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What you need to know about Amtrak's California Zephyr

What You Need To Know: Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Amtrak’s California Zephyr is a relaxing way to travel between the Goldcoast (Midwest) to the Westcoast or the other way around. This train lets you sit back and relax while seeing many stunning views.

Something to listen to while you learn.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr has 35 stops, including Chicago, IL; Burlington, IA; Omaha, NE, Denver, CO, Glennwood Springs, CO; Salt Lake City, UT; Reno, NV; Sacramento, CA; and the San Fransico Bay Area, plus intermediate stops and Amtrak’s Connecting stops.

This article covers the information you need before your next trip aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr. I invite you to get a tasty beverage or snack and learn about this beautiful train route.

I am a little biased; this was my first long-distance train, and still one of my favorites! If you only do one long-distance train, let it be this one.

The information in this article is meant as a guide and may not reflect your experience. Amtrak can change services and offerings at any time.

Travels with Kev’s podcast on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Why take Amtrak’s California Zephyr?

Taking Amtrak is convenient and is a relaxing way to travel with many scenic views.

Many of the stops the train makes are in the downtown areas of their communities, unlike airports. Plus, it serves many small communities without access to airports or other transportation, so Amtrak’s California Zephyr and its connecting services are essential to the USA transportation system.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr Quick FAQs

  • The Zephyr runs daily in each direction.
  • The Zephyr going East is number 6, and the number 5 going West.
  • This train does not have WiFi, and there are spots along the route without a cell signal.
  • You can buy tickets or make reservations online, via phone (1-800-USA-Rail), or at staffed stations.
    • When boarding, you can use paper or tickets on an electronic device.
    • Do not plan on buying your tickets on the train.
  • The Zephyr has an observation car between the coaches and the dining car.
  • Food on Amtrak’s Califonia Zephyr
    • On the lower level of the Sightseer Lounge is the cafe.
      • All may use this car, and the lounge car gets busy early while going through Colorado.
      • The cafe carries grab-and-go food and drink.
    • Sleeping passengers can enjoy Traditional dining from the dining car.
  • The Zephyr uses Amtrak’s Superliner equipment.
  • Amtrak does not have a check-in process like the airlines or TSA screening like an airport.

Boarding Amtrak’s California Zephyr

When it is time to board the train, prepare your tickets for conductors or attendants to look at and scan. Listen carefully to the instructions given by the station or onboard staff to avoid confusion.

The best tip for you is to listen to station staff (when available) and onboard staff.

Coach passengers

Coach seats are assigned on your day of travel as you board the train.

Depending on where you board the train can determine your seating.

Amtrak typically does seat and car assignments as you walk up to the train.

If the train is not that full or towards the end of the route, you might be able to pick your seat.

Amtrak tries to group passengers going to similar locations in the same car; this makes it easier for conductors and staff to help get passengers off the train. In theory, this also means fewer disruptions for those traveling further.

After finding your seat and often after the train departs the station, the conductors will walk down the aisle to scan your ticket and place a card over your head. This card saves your seat and indicates your destination.

Amtrak asks you not to change cars for a “better seat” without first talking to conductors.

Amtrak also tries to put groups and families together; this can be more difficult if everyone keeps spreading out.

For Sleeping Car Passengers

You receive your sleeper car room assignments after booking your accommodation, and you can find information on your ticket.

Superliner Car
An Amtrak Superliner Sleeper Car with the door open waiting for passengers

All the Zephyr’s sleepers are together. Depending on the season, these can be at either end of the train.

Car attendants or conductors should be outside the car to check you in and help direct you to your room.

Do not switch to another room without talking to someone first because someone later down the line may have a reservation for it.

Usually, the car attendant will visit after the train takes off to show you around your room. They should also let you know the details of meals and other amenities.

If the train is busy or during meal time and the attendant has meals to grab, it could take them a while to get to you.

What paperwork do you need to ride Amtrak?

You need two things to ride an Amtrak train: tickets and a government-issued ID.

You can use paper or electronic tickets to board the train, including emailed ones.

Amtrak ticket readers will randomly ask the conductors to check ID, this hasn’t happened to me yet, but it has happened to travel my companions. So, it is best to have things ready.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr Schedule

Amtrak’s California Zephyr takes 52.16 hours to travel 2,438 miles from end to end. Below is a brief look at scheduled departure times for a few stops.

If you are going to or leaving from San Fransico, CA, an Amtrak Connecting Bus will take you to and from Emeryville, CA. You need to book the bus with your train reservation. That bus is just for this train, so the bus will still take you over even if your train is late.

Overview Look at the schedule

Westbound Train 5
(Read from top-down)
StopsEastbound Train 6
(Read from bottom-up)
2:00 pm Chicago, IL2:50 pm
11:05 pmOmaha, NE5:14 am (Day 3)
8:05 am (Day 2)Denver, CO7:10 pm
10:37 amGrandby, CO3:12 pm
11:30 pmSalt Lake City, UT3:30 am (Day 2)
8:36 am (Day 3)Reno, NV4:06 pm
2:13 pmSacramento, CA11:09 am
4:10 pmEmeryville, CA9:10 am
The times are departure times and can change at any time.

The Route Broken Down by Day

DIRECTIONCITY SECTIONSDAY OF TRAVEL
#5 WestboundChicago, IL- Omaha, NE1st day
Lincoln, NE – Salt Lake City, UT2nd day
Elko, NV – Emeryville, CA3rd day
#6 EastboundEmeryville, CA – Elko, NV1st day
Salt Lake City, UT – McCook, NE2nd day
Holdrege, NE – Chicago, IL3rd day
Something to listen to while you learn.

What is Amtrak’s California Zephyr on-time reliability?

Amtrak’s California Zephyr’s percentage of on-time customers in May 2021 is 42%.

Delays happen with most transportation forms, which are often not Amtrak’s fault.

Most delays were freight interference, “acts of God,” and poor weather conditions. But at times, it is Amtrak’s fault, such as mechanical issues.

To learn more about the delays, watch the video or click here.

Delayed trains can make up some of the lost time, and do not let this deter you from booking a trip. When planning your adventure, add extra travel time to your itinerary.

Who owns the tracks that Amtrak’s California Zephyr uses?

Amtrak does not own most of the tracks they run on but uses rails owned by others.

The owners of those rails are called the host railroads. The California Zephyr runs on tracks owned by Amtrak around the station. BNSF owns the tracks from Chicago, IL, to Denver, CO, and Union Pacific from Denver to Emeryville, CA.

Checking the train status

You can use the Amtrak app, website, or third-party site to see if the train is running on time, late, or early. If the train is running early, it will wait at that stop until its departure time unless it is a drop-off-only stop.

Additionally, you can sign up for text or emails when booking to stay alert.

If you forget, you can sign up later, or the people picking you up can get them.

Baggage on Amtrak

Checked baggage is unavailable for all stops, but you can take advantage of Amtrak’s generous carry-on policy at all stops.

You are responsible for your belongings while on the train.

Carry-on

Amtrak’s generous carry-on policy allows for two twenty-eight-inch suitcases and two personal items; all bags must weigh fifty pounds or less. Links below for more info.

Coach passengers can use the storage shelf above their seat or the luggage rack on the lower level of the car.

Sleeper cars have some space in the rooms but not very much. Bedrooms do offer more space than roomettes. There is a shelf for luggage on the lower level of the car for you to put your excess baggage. FYI, rooms only lock when you are inside them.

Checked bag service

Again, check bag service is not available for all stops. Checking the availability of checked baggage ahead of time prevents a day of travel surprise and allows you to pack accordingly.

Below you can click the link for the station you are going to or leaving to check if checked baggage is available. Also, the website and app often let you know if the checked service is available during booking.

If any stations you use on your trip are unstaffed, you cannot check pieces of baggage. But if an intermediate station and destination allow for check bags, you can check them en route. See the red box below for details.

When you connect with another train, your checked bags will transfer with you, except for bus transfers. When in doubt, ask the onboard or station staff.

If you check your bags, you will not have access to them, so don’t pack anything you need during the trip, such as medication or medical devices.

According to Amtrak rules, you must check your bags at least forty-five minutes before the departure of the train. Some stations may bend these rules, but it is better to plan that they won’t.

Food and alcohol on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

You can bring food aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr

If you want to be a good travel companion, avoid getting food with pungent odors on the train. Not everyone enjoys the smell of egg salad sandwiches.

Also, avoid overly crunchy food for late-night snacks.

Due to FDA regulations, you cannot bring food or drinks into Amtrak food service cars that you didn’t purchase onboard Food for babies and toddlers is the exception. Also, Amtrak cannot store or heat the food you brought aboard. If you need to keep medications cool, bring a cooler to store them in; if required, Amtrak may get you ice.

Bringing alcohol on board Amtrak’s California Zephyr

You may transport adult beverages in coach class but cannot partake from your stash as you travel.

If you break this rule, you may get kicked off the train and fined. Adult beverages are available in the cafe or dining car for passengers with accommodations.

Sleeping car passengers can bring adult beverages aboard and consume them only in their room or travel buddy’s rooms.

You can get kicked off the train if you get out of hand from drinking too much.

Amtrak café car (for all passengers)

Amtrak Coffee
Coffee tastes better on the rails—coffee from Amtrak’s cafe car.

The cafe car is open for all passengers and offers meals, snacks, and beverages, including adult ones.

The cafe’s hours can vary, so listen to the onboard announcements, but typically it is open during the day except for the attendant’s break times.

There is seating on the lower level to consume your food. You can take the food you bought to your accommodations or the Sightseer Lounge.

The cafe car is between the coach cars and the dining car.

Dining Car (for sleeping passengers only)

The California Zephyr serves Amtrak’s traditional dining.

Sleeper car passengers can use the dining car to grab complimentary meals and beverages and purchase additional adult beverages.

You can eat your meals in this car or return them to your room. Sometimes, getting out of your accommodations is nice to break up your trip.

If you cannot walk to the car, your car attendant can grab and bring your meals to the room.

Amtrak offers one complimentary adult beverage per eligible sleeper car passenger and unlimited soft drinks.

Ask the dining car attendant about the selections of spirits, beers, wines, and other beverages.

Scheduled Meals

The times you get on and off the train determine what meals you receive, so ask your onboard staff about service hours.

DayEastbound 5Westbound 6
1DinnerLunch & Dinner
2Breakfast, Lunch, & DinnerBreakfast, Lunch, & Dinner
3Breakfast & LunchBreakfast & Lunch

For those sleeper car passengers traveling from end to end, you can expect the following:

The 35 stops of Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Station types

The Zephyr serves various stops, including staffed stations, unstaffed stations, flag stops, and platform stations or stops.

You can click on the stations to see the current amenities.

*Stations with connecting bus services.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr line-up

Car numbers

When walking up to the train, look for a four-digit number found by the door.

Occasionally these numbers are not updated, meaning it may say 0530 instead 0630.

Still, the second part of the number should match your ticket. The attendants or conductors are looking for you, and all the sleepers on this train are together.

Once again, your ticket contains this information for sleeping passengers, and coach passengers get assigned cars and seats while on the platform.

The order of cars for Amtrak’s California Zephyr

The following approximate the rail cars’ line-up and can change seasonally or based on equipment availability. All of the passenger cars are Superliner Equipment.

The train can run sleepers first or last. Amtrak sometimes uses coach baggage cars instead of running a baggage car. If there is a baggage car, the transdorm car usually follows.

Westbound Car NumbersEquipment TypeEastbound Car Numbers
0510Coach0610
0511Coach0611
0512Coach0612
Lounge/Cafe
Dining Car
0530Sleeper0630
0531Sleeper0631
0532Sleeper0632
0540Transdorm0640
Something to listen to while you learn.

Connecting with other trains or transportation

This train does have connections with other transportation. You can also connect with other Amtrak trains in Chicago and Westcoast stations.

Sleeper and coach car layout

Below are layouts of passenger cars on the California Zephyr, including coach and sleeper.

Sleeping car numbers 0530,0531, 0532, 0630, 0631, or 0632

Superliner Sleeper
The layout of a Superliner Sleeper Car.

Possible 0540/0640 Transdorm Car

Trans Dorm
Transdorm sleepers are just roomettes; most rooms are for onboard staff.

Coach Cars 0510 – 0512/0610-0612

Each coach car has bathrooms on the lower levels, overhead baggage storage, a luggage rack on the lower level, a seat tray, foot and leg rest, a seatback pocket, a water spout, and two grounded (three-prong) outlets at each seat.

Amtrak Superliner Coach Car Diagram
Superliner coach car diagram, Some cars do not have lower seating but instated a space for baggage.

Amtrak Café Car/Sightseer Lounge

Amtrak Superliner Sightseer Lounge layout
Amtrak’s Superliner Sightseer offers places upstairs to watch the country go by and host the café on the lower half.

Dining Car

Amtrak Superliner Dining Car
Amtrak Superliner Dining Car

Notable views and fun info about Amtrak’s California Zephyr

The Californa Zephyr is a very scenic train with something for everyone! Cows, agriculture, mountains, small towns, industrial, nautical, big cities, sierras, and more! Occasionally, several “moons” come out during the day.

This section is a brief overview of what you can see. There is a California Zephyr route guide you can save or print out for more information.

Day One West or Day Three East

Ottumwa, Iowa
My niece and I are enjoying a fresh air break in Ottumwa, Iowa.

This stretch of the trip will include typical views of the Midwest: small towns, farms, junk collections, cows, static train displays, and more.

On this day, you will cross the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as you travel across Iowa and Illinois.

One famous city on this route is Ottumwa, Iowa, home of the character “Radar” O’Reilly from M*A*S*H.

If you are traveling East, right after you leave the Omaha station, keep an eye on the scenery on the right side of the train because if it is light out, you may see a zebra or other exotic animals as you pass the Omaha Zoo.

If you love the views of Midwest life, this section is for you!

Day Two West & East

Donner Pass
Donner Pass

On this stretch of the route, you will see stunning views of the Rockies! Some of the vistas are only available from the train. Be prepared to go through many tunnels as you travel.

There is a section, and not to ruin the fun, I am not telling where that could get dubbed Moon River because some cheeky people often display their “moon” as the train passes.

You will also go through Donners Pass. Going West, this will be right after you go through the Moffet Tunnel. Going east, it is before you go into the tunnel.

The observation car often gets busy on this day. There are scenic views on both sides of the train, but the “Northside” is the more popular.

Day Three West or Day One East

Moab, Utah
A view of Moab, Utah, from Amtrak’s California Zephyr window.

I remember my first time going West on the Zephyr; I had breakfast while rolling through the High Seras on the last day of that trip. It made breakfast more enjoyable.

The views on this day will take you past shipyards, industrial vistas, and beautiful nature.

Fresh air (smoking) stops.

Fresh air breaks allow you to get off the train, stretch your legs, and breathe, as the name implies, fresh air or smoke.

Getting off the train can add to your travel experience, and your body may welcome the ability to stretch out and walk on stable ground. These breaks happen during crew changes, fuel stops, stops with baggage service, or if the train arrives early.

If you decide to get off the train at a fresh air stop, follow the conductor’s directions, and don’t wander too far from the train. It is your responsibility to get back on the train; it can and will leave without you if you do not return on time. Often you will hear a few blasts from the train’s horn, indicating it is time to reboard the train.

Walking around the train

First-time train riders should know a few tidbits about walking around a train. It is not hard, but often not what people are used to when traveling.

Trains are linear, meaning one car is in front of another. You may need to walk through a few cars to get to the one you desire.

The walk can be a great way to stretch your legs if you have been sitting for a while.

Remember, trains are moving, so they sway as they go down the track.

Use seatbacks or luggage racks for support. Avoid stepping where the plates come together when passing between cars, and use candy-cane-striped handles for support.

The isles of trains are narrow and do not allow two people to walk in opposite directions to pass simultaneously.

If you have two seats to yourself, people may step into “your space” for a second to let another pass; therefore, be courteous of others as you walk through the train.

Smoking and marijuana on the train

You cannot smoke or vape any subsistences on Amtrak’s trains.

Those caught smoking on board the train can be removed by the conductor’s train and issued a fine. While marijuana is legal in many states, it is still illegal to transport or consume it on Amtrak because it is considered federal property.

Bathrooms and showers

Coach passengers can find a few lavatories on the lower level of each coach car, plus one in the cafe. There are no shower facilities for coach passengers.

Sleeping car passengers have one lavatory on the car’s upper level in the middle, by the stairs and coffee station, plus a few on the lower level. All sleeping car passengers can use the shower on the lower level of the car.

Each bedroom accommodation (rooms “numbered” A-E) has one in the room, serving as the shower.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr wrap-up.

The Zephyr is a safe, relaxing, and fun way to travel to your next adventure.

Food Overview

You can bring your food aboard or use the food services offered by Amtrak (or do both).

Amtrak cannot store, chill, or heat the food brought aboard the train; as of now, coach passengers do not have access to the dining car.

If you need to keep medication chilled and bring a cooler with ice, Amtrak may provide additional ice, depending on the current supply.

Lounges

Sleeping car passengers passing through Chicago can use the Metropolitan Lounge. The lounge offers priority boarding, complimentary beverages, and possibly more.

WIFI and streaming

This train does not have WiFi. If you need WiFi, consider getting a hotspot or see if your phone offers this service.

Traveling with electronics

Bring an extension cord, charger, cables, or battery pack to keep everything running. There are outlets for each accommodation and in the Sightseer Lounge car.

Use headphones for any noise-making device (phone, games, etc.), and turn down or silence your phone, especially at night.

Thoughts on bringing entertainment on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Amtrak provides scenery rolling past your windows, but anything beyond that is up to you.

The right entertainment can help pass the time, including book(s), videos, games, a good playlist, or more entertainment ideas.

Something simple like a deck of cards or a puzzle book can go far.

If you plan to use an electronic gadget, have a few apps that do not need WiFi.

Try downloading ebooks and podcasts to give you a variety of entertainment. I love learning from a podcast or an audiobook while looking out the window. There is always the Travels with Kev Podcast you can binge.

Most of all, bring your patience.

I hope this helps you plan and enjoy your next trip aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr. Remember, if I can travel, you can too; experience comes from doing, not waiting.

Safe Travels!

Kev

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Kev

Kev has been traveling with Amtrak since 2012, celebrating his tenth year this year. Over those years, he has been on over 700 trains covering over 200,000 miles of rail. Kev enjoys helping others achieve their travel dreams by assisting them with support and information. Kev enjoys making music as an organist.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Carol

    This information has been most helpful! This trip will be my first “adventure” on the train from Ohio to California!
    Thank you so much!

    1. Kev

      Awesome! I am glad I can help! If you need any other help, let me know.

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