in the Sightseer Lounge, or of course, in the dinning car, or maybe taking a quick shower. But the whole purpose for me, is just taking in the Sightseer lounge and the rail experience. Not hanging out in the room (on a Superliner train such as the Zephyr or Chief).

But if money is not too tight, then grab a bedroom. Amtrak is a worthy organization to support - and buying a bedroom is certainly showing your support for a quality rail service. And Bedrooms are better for two. I recently did a bedroom upgrade on the Cardinal (two guys), but only because, the Cardinal (an Eastern Train) has no sightseer Lounge. So you are pretty much confined to your room (other than the diner and little time in the Amfleet Lounge - with the smaller side windows).
 
BTW - if you can get two Roomettes, that are both opposite each other (across the hall from each other), and both are on the upper level, then that is really hard to beat - it's superb... We kind of had that happen in December on an Empire Builder trip. We had the last roomette on the very last car, and there were several empty Roomettes around us - including the one across from us. So we used both sides in the day, when we were not in the Sightseer Lounge car. The windows are huge, and this particular train was running about 8 hrs late, so they eventually stopped picking up passengers (from Minneapolis on, a bus had picked them all up). Anyway, that issue, and traveling in early December, meant that it was not too crowded, and there were quite a few empty Roomettes. And our SCA was just not concerned about the empty Roomettes. He was just anxious to return home to Chicago.

So we had two Roomettes across from each other, and I think overall, I would actually prefer that to a bedroom. Just so much visibility - and being able to see out on each side. Plus, both of us could travel forward in our chairs... You can slide the doors open, and pull back the curtains, and it's almost like one giant room. And we had the option of standing up in the aisle and looking out the back as we crossed Montana. We could see the Rockies as we were heading east into Montana. But that was only because we happened to be on the last car - which has a rear window (nice).

But try and see if you can get two Roomettes (upper level) across from each other...
 
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The Chief is nice but no contest, gotta be the Zephyr! If you are flexible as to your dates ,you MIGHT find a Low Bucket Bedroom or Roomette, but these are popular Trains and pretty much Sell Out the Sleepers year around! Considering that it's Two Days and Two Nights, if you can afford it, Id say go for the Bedroom for all the various reasons that are mentioned on this sight! Check out Amsnag.com (developed by our Paul M.) or Amtrak.com for test bookings, once you book keep checking, you can change your reservations is a lower price is found! Dont print your tickets till just before you leave, if changes have to be made or cancellations its much easier this way! Nice trip! :wub: Ive been on both many times and I'm envious! :(
 
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Both are lovely, but I prefer the CZ as well. Spouse and I always choose roomettes and find them very comfortable for two not large people. I also don't want to have a toilet in my room--so no more bedrooms for us. Personal preference, of course, but I would go roomette on the CZ. Have fun whatever you decide! I had to smile at your description of your partner's less-than-stellar impressions regarding the US. My spouse came to the states many years ago for a job opportunity. When I met him, all he talked about was how much better things were done in the UK. He later changed his mind, decided to stay, became a citizen and you couldn't pry him out of the US with a crowbar!
 
Sounds like you're planning a one way trip. If you were doing round trip I'd suggest SWC one way and the CZ the other. But if it's just a one way... I just got back the first of August from a round trip, we took the SWC and returned on the CZ. On the SWC I was awestricken, the scenery was simply astounding and I thought how can the CZ top this? On the way home I was gobsmacked the CZ's scenery DOES top the SWC!!! Each train cuts through the heartland of America, then enters the deserts, canyons and mountains, and each train has it's moments of WOW! as you look out and realize that the track you're on is on the very edge! You'll win no matter which train you choose. However if on time performance is important to you historically the SWC comes in on time or ahead of schedule far more than the CZ.
 
Depending on how booked the roomettes are (you can monitor this by observing how high the prices get on an Amsnag example over thirty days), consider booking one roomette and then trying to upgrade to a second on-board. My understanding is that if you do it onboard with the conductor, you automatically pay the lowest possible price ("low bucket"). If they are sold out, then worst-case you both go in one roomette. I agree with my dad (abcnews), when we did this trip we really did not spend much time in the sleepers when not asleep, and the time we did spend was more because it was December and it got dark by 5:30, making little difference where you were as far as the view was concerned. You want to post up in the SSL for sure - it is a magnificent view! To sit in your sleeper is like only getting 65 percent of an incredible vista.

A side note, and it is merely annecdotal, but we had a really great crew on the CZ as well. Probably the best of any Amtrak trip I've done.
 
I am going to be the contrarian here. The CZ has the best scenary hands down. No question about that.

However, the scenary on the Southwest Chief is interesting and fine, with Raton and Glorietta Passes and the red rock country and Indian pueblos. The important factor for me for this analysis, is timekeeping. Typically, BNSF handles the Southwest Chief really well, and the train is usually on time. Not so much for the CZ. Based on Cirdan's brief description of his girlfriend, I think a badly delayed train (3 hours? 4 hours? 8 hours? ) will REALLY frustrate her, and could get in the way of her (and therefore Cirdan's) otherwise enjoying a scenic trip. The chances of that happening are a lot higher on the CZ than on the Southwest Chief.

Small bonus point, while with onboard crews, it is always YMMV, on average, I have found the LA-based crews on the Southwest Chief to be generally friendlier and better than the Chicago-based crews on the Zephyr.
 
Another question.

What's the connecting bus from Emeryvile to San Francisco like?

Do you have to check luggage or can you carry it onto the bus yourself?

How safe/trustworthy is it to check in luggage on a bus? I mean this in terms of I guess the bus stops are just normal roadside bus stops on streets with plenty of passers by, so is there any system in place to prevent a random passer by walking off with my luggage?

(sorry if it's a stupid question, I've never been on an Amtrak bus before)
 
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Ande another question.

So far I've always travelled in roomette. A roomettee for one person is really comfortable. I just wanted to know how cramped it gets when the upper berth is also in place.

Can you look out of the window from both levels.

I was actually planning to upgrade to a proper bedroom but was shocked at the price.

Thanks

Agree with those who suggest two roomettes across from each other. Otherwise, things are quite snug.

Are you going one way or round trip? Do you have time to take the CZ, Coast Starlight, and SWC?
 
I'm going to join the contrary crowd and vote for the Chief. The scenery on the CZ is some of the best in the US, period, but the Chief very rarely has trouble on the timetable front. It can happen (if there's a busted locomotive or something like that), but BNSF handles the Chief much better than UP does the Zephyr. In this vein I would also point out that the Zephyr has been caught in Delay Hell east of Denver this year because of a lot of freight being rerouted in Iowa. So while I am glad I took the Zephyr and I do hope to take it again, I would pick the Chief.

Of course, the Delay Hell point is more true WB than EB...so that's a consideration as well.
 
What's the connecting bus from Emeryvile to San Francisco like?
It's a standard long-distance chartered bus -- 2x2 upholstered seating.

Do you have to check luggage or can you carry it onto the bus yourself?
One of the San Francisco bus stops, the Ferry Building, does have checked luggage service -- Amtrak will transfer the checked luggage at Emeryville from the train's baggage car into the bus's baggage compartment. If you're bound for any of the other stops, you'll have to carry on all your luggage (you wouldn't have enough time to claim your baggage at the Emeryville station baggage claim before the departure of the bus).

With your carry-ons, which will either be all of your luggage (if you're not headed to the Ferry Building) or some of your luggage: overhead space on the bus is relatively small (i.e., only purses and small bags will fit up there), and there's no space under the seat in front of you. If the passenger load is expected to be light, the driver may let you take larger bags on board and keep them in the seat next to you. If not, the driver will put larger bags in the compartment under the bus, although that's not really considered checking luggage.

How safe/trustworthy is it to check in luggage on a bus? I mean this in terms of I guess the bus stops are just normal roadside bus stops on streets with plenty of passers by, so is there any system in place to prevent a random passer by walking off with my luggage?
You'll be standing right there watching the driver take your luggage out of the compartment -- it will really never be out of the control of either you or the driver.
 
Ande another question.

So far I've always travelled in roomette. A roomettee for one person is really comfortable. I just wanted to know how cramped it gets when the upper berth is also in place.

Can you look out of the window from both levels.

I was actually planning to upgrade to a proper bedroom but was shocked at the price.

Thanks

Agree with those who suggest two roomettes across from each other. Otherwise, things are quite snug.

Are you going one way or round trip? Do you have time to take the CZ, Coast Starlight, and SWC?
I'd love to do that and much more, but this time I just haven't got the days so it's got to be a one way trip.

Hope to have more time next time round.
 
Do you have to check luggage or can you carry it onto the bus yourself?
One of the San Francisco bus stops, the Ferry Building, does have checked luggage service -- Amtrak will transfer the checked luggage at Emeryville from the train's baggage car into the bus's baggage compartment. If you're bound for any of the other stops, you'll have to carry on all your luggage (you wouldn't have enough time to claim your baggage at the Emeryville station baggage claim before the departure of the bus).
The one time that I took the CZ into EMY, they brought all the checked bags right to the sidewalk by the bus. People claimed their bags right there and then handed them to the driver to place them under the bus. This provides the ability to check your bags and still get off the bus at stops other than the Ferry building.

I admit that this was about 4 or 5 years ago now, so it is possible that they've changed this policy, but I suspect that they still do the same since the Redcap has to bring the checked bags for the Ferry Building to the bus anyhow.
 
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