CHICAGO, ILLINOIS -- Our third AMTRAK trip to Chicago. 1st was Southwest Chief, 2nd was Empire Builder and last was California Zephyr. The first 2 were good experiences for my granddaughter to see the country. We always book a sleeping car and enjoy seating in the dining room with other people. There are always delays on Amtrak due to the whole rail ownership thing and we expect that. The Zephyr from Emeryville was no exception. It was late by 4 hours including 1 hour standing in the sun after the station guy told us to all go out and line up because the train would arrive in 5 minutes.
Once on board, it was past noon, so they said no lunch would be served. As a sleeping car passenger I figured they would provide free food from the snack bar, but no dice - we had to pay. Then we had a dinner reservation at 8 pm and waited and waited and waited until at 9 pm - they announced the dining room was closed. Quickly bought more microwave stuff at the snack bar. Next morning I jokingly asked the waitress if we were owed 2 lunches and 2 dinners - got a Mike Tyson response. Proceeded along and the scenery is great across the Sierras and Rockies. More delays due to flooding in Iowa and had to switch tracks, which meant waiting for a different train crew.
Finally on the last night they said they were out of food and our dinner was an Oliver Twist bowl of soup. I wondered what happened to all those lunches that were never served the first day - maybe packed up by the crew for the home freezer? Anyway we finally arrived in Chicago 13 hours behind schedule which created a whole host of other issues with hotel and rental car reservations. I love trains, but that crew based out of Chicago seemed to hate their jobs, the work and everyone they met - they only want the paycheck.
WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA -- My luggage was left in Chicago. They delivered it to me on the next day, but my bag was torn. I called them, and they said that I should go back there and fill out a form. When I went back there, another employee said that I should mail them. I did it, and they do not answer any email, or call me.
UTICA, NEW YORK -- Took the Lake Shore Limited from Utica, NY to Chicago IL. Train was late but less than an hour. No biggie. Rode coach. Seats were fine and roomy for a non-superliner. Did not get much sleep but was pretty wound up anyway. Bathrooms were a little dirty but did not smell awful. Staff was fine, no problems. Enjoyed that leg just fine. Got into Chicago roughly on time. Once I found the Amtrak waiting area at the station I was fine but a rather confusing station. Wait for Southwest Chief was about 5 hours but that's the schedule and it's a once a day train and I was well aware that would be case. Comfortable waiting area but could use more restrooms.
Boarded Chief on time and was surprised how much room Superliner had in coach. If traveling with a companion I would have purchased sleeper but it's more than I was willing to spend traveling solo. Two outlets at every set of seats for electronics. Worked fine. The superliner cars in coach have 4 small and 1 handicap bathroom per unit. All were kept clean during trip and stocked well with soap, tissue and paper hand towels. One of the smaller bathrooms has a full-length mirror and a padded seat as a kind of changing room. Worked fine for sponge bath once a day and was able to wash hair in sink using paper cups (provided and kept stocked).
I did not use dining car as I packed a bunch of food and supplemented with lounge car chow. The staff on the Chief were all very professional and very nice. Chatted with some of them and none were rude. The lady running the lounge car food and drink was excellent and very informative. Lounge car afforded great views and was very clean. We did run into some heavy rain and the lounge car windows leaked but not bad and it was quickly spiffed up by train crew.
All in all, I had a great trip from Utica to LA. I hate flying and the return trip driving my buddies pickup truck was just awful compared to the train. Train travel may not be for everyone, I enjoy the ability to move around, meet new folks and use a bathroom whenever I wish. You won't be treated like royalty or pampered running coach on Amtrak but you can enjoy some great scenery and the unique experience of rail travel if you pack accordingly and expect a few bumps in the rail.
PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA -- Amtrak arrived about 40 minutes late. It was the night-train, going from Palm Springs, CA to downtown Los Angeles. Many seats were occupied by people who appeared half-rotten already due to a long trip from Texas, either trying to sleep, or perhaps comatose due to smells from the bathrooms. I seated myself, and the trip through the twilight route to L. Angeles began. To my detriment, the a/c was blowing freezing air into the compartment, mixed with smells of perfume and feces. Thank goodness I was prepared for catastrophic circumstances and had my artic-weather jacket with me.
Despite the jacket, the freezing air activated my bladder soon, and I had to go to the (infamous) Amtrak-toilet. Apart from the fact that it requires acrobatic skills to pee while the train moves at high speed and one is thrown around and has to grab something so one does not bang at the walls or sink, the smells and dirt are so gross that the Amtrak-horror finds its ultimate crescendo. To be repeated fairly soon, thanks to arctic climate control settings.
By the time the train arrived in Los Angeles, I looked and felt like old, wrinkled newspaper dunk in a used toilet. Amtrak is not for the faint-hearted. If you can tolerate "train-abuse", Amtrak is for you. Though, by all fairness, I have seen worse. So, be prepared for a rough ride and be grateful for arriving at your destination in one piece. Military personnel may love Amtrak, especially those who served in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Would I do it again? ONLY if I had absolutely no other alternatives, and I'd have a disinfectant spray with me for the bathrooms. One more thing, sleeping (well) on a rolling train is pretty much impossible. Count on arriving at your destination as a zombie in desperate need for sleep.
CHICAGO, CALIFORNIA -- I take the California Zephyr two to three times a year from Sacramento, CA to Elko, NV to visit family. I've been doing this for the past ten years. On my most recent trip, leaving Sacramento on 1/19/2016, I found the service beyond friendly, to my surprise. From the car attendant to the dining car personnel.
When we arrived at my destination, Elko, NV, in which we were twenty minutes early the conductor called me a cab because he had the number on speed dial. He also gave directions to the station over the phone to a parent of young teenager that was waiting for her ride. On my return trip 1/25/2016 to Sacramento the personnel were just as congenial. I know that AMTRAK gets its share of complaints but here is something positive from a regular rider that has seen a change in attitude.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS -- Last summer my wife and I rode the Amtrak "California Zephyr" from Chicago to Glenwood Springs, CO. We purchased round trip tickets for a Sleeping Car Bedroom at 1-800-USA-RAIL using a credit card. We had no problems buying the space and our boarding passes were waiting for us at Chicago Union Station. We asked for a room on the 2nd floor in one of 3 Sleeping Cars on the CZ, and that's exactly what we got. Meals in the formal Dining Car were included and the food was great.
We arrived at Glenwood Springs a bit late, we had already ordered lunch. We were shocked when, after we got off the train, our waitress ran out of the Dining Car with our hot lunches and cold drinks, forks, knives, etc., etc. We ate at a picnic table under a big tree at the beautifully restored depot. Our rental car arrived at the Depot and we had a great 4 days in the beautiful town, nestled in the mountains by a creek dotted with rafts and canoes.
Our return trip came all too soon, but the ride back was great, not a hassle, but a fun part of our vacation. The crew in our Sleeping Car and Dining Car were all friendly and helpful! We arrived back in Chicago "on time" (well 8 or 10 minutes early to be exact). We're planning a trip to L.A. this winter, on the Southwest Chief, in another sleeper. Hopefully we'll see some snow...even if it delays us a bit.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS -- Just a friendly reminder that no one should ever use Amtrak again. Their website will purchase authorize a ton of money out of your account, leaving you with holds on funds over $1000 for a $269.50 ticket since they attempt a purchase authorization each time you hit submit, and if your bank approves it, that does not mean Amtrak will approve it because if your billing info isn't the first set of billing info your bank returns (many accounts have primary, secondary and tertiary billing info, payment processors are expected to check all returned XML data, which Amtrak does not.)
Then they will refuse to help you in any way for hours on the phone, and claim that contacting your bank to help resolve the issue is "illegal" and attempt to blame the issue on you. As a web developer who interacts with payment gateways and payment processors and ACH processors, I know exactly what their website did, why it is wrong, and why it is their fault. The corporate bureaucracy involved with getting on the phone with a person that can help you is as follows:
Call. Press 0. Press 0. Ask to speak with a manager. Denied. Ask to speak with a customer rep, transfer + hold for 45 minutes, 4 hours on the phone explaining the situation (Monday), told it will be resolved by Friday, given exact instructions (step by step) for what to do when you call on Friday. Call Friday and follow steps and be told that everything you were told Monday you were not told.
Once again told it is illegal for a merchant to contact a bank to tell the bank that the transaction will not be processed (yeah, totally illegal guys, no merchant has ever contact a bank, ever, because of how illegal that is, right? Wrong, but hey, uninformed people probably buy that line all the time).
Finally have the person admit they were wrong and that it is just an internal policy, have them tell you they can offer you a travel voucher for your outgoing trip, but only after your bank denies the transaction one last time, bank denies the transaction and they say "it's your zip code, you aren't giving me the zip code correctly" and of course, I am SITTING AT THE BANK WITH THE BANK MANAGER WHO IS SAYING THAT IT IS THE ZIP CODE ON MY ACCOUNT.
Offer to put the bank manager on the phone, representative declines and once again says that the issue is with me, that no way could it be an issue with their system. Once again, while I am sitting at my bank, verifying the information as I speak it. Tell them once again you are not looking for anything FREE you are just not able to make the purchase, because they have already purchase authorized so much money out of your account.
Told once again it will be 3-5 business days and the transaction will fall off (it should have fallen off right away when they pinged the payment Gateway saying they were not going to pursue the transaction that was pre-authorized with the purchase authorization, but that is something the Amtrak programmer omitted). Explain to them that a mom and pop hair salon in rural Vermont has a better system that was designed for less than the purchase authorization holds and once again mention I do this for a living so STOP LYING TO ME PLEASE.
Told that a travel voucher for your outgoing trip will be made and that you can just hope and pray that the money is back in your account by Monday, because you are expected to show up at the train station with cash to pay for your ticket. Accept this, but tell them you want proof in an e-mail that this is indeed the case, that you have been ** around all week and do not trust that it is "in the system." They tell you they will send an email right away. Boom. E-mail sent. Call ended. Check e-mail, nothing about a voucher, just a bill.
Call back, ask the woman on the phone to confirm that it is paid. Woman says "it's in the system," ask for an e-mail with proof because you were told "it's in the system" on Monday, but when you called back Friday it was not. Mention that no less than 5 minutes ago, you were told by the customer relations person that they would send an email which would mention the "travel voucher."
Start to get attitude from the woman, ask her employee id number, refused. Ask her name, mumbled, ask her to repeat it and spell it, mumbled and subject change to transferring to customer relations. Ask to somehow not have to sit on another 45 min hold, or if there is ANY way to get some written proof that what is "in the system" is going to still be "in the system" the next day. Refused. Hung up on.