California Zephyr Part 1: Planning an Amtrak Trip from Denver to Emeryville (San Francisco)

Good morning everyone.  A few months ago, I wrote about my experience taking the Coast Starlight Amtrak from Seattle down to Los Angeles.  I am very excited for my next (and probably last) “premium” long-distance train ride from Denver to Emeryville (near Oakland and San Francisco) on the California Zephyr Amtrak.  I have a few friends in Denver/Boulder that wanted to experience a “premium” Amtrak experience before the January 24, 2016, Amtrak devaluation, so we planned to go on Presidents’ Day Weekend / Valentine’s Day / NBA All-Star Weekend (shout out to the BBVA NBA Credit Card).

Long before the Amtrak devaluation, Chase lost Amtrak as a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Reward Points on December 7, 2015.  Since I was 99% sure I was going to use the Amtrak Points before the Amtrak devaluation, I transferred 25,000 Chase Ultimate Reward Points to Amtrak Points.  With 25,000 Amtrak Points, you can get a Superliner Bedroom for 1 zone on any long-distance Amtrak route.  Denver is right on the border of zone 1 and zone 2, so you can go in a Superliner Bedroom from Denver to anywhere in the Western Zone or anywhere in the Central Zone for 25,000 Amtrak Points.  Since my friends are in Denver and I live in San Francisco (easy access to Emeryville), we looked at routes between those cities.  After coordinating schedules and checking availability on the Amtrak website, we decided to go from Denver to Emeryville during Presidents’ Day Weekend (only Presidents’ Day on Monday was blacked out, but the weekend was fine).

Amtrak Zone Map

The journey from Denver to Emeryville is scheduled to take around 33 hours (+/- a few hours if train delays stack up).  When you tell most people that you will be on a train for 33+ hours, they look disgusted and ask why you would ever want to do that.  I try to convince them that this “first class” train travel with flat beds, pretty good meals, and beautiful sights along the way.  Long story short, Amtrak travel is not for everyone, which is fine with me.

I’m not a fan of comparing the retail cost of travel to the number of miles or points redeemed, but if you are, then 25,000 Amtrak Points would get you a $1287 Superliner Bedroom (5.1 cents per point).  Trust me when I say this, but the majority of people who stay in the Superline Bedrooms do pay retail price.  Remember, you can accommodate 2 adults and maybe 1-2 small children in a Superline Bedroom.  I strongly recommend no more than 2 people in the Superliner Bedroom.  All meals are included (minus alcoholic drinks), you just need to leave a small tip afterwards.

Amtrak California Zephyr $1287

Since the California Zephyr is a 2 zone train from Chicago to Emeryville, here is the full route with all the stops along the way.  Most stops are around 5 minutes long, but some stops can be 30-60 minutes.  Longer stops are great for stretching your legs outside the train and walking around the train station.  If you are feeling “adventurous,” you can check out the mediocre Amtrak lounges, free for Superliner Bedroom and Roomette customers.  Remember to stay close to the train so they don’t leave you behind :)

Amtrak California Zephyr Route Map

Amtrak meals are surprisingly good, much better than airplane food.  Meals are served at designated times and you must make a reservation for lunch and dinner.  Since our train leaves at 8am and arrives the following day at 4pm, we should get breakfast and lunch both days, and dinner on the first night.  The train attendant will come by your room and ask you which time you want to eat.  I believe they ask the Superliner Bedroom customers first then they ask the Superliner Roomettes for reservation times.  If you are traveling by yourself or with 1 companion, you will be seated at a table with 1-2 other people.

Amtrak Dining Schedule

Last but not least, Amtrak is part of the Trails & Rails Program, in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS).  The NPS will tell you about state and national parks and maybe some interesting wildlife facts.  I’m not sure what to expect between Denver and Grand Junction, CO.

Amtrak Trails and Rails

Now that the Amtrak devaluation has taken effect, Amtrak Points are worth a fixed 2.9 cents per point.  If I divide $1,287 by 2.9 cents, this same trip would require 44,380 Amtrak Points, which represents a 78% increase in the previous 25,000 Amtrak Points price.

If you have traveled on the California Zephyr between Denver and Emeryville, I would love to hear your thoughts and tips regarding the journey.  If you have any questions, please leave a comment below.  Have a great day everyone!

30 thoughts on “California Zephyr Part 1: Planning an Amtrak Trip from Denver to Emeryville (San Francisco)

  1. Racerboy80 (Bill)

    On this particular trip when I was inquiring about making some changes, I asked the CSR how much the room would have been if we’d paid cash. She stated it would have been $1500 and some change, so in this particular instance the points were worth around 6 cents per mile!

    If we had rebooked under the new award system, she quoted me just over 49,000 points, almost double the 25,000 we used.

    Looks like temps in the 70’s this weekend as well in San Fran, but we are enjoying temps in the 60’s right now in Denver!

    Happy trails…or should I say tracks?

    Reply
  2. calwatch

    The new system is not so bad if you can make plans in advance, or if you are traveling solo, since the old system was the same whether you put one or three people in a bedroom. I will be making more Pacific Surfliner redemptions under the new system, since LA-San Diego and LA-Santa Barbara trips are cheaper than AGR 1.0. But for summer travel, especially during for peak trips, AGR 2.0 is much worse.

    Reply
      1. calwatch

        I think short trips on the Capitol Corridor are a great use of AGR points. Compared with a 2% cashback card you are getting roughly a 30% discount if you use an AGR credit card. Trips to Yosemite are a little pricier than before, 1600 points low bucket compared to 1500. The real benefit comes with short trips on the Starlight which used to be 4500 points and are cheaper – but if you were just trying to get between points, you would have done a Capitol Corridor and a bus for 1500 so that is an increase.

        Reply
  3. Michelle

    Hi Grant! Your 1st Amtrak trip got me interested in booking this for my family & now we are riding the train in July. (Opposite of you–starting in SF & returning to Den). Reactions from others have been very mixed like you said! We’re looking forward to it & I’ll be watching for your post when you return. Have a wonderful time!! :)

    Reply
    1. Grant

      I’m glad you booked a train trip, I hope you enjoy the journey. If I had more free time (and more Amtrak Points), I would like to try every route, both directions. Depending on the time of day, sometimes you miss some beautiful scenery if you are traveling at night. Plus, different seasons can have a big impact on what nature looks like. I will take very detailed notes of the journey. Please let me know if there is something specific you are interested in about the California Zephyr.

      Reply
      1. Michelle

        25k points is feeling like a HUGE bargain now with the devaluation. Thank you for helping me get in on that! I’m confident you will cover anything I would need to know. We have a family bedroom booked. :)

        Reply
        1. Grant

          I’ll do my best to cover the inside of the room (only a Superliner Bedroom, but we got adjoining rooms with my other friends), the dining car, meals, and views from the train. Stay tuned!

          Reply
  4. iahphx

    I’m a veteran of the Zephyr (thanks to the “old” AGR program) and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The biggest problem is reliability: I would try to check what the current delay situation is. Last June, it was absurd with the train being more than 12 hours late.

    I find Amtrak food, accommodations and service to be OK. It sure doesn’t feel like luxury travel! I’m doing 2 more long distance trains this year (including the Zephyr again) to get my last “experiences” in before this opportunity vanishes. I’m glad I’m doing it, but I’m not sure I’ll miss it!

    Reply
  5. iahphx

    Oh, I forgot to mention: every time I’m travelling in my relatively-comfortable sleeper compartment, I always feel sorry for the folks in the regular seats. I almost feel like I should offer them a “training session” on better options than the train. It looks pretty darn miserable in the cheap seats.

    Reply
    1. Michelle

      12 hr delay?? Yikes. We are going in with very open minds & just want to try something new but 12 hours could be a problem! Thanks for the heads up & I will be sure to check before we go to the station.

      Reply
      1. Grant

        I think you have less to worry about since you are starting at the beginning/end of the route. I think the big delays could happen toward the middle of the route (such as Denver).

        Reply
      1. Michelle

        Starting at the beginning & no connections “should” make life easier! I just read through Points with a Crew Amtrak posts & they had major delays on their trip. I just hope we can see the prettiest parts in the daytime. Still looking forward to it!

        Reply
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  7. iahphx

    regoarrarr — I wasn’t on your train, but I do know that delays on the Zephyr were notorious last summer. Much of this I learned from my cabin attendant and the conductors: I had plenty of “extra time” to chat about “the situation.”

    I don’t know what’s going on these days. Hopefully, it’s gotten better. I know there are a bunch of online rail forums and it would probably be a good idea to read up on the current conditions.

    What was particularly frustrating about my situation was the “rolling” nature of the delays. They just piled up as we went along. It started at Union Station in Chicago when I was told the train was on-time, but actually wound up leaving 3 hours late. And the train kept getting later, and later . . .

    The trains are scheduled so that you pass the “best” scenery in the daytime and the more boring parts at night. With our delays, we missed all the highlights and saw the boring stuff.

    Fortunately, I was told I’d likely get something if I emailed Amtrak to complain and, sure enough, we got a $500 Amtrak voucher for our troubles. Since I had only paid 50,000 points for the trip, it kind of worked out free (fortunately, I’ve had use for the voucher, as I’ve taken some Northeast Corridor trips). I am hoping my next train experiences are better. Several years ago, I did take the Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco and it was basically on time.

    Reply
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  9. Jen @ One Year 75 Times

    I booked this train going in the opposite direction (actually starting in LA to Emeryville via bus) and used Arrival+ to cover the charge. Problem is, I’m in the cheap seats. This is going to be rough! I really wish I had known to use points to get a bed! Gah.

    Reply
    1. Grant

      You might be able to pay the difference and upgrade your seat. Call Amtrak and see what options are available. Going all the way from SF to Denver in coach could be really rough.

      Reply
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  11. giampy giampy

    hello; I’m Gian Paolo from Italy.
    I am a photographer.
    i want to ask to you: is is possible open window? Or take photos without mirror in front?

    Thank you so much !

    gp

    Reply

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