Good news: as of March 2014 Amtrak is open again in Denver's Union Station.
January 2014: time for a winter getaway, but where to? In previous Januarys we'd shivered on Waikiki (the hotel had AC but no heat), needed a jacket along the border from Arizona to Texas, and felt no urge to go in the water on Anguilla. Clearly the only place to experience summer in January is in the southern hemisphere—but we didn't want to go there.
So forget about trying for summer; a simple change of scene would do, and an Amtrak ad made us realize we'd always wanted to take an overnight train trip. For us who live in Boulder the nearest Amtrak station is in Denver, with trains going to Chicago and San Francisco. No contest which one we'd pick, San Francisco being warmer.
Amtrak's website showed the fares for either coach or roomette. Coach was temptingly cheap, but we really wanted the bed experience so booked a roomette: $1089.60 total for the two of us, for a round-trip (split up by a week in S.F.). You leave Denver early the first morning, and arrive in S.F. around dinner-time the following day. It's a good deal, as the roomette price covers all meals on the train (coach fare does not).
The trip involved some challenges. Denver's Union Station is undergoing extreme reconstruction, so Amtrak is temporarily housed in a building several blocks away. Since we had to be at Amtrak at 7 a.m. Monday, we took a bus to Denver on Sunday and checked into the Oxford hotel, and then walked over to Amtrak to see how it would be to wheel our suitcases there the next morning. Not good—the route winds through a gigantic construction zone with no sidewalk in places, so we sadly decided a taxi would be necessary.
And also a taxi might be necessary upon our return! Right across the street from the Amtrak building is a bus stop, at which one could get a bus to Boulder if one were going there in the morning. But because of the one-way flyovers in that area, no such buses are possible later in the day.
A sidelight: when you book your ticket to San Francisco, you have a choice of several ultimate destinations: Emeryville (which is where the train ends), or five other stops within S.F. itself, to which Amtrak will bus you. We chose Fisherman's Wharf, because we'd be staying in a hotel there. Our printed ticket therefore stated that we were going from Denver to Fisherman's Wharf.
At the temporary Amtrak station that Sunday afternoon, we asked a young woman about checking our bags the next morning. To our consternation she replied that we couldn't, because our destination didn't allow checked bags. The only place within S.F. that allows checked bags is the Ferry Building, and she said we could change our ticket to make that our final destination.
But that would mean another taxi ride, from the Ferry Building to Fisherman's Wharf, and we're trying to save some money here, for goodness sake. We decided to wait till Monday morning to change our ticket (maybe the woman was wrong), and trudged back to the Oxford where we consulted the PCs in the lobby. Sure enough, where it shows the fares on the Amtrak site, there's a tiny line that specifies whether you can check bags to your destination.
Back at Amtrak on Monday morning we talked with a new young woman who was in charge of bag checking. She said that since we were staying in a roomette there was no need to check our bags, as there's always plenty of room in racks on the sleeping cars. And she was right! We successfully stowed our large bags on a rack as soon as we boarded, and would easily be able to transfer them to the waiting bus when the train reached Emeryville; we kept Fisherman's Wharf as our final destination.
But hey, we aren't there yet! The journey is just beginning. We were greeted by the car attendant, Robert, and proceeded to our tiny stateroom on the second floor. Tiny is the operative word: a roomette seats two people facing each other, with just a few inches of space between the seats and the corridor wall (which is where you put your hopefully small and crushable tote bags). You can draw curtains across both the corridor windows and the outside windows, and you can “lock” the door when you're inside but not when you leave the cabin. No sink, no running water, but it's your very own home and you love it.
Another roomette traveler told us he never stayed (or never wanted to stay?) on the lower level, or in upper-level roomettes #2 (next to the restroom) or #9 or #10 (by the door to the next car). Maybe one can make special requests. When we bought our ticket online, it immediately told us what car# and roomette# we would have.
Alas, the train had been nearly two hours late getting to Denver, so no breakfast aboard for us (the dining car closes at 9:30 a.m.). But each sleeping car had a bar that was kept well-supplied with water, ice, juice, and coffee, so with the bagels we'd happened to bring along, we had a nice breakfast at the little folding table between our two seats while the train pulled out of Denver, going through parts of town I'd never seen before. What a treat to peer into back yards and secret commercial areas.
We investigated the bathrooms (sink and toilet): one on the second floor and three on the first floor, with also a shower-and-changing room on the first floor. Each of these facilities is for single unisex occupancy, and surprisingly (to me) it worked out well. I never encountered a facility that was busy, and only once (in the whole round-trip) did anyone try the locked door of one I was in.
Of course, things might have been different if the train were more fully occupied. In January it definitely was not. Here's how the trains were arranged, both coming and going: two locomotives, a baggage car, a crew car, two coach cars, a vista car, a dining car, and two sleeping cars. In the sleeping cars we were startled to see unoccupied bedrooms (which have full bathrooms), because when we'd bought our tickets at the Amtrak website no bedrooms were listed, so we'd thought they were sold out. Another passenger told us that the bedrooms aren't shown unless you click a particular link.
Our first dining-car meal was lunch that Monday. One enters the car and is seated by the hostess, who had previously announced over the P.A. system that “you may be sitting with people you don't know”. But we had the table to ourselves, and that was the case for all our meals on that train except the last one. The tables are clothed in white with cloth napkins and fresh flowers. I had a crabcake sandwich for that first lunch. Non-alcoholic beverages are included with the meal, and so are desserts (at both lunch and dinner). The staff didn't rush us at all. A good operation! That night we ordered wine and totally enjoyed the glamour of a festive dinner while speeding through the dark.
Robert transformed our seats into an upper and lower berth, each with sheets and pillow and a thin blanket. The roomettes have individual climate control and we were fine during the day, but at night I got cold in the upper berth. My husband turned up the heat but it came out of vents at the bottom-berth level and didn't seem to get up to me. When I mentioned it to another passenger, she said our upper vent was probably closed. Yes!--there's another vent in the ceiling, near the door, and you'll see that it has a handle. But on the return trip I asked for (and got) a second blanket, just in case.
On our return trip the attendant transformed our seats while we were at dinner, which was quite early. We asked another traveler about it and he advised us to use the call button in our roomette to ask for service (we'd never used it). Maybe that means also leaving a note for the attendant to not do the transformation until requested.
Since there were two sleeping cars, we investigated both. The other one was obviously newer than ours, with more modern bathrooms, so we started using them—until that car's woman attendant semi-yelled at us (not really; she was pleasant) that we should use the ones in our own car. On the return trip we were lucky to get a newer car.
One issue that bothered us a little was tipping, that perennial bugaboo. How much to tip on the train? During our first few meals at the dining car we added up the prices on the menu—what we'd be paying if the meals hadn't been included in the roomette price—and tipped on that basis. But then we saw that some people tipped very little or nothing. One passenger told us “We thought we'd already paid for that”. Who knows. We adjusted downward a little. When leaving the train we tipped our attendant twenty dollars. We are still clueless on the subject.
Forget it. You're going to be sitting for two days, with no place to run a mile or do a sun salutation. I'd thought it would be possible to walk a loop on the train, but it's not. Even though the cars are two-level, only the second level has connecting doors, so all you can do is walk to the end and then turn around and come back the same way. Also, since the 2nd-level dining-room always has workers in it, I felt guilty about plowing through there too many times. (The lower level of the dining car is the kitchen, off-limits.) Amtrak would be doing us all a great service if they installed a small exercise room on the trains, with a couple of stairclimbers or treadmills.
On the outbound trip we had no conversations in the vista car. There were four meals (no first breakfast because the train arrived late), and the first three were by ourselves. That particular kitchen-crew utilized all the tables in the dining room, and didn't combine parties unless all were occupied. But for lunch on the second day we were seated with a man who's a dance instructor for Arthur Murray. He travels around to the different studios assisting teachers. How fascinating! I personally am awed by anyone who is able to dance.
The train coming back to Denver was a different story. Its kitchen-crew believed in using as few tables as possible, and filled one before starting another. We had five meals on that leg and shared a table each time. This takes a little energy, of course, a little psyching-up before approaching the dining car, to be ready to meet someone new. But despite the effort involved, it made for some interesting times and a lot of good information, as we learned that some of our fellow travelers are Amtrak addicts.
A woman who was traveling with her son informed us that one can get an Amtrak Mastercard and earn points with it, just like frequent-flyer miles. For this trip she was able to upgrade from a roomette to a bedroom by "buying" more points; I think she said the upgrade cost her only $230. Such a deal! (The bedrooms are very expensive.)
A roomette couple from Texas told us they take at least one Amtrak trip every year and have been all over the place, including on VIA Rail Canada. They said the U.S. is divided into three zones vertically, and a couple can go anywhere within two zones for 40,000 points. They were on such a trip, looping up along the nothern border from east to west, then down the coast, and now back toward Texas. They did stop-overs in some of the cities along the way, and mentioned Amtrak's numerous bus shuttles that enable connections.
We may become Amtrak addicts too.