After one and a half weeks of cold eastern weather, finally we had some sun. The weather in Los Angeles was a complete contrast from what we had in New York, Boston and Toronto. We spent 3 nights in Los Angeles including one day in Universal Studios in which we also tried out UberX for the first time. We used it for travel within the city, it was definitely cheaper than the taxi. Getting a car via the Uber app was also very fast and straightforward. One of our trip on UberX was from our hotel in Downtown LA to Union Station. For our trip to San Francisco, I booked the Amtrak Coast Starlight to try a different mode of transport.
The Coast Starlight is a route starting from San Diego going all the way up to Seattle and the entire journey would take almost 36 hours! The journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco itself took us almost 12 hours! The Coast Starlight offered an alternative for those who are not in a rush. It gave us a view of the Pacific Coast in the early part and a completely different hilly desert and farmlands later on. The rail however did not go alongside Pacific Coast Highway. Nevertheless, the rail still offered breath-taking views of southern California.
The Coast Starlight consists of Coach, Business Class and the Sleepers (considered First Class). I was initially booked in the Sleeper Roomette cabin at $301. Just before my travel, I checked on the price again and to my surprise the price dropped to $233! I decided to pay $57 more to upgrade myself to the bedroom (previously priced at $500). The difference between the bedroom and roomette would be the presence of a shower/toilet and a bigger lower bunk bed (which could sleep 2 person). I would say that I had no regret paying the extra $57 for the upgrade. The fare I paid for includes:
- Sleeper accommodation
- All meals (lunch and dinner plus drinks)
- All day coffee and juice + bottled water
- Amtrak Thruway Bus
Amtrak Thruway bus is a convenient way of getting into the city (from some stops). The train doesn’t go into San Francisco but stops at Oakland Jack London Square Station. Thruway bus helps connect passengers into San Francisco conveniently and it stops at 4 different locations. There was some confusion prior to my travel as I received an e-mail from Amtrak stating that my thruway bus stop had been changed to San Francisco Shopping Centre (from Embarcadero). This represented a logistic challenge for me as Embarcadero was the most convenient stop being right outside Hyatt Regency (where I stayed) and lugging 3 luggage from a much further stop at 10pm was not what I would look forward to. 3 e-mails to Amtrak went unanswered. Even the cabin master (who called Jack London station) was not sure if the bus would stop at Embarcadero. I resigned to the fact that I may have to book a Uber from Oakland to get into San Francisco at 10pm without knowing how Jack London Square will be like at night (Oakland has one of the highest crime rate in USA). Thankfully, the Thruway Bus still stopped at my intended stop and I was spared the need to book a Uber (while waiting at one of the most dangerous city in USA). Till now, I am still not sure the purpose of the e-mail from Amtrak. Putting aside all these issues, the Amtrak Coast Starlight was definitely worth it (my wife loved the journey despite spending almost 12 hours on a train).
The journey started with a Uber ride from our hotel in LA Live (Residence Inn) to Union Station which took about 15 minutes (about $13). There was no morning traffic (as it was a Sunday) hence the journey was smooth. The train was scheduled to depart at 10:10 am and we arrived at 9:40 am. We were clueless as to where we can get our luggage checked as by the time we got to the platform, we were told that the baggage check had been closed. This was not an issue as we could still store our luggage on board (a special luggage compartment in the coach). The train that we were in was a 2-storey coach consisted of both Roomettes and Bedrooms (with one family room which is essentially 2 interconnected bedrooms). Our room was located upstairs.
Each bedroom has an over-sized seat seat that can be converted into a “double bed” with and additional upper bunk bed (that can be retracted). The bed was quite comfortable to sleep in. There is also an additional chair opposite the large seat and a full length mirror behind the chair. There was a small cubicle that housed the toilet with a built-in hot water shower. I did not manage to try the shower so I wasn’t sure if the water was hot enough during winter (towel and toiletries were not provided). Near the entrance, there is a sink with a dustbin underneath and opposite the sink there is a half-height wardrobe. The room of course had a large window looking out. The room was adequately lit with both day and night lights and chair lights. There were curtains to cover the windows and the door. The door can be locked from the inside but when you are out, the door will remain unlocked. The train however is not equipped with any entertainment system (one should be looking out of the window on this journey instead of looking at their iPads). For those who don’t enjoy scenery, bring along an iPad or please fly instead.
Two very good feature of the coast starlight sleeper coach were the Pacific Parlour Car and included meals (click the link for the menu). The lounge car served as a ‘First Class Lounge’ for sleeper cabin passengers. The lounge had comfortable armchairs for couple and the car came with very large windows and skylight windows for a breath-taking scenic views. The lounge also had a bar that served drinks, cocktails and snacks (payable) and would also host a wine tasting session in the evening at $7.50 per passenger which includes 3 different Californian wines with accompanying cheese.
Not long after the train left the station, the restaurant manager went around the sleeper cabins to take down sitting time preference of passengers (first for lunch and later for dinner). I took the 12:45 pm sitting for lunch and 6:30 sitting for dinner. The restaurant can get quite busy and even with designated sitting time, we sat down only at 1:05 pm (and we had to share a table with another couple). Dinner sitting was slightly better as we waited for only 5 minutes.
Food selection was rather limited. It was a 3 course dinner (salad + main + dessert) with a drink. As mentioned earlier, all food and drinks were included (except for alcoholic beverage). For lunch, we chose the Angus Steak Burger and BBQ Pork Shank with a Cheesecake dessert. Going at 1100 Cal, the burger was sinful but good. The beef patty was cooked but not at all dry. The pork shank tasted alright (I am not a fan of pork). Cheesecake wasn’t too bad too. As for dinner, we went for the Signature Steak and the Catch of The Day. The steak was prepared medium well and served with a side choice of either baked or mashed potato. The beef portion wasn’t very big but was cooked just nice to my liking. Potato however was a little too big for me. The Catch of The Day was crab cake again served with a choice of side of either pilaf rice or mashed potato. We ended our dinner with a choice of Haagen Dazs ice cream. All meals were served in proper stainless steel cutlery and nice looking wares (but were actually plastics!).
The entire journey offered a very good view of first the Pacific coast and later on the farms, followed by the dry arid Californian hills and plains. By 5:00 pm, we could hardly see anything as the sun has set. One could enjoy the scenery in the comfort of the large chair (or bed). Between San Jose and Oakland, the train was travelling very slowly due to signalling problem along the line. This resulted in a 30 minutes delay on arriving in Oakland (on an otherwise smooth journey). We reached Oakland closed to 10pm and by then Jack London Square were pretty dark and deserted. I was prepared to book a UberX but decided to check with the Thruway Bus if they still stop outside Hyatt Regency. I was relieved that it still does! The bus still stops outside Hyatt Regency besides Transbay Terminal, Fisherman’s Wharf and San Francisco Shopping Centre. We reached Hyatt Regency (second stop) at about 10:30 pm. By then, we were very tired from our long train journey and we only looked forward to getting onto our bed as soon as possible.
Pictures below shows the scenery we encountered along the journey:
I would love to try the train up till Seattle if I have the chance, but that would mean burning close to 36 hours. For those who wants to experience something different, the train is definitely worth trying (but also potentially time wasting). Otherwise, flying takes only slightly more than an hour while driving (along Pacific Coast Highway) takes about 5 to 6 hours (with the option of stopping for more picturesque view of the Pacific Coast).
Travel distance: about 620 km (shorter by flight)
Travel time: 11 hours 40 minutes
Amount spent: $358 for 2 pax