Amtrak Coast Starlight Trip – Part 1: Advice for an Amtrak Noob

Let me be honest, I have never been on an Amtrak train before.  Living in SoCal my entire life, I have never had a need or desire to take Amtrak, but every time I go to travel conferences or do OC/SD meetups, someone always shares awesome Amtrak stories.  Therefore, I decided to break my 24 year streak of no Amtrak rides and book one of Amtrak’s premier routes, the Coast Starlight (link), from Seattle down to Los Angeles.  The journey takes 35-36 hours non-stop on a train.  Before you think I am crazy, let me explain…

  • George (Travel Blogger Buzz) wrote a nice trip train report (link) about the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles up to Seattle.
  • Shawn (Miles to Memories) has a similar train report (link) starting in Santa Barbara / Oxnard up to Seattle.

Sheldon Cooper Train

The Coast Starlight leaves Seattle everyday at 9:30am and arrived in Los Angeles 9pm the following night.  Here is the map and list of cities where the train stops (probably for just a few minutes):

Amtrak Coast Starlight Train Stops Map

One of the coolest things about Amtrak is their award chart.  They have 3 major zones and a minor zone (Northeast Zone) inside the Eastern Zone.  Learn more about Amtrak routes and rewards from Hack My Trip (beginner) and Travel is Free (advanced).

Amtrak Zone Map

Travel entirely inside one zone has a set price, regardless of how far you travel.  There are also various prices depending on the level of service (5,500 for coach class up to 25,000 for a private bedroom).  Taking the Coast Starlight route as an example, you could use 5,500 Amtrak Points for a coach ticket for one person or you could use 25,000 Amtrak Points for a private bedroom for up to 4 people (2 adults and 2 children) with meals included.

Amtrak Zone 1 Prices

There are the occasional blackout dates to be aware of as well.

Amtrak Black Out Dates

These are the Rule Buster (higher priced awards) during blackout dates.

Amtrak Black Out Date Rule Busters

Amtrak Points are difficult to earn if you only do so by riding Amtrak.  You get 2 Amtrak Points per dollar per ride, with a 100 point minimum.  If you do not have an Amtrak account, please sign up with my referral link.  Pleas note, if you travel within 90 days following your enrollment in Amtrak Guest Rewards, 500 bonus points will automatically be added to your account, so you may want to wait to sign up for an Amtrak account.

Amtrak Earn and Referral Info

You can also earn Amtrak Points by transferring points from a variety of programs (SPG and Chase Ultimate Rewards being the most popular options) or buy converting miles/points from Points.com.  I wrote a post in June called Transfer Chase Ultimate Reward Points to Non-Chase Partners which shows how to convert Amtrak Points into various other miles/points.  Follow that post, but convert miles/points into Amtrak Points.

Transfer Amtrak Points

To see all possible routes, plug in your starting and ending Amtrak stations, select a date, the number of passengers, and click Find Trains.

Amtrak-SEA-to-IRV-Search

You will be presented with several paid options with varying prices based on the level of service you desire.  It is important to remember the One Zone chart when looking at availability.  What I have heard many times is that you will want to spend the extra 10,000 Amtrak Points for the private bedroom over the roomette.

Amtrak Zone 1 Prices

Here are the available classes of service, starting with the reserved coach seats (5,500 Amtrak Points per person):

Amtrak Paid Prices Reserved Coach Amtrak Reserved Coach Details

Up next is the Superliner Roomette (15,000 Amtrak Points per room):

Amtrak Paid Prices Superline Roomette Amtrak Superline Roomette Details

For large families, the Family Bedroom would be ideal (25,000 Amtrak Points per room):

Amtrak Paid Prices Family Bedroom Amtrak Superline Family Bedroom Details

And the best of the best is the Superliner Bedroom (25,000 Amtrak Points per room):

Amtrak Paid Prices Superline Bedroom

Notice the private bathroom, toilet, and shower?  Ohh laa laa!

Amtrak Superline Bedroom Details

To round out the classes of service, there are also business class seats and unreserved coach seats on smaller, regional Amtrak trains.

Amtrak Business Class Details

Amtrak Unreserved Reserved Coach Details

The title of this post is Advice for an Amtrak Noob (referring to me), so please share some of your train expertise.  Have you gone on the Coast Startlight or other premium Amtrak routes?  What was it like?  What should I do while on board for 35+ hours?

I will post Amtrak Coast Starlight Trip – Part 2: Transferring Points and Booking Trains later this week.  If you have any questions, please leave a comment below.

46 thoughts on “Amtrak Coast Starlight Trip – Part 1: Advice for an Amtrak Noob

  1. Vicente

    Are you travelling alone or with others? Alone the roomette is a great way to travel. With 2 people the roomette is a bit cramped but then you have the observation car to spend your waking hours in. Plus you can walk about stretch your legs, take a SHOWER, use your laptop or phone any time you please.

    Travelled ATL-NYP over the summer with 3 adults and 2 children. I transferred Chase points over to AGR, and booked (by phone) a “suite” which is 2 adjoining bedrooms with the partition removed. This worked out great. I slept on a lower bunk with one child, the other above me. The other 2 adults slept in the remaining 2 bunks. For the kids it was a grand adventure. I loved being able to just get up and walk around when I felt restless.

    One great thing about awards on Amtrak is no penalty for cancelling until the train leaves the stations. So book ASAP, the good bedroom options fill up close to departures. I’ve done reservations before 6 months in advance, where I wasn’t really sure I’d go, but hey I can cancel just before departure for no penalty so why not?

    You can bring along your own alcohol. Food is included in dining car for all sleeper car tickets, but alcohol is not. Maybe a book, a few movies. If you want to make it meta, watch “Silver Streak” while you are on the train. I like bringing playing cards for socializing with companions. You’d be surprised how quickly the time will slide by and War & Peace remained unread.

    Oh and tip your car attendant when you get off.

    Enjoy!

    Reply
    1. Grant

      Excellent advice Vicente. I’m going with a friend of mine who lives near Seattle. I’m flying up there on Saturday then taking the train back down on Tuesday. How much of a tip do you recommend?

      Reply
      1. Vicente

        $10 per night is what I do for the car attendant. And I usually leave some sort of tip for dining car people.

        Reply
        1. calwatch

          For dining cars tip as much as you would is a restaurant, based on the cost of the meal. Some of the attendants will write down the estimated cost of the meal on the carbon copy of the check as a reminder, which can be polarizing.

          Reply
  2. Vicente

    Additional:

    We were on the Crescent, never been on Coast Starlight.

    I actually think the private shower/bath is not a big deal. If you’ve travelled in Europe, you’ve no doubt stayed places where bathroom/shower is down the hall anyhow. I mean it was functional as a private toilet and clean. But it was a bit cramped and I elected to use the common shower for the car, which seemed roomier and had a little dressing area. Unless you get up to pee multiple times per night the private bathroom just takes up a lot of space you are not using.

    One awesome thing I have yet to try on Amtrak sleeper is bring along my folding bike. Just another carryon luggage item, no hassles like with airlines.

    Reply
    1. Grant

      I’m not sure how important the bathroom and shower will be. After all, it is only one night on the train and I will live if I don’t take a shower. I like the convenience of having a private restroom, but I will share my thoughts after the trip.

      Reply
  3. Point Princess

    This looks like such an awesome trip! I’ve been wanting to do a long amtrak ride for a while as well. The only thing that would make it better is if it was hop-on hop-off!

    Reply
  4. Jeff M

    I took the California Zephyr from San Francisco (Oakland) to Chicago, then the Lake Shore Limited to Albany, then the Adirondack north to Montreal in 1997. I was just out of college and poor, it was an interesting way to visit a friend in Ontario. I had a coach seat for my 3-day journey each way. It was a beautiful and the seats do recline to some extent, but I didn’t sleep that great.

    I also took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle in 2003. On this trip I traveled with my Mom who had mobility issues. We booked a sleeper but ended up in a Handicap Sleeper (on the bottom floor but a huge space, the full width of the train car). I would highly recommend this, if possible! It was very comfortable and spacious.

    Reply
    1. Grant

      Excellent, thank you for sharing your Amtrak journeys. I have some catching up to do! When I booked the ticket, there were a few bedrooms available, I’m not sure if there were 2 stories or 1 story in the sleeper cars. Glad you and your mother had a nice room and enjoyed the trip.

      Reply
  5. calwatch

    I’ve always thought Amtrak is one of the best values in the Ultimate Rewards transfer stable (at least until you’ve traveled too many trains like I am getting to). Since the cost for a room redemption is the same whether it’s one, two, or three (for a bedroom) people, it makes one of the best deals out there for group travel. On the value scale, that is comparable to using Avios for short distance trips.

    For a single person the roomette is fine. All but the worst sleeping car attendant will make sure coach passengers don’t enter the sleeping car to use the restroom or take a shower, so the restrooms will be pretty clean. Note that in a train, the shower and the toilet share the same confined space in a bedroom. The shower for roomette passengers is separate from the toilet, but there is only one shower per car so there can be backups in the morning. However I’ve never encountered a dirty shower, because most people clean up after themselves.

    The one benefit of being in a bedroom is being able to see out of both sides of the train, It’s less important when you are in the middle of the country, but for scenic parts where only one side gets the view, you don’t have to look through the room across from you or go to the lounge car. Also, if you got a regular bedroom, you are guaranteed to be on the top floor, whereas there are roomettes on the ground floor. It’s debatable whether the first or second level is better. The ground floor is close to all of the restrooms and is quieter and has less sway, but doesn’t have the views and the convenience of access as the second floor.

    On the Coast Starlight, until recent budget cuts they had wine tasting. They still have the Pacific Parlour Car with special meals and activities which is not offered on other long distance trains. It’s also one of the few long distance trains that has wi-fi.

    To answer Points Princess, if you use the mutli-city trip option on a route that has more than one train a day, you can “stopover” for up to 24 hours and be priced only for the cost from point A to point B. So you could take the Starlight from LA to Oakland, then take the Capitol to Sacramento, then Sacrmaento, to Portland on the Starlight again, and then board the Cascades in the morning to Seattle. However there are no stopovers on rewards trips, unless you are making a connection that can only be done with an overnight stop (for example, Crescent to Sunset Limited in New Orleans or Starlight-Empire Builder in Portland).

    Reply
    1. Grant

      Wow, you are just a wealth of knowledge, I don’t know where to begin! I hope the WiFi is halfway decent, otherwise it will be a very LONG ride. I probably won’t mind the sway on the upper level, I assume it is quieter too since you are farther up from the train tracks. Do you have any advice on what to do at stops? Get out an stretch or stay seated?

      Reply
      1. calwatch

        As others have said the wi-fi is hit or miss. The Amtrak does pass through a lot of areas where there is no cellular service anyway, so no wi-fi in those areas. Also the wi-fi does not work for streaming purposes (like most en-route wi-fi). I would download some shows or movies if I easily got bored. But chatting up people in the lounge car usually works well to alleviate any boredom.

        On long train trips ALWAYS take advantage of your “smoke stops”. On the Starlight those are San Luis Obispo, Salinas, Sacramento (if you are up), Klamath Falls, Eugene, and Portland. http://discuss.amtraktrains.com/index.php?/topic/35815-which-stations-are-smoking-breaks/ Even if you don’t smoke walk around on them. Listen to the sleeping car attendant or the conductor announce how much time you have and make sure you return to the train by that time. If it’s a brief smoking stop don’t walk past the view of the train, but if you have 30 minutes it’s safe to walk around a few blocks, but not so far that you can’t make a quick run for the train with a few minutes to spare. One time on the Starlight someone walked into the the dining car with the embarrassing statement that the train left a couple of their companions behind because they were too plastered to get back on the train after their smoke stop. Unfortunately on the Starlight it’s unlikely you will get a long break because there is no mid-route servicing. Generally on the Southwest Chief and Californiz Zephyr, if the train is on time there is at least one, and sometimes two, hours in Albuquerque and Denver to kill. You can learn a surprising amount about a city in 90 minutes.

        One good way of keeping track is on the status maps, at statusmaps.net. You’ll also have the train schedule there. The train can’t leave early so if it arrives early, that’s a great opportunity to walk around. But if it is late, then any service stop will likely be compressed and you will need to stay within sight of the train.

        Reply
      2. calwatch

        Wi-Fi can be hit or miss, especially in rural areas. And of course you can’t stream anything on it, so it may be prudent to do some downloading beforehand, or bring a book. If you just stare out the window and make conversation with people in the lounge car you won’t miss it during the day. On the upper level, you won’t get the track noise but you will hear people wandering through the hall. That may or may not bother you.

        ALWAYS take your smoke breaks, even if you don’t smoke. Staying in one confined space for a long time is not my cup of tea. On the Coast Starlight your smoke breaks are San Luis Obispo, Salinas, Oakland/Emeryville, Sacramento (if you are up), Klamath Falls, Eugene, and Portland. These are crew change points (the engineer and conductor have service hour limitations) and/or fueling locations. If the train is early you may get 45 minutes or more, which is enough to walk into town and back. If not then the break can be 10 minutes or less. The train will not leave early, but the conductor’s watch may not match yours so you should get trainside at least five minutes in advance. Your sleeping car attendant will tell you how long your break is. If the sleeping car attendant or conductor tells you to stay trainside, do so – you can walk back and forth parallel to the train, or wander to the station, but make sure you are in earshot so you can make a break for an “all aboard”. Smoke breaks can often be cut short if the train is late. You can also track the status of your train at statusmaps.net, which can tell you how ahead or behind schedule your train is.

        Reply
        1. calwatch

          The converse is true, though, if it is not a smoke break, do not leave the train. The conductor or sleeping car attendant will mention it in their announcement. Other than the points listed above (and maybe a few others in the event the train is running seriously early) they will always remind people not to step off unless they want to stay there, because herding people in and out of the train is time consuming.

          Reply
        2. Grant

          Excellent. I took a screenshot of the stops you recommended and will try to get out of the car at those stops. I’m a pretty heavy sleeper so when I’m asleep, I can’t hear anything. I was hoping to “live blog” along the journey and I can use my iPhone as a back up internet connection, but I’m sure the openness will have some dead zones.

          Reply
          1. calwatch

            The dead zones are the most scenic parts of the trip (around Vandenburg AFB, north of Salinas, and through the Siskiyous and through the forest going down into the Willamette Valley). Enjoy your trip!

  6. Jordan

    Took Amtrak from NY Penn Station to San Francisco – my girlfriend and I moved to SF by train with 14 bags on board. Super generous luggage policy and the Roomette was fine for us even for the 4 day journey. Amazing route through the rockies with a 6 hour stop in Chicago to do some exploring too.

    Things I echo from above:

    1) bring liquor! Roomette and bedrooms have free coffee,water,tea, and juice – vodka goes nicely with the juice. You’ll also make friends in the observation cars if you mix up some screwdriviers.

    2) get off at the smoke breaks to stretch your legs and enjoy some fresh air (was amazing in the rockies but I’m sure it will be nice in NorCal too :)

    Things I’d like to add:

    1) An ultrabook / chromebook is really great. And a phone you can turn into a personal wifi hotspot is better and more consistent than Amtrak wifi. Normal plane distractions are good, but it’s also fun just staring out the window.

    2) Food is surprisingly decent, and a good value for the roomette. It’s fun sitting with new people every day. Desserts are super calorie dense but tasty. Steak for dinner is actually very good.

    3) Bring a power strip if the number of devices requires it. Sometimes the roomettes only have 1 pair of outlets.

    4) Hopefully your friend is a girl iykwim

    5) RE: tipping, I actually think it’s fine just to bring a bunch of ones, and leave a few bucks during meals. Do what comes naturally for you – all of the employees I interacted with were very nice, regardless of tipping.

    Reply
    1. Grant

      Thank you for the tips Jordan, I’ll bring a few cash with me. Unfortunately my travel companion on this trip is a male friend of mine, but maybe next time, who knows.

      It will be fun interacting with others on-board and talking to the employees.

      Reply
    1. Vicente

      @Simon the cost of a suite is just the cost of 2 bedrooms. There’s only one pair of bedrooms per Viewliner sleeper car (East Coast) that adjoin, so we got lucky they were both available the day we needed them. So it was 50K points, which I gladly paid versus thousands of dollars. It was a good value considering we had 5 people in there, and all meals and just enjoyed the heck out of it. Couldn’t use family bedroom on that trip even if one were available since my brother was along with us.

      My future plans are that we wouldn’t be bringing along my brother, so book family bedroom. It’s priced the same as a regular bedroom, so 25K points for one-zone or 40K for two-zone. Thinking about Zephyr California to Chicago next summer. Failing that I think 2 roomettes works fines for us too, we just split up each parent with one kid.

      Reply
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  13. caroloverland

    Enjoy your Amtrak posts. FYI, we’ve taken Empire Builder from Seattle back to home in Red Wing (Bakken BOOM! trains clogged the tracks and it was bus from St. Paul to RW, GRRRR, now it’s back to normal with the oil bust), and also took train to Chicago to catch the SW Chief to LA. This time, looked around, and it’s ~$250 cheaper to hop on Empire Builder here in RW, out to Portland and then down on Coast Starlight than from RW to Chicago to LA! Can’t wait to go! Love having Amtrak at the front door here, as the Bonnie Raitt tune says, “There’s a train every day, leaving either way…”

    Reply
    1. caroloverland

      Oh, and WiFi is non-existent on Empire Builder, a real problem for us self-employed travelers. Hot Spots help, but in ND and MT, there’s often nothing.

      Reply
  14. Nell

    Can anyone help with a query I have about the cost starlight 14 (Emeryville to Portland). I’ve booked for my father who’s in his early 70s. He’s a solo traveller and has a business seat. I’m panicking that I should have booked him a roomette, though I’m assuming that he’d have to travel with a stranger and since he’s a bit older etc, he’d probably not like needing to share a cramped room.

    Any advice on business class as the info I’m finding online is scarce? What is the situation regarding luggage? Is there a secure lock up area? I know it says his seat is reserved but it looks like this is first come first served? Also, is the view as good from business if this is the lower level of the train?

    Any advice would be most appreciated. I’m not in the US and unless it sounds like the business class seat isn’t worth it, I’ll upgrade, but that will likely cost a fortune at this stage.

    Cheers!

    Reply
    1. Grant Post author

      I think you c an get a roomette if you are a solo traveler. Roomettes also include meals in the dining car. You can only lock the room from the inside.

      Reply

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