I’ve taken Amtrak many times, but easily my favorite experience has been taking the Coast Starlight myself. The train itself is gorgeous, and we even saw dolphins playing in the water off the California coast.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that LA Union Station is one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, harking back to a time before the automobile took over the world and train travel was important to society.
Yes, it is a beautiful station, but LA Union Station was a bit of an anachronism as it was built well into the mainstream automobile era in 1939. Other Union Stations such as the one in Washington DC (1907) probably represent the pre-automobile world better,
One of Keaton’'s last films.
Enter birthdates on the Amtrak site? Not necessary in my bookings over the past decade, but perhaps I have one already stored in my profile or this only applies to trips/classes with alcohol served?
While there is some ID checking and TSA presence around train travel, especially in the Northeast (the overnight from Boston to DC last week involved passing a dog sniffing for drugs or explosives or something), it’s nothing like air travel and takes seconds, not minutes/hours and invasive searches. For me, that’s part of the charm.
For this particular itinerary, the best experience is near the Summer Solstice, for best probability of daylight by the time you hit Mt. Shasta. Although the trip in winter has its own charms, especially in rural southern Oregon, far from freeways, surrounded by towering snowdrifts.
Be prepared for significant delays; freight still gets priority, and only a single track is available for parts of the journey.
35 hours is a long time, as you say. A somewhat abbreviated version of the essence of the experience is available from the Bay Area to Portland, although the timing is such that you miss dinner unless it is running very late. ProTip: Northbound, disembark in Eugene and enjoy cultural activities there, and continue the next morning via fast tilting Cascades train up to PDX/SEA/Vancouver. Southbound, you can do a similar breakpoint at dawn in Sacramento, and continue down to San Jose via Capitol Corridor. Eastbound on the California Zephyr, I’ve found it sometimes worthwhile to board the Capitol Corridor in Berkeley, change to the Eastbound bus and check luggage in Sacramento, zip over the Sierras to Reno on the connecting bus, and then get a few hours there before boarding in the evening.
Do shop the Amtrak site for last-minute and advance-discount fares and sales, with similar fare algorithms to the airlines; prices tend to go up significantly in the last few weeks/days and only limited quantities of the cheapest seats are offered per train. The best deals are the last-minute specials, although they don’t allow adding a sleeper unless one happens to be available onboard.
AAA members get a 10% discount on the train (not lodging/meals) part of the fare, and a National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) membership can be a good value, offering a similar discount plus “Amtrak Guest Rewards” points, and you help support lobbying to keep Amtrak funded and viable.
I took this ride last year with my husband. It was great! (Though I never really figured out why you’d want to watch a movie on the train, when, you know, you could be train-ing, instead.)
I’m pretty sure there’s still a similar level of service on the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, as well. I took that a couple of years ago. There’s no movie theater and the sleeper car shared the bar/viewing car with the folks in coach (you get a separate bar car on the Coast Starlight). But it’s pretty much the same experience with different scenery. I’d say that the Coast Starlight is the better of the two, though, simply by virtue of hitting more big, great cities along the route, so you can hop off in Portland or San Fran and spend a couple of days and then get back on again. There’s not much for tourists between Seattle and Minneapolis other than the stop at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Shouldn’t be too hard to get ahold of that Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling now that you’re in Seattle. The winery is just across the lake in Woodinville and they sell it everywhere.
I’d be going in the other direction, since I have family in LA. This seems like a lot more fun and less stress than flying.
This reminds me of one of the things I miss most about my time in Britain: being able to travel by train.
My train trips were never this elegant (Strongbow Cider and crisps took the place of wine and cheese, and they weren’t complimentary) but what always made it worth it was the instant friendships with fellow adventurers, as well as the joy of actually being able to see the countryside slip by.
Between “FUCK IT BOOK TRAIN.” and the otter mascot (we always get plushie mascots for trips, but don’t tell anyone) I think my wife and I would love you guys
Something to remember for those with limited mobility is the Coast Starlight is upper decks for all seating other then a sleeper, this is hard for some. And most of the train stations have had significant upgrades in recent years especially King Street Station which is now back to being beautiful instead of the claustrophobic dirty place it used to be. If you travel between any town in Oregon to Seattle often enough while solo train is a good choice, or even if you are visiting Portland from Oregon points on the route, don’t have to deal with parking or the tiresome traffic. I-5 used to be in charge of North South movement on the west coast but train is becoming a good choice.
Ditto. I also found this past Spring that, coming from Inverness, Scotland, no flight got me to Heathrow in time for an already-booked/unchangeable/can’t-miss-for-a-funeral morning departure to the US (all available flights went to other London airports, with projected ground transfer times of 1-2 hours, too tight for advance check-in/security-clearing margins). So leaving the night before on the Caledonian Sleeper train, for a comparable price, got me to London Euston in time to take the subway to Heathrow, fully slept and refreshed.
Bonus points to American for a no-questions-asked reroute on the last leg of an international trip-with-miles to make it to the funeral in DC (rather than return to SFO and then turn right around), from RDU. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but rather sad, that “Funeral at Arlington Cemetery tomorrow” is a phrase with a lot of weight in their customer-service books, needing no explanation.
I also found recently when getting a cohousing neighbor from SF to DC using airline miles (for a successful federal sharing-economy lobbying campaign last week), that rates and times were much much better getting her to Philly and booking hotel plus bus or train to DC. Get past the baked-in assumptions of the booking websites and do a few comparative searches to understand the pricing curves of different travel markets and you can find some incredible savings, when you’ve got the flexibility and agility both in travel dates/routes and how far ahead you need to commit. And it all worked, despite the SEPTA rail strike in Philly cutting out the last ground leg. It was especially educational to be revisiting my core travel assumptions, making arrangements for someone who hadn’t flown in a quarter century (or visited DC in a half century, other than a couple Vietnam war protests), doesn’t drive, and has no phone or credit/ATM cards.
I’ve driven LA-to-Seattle a few times; it’s about exactly 1200 miles, meaning that this train is averaging 33 miles an hour. Sure, plenty of station shops and all that (though this is in itself odd, as even on a scenic largely coastal route there aren’t all that many cities between the two) - but even so it’s rather pitiful. Maybe it makes for an enjoyable cruiseliner-like excursion experience, but it’s hardly a competitive means of reaching your destination.
As far as the statement saying this is the last full service sleeper left on Amtraks system, I’m puzzled.
My wife and I recently travels from Chicago to Washington DC on the Cardinal with excellent accommodations. We plan to go to Austin Tx in the near future, also great sleeper cars provided. Great article by the way.
I think the deal is that this is the last “first class” sleeper service available. You can get sleeper cars on other trains (why have airlines not figured this out?), but they don’t include all of the amenities like the wine service and the fancy lounge car.
Came here to say that. The rest of the world goes about five times faster in their trains. Because freedom!
Amtrak is not designed to be competitive; it is designed to fail, and demonstrate that government is the problem, just like today’s Postal Service. Wait til the same people get the chance to “save” Social Security.
Something I feel is more missing in the US is basic sleeper service. In Spain I took an overnight train a few hundred miles once in a shared 4 person sleeper room. It was great. Get on the train at night, sleep on and off, ready for another day of touristing in the next city in the morning. Cost slightly less than a daytime train ticket and a cheap hotel.
But currently it seems to be seats OR full private cabins, and the only trains that run overnight are the super long range ones and they start out in the morning and then pretty much hit intermediate stations whenever they happen to pass by (so LA to SF trains all seem to leave LA in the morning and arrive in SF at night, maximizing awake time consumed.
What a great post, thank you! How could one not love something called a Superliner Roomette?
Driving from LA to Seattle as fast as possible would be a horrible experience, though.
Taking the train and enjoying the ride seems better to me if one didn’t want to fly.
One thing I love about Amtrak is the names they give the different lines. The California Zephyr, the Empire Builder, the Southwest Chief, the Texas Eagle, the Sunset Limited, the Heartland Flyer, etc…
Compare this to airlines, where you will be on UA223 or DL8722 or something like that.
I love the Coast Starlight! I love passenger rail in general. I HATE that my dim-bulb congressman from Montana (we only have one and he is a DIM bulb) keeps voting against funding Amtrak rather than expanding it. Rail is an energy efficient, fabulous way to travel and with air travel what it is, Amtrak should be encouraged rather than killed.