The Amtrak Coast Starlight

Better By Train: The Coast Starlight

So… I hate flying. In fact, I hate it so much I’ve covered it on the blog before. What I do love, however, is to ride the rails. There’s something unique about long train journeys – the likes of the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian railway conjure romantic images of times gone by. Maybe it’s just harking back to a time when travel was as much a part of the journey as the destination. These days, travel seems to have lost that romance, and instead become a hassle – flights in particular. Well, it’s past time we got back to seeing travelling as part of the fun. This is the first in a series of blog posts where we review some of the most spectacular, fun and comfortable train rides on the planet. Starting with: the Amtrak Coast Starlight.

For those unfamiliar, the Coast Starlight runs nearly the entire length of the west coast of the United States. You can catch a ride from Los Angeles all the way up to Seattle (or back the other way) in a little under 24 hours. What’s more, it takes in some of the most breath-taking scenery you could imagine along the way. So, let’s dive in to a recent trip we took on the Coast Starlight from Emeryville, CA to Portland, OR. We’ve laid out pretty much every part of the trip in a timeline below, so you can know what to expect on this iconic train ride!

10pm

I arrive at the station in Emeryville, ready to board the Coast Starlight at 10pm. When I spoke to the (very helpful) agent at the ticket counter, she told me the train was running 30 minutes late. This wasn’t an ideal start, but I know from past experience that Amtrak trains have a mixed reputation for timeliness. If you’re riding the rails, learning to expect a delay or two is something you have to embrace. I board the train at 10:40pm. If you’re boarding at Emeryville, the Coast Starlight doesn’t show up on the departure board. Instead, the attendant calls for boarding and takes you out to your waiting spot. The Amtrak staff were very helpful and happy to answer any questions. Especially from Coast Starlight noobs like me, who were worried about what to do or where to be 🙂

Once the train arrived, the conductor got off, gave me my seat assignment and pointed me to my car. Once you board the train (which is a giant, double-decker beast) you can stow any large baggage in the bottom deck on the luggage racks. Also on the bottom deck are the restrooms and – in some cars – additional seating. The main seating area, as well as the Observation Car, is upstairs on the top deck of the train. You move between cars via the top deck.

I made my way up the steps and found my seat. I’d thought about booking a sleeper cabin – what Amtrak calls a ‘Roomette’ – but decided that for one night I could rough it in coach class. One thing that wasn’t explicitly clear to me until after I boarded was that it’s good practice to wedge your seating assignment card into the overhead above your seat. This is so that people don’t mistakenly think your seat is fair game for sleeping if you go AWOL.

Once I’d found my seat, I went to brush my teeth in the restroom and was then ready to turn in for the evening. First off, it’s worth noting that the seats you get on the Coast Starlight aren’t anything like the crummy fare you’d find on a plane. These seats are roomy. I mean, like ridiculously roomy. I’m 6 feet tall and I could just about poke the seat in from of me with my toes if I was at full stretch. Not only that, but the seats also recline waaaay back. There’s also both a leg and foot rest included with every seat, allowing you to be fairly horizontal when in sleep mode.

Amtrak Coast Starlight seat, with the foot rest down
Amtrak Coast Starlight seat, with the foot rest down

I didn’t have room for many creature comforts with me on this trip. I’d seen people take full size pillows from home with them, but my bag was already pretty full. For those unprepared, Amtrak do offer passenger comfort kits for sale, both at the station and on the train. They include a blanket, inflatable pillow, ear plugs and a sleep mask, for a mere $10. In the end, I used my trusty Aeros Traveller Pillow, which had served me well on similar journeys. I puffed it up, used my jacket as a blanket and tried to get some sleep.

Now, it’s worth noting that getting to sleep on a long train journey can be difficult  – especially in coach class. The train is (understandably) never fully dark, although the lighting gets very dim in the small hours. There’s also the stops along the way, where people will be getting on and off with varying levels of noise throughout the night. Add to that the fact that, well – it’s a a train – and it’s safe to say you’re not going to get the best night’s sleep of your life. For me, that’s no biggie. In fact, it’s part of the charm. And even having said that, I did get a good 5-6 hours sleep after a bit of initial tossing and turning. Some comfy pants, the right pillow, and maybe a sedative can make all the difference.

6am

I wake up, bleary-eyed and with that brief feeling of “Where the hell am I?” Looking out of my window, I suddenly remembered not just where I was and where I was going, but why I wanted to get there by train. I was staring out at the mountains of what I assumed at first was Oregon – but later learned was in fact Northern California. It’s safe to say that waking up to that sight is unlike anything I’ve ever felt on a journey before. Even as tired as I was, I couldn’t wait to get up, grab some breakfast and go get a better look from the Observation Car. I brushed my teeth, and headed on out.

This was my view in the morning, making my trip on the Coast Starlight already worth it!
This was my view in the morning, making my trip on the Coast Starlight already worth it!

7am

Breakfast time! I headed to the Observation Car, which is roughly in the middle of the train. The Observation Car is the social hub of the Coast Starlight. It’s the place where people gather to look out of the giant windows, talk, eat, and make new friends. It’s also where you need to be to get to the train cafe, which is on the lower deck of the car.

I headed on down and got myself a yogurt and some tea to start the day. I was expecting the food from the cafe to be expensive, but – while it wasn’t cheap – it could have been worse. It cost me just $4 for what turned out to be quite a filling, satisfying breakfast. Taking my food back upstairs to the Observation Car, I ate at one of the diner-style tables.  There were tables in the lower deck next to the cafe car, but I wanted that view with my breakfast!

The Observation Car was more or less deserted when I grabbed my breakfast
The Observation Car was more or less deserted when I grabbed my breakfast

I sat and ate while views of Mount Shasta passed by. It probably took me about an hour to eat, as I was constantly getting up to take pictures! This was exactly why I had come by train. It’s what you don’t get from flying. The Observation car was fairly empty at that time of the morning, but people were gradually starting to stir. As the morning went on, more and more people made their way in.

One thing that struck me was just how friendly everyone was. It sounds corny, but there was a real sense of togetherness there. Something about that shared and unique experience. I got talking to a German backpacker who told me about her travels in the US, and a lovely couple from Montana who ride the rails pretty much full time. They all said how much they love the train, and wouldn’t travel any other way. Delays, sub-optimal sleep and all.

The Observation Car starts to fill up during the day. Met some lovely people in here!
The Observation Car starts to fill up during the day. I met some lovely people in here!

10:30am

Mid-morning, we made what Amtrak refer to as a ‘break stop’. Although the Coast Starlight pulls in at a lot of places on its route, there are a few which allow you to actually get off the train and stretch your legs for a bit. After ten minutes of basking in some sun and talking to fellow passengers, it was back on board for more window-gazing

12pm

Lunch time! I had the option of going to the full-service dining car, but I decided against it. Sleeper car passengers get all of their meals in the dining car included free of charge, whereas coach passengers have to pay up front. Trying to save a little green, I headed back to the cafe car to see what was on offer there. The answer: a surprising amount! Pizza, hot dogs, hot and cold sandwiches and a whole bunch of snacks and cakes. It wasn’t the most healthful food, and wasn’t going to win any Michelin stars, but there was plenty to keep hunger at bay for a few more hours. I settled on a burger for $7, and went back to the observation car to chow down.

1pm

We’re creeping ever closer to Portland, and I have that feeling that I’ve forgotten something. Like the tonne of work emails and admin I was going to catch up on during this trip! Oops. I grudgingly say goodbye to the beautiful landscape and hide it behind my laptop. A few hours pass by, and I get plenty done, but not enough. There’s no WiFi for coach passengers (a perk reserved for sleeper cars) so I’m using mobile data. It’s a little inconvenient, but this just means that I focus on only the most essential tasks. Gotta look on the bright side 😀 Luckily, juice is not a problem as there are power outlets just about everywhere on the Coast Starlight.

3:30pm

The train driver announces that we’ve made up most of the 30 minutes that we were running late. As a result, we’ll be pulling into Portland soon  – a mere 10 minutes behind schedule. Is that it!? It’s over already!? Okay, I was actually ready to get off the train at that point, but I certainly wouldn’t have objected to staying longer. For my roughly 17 hours on board I met some amazing people, looked out on spectacular vistas, and even managed to squeeze in some productivity. All that in one journey, which also served as my accommodation for a night. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Ready to book your passage on the Coast Starlight!?

Well folks, I hope you’ve enjoyed this review of the Amtrak Coast Starlight. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable, beautiful way to travel. Next time you need to get up or down the west coast, why not go by train? You won’t regret it! If you’re interested in learning more about simplified, low-impact living, why not check out the rest of our blog for more articles like this. And don’t forget you can find us on Facebook too. Until next time, folks!

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