Amtrak Coast Starlight – San Francisco ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ to Los Angeles ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ 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 cafรฉ, 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 Cafรฉ 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 โ€“ 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 Cafรฉ 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 โ€“ 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 โ€“ 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 Cafรฉ 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 Cafรฉ 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 Cafรฉ Car. I hope to review the Traditional Dining menu in the future.

In the Cafรฉ 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 โ€“ 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 โ€œoopsโ€.

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 foodโ€.

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. Itโ€™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: โ€œplease, have a good look around, the young man is in tearsโ€. I proceeded back upstairs and became the subject of the trip. People said โ€œwas it you?โ€, โ€œwere you really in tears?โ€, โ€œdid you find them?โ€. I didnโ€™t, but I admired the Cafe Car Ladyโ€™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 โ€“ 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 โ€“ 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.

Amtrak Capitol Limited – Washington D.C. ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ to Chicago ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ by sleeper train – and how I saved on the Superliner Roomette fare

Excited to explore a new continent by train I booked a ticket on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, the most direct train that connects the two major cities in the United States of America, Washington D.C. and Chicago. The journey takes seventeen hours and forty minutes and runs overnight, usually departing Washington Union Station at 16:05 and arriving in Chicago Union Station for 08:45 the following morning. The train departs every day in each direction and travels via the Alleghany Mountains.

A long distance journey on Amtrak like this really puts into perspective how vast the area of the United States is. Like many long distance train trips here, this isn’t a fast journey with an average speed of 93 miles per hour. This would be enough put most travellers off booking, however, once you’re onboard watching the world go by and making friends in the dining car, the speed becomes unimportant. You see more of where you travel and experience a feeling of relaxation to rival any other mode of transport.

Amtrak offers a range of accommodation options on the Capitol Limited, three types in fact. This varies from a reclining seat to a family bedroom. Reclining seats are often very good value on Amtrak, especially on overnight trains, but for those wanting to travel in more comfort, with a private compartment and a place to lie down, Amtrak will charge you handsomely for it. For this journey I found a way to have the best of both worlds – a reasonable price and the same accommodation that would allow me to get a restful sleep, as I will explain.

Washington Union Station

My journey started at the grand Washington Union Station, built originally in 1907. Today it is a true hub station housing not just Amtrak long distance services but also connections with the metro, buses and suburban rail connections. Amtrak services from here include the Capitol Corridor served by America’s fastest train, the Acela Express, that whisks you away up to Boston in seven hours, several times a day.

It is always recommended to turn up in good time for an Amtrak train, official guidance is thirty minutes prior to departure. While you can ‘turn up and go’ for most trains in Europe, Amtrak does have a more formal boarding procedure. Your train is called on the main concourse and you are filed onto the train through a departure gate. It’s not the best passenger experience, but one of many examples where Amtrak models itself as an airline and adopts elements of it that it really doesn’t need to.

One of the better policies adopted from the airline industry is the optional baggage check-in facility, where you drop your bag off before boarding the train. The bag is stored in a dedicated baggage car on the train and then turns up at the Baggage Reclaim at your destination. It was my intention to check-in a suitcase for this trip, however, I fell foul to not checking the dedicated page on the Amtrak website. In the general guidance at the time there was only mention of turning up thirty minutes prior to departure. I soon learned that the deadline for baggage check-in was actually forty-five minutes before travel, so having missed the deadline I would need to take my case with me onto the train.

Onboard the Capitol Limited

Seated Accommodation

There is one type of seated accommodation on the Capitol Limited and that is Coach Class arranged in a 2+2 configuration on both the upper and lower decks of the car. This features a comfortable seat that reclines and one of the best seats for legroom on the rails in the world.

Amtrak doesn’t allow you to reserve a specific seat in advance in Coach Class on the Capitol Limited. On the platform there is a queue for boarding. In the queue, you are handed a coloured cardboard slip by the car attendant that contains your seat number. This is nothing fancy though – this seat number is scribbled on in marker pen and the slip has been torn from larger piece of cardboard. This specific seat becomes your base for the rest of the journey and you are expected to remain there, even if you don’t like your seat neighbour.

The attendant groups customers going to the same destination together and the staff are very clear that there may be seats free elsewhere on the train, but you must remain in your specified seat. There is method in the madness here, this is a train not a plane and there will be people, and groups of people, getting on and off the train as the train stops at stations through the night. This method at least allows them to sit together.

There are often very good value fares for travel in Coach Class, especially on these overnight trips. For many (and myself), however, sleeping in any seat would be a challenge and this one would be no exception.

Amtrak is in the process of refurbishing these coaches, so you may have a mixture of old, dark blue fabric seating, and the new, light grey leather seating for your journey.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

The cheapest of the sleeping car type accommodation is the Superliner Roomette (pictured below). The size of these are compact, but it can accommodate up to two people in each one. On arrival the room is set-up in daytime mode, which is two comfortable seats facing each other. These two seats convert to form a single bed for the night for one person and there is an upper bunk that folds down to accommodate the second person. Bedding is provided and the room set-up for sleeping by the car attendant at a time of your choosing. Shared toilets are available with one on the upper floor and more downstairs along with shared showers (including towels and soap), more roomettes and an accessible bedroom. The facilities were kept clean by the attendant throughout the journey.

The third type of accommodation on the Capitol Limited is the Family Bedroom, which are double the size of a Superliner Roomette. These rooms also have en-suite bathrooms with showers and can sleep up to four passengers – up to two people accommodated on a lower bunk and up to two on an upper bunk. I wasn’t able to get a picture of this class unfortunately but hope to review this in the future.

Reservations for any of these accommodations also come with complimentary coffee in the morning at the end of the car as well as complimentary lounge access at the departure and arrival stations.

Dining and Cafรฉ Car

There is catering available to all customers onboard the train irrespective of the class you’re travelling in. The difference is which part of the Dining and Cafรฉ Car you are able to sit in and whether your meals are complimentary or not. One half of the car is designated for sleeping car passengers who receive complimentary meals included with their tickets. The second half is empty tables where you queue up, order from the host and pay and take your food to your table, or your seat if you’d prefer.

Complimentary meals are available to all sleeping car passengers. Amtrak recently launched a controversial “Flexible Dining” menu on some eastern routes allowing sleeping car passengers to eat when they please. This comes with a downside, however, in that they are microwaved meals served on a plastic tray. Amtrak’s longer train routes in the western part of the country do retain the “Traditional Dining” menu which I hope to sample in the future. Pictured below is the substantial complimentary evening meal and breakfast for sleeping car passengers on the Capitol Limited. I was shocked when I asked for milk to go with my coffee that I was given a half pint.

Scenery

The Capitol Limited route does have some very scenic moments as the route travels via the Allegheny Mountains. A particular highlight was going through Harper’s Ferry in the evening as the sun was setting. In the morning, the city can be seen in the distance with its tall buildings and riding alongside Lake Michigan is a treat.

What was my experience and how did I save $100 on the sleeping car fare?

Originally I was all set to travel in Coach Class for the trip on the Capitol Limited – the price for the full journey was a bargain $84.00. At the time of booking, 11 months in advance, the Superliner Roomette fare was $450.00 – a huge differential between the two classes.

Amtrak does have a “Bid-Up” programme where you can bid for an upgrade from your booked accommodation. I went for a fair bid of $250, however, I learned the night before travel that I was unsuccessful and presumably ‘out-bid’ by another traveller.

Following this news and me not being too keen on the reclining seat for the night time part of the journey, I decided to take another look at the Amtrak app to see what fares were being offered. The same fare was available for the full journey for the Superliner Roomette. I did some more searching and much to my delight I found the same accommodation covering the night part of the journey from Cumberland to Chicago for only $266.00.

My plan was to spend the first three hours of the trip in the Coach Class accommodation and then at 19:24, when the train would arrive at Cumberland station, I would move through to the Superliner Roomette. This would still allow me to benefit from the complimentary meal in the Dining Car available to all sleeping car passengers, would give me a bed for the night, breakfast in the morning and lounge access at Chicago Union Station – not a bad deal.

I sent a message to Amtrak on Twitter to confirm that my plan would work out ok before booking. As I wasn’t able to check-in my bag with my original ticket from Washington D.C. to Chicago, I decided to ask my roomette attendant before boarding if I could leave my suitcase in the sleeping car so I wouldn’t need to walk through the train with my suitcase before arriving at Cumberland. This was no problem at all.

I checked-in to the Coach Class accommodation with my original ticket. As the train reached Cumberland I moved through to the Dining Car where I chatted to the host and showed him my Superliner Roomette reservation from Cumberland and he was happy to serve me just before my station. My Superliner Roomette attendant came through to the Dining Car and asked what time Iโ€™d like my bed to be made up (any time before 22:00) so I opted for 21:30.

So all-in-all booking Coach Class for the day part of the journey and the Superliner Roomette for the evening part of the journey worked a treat for me on the Capitol Limited. I could’ve saved an extra $30 if I’d booked only Coach Class from Washington D.C. to Cumberland instead of Chicago. Naturally all prices are demand managed on Amtrak and it won’t always be cheaper to split accommodation mid-way through the journey, even on the Capitol Limited. But it’s always worth checking and I was very glad to have the roomette for the night.

Chicago Union Station & Metropolitan Lounge

The arrival into Chicago Union Station isn’t the most welcoming the same as the platform area at Washington Union Station on departure the day before. The platforms are underground and are poorly lit. This could be so as you spend as little time down there, but it does feel like an area you shouldn’t be in.

Once you’re on the concourse of the station, the environment is much nicer with a grand entrance hall. Chicago Union Station is the main hub of Amtrak and it’s certainly exciting seeing some of the great long distance trains being listed on the departure boards here including the California Zephyr, Empire Builder and South West Chief.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, it is certainly a competitive way to travel between Washington D.C. and Chicago being time effective travelling through the night and a journey experience in its own right – you don’t get views like that on an aeroplane that’s for sure. The Coach Class seat was surprisingly comfortable and the privacy and comfort of the Superliner Roomette bed was very welcome when it came to going to sleep. The food onboard wasn’t much to write home about in terms of presentation, but I did find it tasty.

Fares

Journey LegCoach ClassSuperliner Roomette
Washington D.C. to Chicagofrom $84.00from $450.00
Washington D.C. to Cumberlandfrom $54.00
Cumberland to Chicagofrom $265.00

This article was first published in January 2023.