Amtrak's Coast Starlight is a budget-friendly way to see the West
Done right, traveling via Amtrak in a private room can be like taking an ocean cruise -- complete with meals and pleasant scenery -- but at a price scarcely more than flying coach.
But you can't approach train travel with a hurry-up mindset: It has to be about the journey. Amtrak stations remain gloriously free from the clutter of metal detectors; train travelers avoid Transportation Security Administration agents and their pat-downs.
"It's so much nicer, so much more relaxed" than flying, said Minnie Heinerich, 78, who traveled from San Diego to Seattle. "You don't have to take your shoes off and half your clothes, too." Gayle and Preston Paull of Sebastopol, Calif., see train travel as an essential element of classic Americana.
"When you fly, you take off and look down at the world, but when you're on a train, you come out and see the world the way it is," Preston Paull said.
In the summer of 2011, we took the Coast Starlight from Oregon to Oakland, Calif., for a friend's wedding. We got a roomette for two, which included all meals, unlimited coffee and juice and access to a shower. Sure, the trip took 17 hours, but we were asleep for a good bit of it. We boarded at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon and breezed into Oakland at 8:15 the next morning.
It was a fun ride with fantastic scenery as the train chugged through the Cascades not far from Crater Lake, venturing around mountain bends without a road in sight. At certain points, the trip revealed a pristine wilderness that makes you feel as if you're traveling where no man has previously trod.
So last summer, it was only logical to take the Coast Starlight along the coast between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. At some points, the train travels right along the ocean's edge. Looking down from the second floor of a bi-level Amtrak Superliner sleeping car, you can see the tide just 50 feet west of the tracks. We watched dogs playing in the shallows and surfers clad in wet suits paddling out to catch a wave. Volunteers from the National Park Service's Trails & Rails program handed out brochures about the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail as they narrated our travels.
"Not many people have this view as an office," said an assistant conductor named Lori as she did paperwork across the table from me as we passed Jalama Beach near Lompoc, Calif.
Good for heavy sleepers
If you can afford to book a trip in an Amtrak sleeping car, by all means, do it. A roomette tends to cost a little more than coach-class airfare, but much less than first-class airfare. Several room configurations are available, including a roomette (sleeps two; shared bathroom and shower in the hall) and bedroom suite (sleeps four to six; includes sink, toilet, shower).
Sleeping on the train is another matter. Heavy sleepers tend to fare better than light sleepers.
"It rocks me to sleep," said Gayle Paull. "I really like it."
There are some pitfalls with booking a room on Amtrak: It's not the most consumer-friendly service in the world. Six months before our trip, I called to request a roomette on the ocean side of the train. The agent on the phone said they couldn't take such a request because "we don't know if the train will be pushing or pulling."
While meals are included for travelers who book a room, the quality of the food can vary. The French toast may be moist on one route and dry on another; the kitchen staff may serve the chocolate-covered cream puff warm on one route and cold on another. Most travelers we talked to rated the meals from fine to fantastic.
Wine and cheese
Booking a room on the Coast Starlight comes with some fun bonuses, including a small bottle of Champagne and an afternoon wine-and-cheese tasting. Northbound on the Coast Starlight, the first day's tasting offers California wines; wines from Oregon and Washington are sampled on day two. The tasting takes place in a comfy lounge-observation car for use by sleeping-car passengers only. It's an extra car -- with a small movie theater on the lower level.
Settling in for a train ride means time for reading and playing games; writing and staring out the window as California's snow-covered Mount Shasta passes by on a bright morning. And it means being prepared for delays as the train slows to a stop or creeps along.
The week of our trip, no Coast Starlight train reached our destination station better than 82 minutes late. For once, we were thrilled to be almost two hours late: It meant getting to attend the second day's wine-and-cheese tasting, which we would have missed if the train had arrived on time.
IF YOU GO
Amtrak's Coast Starlight runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, in both directions, with 28 stops in between, including Santa Barbara; the San Francisco Bay Area; Sacramento; Eugene-Springfield and Portland.
Reserved coach seats for a weekend trip in June start at $141; a roomette (sleeps two) starts at $584. A departure from Los Angeles on Saturday morning will get you to Seattle on Sunday evening, about 30 hours' travel time. For reservations, call 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245) or go to amtrak.com.
There are two Trails & Rails educational programs aboard the Coast Starlight: a program on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail between Santa Barbara and Oakland, and a program on the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park between Seattle and Portland.
A recent online search turned up flights to Los Angeles in mid-June for as low as $373. Flights to Seattle could be found starting at $426.