Coast Starlight – Scenic Train Travel from LA to Vancouver
Tired of the hassles of flying? Try traveling the old-fashioned way, via train. Recently, after leaving Mexico for California, Oregon, and Vancouver, I looked into taking a train up the western coast of the US. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight run was affordable, and from what I’d read, provided great views. Following is a glimpse of life on a train. There are pros and cons to this mode of travel, at least on this Amtrak experience, and I’ll share both sides.
One nice thing about train travel is that getting on is so much quicker and easier than on flights – no X-ray scanners for your luggage or you (and you can take a lot more luggage for no extra cost, if you’d like). No taking off your shoes or taking out your laptop or liquids – just show your ticket and hop on board.
There are several different classes – regular, business, and sleeper cars. After being advised by a friend, I switched my ticket ahead of time from regular to business class for not much more money, and there was a very big difference, especially in seat size and leg room, not to mention that it’s quieter, as most families and younger partying travelers don’t tend to opt for business class. In business class you get to choose your seat once you arrive in the car, but get there early if you want one on the more scenic, ocean-view side. The sleeper option was quite a leap, price-wise, so I didn’t choose it, though after suffering through a freezing cold night with no blankets available, that may have been a mistake.
The ride was quite comfortable, with room to put your feet up, and it’s much easier to move around and stretch your legs on a train than on a plane. There are outlets to recharge your electronics, and a tray to work or dine on. The food in the dining car was better than expected, though I was disappointed that they no longer offered the wine tasting that was still advertised on their website (the host told me they could no longer afford the parlor car. I guess maybe they can’t afford heat either!) But you could still order wine (or other beverages and food) at your seat, in the bar, or the dining car.
The best views of the ride, in my opinion, were a little north of Los Angeles (where I’d boarded), up around Santa Barbara. I saw sweeping ocean vistas, plenty of palm trees, and the occasional pier.
There were roads that seemed to go nowhere…
…and landscapes in all different colors!
The scenery varies from farm fields to prisons to oil fields…
…with stops at several stations, and a stunning sunset at the end of the day.
In the morning, I awoke to completely different scenery and temperatures in Oregon…
If you’re tired of checking out the views from your seat, you can go hang out in the observation car, with huge windows all around, providing even greater vistas. It’s a great place to socialize and meet your fellow passengers. The dining car is a good social spot too, especially if you’re traveling solo, as they seat you at shared group tables.
You’re allowed to hop on and hop off for days at different locations if you book accordingly ahead of time, and my goal was to visit friends in Oregon on my way to Vancouver. This allowed for some fun times hiking to see Oregon’s famous waterfalls and indulge in a little wine tasting. (Note: the 2 photos below are from hikes on my layover stays, not views from the train – a more extensive post on Oregon will follow).
After a few fun days with friends near Ashland and Roseburg, I boarded the next leg in Eugene for Vancouver. Some more fine views streamed by my window, including northern Oregon and Washington, past Puget Sound as we rumbled into Seattle.
Downsides of this train trip, as mentioned, were freezing overnight – the man across the aisle from me must have done this before, as he brought along a full-sized bed blanket. The food was pretty good, but on the pricy side, though if you want, you can bring your own gourmet picnic. Since I got off in Oregon for several days, and then back on, I was on 2 different trains, and the second one had windows that could have used a good cleaning (especially as the Coast Starlight is marketed as one of the routes with the best views).
My only other complaints are that it’s rumored to be late fairly often, and although we arrived into Seattle on time, there was a broken engine ahead of us, and we sat waiting to disembark for about an hour and a half. Fortunately, my ongoing transportation from Seattle to Vancouver was guaranteed. The intercom system wasn’t working well, so none of us in the business class car could hear the delay-updates. And the “train” that was listed in my email, to take me from Seattle to Vancouver turned out to be a bus! “Oh, yes, the listing always says train, even when it’s a bus,” I was told when I enquired. A bit of false advertising, from my viewpoint, but it was nighttime by then, traveling from 9pm to midnight, and the Canadian bus was clean and in good condition, so the 3 hour ride from Seattle to Vancouver was fine.
A heads up for those crossing the Canadian border – it’s gotten a little more challenging than I remember from years ago when I used to drive or take the train from Michigan to Toronto. I withstood several minutes of questioning from a rather stern young fellow, who asked me everything from where I’d been and why I was coming to Canada, to why I was staying so long (3 weeks), how I was affording it, if I was retired, what kind of work I’d done, and did I have an outbound ticket. When I mentioned I was waiting to book my flight to Michigan, as I needed to arrive for the birth of my first grandchild in a few weeks, and wanted my schedule to be flexible in case she came early, he seemed convinced I wasn’t going to try to overstay and let me through. Whew!
So that’s the Coast Starlight in a nutshell. Would I do it again or recommend it – yes, but with some reservations. Flying is a whole lot faster, so if your time is limited, you might skip the train. If you have a thing for rail travel, by all means try it out – the woman behind me said she rides trains all over the world and loves them, even belongs to a train travelers club. Things I’d do differently – book the sleeper car for overnight, or else bring much warmer clothes (including a hat!) and/or a blanket , and carry on some of my own treats for at least part of the trip (though it was fun eating dinner in the dining car as I met some interesting people).
A few other pointers – go to the Amtrak website to see if you’re eligible for any of their discounted fares. These include child, student, and senior rates, weekly specials, and more. Also, when you purchase your ticket can determine the rate (how far ahead, and which day of the week). Sign up for notifications – I was notified that my scheduled Coast Starlight train was being re-routed to a non-coastal track due to some repairs. Thankfully, it was early enough that I was able, at no cost, to change the date so I could travel the scenic route. Without their notification, I would have been very disappointed to board a train without a coast view, my main reason for train vs plane.
If you do have questions for Amtrak, I recommend calling, not emailing them. My email wasn’t answered for weeks, but when I finally called, my questions were answered right away.
Sometimes it’s fun to try something different, and it’s very different riding the rails, taking a train vs flying, for a change of pace.