Sleeper trains are having a moment. And why wouldn’t they? More eco-friendly than flying—with none of the hassle that comes from even just stepping into an airport these days—and a lot more pleasant than driving, overnight rail routes make for increasingly smarter alternatives to cars and planes, turning the journey to your destination into an experience in itself.
While Europe is leading the pack when it comes to taking you from A to B as you rest peacefully in your sleeper car, the US isn’t lagging that far behind. Several lines have in fact stepped up their game in recent years in terms of comfort and on-board services, offering travelers anything from plush beds to dedicated attendants and roomy sleeping quarters.
Here are five sleeper trains that are worth skipping highway tolls and airport lines for.
Linking Los Angeles to Seattle in around 34 hours, the Coast Starlight is one of Amtrak’s most scenic rail lines. The route delivers sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the lush Oregonian forest, with mountains, lakes, and thick woodlands as the main backdrop for most of the trip. You can gawk at them all from the gorgeous observation cars, which feature floor-to-ceiling windows and snug seats to while away the hours and snap plenty of pictures.
Come nighttime, the Coast Starlight’s sleeper cars ensure all the zzzs you need with roomettes, bedrooms, and one family bedroom to choose from (if you book the sleeper car, you also have access to the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge before departure, which is a nice plus). While the smaller roomettes have outside toilets and showers, the bigger accommodations feature an ensuite bathroom for extra comfort, and more space to stretch your legs. Regardless of size, all of them grant access to the restaurant-style dining car for dinner, breakfast, and lunch—all included in your ticket—as well as complimentary coffee to keep you energized throughout the journey.
Top tip: Travel in the summer to get the most daylight, and make sure to take advantage of the early morning fresh-air stops in Oregon after your night onboard. You’ll feel restored in no time.
At 2,438 miles and almost 52 hours of overall travel time (that’s three days and two nights), the California Zephyr is Amtrak’s second longest route, and the very definition of a long-distance rail journey. Riding from Chicago to Emeryville/San Francisco, you’ll roll through Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California—passing by verdant plains and the Rocky Mountain range, across arid countryside and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. The whole trip is basically a deep dive into the natural beauty of the United States, and one of those experiences every train aficionado should try at least once in their lifetime.
There are plenty of places to stop and visit on the way—you can get off in Denver and explore the Rocky Mountain National Park or spend a few days in Salt Lake City—but should you choose to stay onboard for the whole ride, you’ll be in for a treat.
With roomettes, bedrooms, bedroom suites, family bedrooms, and one accessible bedroom spread across two levels of its sleeper cars, the California Zephyr has a wealth of sleeping options to cater all needs. All of them come with complimentary meals, dedicated cabin attendants, lounge access in Chicago, and priority boarding, while restrooms and showers are either within the car or ensuite, depending on the room category. The upper-level quarters offer better views and sell out fast, though if you suffer from motion sickness, the lower accommodations might be a better fit.
Besides the sleeping arrangements, however, it’s waking up to the Great Plains and winding through the Rockies and then the Sierra Nevada that’s truly special. Just make sure to always have your camera ready.
Another cool way to travel from Chicago to California—Los Angeles, to be exact—by train rather than plane? The Texas Eagle. Amtrak’s longest route (and the longest in America), this three-night, 65-hour journey follows a path first established by the Pacific Railway in 1948, passing some pretty amazing sights: from the Ozarks to Little Rock along the Mississippi River, then into the vast expanse of the Texan countryside.
There are stops in Dallas and Austin along the route, though really, it’s the sheer grandness of the Lone State’s topography—a never-ending mix of remote small towns and rural settlements, wide-open fields and swamps—that’s the trip’s biggest draw.
That, and the fact you can watch it all from compact-to-spacious sleeping quarters, which range from roomettes to suites and feature perks like turndown service, full meals in the dining car for the entire duration of the ride, and coffee, juice, and daily newspaper delivered every morning to your door.
In-room amenities include outlets to keep your electronics charged, lighting and climate controls, and a closet for your clothes (there are also soap and towels if you’re in the higher room categories), as well as an attendant call button should you have any extra needs. If you want to stretch your legs, the Sightseer lounge, with swivel seat, wraparound windows, and a beverage and snack service, is the place to go—and the best spot to meet like-minded travelers to share the journey with.
Ok, so the Rocky Mountaineer doesn’t technically have a sleeper car. The private company that runs it is also not American, but Canadian—though one of its trips, the “Rockies to the Red Rocks,” takes place in the States and connects Moab, Utah to Denver, Colorado.
Still, the fact that this luxury rail journey includes overnight stopovers at stylish hotels qualifies it as an excellent alternative to any flight, in our opinion. All the more so when Moab and Denver are actually quite close: Much better to opt for the slow way rather than create unnecessary CO2 emissions, right?
The US-based route takes travelers on a four-day/three-night adventure across the two mountain states—you’ll spend two full days onboard—snaking through rugged canyons and natural archways, awe-inspiring deserts and the majestic Colorado Rockies.
Accommodations include the four-star Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton in Utah and the hip Rally Hotel or Crawford Hotel in Denver—depending on which direction you’re going—with a less splurgy but equally comfortable option in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
If you want to extend the fun, the Rocky Mountaineer also offers a selection of curated packages to start or end your trip in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.
New York and Chicago are close enough to consider forever ditching flights and choosing a scenic train ride to travel between them instead—at least when you’re in no rush to reach either city.
The best rail journey for the task is the Cardinal, which connects the two in 26 hours and 30 minutes and runs three times a week.
The line offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the eastern US, rolling past the Blue Ridge Mountains, Allegheny range, and the Shenandoah Valley. You’ll wind through the New River Gorge and West Virginia’s wild white-water rivers before reaching the banks of the grand Ohio River, rolling by the quaint towns of Ashland and Maysville all the way to Cincinnati and Indianapolis—this is the only Amtrak route that stops in both metropolises—and, at last, Chicago.
Private roomettes and bedrooms—which include a flexible dining service in their rate—promise comfort and a blissful night’s sleep before you reach your final destination, while a café open to all passengers keeps everyone fueled up for the entire trip.
Unsurprisingly, the Cardinal is pretty popular in the summer and fall, meaning early bookings are highly recommended. Our advice: Treat yourself to a bedroom or suite. Both have an in-room sink, restroom, and shower, and larger abodes to hunker down in than the smaller roomettes. Got a bike or a pet with you? This train allows both—just check the guidelines beforehand.