Yeah, you could fly or drive between LA and San Francisco. But if you (or your mates) don’t drive and you’ve got some time to spare, I cannot recommend taking the Coast Starlight train enough.
Running 1,377 miles from LA up to Seattle over 35 hours, the Coast Starlight train offers some of the most incredible scenery. The route hugs the West Coast, so we saw plenty of sea views, as well as mountainous terrain, on our 12.5-hour train ride. It’s the kind of journey that makes you want to stay awake the entire time because you don’t want to miss a single thing! (*Tries hard not to burst into the Aerosmith song*)
Booking In Advance
‘Cos I’m all about the ‘being stupidly organised’, I booked our train tickets five months in advance on the Amtrak website. Two regular coach seats set us back $122 (around £94) each, which isn’t too bad considering you’re getting ring-side seats to some of the best scenery in the US.
If you’re leaving from LA, you’ll be picking up the train at Union Station. For a San Francisco stop-off you’ll need to alight at Emeryville, which is the closest Amtrak station to the city. It’s a small city just across the Oakland Bay bridge, so easily a 15-20 minute drive away.
Now – here is one thing we would do differently if we could. If you can, try to arrive at Emeryville during daylight hours, when you can get a shuttle bus to San Francisco (you’ll need to book your final destination as ‘San Francisco’ though to get on board this!). Due to a few delays on our line – and, from what I heard from our fellow passengers, there ARE usually a lot of delays – we rucked up in Emeryville after 10pm. It was pitch black, hardly anyone else was around, and we had literally no clue where to go. We asked station staff, but before we knew it a taxi guy had pounced on us, saying he would take us to our hotel. A mixture of tiredness and naivety on our part had us jumping in his car without too many questions. But that’s when we realised he had no taxi meter, and was starting to get really shirty with us. [Cue lots of panic attacks, worried glances and me making up a story about how our male friends were meeting us at the hotel]. Long story short: we got there fine. He came up with a ridiculous $90-odd fee on the spot, but we were just so thankful to be there in one piece that we just handed over the cash and ran straight into the hotel lobby.
Don’t want to scare you – but it’s definitely best to have some sort of transport pre-arranged before you turn up.
Before you hop on the train, you’ll need to check in at your departing train station. We did this at Los Angeles’ Union Station, handing in our main pieces of luggage (which were delivered to us safely at Emeryville station).
The seating system on Amtrak is a little archaic, since you’ve got one person behind the counter physically crossing off taken seats on a piece of paper. If there’s one tip I can give you, it’s this: ask for seats on the left-hand side of the train. Both sides have dramatic scenery, but this is the side that’ll get you those all-important sea views. Luckily our carriage wasn’t that busy at all, so we could move around from seat to seat snapping endless photos on both sides.
Los Angeles to San Francisco By Train
First thing’s first: the Amtrak trains are AMAZING. The little train geek in me exploded with excitement when I saw the double-decker carriages emblazoned with the Amtrak logo. As well as seat plug sockets to charge up all our gadgets, our coach seats gave us shed-loads of room to move around in and stretch our legs. When you put the back down, it was virtually like being in your own bed! There were toilets downstairs, too, so no concerns about getting too lost or leaving your stuff unattended for too long.
When we got on board, the train conductor ticked us off on her sheet, and she would regularly dip her head in and out of the carriage throughout the journey. That sense of having someone professional there really put us at ease, especially since there weren’t so many people on our carriage – and I’m sure it would too if you’re out travelling by yourself.
Walking a few carriages down, we found ourselves in the Observation Carriage, with swing chairs and huge windows wrapped up into the ceiling. This got fairly busy during the journey, so we didn’t spend too long here – and besides, we had a pretty perfect view from our reserved seats!
The other carriage we spent a lot of time in was (surprise surprise) the dining car. It was open most of the trip, save for a few minutes when the guy had a break, and we were able to stock up on snacks, hot drinks and mini one-person pizzas. The couch-style seats with their own table gave us the perfect opportunity to sit down and play some card games with the odd coin as our wagers. We may have been out of Las Vegas for a week or so, but Las Vegas certainly wasn’t out of us… One of the best things about this carriage is that it was a lot more sociable than the others. A guy saw us playing cards and started teaching us some new games – none that either of us can remember now, but definitely fun at the time.
As for the rest of the journey? Well, we had a good 12 hours to kill, but that passed in a blink of an eye. Having no Wi-Fi on board was certainly not a problem, as it gave us time to unwind with writing, reading and watching shows on my iPad.
Oh, and of course, lots of staring out the window at those incredible views.
Since our carriage was the very last one, we also had a back window looking out onto the tracks. Perfect for those Instagram-worthy shots and videos.
With 10 stops between LA and Emeryville, there’s plenty of opportunities for catching some fresh air. At the bigger named stops, the train stops for a good 10 minutes or so as the luggage is unloaded, giving passengers a chance to step off the train for a smoke or a stretch of the legs.
Travelling on the Coast Starlight train was easily one of the biggest highlights of my entire West Coast US trip. Yes, it’s even on a par with seeing Britney in Vegas. Even though the journey itself was pretty long, I found myself wishing we were on it for even longer, even all the way up to Seattle! I’d love to return and do the whole route (either in one go or in stages), but until then I’ve got my eye on taking all kinds of train trips all over the world. Definitely got the train bug now…
Have you ever taken the Coast Starlight train? What’s your view on train travel? Let me know in the comments below!