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DivMiler

Suggestions for Route and Direction of Travel - East Coast to Seattle or Bay Area?

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I am planning to take a trip with my (will-be) 13-year-old daughter from the east coast to the west coast in June 2019.  I’d like to include Seattle (SEA) and the Bay Area.  I’m trying to decide on taking the train out, and then flying back, or flying out to the west coast and then taking the train back, as well as which route.  We live in Harrisburg, but usually leave out of Baltimore (BAL).  (Taking the Pennsylvanian west to Pittsburgh (PGH) to meet the Capitol Limited at midnight is brutal).

The Empire Builder is my dream trip, so I could do BAL-Chicago (CHI)-SEA (and then driving down the coast to the Bay Area), or going BAL-CHI-Emeryville (EMY) and then driving up to Seattle.  (Or we could take the train in either direction, but I’d like to see some of the sights close up).    I have a lot of points, so I’d probably use up most of them.  

My daughter and I have done several sleeper trips, mostly the Capitol Limited in a roomette to and from CHI/Washington, DC (plus a trip on the Silver Meteor both ways to DisneyWorld).  For such a long trip, out of CHI I would get a bedroom.

We would probably spend a couple of days in Chicago whenever we pass through.  

This is not a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip, but will be the longest train trip either one of us has taken, so I would like it to be enjoyable.  There may not be an obvious answer, but I thought I would ask.

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The CZ is best going westbound, especially if you're traveling when the sun sets early. I enjoyed the EB westbound, but I did miss Glacier park during a late May trip.

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I've ridden both the Empire Builder and the California Zephyr multiple times. The Zephyr is, in my opinion, the most scenic LD train ride in the USA and Canada. Departing Denver and climbing right through the Rockies on the Moffat Tunnel route alone is the best of the best but then you get Glenwood Canyon, Ruby Canyon and the next day you get Donner Pass and the Sierra Nevadas. 

Also, if you end up taking the Starlight vs. driving, the Starlight is much better Northbound as you get to see the Cascade mountains in daylight. 

The Empire Builder is of course quite enjoyable, and I prefer it Eastbound for a few reasons.  #1 of course is the daylight running through Glacier National Park and Marias Pass. But you also depart Minneapolis in the AM and then travel along the Mississippi River in the morning which is prime time for Bald Eagle viewing as they are looking for their breakfast (aka fishing in the Mississippi). I spot at least a dozen eagles each time I ride the Builder westbound. 

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I'd favor flying to San Francisco, taking the Coast Starlight (or driving) north to Portland rather than Seattle, then the Empire Builder east. Better yet, if your schedule and budget allow: Start by taking the CZ west rather than flying to San Francisco, and then the EB eastbound.

Transcontinental flights are no fun, and when needed I much prefer to get that over with at the beginning, rather than make it the end of a vacation. 

Portland vs Seattle depends on your, and your daughter's, interests. I like Portland better myself (and usually spend hours at Powell's Books when I'm there), and the EB does ride up the Columbia River Gorge from there. You might also stop for a visit to Portland en route to Seattle....

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Like the previous post, I was going to suggest flying round trip to CHI then take the CZ one way and the EB the other. That way you’ll get the best of both trains.

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Yeah, my interest in Chicago-East Coast trains took a nosedive with the new dining "service". Never thought I'd see the day when the Cardinal's diner-lite would be the premium option for this trip. Spend your extra train time west of Chicago. (While you still can....:()

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If you can swing it, here's the itinerary I would recommend:

  1. Cardinal to Chicago - it's a tiny little train which offers a one seat ride to Chicago, as well as amazing scenery, and meal service with much more variety and many more hot options than the Capitol.
  2. Then California Zephyr to Emeryville - it undoubtedly has the absolute best scenery of any Amtrak route
  3. Coast Starlight up to Seattle - as was said, the northbound lets you see the Cascades during the day
  4. Empire Builder to Chicago - The Builder is probably only rivaled by the Zephyr when it comes to scenery
  5. Cardinal home

That is my idea of the absolute perfect itinerary, but it is highly possible that you won't be able to find low fares for all those segments, especially since the Cardinal only runs thrice-weekly. But if you can make it happen, I'm sure it will be an absolutely amazing trip. Good luck!

Edited by cpotisch

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You say the Empire Builder is your dream trip, so definitely include that. You're most likely to see Glacier Park eastbound if the train is delayed, so for a first trip I'd recommend that. The rest depends on time/money/points. There are good arguments to be made for departing from Portland or Seattle, so I'll leave that choice up to you.

Minimum: Fly to the San Francisco Bay area, drive to Seattle/Portland, take the EB to Chicago, then one or two days later take the Cardinal to BAL. As noted above, the Cardinal now has the best food of the CHI-east coast trains, the vibe is relaxed, and you go through the New River Gorge.

Adder 1: Fly to Denver, take the CZ to EMY, then as above.

Adder 2: Substitute Coast Starlight for the one-way car rental from the Bay area to SEA/PDX.

Adder 3: Train all the way. I personally don't mind the Pennsylvanian/Capitol Limited transfer in PGH, but starting from BAL and taking the CL the whole way has its charms. (Be aware that the "fresh and contemporary" dinner choices leave something to be desired.) Take your desired time in Chicago, then board the CZ for EMY.

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I would take the westbound California Zephyr over the Empire Builder.  Besides the fantastic scenery for long stretches, the Empire Builder can be very unreliable in June due to BNSF track work.

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Lots of great choices. Ive taken both EB and CZ in both directions. Yes the Builder can have time issues in summer. Ive taken it and prefer west to east. If not on a tight schedule and its the train you want go for it.

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On 11/13/2018 at 4:11 AM, tricia said:

I'd favor flying to San Francisco, taking the Coast Starlight (or driving) north to Portland rather than Seattle, then the Empire Builder east. Better yet, if your schedule and budget allow: Start by taking the CZ west rather than flying to San Francisco, and then the EB eastbound.

Transcontinental flights are no fun, and when needed I much prefer to get that over with at the beginning, rather than make it the end of a vacation. 

Portland vs Seattle depends on your, and your daughter's, interests. I like Portland better myself (and usually spend hours at Powell's Books when I'm there), and the EB does ride up the Columbia River Gorge from there. You might also stop for a visit to Portland en route to Seattle....

Powell's Bookstore in Portland bills itself as the largest independent bookstore in the world, and after being there a couple of times, I believe them. My husband would happily spend days in Powell's, but there is a whole lot of other great stuff to see in Portland, which is a very beautiful city.

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I just did the EB eastbound about a month ago. Best trip I’ve ever taken, hands down. I’ve done the Zephyr westbound to Glenwood and that was a great trip, but the EB was an amazing collection of varying landscapes. I had a 7 hour delay (most of it coming in Spokane as 28 was stuck behind a disabled freight) and Glacier was in perfect light for photographs and we got to see Idaho in the daylight. I loved that trip. I wish I were there now.

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Thanks for all the suggestions.  I'm leaning toward (at least) taking the California Zephyr eastbound from CHI to EMY.  Our experience on the Capitol Limited earlier this year after the imposition of "carryout" has turned us off that train.  Maybe we'd take the Cardinal, but I'm not sure this time.

Time is a concern with us -- this trip will have to be in the later half of June and we need to return by July 3, so we will likely fly back to the East Coast.

Question -- if we take the California Zephyr, and if a Family Bedroom and a Bedroom are available for (roughly) similar prices, is it desirable to choose the Family Bedroom, with windows on two sides, or to take the Bedroom with windows on one side, and use the observation car for sightseeing?  Our only experience with a Bedroom is on a Viewliner on the Silver Meteor.  Otherwise, it has been Roomettes on Superliners and Viewliners.

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I have traveled in both a Bedroom and a Family Bedroom, and prefer the Bedroom.  The small windows are not that good for viewing the scenery, and the seating can be awkward and uncomfortable in a Family Bedroom.

Edited by Maglev

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I actually somewhat prefer the Family Bedroom. I really like the lower level because of the lower foot traffic, smoother ride, and super quick and easy access to the bathrooms and shower, and the room itself has a really cozy layout and offers a ton of space. YMMV.

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On the Zephyr, is there a "bad" side?  For the Bedroom, I know I won't know until we board if the Bedrooms are on the left or right side of the train, but is there a scenery-related reason that one might wish to have windows on two sides?

And which sleeper room has more room for two people during daytime -- a Family Bedroom or a Bedroom?

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For the crossing of the Rockies between Denver and Grand Junction, my estimate is that 80% of the best views are on the south as the train runs along the north bank of the river almost all the way. If you pick the Family Bedroom you'll have a little bit more room to spread out and you're guaranteed to have windows on both side...but they'll be (relatively) small windows. In the Bedroom you'll still have plenty of room and you'll have a large picture window, but it's luck of the draw as to which side of the tracks you'll be facing...the car can be oriented either way. You can leave the Bedroom door/curtain open and get at least a partial view out the other side of the train. In the Bedroom, of course, you'll also have your own private toilet and shower and since Bedrooms are on the upper level (and the Family Bedroom is on the lower) you do get a better view being higher up.

All told, if the price differential isn't too great I'd roll the dice and go with the regular Bedroom for two adult passengers. But it's your trip; take your choice.

Edit To Add: That's for crossing the Rockies. For the crossing of the Sierra between Reno and Sacramento, I'd say that 60% of the best views are to the north.

Edited by ehbowen

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13 hours ago, DivMiler said:

On the Zephyr, is there a "bad" side?  For the Bedroom, I know I won't know until we board if the Bedrooms are on the left or right side of the train, but is there a scenery-related reason that one might wish to have windows on two sides?

And which sleeper room has more room for two people during daytime -- a Family Bedroom or a Bedroom?

It definitely can be nice to have windows on both sides, however the tiny windows of the Family Bedroom sort of negate that benefit. However as to which one has more room, it’s definitely the Family Bedroom. In the Family Room, you can leave the two adult bunks made up the entire time but still have the two seats for sitting, and there’s a pretty large closet. We also used the upper child bunk as an easy place to keep and access our baggage. So yeah, in terms of space and flexibility for two people, the Family Bedroom definitely holds the crown in my book.

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Thanks all for the advice.  I just used points for us to travel in a Roomette from BAL to CHI on the Cardinal, and a Bedroom from CHI to EMY on the Zephyr.  It was hard for me to think about the windows-on-two-sides advantage of the Family Bedroom (FB) versus the larger-window advantage of the Bedroom.  I was leaning toward the FB on the Zephyr, but then I noticed that the Bedrooms had lowered in "price" so they were about 15,000 points cheaper than the Family Bedroom.  That was significant enough to sway me, but it sounds as if we couldn't go wrong with either accommodation.

We'll fly back from San Francisco to Baltimore.  The Empire Builder will have to wait for another summer.

We're looking forward to it!

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41 minutes ago, DivMiler said:

Thanks all for the advice.  I just used points for us to travel in a Roomette from BAL to CHI on the Cardinal, and a Bedroom from CHI to EMY on the Zephyr.  It was hard for me to think about the windows-on-two-sides advantage of the Family Bedroom (FB) versus the larger-window advantage of the Bedroom.  I was leaning toward the FB on the Zephyr, but then I noticed that the Bedrooms had lowered in "price" so they were about 15,000 points cheaper than the Family Bedroom.  That was significant enough to sway me, but it sounds as if we couldn't go wrong with either accommodation.

We'll fly back from San Francisco to Baltimore.  The Empire Builder will have to wait for another summer.

We're looking forward to it!

Have a great trip!

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Thanks again.  We'll spend one overnight in Chicago before heading out on the California Zephyr.  I'd rather not take a chance on the Cardinal being late and missing the Zephyr.

 

Final (?) questions:  On the Cardinal, I was assigned Roomette 1 (car 5100), and on the Zephyr, I was assigned Bedroom D (car 0532).  Any reason I might want to call to switch?

And car 0532 means it is the 3rd sleeper from the dining car, right?

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I'd start by taking the California Zephyr westbound rather than flying to San Francisco, and the Empire Builder eastbound. I'd also take the Coast Starlight northbound (Emeryville-Seattle) to make it an all-train trip. Enjoy! I did this in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

Edited by Woodcut60

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On 11/30/2018 at 11:02 PM, DivMiler said:

Thanks again.  We'll spend one overnight in Chicago before heading out on the California Zephyr.  I'd rather not take a chance on the Cardinal being late and missing the Zephyr.

 

Final (?) questions:  On the Cardinal, I was assigned Roomette 1 (car 5100), and on the Zephyr, I was assigned Bedroom D (car 0532).  Any reason I might want to call to switch?

And car 0532 means it is the 3rd sleeper from the dining car, right?

5100 is right next to the dining car and Roomette 1 is in the middle of the car, so I don’t see any reason why you’d want to change that. On the Zephyr, 0532 is the second car from the diner, so you may want to call and see if you can get moved to 0531 (which is closest to the diner). As to Bedroom D, there’s nothing particularly good or bad about that room, but Bedroom E seems to be the room of choice for manu AUers, as it’s in the middle of the car (which means a nice ride), is right next to the beverage stand and stairwell, and is only adjacent to one Bedroom (instead of two). Room A does have the benefit of being the only Bedroom which is not connected via partition to any other room, which means a solid wall with less noise, however it has less floor space and is at the end of the car, meaning worse ride and more truck noise. So yeah, I would say that you may want to call and see if you can snag Bedroom E in 0531. If that isn’t available, it may be a matter of figuring out if you care more about being in a sleeper close to the dining car or having the best room. Good luck!

Edited by cpotisch

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