14 Dec Overnight on Amtrak: California Surfliner and Pacific Coast Starlight
Apart from a few short train trips between Seattle and Portland, our experience with Amtrak was pretty limited. We were really intrigued by the possibility of taking an overnight train trip, and finally made it happen last week. Here’s a glimpse into what we experienced, and some advice for first-time train travelers.
Our Free Trip to San Diego
The background on this trip is that we traveled from Portland to San Diego – and back – for free. We took advantage of three key “travel hacks” that got us a free plane ticket from PDX to SAN, free Car2Go minutes to drive ourselves to the train station, and a free overnight train trip from SAN to PDX (sleeper car and meals for two included). If you’re subscribed to our e-newsletter, we’ll be sharing the details of how we accomplished these things in an e-mail later this week. On top of free transportation, we were visiting my brother and his new wife, so our accommodations were free as well!
San Diego to Los Angeles – California Surfliner
Business Class seats, includes “snack bar” in the car
Departs 6am, 3 hours 30 minutes
Stops: Oceanside, San Juan Capistrano, Anaheim, etc.
Los Angeles to Portland/Seattle – Coast Starlight
Private roomette, includes meals for two in dining car
Departs 10:30am, 1 day 5 hours
Stops: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Jose, Sacramento, Redding, Klamath Falls, Eugene, Salem, etc.
Typical cost for 2 from SAN to PDX:
$523 (roughly equivalent to flights for two, plus a hotel night), or:
15,000 points (before January 24, 2016)
18,044 points (after January 24, 2016)
The Beauty of Riding Amtrak
We began our journey at 6am from the downtown San Diego station on the California Surfliner. In no time, we had a captivating and ever-changing view of the sunrise, waves cresting toward us, and scattered dots of surfers out in the water. The trip to Los Angeles took about three hours and because we booked our overnight journey in a sleeper car, we were put in business class on the first leg (more about that later).
At the Los Angeles Union Station, I hopped across the street to Olvera Street market and grabbed us a plate of Mexican food for brunch. We ate in the Amtrak lounge, which is available only for sleeper car passengers, but opted not to take their shuttle cart to board the train so that we could stretch our legs and walk before the long journey.
The roomettes in the sleeper cars have two large chairs facing each other, a thin closet to hang a few jackets, reading lamps, power outlet, and pull-out table. There is a sliding door and curtains for privacy from the hallway. The attendant of our car explained how to turn the chairs into a bed and pull the bunk down above it.
For meals, we had the option of eating communal style in the dining car or alone in the parlor car but with a limited menu. A couple hours before the meal, you choose where you’ll eat and make a reservation with an attendant who walks through. At the time, I was testing out a gluten-free diet, so we always opted for the dining car because there were more menu choices. We were seated with a Norwegian-American gentleman at lunch, a couple getting off at San Jose at dinner, and another single gentlemen at breakfast the following day. All of them had done a lot of train travel already and continue to do so because they thoroughly enjoy the experience and believe in the importance of mass transit.
The highlight of our trip was staring out the windows. The California coastline was absolutely stunning, and – unlike our recent road trip through the same area – we didn’t have to worry about navigating! We saw countless surfers among the breaks. Since it was December, the “golden hour” came in the early afternoon and gave our ocean views a magical glow.
By dinner on the first night, we were nearing San Jose and the sun had set. I didn’t mind missing out on seeing Northern California, but was surprised when I awoke at 5:30am, cracked open the curtains, and saw snow-covered evergreens and a starry night sky! We were passing through Shasta. At breakfast, we pulled into Klamath Falls where there was still a bit of snow on the ground and ice forming over the nearby lakes and streams. Continuing up toward Bend, we made use of the (slow) wifi in the parlor car while the winter wonderland continued outside.
As I mentioned, the best part of our Amtrak trip was staring out the windows at the changing scenery – from the sunny California coast to the snowy mountains of southern Oregon. Riding in the train itself was like a blast from the past. It’s not for everyone, but if you have time to move a little slower, prefer scenery over battling traffic, and value “public” transit options, then it’s worth a try. Although our ability to work online was limited, we were able to catch up on a lot of reading, writing, reflecting, and relaxing. All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience!
A Few Cons of Train Travel
Although we were absolutely delighted to see the countryside roll by and to experience travel by train, Amtrak certainly showed some room for improvements. If you’re considering a train trip, it’s good to be aware of these things so you don’t have unfair expectations.
For one, the limited funding for Amtrak improvements is evident. Wear and tear in the passageways was noticeable and the electronics in our sleeper cars were definitely from an earlier era. The wifi on the Surfliner route never actually worked for me after I got connected, and only one car on the Starlight had wifi, which was pretty slow. The refrigeration on the first train was also out, so their usual breakfast items were unavailable. On the Starlight route from LA to Portland, the coffeepot for our sleeper car didn’t work and the movie theater room had been out of commission for three weeks, waiting for repairs.
Once, when we pulled into a “fresh air stop” where you could step off the train for about ten minutes, they discovered a cord between cars had been dragging on the ground, sparked, and shredded. Fortunately, they were able to fix it and return power to the train in less than 30 minutes. In the past, we’ve experienced delays on Amtrak since they had to give priority to freight trains, but on this particular trip, we were actually on time or ahead of schedule most of the time.
Finally, if you’re looking for a luxury experience or don’t enjoy interacting with other travelers, an overnight on Amtrak may not be for you. Roomette passengers have a few shared bathrooms and one shared shower room per car. The “full” bedrooms each have their own private “wet” bathrooms, however, which includes a toilet and shower in a little compartment of your room.
For meals, you could arrange to bring your own food, order hot dogs from the cafe, or eat from a limited menu in the Parlour car. But for the best selection of hot meals (which is included with your room reservation), you’re required to eat community style in the dining room. As a couple, I didn’t mind being seated with a stranger or two, but as an introvert, I don’t think I would have been very excited about that if I were traveling solo. So that’s something to consider.
We’re ready to do it again! We’ll share more details in our newsletter, but we’re seriously considering putting more points into our Amtrak account before the January 24 deadline and doing an even longer trip soon – maybe to Chicago or New Orleans…
Have you ever done an overnight trip on Amtrak? What do you consider to be the pros and cons of train travel? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment below.
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