I rode Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The journey took around 12 hours.
It was my first long-haul train trip, and I wish I would’ve booked business class instead of coach.
I enjoyed seeing more of my home state but ultimately decided to fly home rather than train.
A random TikTok video influenced me into boarding the Amtrak Coast Starlight, a famous passenger train that runs between Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington.
I’d never taken a long-distance train before, but the Coast Starlight’s sweeping views were calling my name.
I didn’t want to jump straight into the full 35-hour journey, so I took baby steps and opted for an 11-and-a-half-hour stretch from Los Angeles to San Francisco instead.
Here’s how I thought the journey would unfold: I’d pass the time taking photos, doing a little work, and calling friends. I’d stay the night at an Airbnb in San Francisco and wake up refreshed, ready, and excited to take the Coast Starlight 10 hours right back home.
None of that happened.
I’m not a glamorous person. I’m impulsive and, as it pertains to travel, disorganized. I booked the wrong train, unsuccessfully tried to change my seat onboard, and ended up flying home instead of taking the train back like I was supposed to.
Here’s what I wish I’d known before my first long-haul ride.
Amtrak’s website offers multiple routes between stops, so double-check that you book the correct one
To buy my ticket, I went straight to the Coast Starlight’s landing page on the Amtrak site and pressed “book.” I thought I’d reserved a seat on the Starlight, but I was wrong.
Instead, I booked a “mixed service” option, which would’ve placed me on a series of buses and a totally different train. I later learned that, in order to book the right ticket, I had to use the website’s filter feature to specify that I only wanted to see the Coast Starlight options.
I didn’t realize my mistake until I attempted to check in at Union Station, the Coast Starlight’s departure point in Los Angeles. Thankfully, an Amtrak attendant helped me sort out my mix-up and kept me from calling off the trip before it even began.
Don’t make the same mistake that I did. Even if the departure and arrival cities are correct, triple-check the route details on Amtrak’s website before buying your ticket.
The temperatures in the cars fluctuate
Not only did I book the wrong train, but also I showed up at Union Station in a floor-length dress and expensive, impractical shoes.
I was feeling very holier than thou about traveling in something other than leggings, but it didn’t take long for me to regret my fancy attire.
In reality, I was sitting for nearly 12 hours. I should’ve prioritized comfort. I should have never, ever committed to wearing a strapless bra for half of a day. It’s too uncomfortable and life’s too short.
The train cars also got surprisingly warm. I tend to run cold on airplanes, but I was sweating at some points on the Coast Starlight. Pack layers just in case the temperature drops.
Coach passengers don’t have access to the dining car
In my experience, the difference between coach and business class on domestic flights is minimal.
An upgrade gets you a slightly bigger seat, a bit more legroom, and a free glass of mediocre bubbly. I assumed the same would be true on the Coast Starlight, so I booked coach. After all, my wallet was bleeding after I had to pay an extra $100 at Union Station to change my ticket to the correct route.
In retrospect, I wish I just paid the extra $10 to sit in business class.
I had no idea that the onboard dining car — equipped with white tablecloths and waiters — is only accessible to passengers in business class and private rooms. When I tried to peek into the other sections, an Amtrak employee stopped me in my tracks.
During my trip, I attempted to upgrade my ticket to business class. It required a whole series of calls to Amtrak’s headquarters. The call-back system didn’t work, and after sitting on hold for 30 minutes, I accepted that my mission was a bust.
The train can sell out in advance, so buy your ticket as early as you can
The Amtrak representative at Union Station told me that the Coast Starlight sometimes books up in advance, and tickets for higher category sections, like business class and the sleeper cars, are often the first to sell out.
Buy your tickets as early as possible. If you’re looking for a last-minute trip, this may not be the best route to take.
There’s a café cart on the train, so don’t panic about bringing enough snacks
I approached my first train ride with a survivalist mindset. I brought a gallon of water, first-aid tools, and enough snacks to last me an entire weekend.
This wasn’t totally necessary. Even though I didn’t have access to the dining car in coach, I could still buy hot and cold food, snacks, and drinks from the café cart.
Around mid-morning, I got a Diet Coke and some popcorn. Had I not been on assignment, I would’ve ordered some of the IPAs offered on the menu as well.
I packed my lunch but tried the cart’s vegan blue-corn tamale for dinner. I’m a vegetarian, and as far as affordable plant-based food goes, the tamale was fine.
I found train seats superior to those on airplanes
I have several herniated disks, so I tend to rank my travel experiences on a scale of “ouch” to “call an ambulance.”
After about 11 hours, the Coast Starlight seats weren’t exactly peak comfort, but I certainly preferred them to airplane seats. They felt spacious, offered plenty of legroom, and reclined pretty far back.
In my opinion, the seats were also nap-friendly. But to be fair, I can sleep almost anywhere.
The observation car was one of the best parts of the train — but you might not be guaranteed a seat
The observation car was the train’s crown jewel.
As I sat in one of its rotating chairs, I remembered why I boarded the Coast Starlight in the first place. The floor-to-ceiling windows provided breathtaking views of the coast, rolling hills, and flower-filled fields.
The beauty snapped me out of my anxiety-induced haze. It was exactly the reason I’d come on this trip, and it totally delivered.
But be warned that seating in the observation car is first come, first served. During the ride, other passengers hovered over my shoulder and eagerly waited for their turn to look out the window.
I did somewhat hog a chair — I rationalized it by telling myself it was for journalism — but eventually, the sun got really intense and I headed back to my seat.
Stretches of the route aren’t very scenic
The first leg of the train ride seemed to go right through people’s backyards.
I could look out my window and watch Californians sunbathe on their pool decks. I even watched a boy win a game of Marco Polo. I’m incredibly nosy, so these views rivaled the gorgeous sunsets.
There were some less-than-scenic stretches as the train moved inland. Still, I enjoyed looking out at the different landscapes.
WiFi isn’t always reliable, so come prepared with other forms of entertainment
In my experience, the WiFi was a bit spotty during the ride. It wasn’t a problem for me, though.
Because I knew the internet connection might come and go, I brought plenty of analog entertainment and finally had the time to finish a book. I also spent some time looking out the window and pondering life.
As someone who clocked three hours of screen time per day last week, I needed a train ride like this to force me to put my phone down. I actually felt like the digital detox was part of what I paid for.
Overall, the train passengers were very friendly
I’ve flown on many planes, and I’ve never met any air travelers who were remotely as cheerful as the passengers on the Coast Starlight.
Maybe it was because they didn’t have to deal with airport stress, or maybe it was because I was traveling on a holiday weekend, but these people had all the joie de vivre of cruise folks (minus the shrimp cocktails).
They were overall very friendly and social. One man onboard even strummed a Spanish guitar. Though I usually have a fight-or-flight reaction to men playing acoustic guitars, it worked in this setting.
Also, people outside waved at the train as it passed, which made me feel like I was on the Jungle Cruise. And I, for one, love the Jungle Cruise.
The train might not arrive right on time
If you’re making arrangements to get picked up, build in some cushion to avoid a stressful arrival. My train arrived in San Francisco a few minutes later than expected.
The delays weren’t terrible, but things started to feel grim when I realized I had four more hours to go with the possibility of additional delays. That was the hardest part of this trip.
I don’t regret boarding the Coast Starlight, but I did decide to fly back home
By now, you’ve probably realized that I was somewhat ill-prepared and naive going into this journey, so you won’t be surprised that I accidentally canceled my entire trip when I was trying to upgrade my seat and change my return time on my phone.
Luckily, I got a partial refund, which I then put toward the cost of a plane ticket to Los Angeles instead of repurchasing a return seat on the Coast Starlight. My flight was under two hours.
Looking back at my first long-haul train ride, I would do almost everything differently. For instance, I would read the details of my ticket before hitting “purchase.” However, the train itself was cool. I learned how to laugh through the travel anxiety and saw more of my home state, which isn’t a bad way to spend a day.
But at the end of the day, I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to make such a long journey twice in less than 24 hours.
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