Can You Travel Overnight in Amtrak Coach Seats? Our Experience on the California Zephyr

My boyfriend and I have wanted to travel from Iowa to Colorado on the California Zephyr for a while. However, we discovered that we could only afford Amtrak coach seats, and not a roomette. We decided to take the rail trip anyway and see how it went. We came back about a week ago, and I have plenty of info to share about sleeping in Amtrak coach seats!

An Amtrak coach car in Denver's Union Station

Our Amtrak route and itinerary

Since we live in Iowa, the California Zephyr is the most accessible rail route. This Amtrak route goes from Chicago to San Francisco, California. It stops along the way at large and small stations alike, including Omaha, Lincoln, Denver, and Salt Lake City. For our trip, we boarded at a small station in Osceola, Iowa, and deboarded in Denver’s Union Station. We took Amtrak home using the same stations, also in coach seats. Both trains that we took had sleeper cars at the front of the train, then the dining car, then next the observation deck/café car, and the coach cars at the end. 

What is the difference between Amtrak coach seats and Amtrak roomettes? 

Amtrak coach seats

First, let's talk about coach seats. Amtrak coach seats look a lot like an airplane coach cabin, but with a little more room to walk around and get comfortable in your seats. There are only window and aisle seats, so no getting stuck with a middle seat! There is a rack above your head for luggage, just like on an airplane. (Fun fact, Amtrak is less strict than airlines about baggage size, so as long as you can carry your luggage comfortably, you shouldn’t stress about the exact dimensions.) The coach seats recline to a more comfortable angle than planes, and come with foot rests and table trays. Our Amtrak coach seats had two standard power outlets. (but, we found the observation car outlets to be more reliable.) There are shared airplane-style bathrooms on the lower level.

Amtrak coach seats come without complimentary meals or snacks. There is a water dispenser at the center of every car, and you can bring food onboard or buy a la carte from the café. We mostly brought our own snacks, but also caved in and bought the Stromboli in the café car on the way home. Keep in mind that all the hot food served in the café is reheated in a microwave or instant foods like ramen and oatmeal. If you are really craving a full restaurant style meal, you can pay $25 to eat from the dining car menu with the sleeper car passengers.

I was unfortunately unable to take a good photo on the train of the coach car, since there were people in the seats and unusual lighting. Just trust me when I say that Amtrak's official photography is pretty accurate. 


On the other hand, a roomette is a compact, private room with seats that convert into sleeping bunks. I haven’t personally been in one. But, they are also a popular option. There is plenty of information available about them, including this virtual tour. The roomette is considered a “sleeper” option. That means its on separate cars from the coach seats. This sleeper car comes with its own bathrooms showers. Since Roomettes are a budget friendly sleeper option on Amtrak, these bathrooms are shared. (Bedrooms are also available on the California Zephyr, which come with private bathrooms.)  Dining car meals are included with an Amtrak roomette. However, passengers are free to also use the café underneath the observation car. While riding, We met a few sleeper passengers who said the dining car food tasted great. However, we didn’t think the $25 price for coach passengers would be worthwhile in our case. 

So how well did you sleep in Amtrak coach seats? 

The best answer is, “about as well as you would expect.” I slept enough to function, but not nearly as well as normally. I don’t sleep very well in cars, buses or planes. My boyfriend slept a little better, I think. I don’t believe that having a private room would have helped me. I had a tendency to wake up when the train changed speeds or stopped at an overnight station. One thing that would have helped me is bringing a blanket, since the air conditioning and fan was always on.

I don’t think that having earplugs, eye masks, or noise canceling headphones is any more or less necessary than for sleeping on a long-haul flight. Every night the conductor made a quiet-hours announcement around 10 pm, before dimming the interior lights. I found that people were respectful, and left for the observation car if they wanted to be chatty. That being said, sometimes a passenger might need to consult a staff member or get up to use the bathroom. That's the same as on any other vehicle. 

the view of foothills from the Amtrak Observation car

Any final tips for riding an Amtrak in coach? 

I have five actually!

Be nice

Everyone we encountered was very respectful and friendly, which made our trip smooth and enjoyable. Make sure that any time you travel on a train (or, plane or bus) that you treat everyone, both passengers and staff, exactly the same way. 

The staff are fantastic 

Our Amtrak staff were also incredibly helpful and memorable - if you have questions, like what to do at a station during a stop, or if there are delays, don’t hesitate to ask. 

Bring snacks

I highly recommend bringing snacks. The café food is perfectly fine, but as a budget minded traveler, I think that having cheap options on hand, like homemade trail mix, crackers, or dried fruit. This will help keep you from spending with your stomach instead of your brain. Just don’t bring anything that might smell bad to your neighbor. 

You aren't glued to your seat!

The observation car whenever you aren't sleeping! While the coach seats are more comfortable than a plane, part of the luxury of being on a train is the ability to walk around, stretch your legs, and get a great view from the observation car windows. All for a similar or lower price compared to flying! 

Delays will happen

Lastly, be prepared for delays, just like with airlines. I think an hour or two would be a fairly normal delay. This usually happens when track has to be shared with freight trains that need to pass the passenger train at a junction. However, larger delays can happen due to weather. In fact, our train ride into Denver was re-routed due to weather. You can check the app or website, or ask a staff member about delays at any time. 


I think Amtrak coach is a great option, especially overnight. Its perfect if you want a long distance, budget oriented trip and don’t want to drive.  It’s more comfortable than buses or flying. Plus, it gives you a great view when you wake up. If you want more budget friendly travel advice, read my blog post on dirt cheap travel.


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