I took a 52-hour train ride from Chicago to California. Here are 12 things that surprised me the most.

·5 min read
The silver, blue, and red Amtrak train at the concrete platform
I didn't know what to expect from this ride. Sojourner White
  • I took a 52-hour Amtrak train ride from Chicago to Emeryville, California, for the first time.

  • The ride didn't seem as long as I expected, and I didn't feel too lonely, even as a solo traveler.

  • The food options were impressive, and eating with strangers wasn't that awkward. 

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As an avid air traveler, I didn't know what to expect when I booked a 52-hour cross-country train ride from Chicago to Emeryville, California.

Here are 12 things about traveling on Amtrak's California Zephyr that surprised me the most: 

Video: You can ride the Hogwarts Express in real life

Even though I traveled solo, I didn't feel lonely

Solo travel can get lonely at times, and I naturally found more solitude - which I love - when I was in my roomette.

That said, I was still nervous I didn't bring enough to do and that I'd feel isolated, but I was wrong.

Plus, when in doubt, just go sleep. I took more naps on the train than I have in a while and felt well-rested the entire time.

I didn't miss Wi-Fi

The writer's laptop with a view of the seat and back pack in front
I didn't even use my personal hotspot. Sojourner White

People tell me one of the biggest reasons they don't take Amtrak is the lack of Wi-Fi, but I took it as a welcome challenge for a social-media detox

Even though I brought my portable hotspot, I didn't even think about using it and was happier enjoying the ride.

Eating with strangers was less awkward than I thought

Talking to strangers in the observation car was one thing, but the thought of eating in front of them was more daunting.

By the second or third meal, though, I gave myself talking points and it got easier.

I felt nauseous waking up on the 2nd day

I don't normally get motion sickness, but I felt a bit nauseous waking up on the second day headed toward the Rocky Mountains.

Thankfully, due to research prior to the trip, I packed some Dramamine and sea-nausea-relief bands, which hit a pressure point on my wrist that remedied the unpleasant feeling. 

The food was better than I expected

French toast with berries and cream on a white plate
Dinner was three courses and came with an alcoholic drink. Sojourner White

Before the ride, I didn't have high hopes for the food, but instead, I found a variety of options, even as a pescetarian.

The three-course dinners with a complimentary alcoholic beverage were my favorite. Plus I got to mix and match most of my options.

I had some trouble sleeping

As someone who can fall asleep anywhere, the first night on the train was surprisingly rough.

I slept on the bottom bunk, and the ride felt bumpy. I woke up a few times but eventually rested.

Thankfully, the next night was a much smoother sleeping experience.

I didn't feel the fear of missing out while enjoying the views

A view of the Amtrak observation car, which is full of windows and blue seats
I spent a lot of time in the observation car. Sojourner White

I love to hike and thought I would feel like I was missing out on experiences since the train doesn't stop as it passes through the scenery and mountains, but I was wrong.

Even though some parts are accessible via hiking, a lot are not, so riding through the mountains gave me a different perspective.

I had to make dinner reservations

Eating dinner was a very organized experience.

Unlike for breakfast and lunch, the dining-car attendant came around and told sleeper-car travelers which meal times were available. 

Depending on which sleeper car the attendant visited first, you'd have an earlier or later dinner time - around 5:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., respectively. 

The roomette was smaller than I anticipated 

The writer smiling and holding up a peace sign in small space
The space was quite cramped. Sojourner White

I can say that booking a roomette was the best investment on this trip since it made the ride more comfortable.

However, I was surprised by how small I felt in the roomette. I'm only 5'1" and didn't feel like I had much space to spare. I thought it would be a little bigger.

Sleeper-car and coach travelers were separated

I didn't realize there was a divide between sleeper-car and coach passengers, but travelers in coach were not allowed in the dining car.

The only time I interacted with coach passengers was in the observation car. Even then, it seemed as if we had our own sides of the train.

I didn't even think to walk toward the side of the observation car closest to coach.

The ride was truly as scenic as promised

The view of lush trees and mountains from the train window
I loved seeing more remote views. Sojourner White

The videos and photos I saw of the train ride gave me a sneak peek of my adventures, but it was different to appreciate it in person. 

I loved riding through the mountains and hopping between both sides of the observation car to catch the views.

I got such a panoramic view of the mountains, greenery, and rocks surrounding us. It made me feel like I was in a 3D movie.

52 hours didn't feel that long after all

A delay on the third day added extra time, and that's when I felt the most restless.

But between sleeping, writing, talking to people, and reading, this journey was so smooth. Bringing things to do was key. 

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