6/16/2022 4:47:00 PM From L.A. To Seattle on Amtrak's Coastal Starlite
Scenic shot taken on leg from LA to San Jose
Scenic shot taken on leg from San Jose to Seattle
by Sharyn Lonsdale
My film-buff daughter Jenna has dreamed of going to Hollywood since she was 10. We planned a trip for her 30th birthday, which coincided with the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Then COVID hit. When I found out that my annual work conference would be taking place in Los Angeles this June, the trip was back on with an extended vacation to visit family and friends in San Jose and Jenna’s friend in Seattle. I decided we would take Amtrak, 11 hours from L.A. to San Jose and 22 hours from San Jose to Seattle. Amtrak’s Coastal Starlite is a favorite of train travelers, with spectacular views, observation cars and decent dining. The earlier you book, the less expensive the tickets. I booked coach for the two of us for less than $300. The sleeper car cost more than our round-trip airfare and the roomette, where we would share a bathroom but still get all our meals, was pricey as well. However, after you book your tickets, Amtrak offers you the chance to “BidUp’’ on an upgrade. You choose the amount and Amtrak tells you if you have a “poor” to “excellent” chance of a winning bid. I bid on a business class upgrade on the San Jose trip and a roomette upgrade on the longer ride. Even though the bidometer said my $20 per person bid was just “fair,” 90 minutes before the train’s L.A. departure, I got an email congratulating me on moving up to business class. I expected Grand Central Station level chaos at the main train station in the county’s second-largest city. We arrived early, and surprisingly breezed through baggage check-in. Then we were directed upstairs to the Metropolitan Business Lounge. As a budget traveler, I was in heaven, sipping coffee, eating a packaged croissant and watching Good Morning America, 20 bucks worth of upgrades before we even boarded the train. You don’t get your seats on Amtrak until you board. We asked for upstairs and settled into our oversized faux leather recliners. Unlike an airplane, you can lean back without irritating the person behind you and there’s plenty of room for all your stuff. Business Class passengers get free bottled water but don’t expect any packaged croissants. Business class has its own observation lounge and I had read that it fills up quickly so I wasted no time in grabbing a table. I watched the California coast roll by the windows until it was time to hit the “cafe” which offered a limited menu and no seating. We brought our moderately priced hot dogs back to the lounge for the best views of the trip from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. The water turned a deeper blue and beachgoers, surfers and trailers were replaced by cliffs and dunes. On the other side we passed a small town with an actual saloon and a sheriff and then Grand Junction, which didn’t appear to be either grand or a junction. I finally fell asleep just around the halfway point. We had talked about dinner in the dining car but at $45 a person, we decided to wait until we hit San Jose at 7:45 and opted for the cafe’s cheese and cracker tray and M&Ms. What happens on Amtrak stays on Amtrak. About that arrival, apparently the nickname of the Coastal Starlite is the Coastal Starlate. My niece was able to track the train on the Amtrak app and we were only about 30 minutes late for a smooth pick-up and a trip to In-N-Out Burger.
San Jose to Seattle
When Amtrak emailed me that my roomette bid was “unsuccessful”, I promptly put in a “strong” bid for business class. One hour before departure I got the bad news that my bid was rejected. Business class was sold out, so it would be coach for us. As a consolation prize, I told Jenna we would spend the money we saved on that fancy dining car dinner. Scratch that, coach passengers don’t have access to the dining car. I felt like Leo DiCaprio in “Titanic.” We boarded the Coastal Starlite for Seattle at 8:30 pm. I had dressed for comfort, but Jenna changed into pajamas and slippers on the train. There is a dressing room in addition to the restrooms on board, even for coach. I put in earplugs even though the train was pretty quiet. Jenna slept soundly for almost 10 hours while I struggled to get comfortable in my coach seat, missing business class’s 25% extra legroom. I snagged about three hours before giving up at 7:15 am as the train entered Oregon. I ordered a coffee and grabbed breakfast from my snack stash and headed to the coach sightseeing lounge (is sightseeing a downgrade from observation?), I was rewarded with an impressive view of tall trees, lakes, snow-capped mountains and more green than I’ve seen in 25 years. Breaking up the trips with movies, conversation, naps and of course the views of the Pacific Northwest, made the 33 hours go by pretty quickly. The leisurely pace of the train is the opposite of the level of stress of airline travel where sometimes three hours can feel like 33 hours. If you’re not in need of sleep, the coach seats are fine for traveling. But for a trip over eight hours, business class is the way to go. And if you really want business class or a sleeper car, don’t gamble on BidUp. Just book early.
Tips for a Long Distance Train Trip
1. Research your train. Read blogs and reviews for insight on the best views, best place to sit and what to order from the dining car. 2. Unlike most Amtrak trains, the Coastal Starlite has no WIFI so plan your entertainment in advance. I brought my Chromebook with downloaded programming and wrote this story on the train. Jenna went old-school and packed a DVD player and movies she hadn’t seen in years. Download podcasts, books etc. Bring two sets of earbuds in case one fails. If you don’t have unlimited data on your phone, spring for it the month of your trip. 3. Download or print the train schedule so you know what town you’re in when you snap photos along the way. 4. Check your bags at no charge. Storage space for oversized bags is limited and I can’t imagine bringing them up the narrow stairs. We stuffed overnight bags with snacks, beverages, toiletries, clothes, sleep masks, travel pillows and blankets, a must on an overnight trip. 5. Talk to people. I met an 11-year-old boy from Alaska crocheting a scarf for his brother, a young man who made his living foraging for morels in rural Oregon, and shared animal crackers with an adorable 3-year-old girl. It’s all part of the journey.