Which Is The Best Way West?

Yesterday an email popped up from a couple planning a cross-country train ride. They want to know which of the western trains out of Chicago I would recommend.
I had to laugh because I go through that same quandary myself once or twice every year. I’ve done it every possible way, too—the Texas Eagle, the Southwest Chief, the California Zephyr and the Empire Builder. I’ve only taken the Eagle once, but have lost count for the other three.
If they decide to end up in Los Angeles, the Southwest Chief is the most direct route and it’s a very nice ride. And perhaps they should think about stopping off somewhere en route. I took the Chief last year and spent two nights in Santa Fe. Next June, I’m hopping off the Chief in Dodge City for 24 hours.

 The Empire Builder will take you from Chicago to either Seattle or Portland and I do think the westbound trip is a bit more scenic than the ride heading east. That’s especially true in the summer months when it stays light longer and you get to see more of the glorious scenery as the train skirts the lower boundary of Glacier National Park and, the next morning, you follow the amazing Columbia River for miles.
But my first choice is a routing I’ve probably followed a dozen times or more: I take the California Zephyr to Davis, California, where I overnight, then ride the Coast Starlight from Davis down to L.A. Yes, it adds one additional night in a hotel and an extra full day on the train, but it’s well worth the extra dollars.

 That additional day is a 14-hour ride from Davis to Los Angeles (7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.) and I get a roomette even though it’s not an overnight trip. Consider this: depending on the time of year, the roomette costs about $100 more than a seat in coach. But consider what you get for that: (1) the privacy of your own little room when you want it; (2) three meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner—in the dining car (your meals are included in your sleeping car fare); and, (3) as a sleeping car passenger, you have access to the parlor car, which is the most wonderful way to travel. All that for an extra hundred bucks. Best deal in the Amtrak system!
The fact is, whichever train you pick, you won’t go wrong. The great pity is that more Americans don’t take advantage of this best possible way to see our country. Since the early 1980s, I’ve probably taken one of Amtrak’s western trains at least 25 or 30 times and every trip is a different experience.
Yes, if you’re in a sleeping car, you can fly for less. And, yes, it takes the better part of three days instead of four or five hours. But here’s the key thing to bear in mind: the plane ride is merely a mode of transportation; but your trans-continental train trip is part of your vacation experience. Bear that in mind. It makes all the difference!