We rode the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles, California for “free”. Below is our trip, in photos.
The inspiration to ride Amtrak came from two places: the oft-shared on Facebook blog about taking Amtrak across the USA for $213 and our Tanzania-Zambia Railway train experience in Africa this past July.
Our 60 hour Tazara adventure showed us that riding a train can be incredibly enjoyable, as long as you have a place to sleep. The tipping point came when we discovered we could book a two-person sleeper cabin (aptly called a Roomette) for free using only Amtrak points. And if there’s one thing we love to do, it’s travel for free using miles and points.
We booked our trip from Portland to Los Angeles on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, widely considered one of the prettiest sections of railroad in the US. It was 16,611 Amtrak Guest Rewards points (which we transferred from SPG) for a trip that would have otherwise cost nearly $500, which is a fantastic points to dollar ratio (if you’re looking to learn more, check out our miles and points beginner’s guide).
Our journey started at Union Station in Portland, our hometown. At the age of 32, I’d never departed a train from here and enjoyed the neon signs in the station.
We left on-time at 2:25pm for the scheduled 31 hour journey. We found the train to be clean and well-equipped, if on the older side. And there was something nostalgic for me about riding Amtrak—a distinctly American rail system that is mostly maligned and rarely utilized by those same Americans. I hope this account can offer a fresh perspective.
Our Roomette was smaller than we thought—we were sensitized to the 4-person rooms on Tazara—but we quickly adapted to the cozy setup. It is quite hard to capture in photos but the two bunk beds, when fully extended, take up the entire footprint of the walk-in closet sized room.
In the photos below my feet are standing at the threshold of the sliding door to our roomette. The first photo is the seated configuration, the second is the sleeping setup.
There is a small table that folds out easily.
We were greeted with 2 water bottles and note from Roger, our car-steward, who was a delightfully quirky gentleman and the definition of helpful. Here’s a photo of him during one of our “stretch your legs” stops.
Soon after settling in, he paid us a visit and offered the recently-vacated family bedroom next-door. It felt huge, compared to our spot, but we opted to stay in our cozy Roomette. The below photos show both sides of the family bedroom.
Other Roomette features included a single 110 volt outlet (3 prong US plug), heating controls, reading lights above each chair, and cool air controls on the ceiling. There are several small cubbies and places to hang clothing and small bags.
The upper bunk folds down at night. There are protective straps you hook to the ceiling which managed to successfully keep Olivia in place.
As for other room types, there is an in-between size Bedroom which sleeps 2 but is larger and includes a private bathroom/sink.
Overall, the accommodations are totally nice—at least from a backpacker’s perspective. We traveled with a majority 65+ crowd and they all seemed to enjoy themselves quite well too. The bathrooms were very much like airplane lavatories but we were pleasantly surprised to find showers, similar to those you’d find at a campground. The water was hot and the water pressure was good. They provided small soaps and towels too.
The surprises didn’t end there. We brought two full bags of Trader Joe’s goodies—snacks and small meals—because we didn’t want to pay the train prices for food. But guess what?! Food is included for those in the sleeper cars. It was like we were traveling first class (except you gotta pay for booze). So before every meal, attendants from the dining car (Timmy) or the parlor car (Oscar) would come around and take our order and book us a mealtime.
Here’s the menu if you were to pay the somewhat steep prices, given the quality. Don’t forget to tip the staff.
In general we found the Amtrak staff to be notably polite, helpful, and at times downright funny. Spending 30 hours with the same attendants is a refreshing change to the transactional nature on domestic flights.
The food, on the other hand, was not so great. If you’re paying cash I’d try to bring enough food to sustain you the length of your journey. But given it was included with our Roomette reservation, it was just fine. 😃 I didn’t snap a photo of our Asian noodle dish the first night but below are pictured breakfast and lunch our second day.
One of our favorite aspects of train travel is the train itself. My impression is that when people think train they mostly think metro. A place to sit and be transported. But long-haul trains are so much more than that. The Coast Starlight has 5 spaces entirely distinct from your “residence”.
The parlour car was our favorite. Only open to business class and sleeper car riders, it was generally less crowded and included spaces to lounge, drink, and eat. Food was served in the parlor car, at times without reservation, and breakfast was buffet. Oscar was fantastic treated all, regardless their blood alcohol content, with respect. Here’s a photo of a wine tasting Oscar put on—$7.50 for 3 wines.
You can also eat in the Dining Car, with reservation. It is community seating and our first evening we ate with two women, one from Illinois and the other from Louisiana. They were also inspired by the $213 article we cited above.
Another favorite was the viewing car with windows that curve up and onto the roof of the train.
There’s also a cafe car, which seems to have good snack options, but we didn’t partake.
There’s also a movie theater! It wasn’t in use, but how cool is that?
If you’re traveling business class (first photo) or economy (second photo), you won’t sleep flat but it is roomier than an airplane (the only consolation in my opinion).
The most enjoyable part of train travel for us is the down time spent writing, reading, chatting with other passengers, and window viewing.
The views are just incredible (minus the dirty windows); the west coast is beautiful.
The Coast Starlight is the only way to visualize much of a 100-mile stretch of the ocean south of San Luis Obispo, and the views did not disappoint.
Don’t forget to tip your car attendant. Roger was really great.
30 hours after departure, and right on time, we arrived in Los Angeles Union Station.
Would we ride Amtrak again? Absolutely. If you’re skeptical, give it a try. Take the time and enjoy the journey.