Milan 🇮🇹 to Geneva 🇨🇭 by tilting EuroCity train – scenic trip through the Alps!

Connecting Italy with Switzerland are the high-speed EuroCity services run jointly by the state-owned railway companies of the respective countries, Trenitalia and SBB CFF FFS. The central station in Milan is served with direct trains to Zürich, Basel and Geneva departing regularly throughout the day and served by the pointy-nosed “Astoro” pendolino trains that tilt on corners to reduce journey times – at least that was the case before the trains on the Milan to Zürich route were being replaced by newer “Giruno” trains.

Milan to Geneva retains its pointy-nosed train for now, more technically called the ETR610 in Italy and the RABe503 in Switzerland, and completes the journey in four hours.

Rather than one train with a mix of carriages owned by Trenitalia and SBB combined, like other EuroCity services in Europe, the set-up here is different – the Swiss and Italian operators both have their own identical train sets. So, whether you get a Swiss one or an Italian one for your journey will most likely be a surprise for the day.

I booked a ticket in First Class for a trip on the full route from Milano Centrale to Geneva armed with music and a good book to settle in for a relaxing ride with some nice scenery on offer throughout the journey – as promised from the map below where we’ll be passing two lakes and several mountains in the Alps.

Departure from Milano Centrale

A destination in its own right is the cathedral-like station of Milano Centrale, home to a various high-speed, sleeper trains and local services to destinations within Italy and abroad. On offer is a vast array of eateries, a ticket office, left luggage facilities and even a supermarket.

Today for my trip to Geneva, the train would be a silver Trenitalia Astoro, with the white and red SBB Astoro sitting in the platform opposite bound for Basel. The two trains can be seen together in the photo.

Onboard the EuroCity

These modern EuroCity Astoro trains offer two types of accommodation onboard, First Class and Second Class, as well as a Dining Car. Seat reservations are a must for international journeys to/from Italy and come with the ticket on purchase which can be selected on the Trenitalia app and website.

First Class Accommodation

First Class accommodation on these trains is exclusively in an open saloon with seats arranged in a 2+1 configuration. There is a variety of solo, tables for two and tables for four on offer with comfortable seats that recline. There is also ample legroom to make for a relaxing journey.

On the Trenitalia Astoro, the seats are upholstered with a smart brown leather while on the SBB Astoro, the same type of seats are upholstered in a stylish purple and blue cloth moquette. Both versions are pictured below.

First Class doesn’t come with any additional perks such as lounge access or food and drink delivered to your seat seen on some other European trains, so you’re paying extra for more elbow and legroom and quieter ambiance.

Second Class Accommodation

As per First Class, Second Class seats are also exclusively in an open saloon. Seating is less spacious, however, in a 2+2 configuration in a mix of airline style seating and tables for four – perfectly comfortable enough. The seats pictured below are the SBB Astoro, while the Trenitalia Astoro have the same seats in a brown moquette.

Dining Car

On both versions of the Astoro, trains have a Dining Car situated in the centre of the train between Second Class and First Class.

The two versions are identical, other than the menu on offer and the colour of the seating – the Trenitalia Astoro has yellow seats and the SBB Astoro has black seats. Both operators offer hot and cold drinks and cold food and snacks. Arguably, the best Dining Car is on the SBB Astoro where hot meals are also available and meals are served on china plates and drinks in glasses as opposed to paper cups.

Scenery

The scenery on this journey isn’t a quite as spectacular as some other alpine routes in Switzerland, but for a mainline railway it was nice, passing Lake Maggiore in Italy and Lake Geneva towards the end of the trip and scenery of the Alps, towns and vineyards in between. Both sides of the train had their highlights, however, overall, sitting on the right hand side of the train was the best for the views. I filmed a lot of the scenery on offer on the trip and below is a video showcasing this on YouTube.

Border Controls

Italy and Switzerland are both in the Schengen Area, however, Switzerland is not in the European Union and Italy is. Therefore, at the border station of Domodossola, Swiss border guards joined us on the train and travelled as far as Brig to perform customs checks. They asked me if I had any goods to declare and how much cash I had with me, and had a glance of my passport photo page. Quite content with me entering they thanked me and wished me a good day and moved on.

There was also a change of train crew at Domodossola from an Italian to a Swiss crew and ticket checks were repeated as a result. It was announced that the train was 27 minutes late arriving into Brig due to “an accident in another country”, a reason that wasn’t provided before crossing the border so remained a mystery for the remainder of the journey what the cause of the delay was.

Conclusion

The trip on the Trenitalia Astoro was very comfortable with nice scenery on offer on this route. The train was surprisingly quiet, quite the contrary to the route from Milan to Zürich that I’ve taken in the past and has been busy.

First Class on the Trenitalia Astoro had comfortable seats and a nice onboard ambiance, however, I would’ve probably have been just as happy travelling in Second Class on this train.

Booking and Fares

The fares on this route are dynamically priced according to demand, although I didn’t find the price escalated too much from booking until the week before departure, probably because this particular train had a low demand. The trip can be booked via the Trenitalia or the SBB websites and apps. I recommend using the former with a better interface and the option to select a seat from the seat map.

Journey LegFirst ClassSecond Class
Milan to Genevafrom 34,00€from 75,00€

This article was first published in February 2023.

Amtrak Coast Starlight – San Francisco 🇺🇸 to Los Angeles 🇺🇸 by train – the most scenic route in the US?

Across the world, the Coast Starlight will ring a bell with many and evoke scenes of travelling long distance on the rails in America. After-all, the route has existed in its current form since 1974, when it was formed from an amalgamation of two former Southern Pacific routes: the Coast Daylight and the Starlight.

The full route of the modern day Coast Starlight begins in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, running down the West Coast of America to Los Angeles in Southern California, making calls in the cities of Portland, Sacaramento, Emeryville and Santa Barbara. The full duration of the train trip is in excess of thirty-five hours for the impressive 1,377 mile journey.

For me, I opted to take it for the southern daytime part of the journey, only travelling from Emeryville to Los Angeles, taking in excess of twelve hours – still an all-day commitment. However, is this route and the Amtrak experience really what it lives up to be, and is it worth taking the Coast Starlight over flying? Let’s find out, as I bought a ticket for Amtrak’s cheapest accommodation option in Coach Class.

Departure from Emeryville

As there isn’t an Amtrak railway connection from San Francisco, the first part of the journey is by coach to Emeryville station, where the Coast Starlight would take us directly to the City of Angels. When booking with Amtrak it is possible to book a through journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which includes both the leg on the Amtrak Thruway Bus to Emeryville and the train to Los Angeles in one go.

The bus departed San Francisco promptly at an early 06:55 in the morning, arriving at Emeryville station soon after at 07:14. This arrived in plenty of time to wait for the train in Emeryville, which is scheduled to depart at 08:39.

Part of the reason for the early departure of the bus is that you can take advantage of the complimentary baggage check-in on the train. This is only possible up to forty-five minutes prior to the train’s departure time and must be done at the railway station (Emeryville in this case). It’s not the end of the world if you do miss the baggage check-in time as you can take the bag onto the train with you – as I found out on my trip on the Capitol Limited.

Facilities were limited at Emeryville station, though there was a waiting room with comfortable chairs, vending machines, an ATM, a café, which opened at 08:00, and toilet facilities.

The platform was announced shortly before departure and the train rolled in, albeit on a different platform than what was announced. This led to a mass sprawl of passengers, once the penny dropped that the train arriving was indeed the Coast Starlight. Having located the Coach Class car indicated on the side by the entrance, our car attendant appeared at the door. There was some confusion and giggling amongst passengers as the door was not on the platform, but the car attendant soon whisked out a yellow step to solve the problem.

Onboard the Coast Starlight

Coach Class Accommodation

Coach Class on the Coast Starlight entitled me to my own reserved reclining seat for the duration of the journey, in addition to access to the Sightseer Lounge and the Café Car on the train – more details of these areas below. This is more than enough to get by for the duration of the journey, especially if you’re travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which is exclusively during the daytime. For those joining at the train’s origin in Seattle, this may be a different story, depending on preferences, as the train proceeds to travel through the night before its arrival into Emeryville.

Amtrak provides seat reservations on this route; however, unusually for the train provider world, you don’t find out what your specific seat is until the train has arrived into the platform. The specific seat number is scribbled down on a coloured piece of cardboard and handed to you by the car attendant. The same as my trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, customers are grouped together according to their destination.

By chance I was handed seat 61, which was an honour, as it would be for all of those who follow The Man in Seat 61 and his helpful DIY train travel website. I headed upstairs to locate my seat, which turned out to be a good one, of course, with a window view.

The seating in Coach Class is in a 2+2 configuration, so, if you’re a solo traveller, as I was on this trip, you’ll be seated next to another passenger going to the same destination. My seat-mate had disappeared soon after departure before we had a chance to say hello, which I tried not to take personally. As it happened, I only spent about 10% of the journey seated in Coach Class accommodation as soon after departure I decided to take a walk down the train and just like my seat-mate, we both had the same idea…

Sightseer Lounge

The Coast Starlight is one of the selected Amtrak routes to have a Sightseer Lounge – a good indication of what sights are on offer on the trip. This car is available for all customers and is the place to enjoy the scenery on offer with its panoramic windows. It’s also one of the best places to meet fellow passengers and has handy nearby access to the Café on the lower deck of the same car. The car has a variety of seating configurations, including seats facing the windows on each side as well as tables for four – perfect for admiring the views on offer on this trip.

This is where I ended up spending the remainder of the journey (90% of it) and sat on the right hand side in the direction of travel for the best scenery. This car became the hub of activity on the train; every so often new people would drop by to sit and chat, people from all walks of life, residing in all types of accommodation on the train – from a retired couple returning from a cruise in Alaska about to head to dinner to a local gentleman who seemed to know every landmark we were passing. The Sightseer Lounge is available to everyone after all and it was a great place to be.

Business Class Accommodation

There is a second type of seated accommodation on the Coast Starlight: Business Class. I was very glad that I hadn’t chosen to upgrade my Coach Class ticket to this class since the car was identical to Coach Class, other than a rather dull brown leather upholstery on the seats. There is very little to differentiate between the two classes in terms of service offering too, with the only perk being free bottled water provided at a station in the centre of the car. The Business Class car was only about 50% occupied during the trip, unlike Coach Class, which was fully booked; so that could be a hidden benefit.

Dining Car and Café Car

A trip on the Coast Starlight is a long one, so being able to purchase food and drink throughout the journey is important. Situated downstairs in the Sightseer Lounge is the Café Car, which was open, for most of the trip, for all passengers and closed only for staff breaks and to cash up at the end of the journey. On offer were some hot selections, sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Passengers with sleeping car tickets (for Superliner Roomettes and Bedrooms) have their meals included in the cost of the ticket and provided in the Dining Car on the train. This serves Amtrak’s Traditional Dining menu. However, since I was travelling in Coach Class, I only had access to the Café Car. I hope to review the Traditional Dining menu in the future.

In the Café Car I developed a love-hate relationship with the characterful lady serving in there. My first encounter of the trip with her was when she came upstairs to the Sightseer Lounge. She yelled down the carriage instructing us to use the trash boxes for rubbish – we were being too messy and leaving rubbish lying around! She then proceeded to splash me with a half cup of coffee she was clearing away after her rant with no apology, just an “oops”.

I allowed her some time to cool down and then walked downstairs to order something to eat. She thanked me for my order, wondered where I got my crisp $10.00 notes from and said that I talk funny (yes I have a north-east England accent that many Americans struggled to understand). She wished me an enjoyable trip and jokingly told me to “don’t get too fat on American food”.

Later on, there was a casualty on the trip (not a human one thankfully) but I did manage to lose my wireless headphones case. In the hope of locating it, I went down to my friend to see if anyone had handed it in. It’s not there, so the same lady told me it’s highly unusual for anyone to steal anything, and so she happily put an announcement out to the train for me: “please, have a good look around, the young man is in tears”. I proceeded back upstairs and became the subject of the trip. People said “was it you?”, “were you really in tears?”, “did you find them?”. I didn’t, but I admired the Cafe Car Lady’s sense of humour.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

As the Coast Starlight runs overnight in the northern part of the route, there is a choice of sleeping car accommodation which is also available for the day part of the journey, these are Superliner Roomettes and Bedrooms. Photographs of the same Superliner Roomettes can be found in my Amtrak Capitol Limited post.

Scenery

Quite contrary to the expectations, for the first seven hours of the journey there is no coastline visible from the train at all. But this isn’t all bad as the views are sublime of the passing hills and countryside. Think of a crop and it’s likely to be there right next to the railway line as the train will pass fields of lettuces, grapes, avocados, onions and strawberries – to name a few. Not only that, but you’ll pass through what are the garlic and artichoke capitals of the world at Gilroy and Castroville and you can catch a whiff of garlic as you pass Gilroy.

At San Luis Obispo, the southbound Coast Starlight met its northbound counterpart and soon after the train would join the coast. The timing of the trip was perfect for seeing the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Arrival in Los Angeles

After twelve hours and thirty two minutes the Coast Starlight arrived into Los Angeles on time at 21:11. As we approached, there was an amusing announcement to ask “can all staff please ensure they take their items out of the fridge”. Baggage was soon available after arrival from the Baggage Reclaim section of the station.

Conclusion

I had a great time on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. The trip offered a highly memorable experience with great views throughout – and surprisingly only coastal views towards the end of the trip. There was a friendly ambiance onboard with passengers from all walks of life to pass the time with. For me, purchasing a Coach Class ticket for this trip was more than enough and I was happy that I chose not to upgrade to Business Class.

Booking and Fares

Booking the Coast Starlight isn’t a complicated affair as fares are available online at Amtrak.com.

Journey LegCoach ClassBusiness ClassSuperliner RoometteBedroom
San Francisco to Los Angeles (including Amtrak Thruway Coach)from $54.00from
$94.00
from
$257.00
from $378.00

This article was first published in January 2023.