Destinations,  North America,  Trains, Planes & Rideshares,  Travel Diary,  United States

3 days on the Southwest Chief | Day 1: Los Angeles, CA to Flagstaff, AZ

In April 2022, I spent 3 days on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. This was my first time on an overnight train trip and my first time booking a roomette!

Roomettes are expensive, especially if you’re a solo traveler. Mine cost $800, which is hefty. However, going on an overnight train trip in a roomette has been on my bucket list for years AND I had some Amtrak credit I needed to use before it expired, so I decided to take the opportunity.

The Southwest Chief goes from Los Angeles, California to Chicago, Illinois. I picked it mostly because it was faster and slightly cheaper than the other long-haul routes, and I wanted to visit Chicago before heading over to Europe on my big world adventure.

Day 1: Los Angeles, CA to Flagstaff, AZ

Technically I started my journey from my hometown of Anaheim, where I took a train up to Los Angeles to connect wit the Southwest Chief line.

The Southwest Chief actually goes through Fullerton (one town over from Anaheim), and I could’ve just gotten on there…but I wanted to visit LA Union Station’s Metropolitan Lounge and get the full Red Cap boarding experience.

Because of timings, I ended up getting to Los Angeles a full three hours before boarding. Plenty of time to enjoy the lounge– and freak out about being on a train for three days!

Los Angeles Union Station Metropolitan Lounge

The station itself isn’t very glamorous once you get past the front entrance, and finding the Metropolitan Lounge is nearly impossible. Luckily I had instructions from [this blog] and managed to get myself to the right location with minimal effort.

Once in the lounge, an Amtrak staff member stashed by suitcase in the luggage check area and invited me to rummage through the snacks and drinks.

Please note the mini-fridge: it’s only for Amtrak staff members.

The lounge filled up almost to overflowing by the time we were ready to board.

Boarding the Train

A little before 6:00 PM, the Red Caps came and took us and our luggage onto big golf cart-looking things, driving us right to our sleeper car. We were then left to our own devices to find rooms and luggage storage, etc.

I only had a carry-on size suitcase and a backpack, so I just took everything to my room with me; if you have larger bags you can check them into luggage storage, though of course that means you won’t have access to that luggage during the trip.

Dragging my suitcase up the narrow train stairs wasn’t much fun, but I got through it and found my roomette quickly enough.

The Roomette

My sleeper was the smallest (and cheapest) rooms on the train, a “roomette” which can (technically) fit two people.

It is SUPER tiny! Standing in the middle, I could just about touch either wall. As a solo traveler I found it cozy, but if I was traveling with someone else I think it’d be absolutely claustrophobic.

Neat details about the roomette:

  • Pop-out coat hooks
  • A volume knob for the PA system
  • Reclining seats (kinda; the backs lean at a slight angle but you don’t get a footrest like in coach)

Annoying things about the roomette:

  • Very dated looking and not in a fun way (1980s beige)
  • Plugs only on one side of the room
  • Shallow cup holders (the complementary water bottles kept falling out)
  • No way to lock the door shut from the outside, so when you leave all your stuff is just sitting there

The first thing to decide on was where to put my suitcase and backpack during the day.

There’s no luggage storage spots in the west coast roomettes (unlike the east coast ones), so you have to live with your luggage bumping your knees. At night you can, of course, stash things on the unused bunk bed– which is what I did.

Eventually I figured out that sticking my suitcase flat against the wall under the window worked best. It meant I couldn’t use the little table, but I didn’t need it anyway.

Before I figured out what to do with my suitcase. The things on the left are actually stairs going up to the top bunk!

The next thing to decide was where I was sleeping. Top bunk, or bottom bunk?

Both have their pros and cons, but I decided to sleep on the bottom bunk as the top one a) was VERY close to the ceiling (stuffy and claustrophobic), and b) had no window view, and a window view was the whole point of taking a train anyway.

The bottom bunk is put together by lowering both seats flat and sticking an extra cushion between the gap. I don’t know if it’s more or less comfortable than the top mattress (which seems to be all one piece), but I didn’t feel any lumps or gaps– just a VERY FIRM mattress.

My sleeper car only had two sets of passengers on our section, me, and my neighbors, two sisters from Illinois. The rest of our section was staff quarters, some of which had a special lock on the outside. Huh!

The Dining Car

Shortly after leaving Los Angeles, the dining car attendant, Jeanine, came to schedule us for dinner. There were several time blocks, and as I was starving I went as early as I could (7:00 pm).

Our options were going to the dining car or having dinner brought to our rooms. (At the time, this was an option due to COVID-19 procedures; I don’t know if they’re still doing this now in 2023.) I wanted to mingle with other travelers, so I opted to eat in the dining car.

Solo travelers get matched up with other solo travelers; there’s no individual seating options, as everything is booths. However, you ONLY get matched up with one other person, rather than a full table of other people like you might on a cruise.

My first dining buddy was a professional violinist from Pennsylvania who was traveling around the US visiting friends. She’d been on dozens of trains, so she recommended some preferred food choices.

If you book a roomette (or other room), you get meals included in your ticket. These meals are pre-packaged back at the station (or somewhere off-train, anyway), and re-heated on the train, but they taste perfectly fine. However, because they’re pre-packaged the staff really discourage changing any part of it because there’s often no way to mix and match food options.

Dinner includes an appetizer, entree, and dessert, plus a drink (which can be alcohol). I had a crab cake (appetizer), tortellini in cream pesto sauce (entree) and carrot cake (dessert). The crab cake was delicious and the tortellini was VERY filling…so filling I couldn’t actually finish it!

I also ended up taking my dessert back with me to my room because I felt like I was going to pop.

Fresh Air Stop

Long-distance trains have things called “fresh air stops,” where travelers are encouraged to get off the train and walk around (or suck down a cigarette). These stops are longer than a typical train stop, usually a minimum of 15 minutes, but often longer. Our car attendant, Rashad, let us know when the fresh air stops were coming and how long they’d be, and I made sure to get off at every one I could!

Vintage trains on display near the Barstow station.

That first night our fresh air stop was in Barstow, CA. I’d been to Barstow previously, though not on the train, and it was nice to see it again for a little bit.

It was slightly difficult to fall asleep because the train was rocking and making a LOT of noise, but I managed it eventually…

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Anastasia is a former librarian turned digital nomad. She's been traveling the world full time for two years and has visited 18 countries so far! Just Gone Wandering is a travel resource for solo female travelers on a backpacker's budget-- or slightly more-- and highlights amazing places to visit as well as providing tips and tricks for traveling smart and frugal. Read more...

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