Sleeping on an Amtrak train is a lot easier than sleeping on a European train or on an airplane, but it's still not a hotel.
In coach, the carriages are bigger, so the seats are much bigger, with built-in footrests that come up to horizontal with the seat, and the seatback reclines further than in an airplane. Many people ride coach and there is always a steward in the car. We always ride coach and we have never had a problem. In 100,000 miles of travel, we have taken one sleeper, a Viewliner Roomette, and we didn't like it.
Ultimately it becomes a choice between accepting the expense and the many drawbacks of a sleeper vs the much increased probability of sound sleep. Here are some things to consider before you spend the money for a sleeper:
There are two broad classes of sleeper cars, with some variation depending on whether you are on one of the big western and southern trains or one of the smaller northeast regional services trains. The Family Bedrooms are big and comfortable and very expensive, while the Roomettes are smaller and still somewhat expensive.
As I write this, the prices for a trip from Chicago to Los Angeles when reserving 6 months in advance are:
- $145 Coach
- $441 Superliner Roomette
- $712 Family Bedroom
The sleeper prices increase outrageously as the train fills up:
- $145 Coach
- $947 Superliner Roomette
- $1579 Family Bedroom
You can fly the same distance for $159, with a flight time of 4.5 hours.
One of the most common strategies for sleeping in coach is to find an empty pair of seats and sleep across both of them. You can put your head against the window and your feet across the footrest of the adjacent seat. This works fine if you are up to about 5'10" in height.
To find an empty pair of seats, look for seats with no destination tag above them. When you are underway, the conductor puts a paper tag above your seat with a three-letter code for your destination, then removes the tag when you get off the train. If you see a pair of empty seats with one or two tags for LAX (Los Angeles) above it, then that seat is occupied by LA-bound passengers who might be in the Observation Car or somewhere else - don't sleep there.
This is not hard on the big western trains, but in all my travel on Amtrak, I have learned that sleep in Coach on the Lake Shore Limited is essentially impossible. The train is always crowded so you can rarely find anywhere to stretch out. On account of the number of passengers, it feels smaller and noisier, too.
The last time we took the Lake Shore Limited, I splurged on a sleeper, the Viewliner Roomette. I did sleep, which was the ultimate goal, but we also had many, many frustrations with the tiny space. In the end we agreed to just give up on the Lake Shore Limited! The next time we take such a trip, we will either fly to Chicago, or else take the Northeast Service to Washington DC and take one of the big trains from there.