Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak: 7 things to know

California Zephyr at Book Cliffs

The long-distance Amtrak trip from Chicago to San Francisco is one of the most popular in the United States. Trains travel through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada via the California Zephyr route, and the scenery is absolutely stunning. Here’s what you need to know when planning your trip.

Amtrak trains don’t travel to San Francisco

There is not an Amtrak train station in San Francisco. The California Zephyr only goes as far as Emeryville, which is next to San Francisco Bay. If you book San Francisco as your final destination, Amtrak provides bus service to the city. Lyft, Uber and taxis can also pick you up in Emeryville.

Travel time is over two days

It takes approximately 52 hours to travel from Chicago to Emeryville on Amtrak, and you’ll spend two nights on the train. If you plan to take the connecting Amtrak bus to San Francisco, it leaves approximately 15 minutes after the train arrives and travel time is 35 minutes. If no delays, you’ll arrive in San Francisco at 555 Mission Street around 5 p.m.

You can book coach seats or sleeper car rooms

The California Zephyr has unassigned coach seats and sleeper cars, which contain private roomettes and bedrooms. First class seating is not available on this train.

The sleeper cars are two levels tall and contain restrooms, showers, roomettes and bedrooms, including one family bedroom and one accessible bedroom. If you reserve a bedroom or accessible bedroom, you will have a private shower, toilet and sink. If you reserve a roomette or family bedroom, you will have to use the shared restrooms and shower room.

Perks of reserving space in a sleeper car include free meals and coffee, privacy and beds. Roomettes are on both the upper and lower level (maximum two people), and you can make your ticket reservations over the phone (1-800-872-7245) to request a specific level if desired. Otherwise, the family and accessible bedrooms are on the lower level and all other bedrooms are on the top level.

Tip: The family bedroom has windows on both sides of the train, which is a great perk.

Cost varies by time of year, availability and advance booking

Summer is the popular time to ride the California Zephyr, and as a result, tickets are usually most expensive during this time. Fall and winter are also beautiful times to ride the train (especially if you want to ski or snowboard in the mountains) and tickets will be less expensive if you’re looking to save money. Tickets also tend to be cheaper if you book months or even a year in advance.

Here are estimated prices if you travel from Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak:

  • $150-$300 for coach seat
  • $700-$1,000 for a roomette (meals and coffee included)
  • Over $1,500 for a family bedroom (meals and coffee included)
  • Over $2,000 for a bedroom (meals and coffee included)

Tip: Try different travel dates, especially departures on weekdays, to find the lowest fares.

The train stops at many cities

After departing from Chicago, the California Zephyr makes 33 stops, the last being Emeryville. Popular stops include Denver, Fraser-Winter Park, Glenwood Springs, Salt Lake City, Reno and Sacramento. You can get off the train and visit any city on the route, you’ll just have to pay for each segment of your trip separately.

For example, you could book a one-way ticket from Chicago to Salt Lake City, stay one night at a ski resort (and ski), then get back on the train the next day via a one-way ticket from Salt Lake City to Emeryville.

Tip: You can get discounted fare via the USA Rail Pass if you want to visit different cities along the way. You can book up to 10 segments within 30 days. Note that you can only ride in coach and you will need to make reservations for each leg of the trip.

There are great views on both sides of the train

In the Rocky Mountains, the train travels on both sides of the Fraser and Colorado rivers, so you’ll see the water from all seats. After Granby, the best views of the Colorado River will be on the left side of the train, but you’ll want to be on the right side of the train for the trip through Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs. The scenery is also a little better on the right side of the train as you ascend into the Rocky Mountains after departing from Denver, and you’ll need to be on the right side of the train to see Donner Lake and Truckee, California in the Sierra Nevada.

Tip: For the best views, the observation car is open to all passengers.

Transfer to the Coast Starlight to continue your rail journey

In Emeryville, you can transfer to the Coast Starlight route, which travels north to Seattle and south to Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful route that stops near beaches, wineries and recreation areas. If you travel north to Portland or Seattle, you can transfer to the Empire Builder for the trip back to Chicago via the Montana Rocky Mountains. In Los Angeles, the Southwest Chief will get you back to Chicago through the New Mexico desert.

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