Amtrak: practical hints on riding the rails on the west coast

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

How comfortable is it travelling long distances on Amtrak? Should you consider it as a way of seeing the US cheaply? What are the practicalities if you just travel at the cheapest rate?

You have no berth to sleep in, no cabin and you make do with just a seat all the way. The gap between you seat and the person(s) in front of you is at least three feet so most of the tallest people will have no problem with stretching out. Secondly the seats are wide but there is no armrest between the adjacent seats. Pull down tables from the back of the seat in front are retractable, so you can pull them closer to you. There is baggage space in each carriage plus an overhead rack and a small pocket in each seat back. Each seat has two buttons. The first enables the seat to recline as in an airline but unlike those, the distance between you and the seat in front should mean that they won’t disturb you.  The second lets a lower leg support pop up so you can lie reasonably flat. In addition there is a foot rest attached to the seat in front.

width between seats

Can you sleep? I lay as flat as I could get and accepted the offer of a pillow from the carriage attendant (who, incidentally, 14 hours into a journey, was still the same one. These people work long shifts. The driver and guard change but the carriage attendant catnaps in the same seats economy passengers have). In all I managed about seven hours sleep with some interruptions despite reaching big cities and the lights they have. Did it make sleep impossible? No, I took a bleary glance and then slept again. Did I feel as though I had slept?  Yes. And, somewhat surprisingly, I was wide awake after the journey and spent a full day sightseeing only going to bed at a usual hour.

seat extended for sleeping?

Washing and changing is important as you can feel the need for a new change of clothes. There are toilets – two to a carriage – but they are twice the size of those on our trains or on a airline, even in first class (at least on the Coastal Starlight). The reason is that there is an area to sit and change clothes, as well as a pull-down table to change babies on. Washing in the basin is manageable but what I would dearly give for a shower. And I’d be prepared to pay to use one. Paper towels are provided for drying, but I would urge you to bring a towel. For one thing it would be softer! Liquid soap is provided.

Travelling for such a length of time means you have to eat so unless you pack sandwiches and drink,what are the catering arrangements? There is a dining car on the Coastal Starlight and those in compartments get free meals provided. For the rest of us, there are two options.  One: you can reserve a seat in the dining car for breakfast, lunch or dinner (the meals are different) and these don’t need to be done in advance. When you carriage attendant comes through she will ask or just grab her attention. Alternatively, there is what we would call a buffet and they call a cafe. Both close during the night but re-open at 6am. The food in the café is inexpensive and costs no more than you would get in an American diner. They are also much tastier than airline food and the prices are better. Tea and coffee for example is just US$2 (say £1.40) and a cheese topped hamburger is US$6.

In the dining car, breakfast can be a freshly cooked omelette (US$10.50) but this comes with a choice of three fruit juices and either tea or coffee (as do all the other meals.) Eggs done anyway you fancy plus cereals, bacon, sausages and pancakes.  I plumped for the omelette with extra bacon, (US$2.50 extra) orange juice and tea. The omelette came with a hunk of cinnamon raison swirl bread, a warm biscuit (aka a scone) or a croissant. And I could have as much orange juice and tea as I could drink. It was freshly cooked as were the fried potatoes (I could have had grits instead), that accompanied it. There are cereals and fresh fruit options. Lunch offers a choice of six dishes and these all come with tea or coffee. The most expensive is the special of the day which comes with a salad a roll and costs US$11.75. Dinner is more expensive, the chef’s steak costing a fraction over US$25 with other dishes from US$15. But each comes with a small (they actually use this word) salad starter and tea/coffee. All-in-all, it’s good value.

Observation car

There is an observation carriage in the middle of the train, where the windows meld into the ceiling. There are swivelling chairs that face outwards, tables in between and a trough where you can put your coffee cup to stop it spilling. It even has its own little booth selling tea and coffee at certain times of the day. My one gripe? There is no window to open to stand a better chance of getting that special photo. You feel you almost need an open-air viewing deck, but that is impractical. Your photos then, depend on the cleanliness of the windows and, to be fair, they were pretty clean. Most of the images in the story, ‘From the surf to the snow’, were taken via the window and using a pretty standard idiot proof camera.

an image through the window

The question is would you get bored doing such a long trip? I, of course, was writing this, so the time went past quickly. Others were reading or napping. But in the observation carriage, passengers denied boredom. Because last night they saw people strolling on beaches or surfing and today they see snow and mountains, the ever-changing landscape is what helps makes the time pass quickly. Some said they wished they could get off and see some of the places we stopped at so they could explore further.Would I change things? Yes It would be better if the train left earlier from Los Angeles so that you could see more of the countryside in daylight hours.

If you travel on Amtrak from one place to another, say Los Angeles to Seattle, providing you hunt you can stop at extra places for no additional fare. I booked the journey as Los Angeles to Eugene and then from Eugene to Portland. The price is still US$100. In days when we all want value for money and a good deal, this looks like one.

And as Simon Walton said last October after another overnight Amtrak trip, “Amtrak is, in my opinion, America’s best kept secret.”



To read Adrian’s Amtrak adventures, be sure to check out CD-Traveller this weekend!

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