The Inside Cabin is taking their show on the road once again, but this time on AMTRAK! We will be traveling to see relatives in Cleveland, Ohio, for the 4th of July.
A couple of our nephews traveled out west recently on AMTRAK and that got us thinking about taking a train. We had never considered a train in the USA before since we never really had the time. Our only other long distance train trip was a weekend trip from Washington, DC, to New York City – back before the turn of the century.
Our first question was – Can we get to Cleveland from San Diego on a train without it being too convoluted or requiring bus transfers between stations. We took a look at the AMTRAK system map HERE and were pleased to discover that getting to Cleveland was fairly straightforward. I do like how AMRTRAK names their routes/trains – California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Coastal Starlight – they also have train numbers, like flight numbers, but the route names are more distinctive and interesting.
The most direct route would be to take the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to Los Angeles and transfer to the Southwest Chief, which goes to Chicago, and then transfer to either the Capitol Limited or the Lake Shore Limited to get to Cleveland. Another option was to take the Surfliner to LA, transfer to the Coastal Starlight to Emeryville (San Francisco) then transfer to the California Zephyr to Chicago and then transfer to the Capitol Limited to Cleveland. This route takes a more northern route through the Rocky Mountains. Here is a picture of the various routes west of Chicago that shows the major routes along with when the train will be traveling in daylight. We decided to take the northern route (California Zephyr) going to Cleveland and then return on the Southwest Chief from Chicago directly to Los Angeles.
Total Trip time would be 65 hours.
Now that we have decided on our route, it was time to buy the tickets. I headed over to AMTRAK.COM, entered the itinerary and was offered several different types of accommodations for each leg:
- Coach: These are the standard seats, like very wide coach seats on an airplane, almost as wide as first class, but with plenty of leg room. The seats have a tray table that folds down from the back of the seat in front of you.
- Business Class: The seats look almost identical to coach. I was hard pressed to see much of a difference. You get access to free coffee and snacks and maybe a newspaper. Business Class was only available on the Costal Starlight and Pacific Surfliner.
- Roomette: These are the least expensive sleeping accommodations. They consist of two wide seats facing each other with a tray/table that folds out between the two seats. The roomette has two beds: one bed that folds out of the ceiling and the other is formed when the two facing seats fold flat. The roomette dimensions are 3.5 feet by 6.5 feet.
- Family Bedroom: This bedroom is the size of two roomettes and the hallway in between. You will find them on the lower floor of the sleeper cars. There isn’t a toilet or shower in the Family bedroom, but there is room for 3 people to sleep.
- Bedroom: The bedroom has a toilet & shower and permanent arm chair. Along one wall is a sofa that opens into a single bed. Another bed folds out of the ceiling. Bedrooms are 6.5 feet by 7.5 feet.
Wifi is only available on the Pacific Surfliner and Coastal Starlight, not on the California Zephyr or Southwest Chief.
The roomettes and bedrooms are expensive compared to an ordinary seat. The price depends on how far in advance you make your purchase.
For example, here are some ONE WAY fares from Chicago to Emeryville if you want to travel in less than 14 days:
- Non Refundable Coach Seat: $172
- Refundable Coach: $331
- Roomette: $1,027
If you buy a ticket well in advance the coach fares are the same, but they add a saver fare for $138 and the price of the roomette drops to $523. The Family Bedroom is $1,531 and the standard Bedroom is $1,314.
Our nephews said that the fare from their hometown near Cleveland to San Francisco was less than airfare which was a big reason they chose to go by train. We learned after we starting checking out prices that trains are cheaper than planes if you travel in coach. Business class is a little more but the seats aren’t any bigger and they certainly aren’t lie flat or anything like you would expect to see on an airplane. We weren’t going to spend over 50 hours on train without having a sleeper car, so we selected what was called a “roomette” and ran the numbers to get a price. I was a little surpassed to see a price of over $3,000 round trip for both of us. We decided to give it a go anyway and bought our tickets.
Once we bought the tickets we were assigned a car number and then a room number. We weren’t asked for a choice when we booked out tickets. Once we were onboard, we learned that the cars closer to the dining car have the advantage of being close to the dining car, but the rooms further away get fewer people walking past your room. Not sure if it really matters, we will let you know once we have more experience.
Now that we have our tickets – let’s take a look at the details of our itinerary
- Depart San Diego 6:07 AM June 23rd on the Pacific Surfliner
- Arrive Los Angeles 8:57 AM
- Depart Los Angeles 10:10 AM on the Costal Starlight
- Arrive Emeryville (San Francisco) 9:65 PM
- Overnight in Emeryville. We spent the weekend visiting San Francisco and we resume travels Monday Morning June 27th.
- Depart Emeryville 9:10 AM on the California Zephyr
- Arrive Chicago on June 29 at 2:50 PM
- Depart Chicago at 6:40 PM
- Arrive Cleveland on June 30 at 1:45 AM
We will spend a week in Cleveland before we head back, retracing our steps back to Chicago and then taking the Southwest Chief directly to LA and finally the Surfliner back to San Diego.
All Aboard! Our train trip begins.
Our driver arrived at 4:30 AM and we left our condo a few minutes later on our way to the San Diego AMTRAK Station. We arrived around 5 AM and were dropped off on the sidewalk immediately outside the train station and were inside in less than a minute. We had to check a bag, but the ticket window didn’t open until 5:15 so we waited in the roped off line area until they opened. There were a lot of signs about baggage restrictions for carry on bags, but I don’t think they were really enforced. It appeared that if you could get it on the train, you were good to go.
Once the ticket agents opened they quickly checked our bag, gave us a receipt tag and we were on our way. Our ticket was a printout of our itinerary with a single barcoded square that all AMTRAK personnel would scan when necessary.
The Pacific Surfliner was originating from San Diego. Our train had been there all night and was sitting on a nearby track. The Surfliner doesn’t have sleeper cars so we were in business class as far as Los Angeles
About 15 minutes before departure we headed out onto the platform and got in line to board the train. Since there weren’t any assigned seats, people seemed to want to get on first so they would get their favorites. Business Class put us in a separate line that boarded ahead of the coach passengers. About half the seats are facing in the opposite direction the train is heading. The train cars are symmetrical left to right, so it doesn’t matter which end of car is facing in the direction of travel when the car leaves the station.
Here is a picture of the floorplan for the Coach Car and the Business Class Car. I can’t tell any difference. We might have upgraded seat covers or something, but nothing very obvious. We did get free coffee, juice and a muffin along with a complimentary copy of USA today.
After we left the station, I went down to check out the café car; they had a selection of breakfast sandwiches, juices, coffee and pastries. The attendant mentioned that they were out of many items since they can’t get catering in San Diego for some reason. The train was full and why they can’t figure out how to cater the trains rather modest requirements when it spends every night here is a mystery. The coffee was below average so I suggest bringing your own onboard if you have the opportunity.
Here are the menus for the cafe car.
Most people on the train were commuters going to LA for the day for work. Many folks we chatted with said they enjoyed not having to fight the traffic and they were able to get some work done while commuting.
We were a little surprised to see how close the train was to the ocean in many spots and also how close it was to many very expensive beach homes.
The train stopped a handful of times along the way to Los Angeles. Train motion is not like anything you experience on an airplane or cruise ship. It is similar to sitting over the back wheels on a bus. A little bumpy from time to time, but most jarring was the occasional sudden jerk left or right. These jerks were strong enough where you would lose your balance forcing you to grab onto a seatback or luggage rack to steady yourself.
Not surprising the view out the window was similar to what you see when driving your car, except you can’t see forward, only out the side windows.
We arrived in Los Angeles Union Station a few minutes late, but we had over an hour till our next train left so there wasn’t any worrying about making our connection.
Train stations don’t have security like an airport where once you get past airport security you are in a sterile zone that is restricted to passengers. It is also usually difficult to walk to an airport which tends to further restrict the number of people simply hanging around. Train stations, on the other hand, are usually downtown and are easily accessible to anyone on foot and since there isn’t any security the train station employees are always trying to find the right balance between comfort and accessibility for passengers while restricting access to non-passengers.
The LA Union Station provides a piano that any passenger can play and entertain their fellow passengers. This guy was pretty good.
Since we were traveling in a sleeper car, which AMTRAK considers first class, we had complimentary access to the Los Angeles Station’s Metropolitan Lounge. The lounge is quite small as compared to what you will find at an Airport. There were probably seats for 50 people and when we arrived, nearly all of them were occupied. They offered a selection of juices, soft drinks, bottled water and pastries, along with coffee and tea.
After about 20 minutes they announced that it was time to head to the platform and get ready to board the train. Once on the platform we tried to anticipate where our particular car would stop, but only after the train arrived did we notice that the car numbers were on signs attached to poles near the entrance to each car. Had we noticed this earlier we could have been waiting at the spot where our sleeper car would stop, but the trains spend enough time in the station and it was easy to walk forward to the correct car.
As we entered our car, the car numbers are displayed in a small window near the door, the Sleeping Car Attendant (SCA) welcomed us to the train and checked our name off the list. We were in room number 5 which was on the upper level of the car. Here is the layout of our sleeper car.
As you can see, there are 3 toilets on the lower level of the car and one on the upper level. There is also a small shower on the lower level. Since the roomettes don’t have any room for carry-on bags, there are a couple of bins/shelves where you can stow this on the lower level near the door.
The Coastal Starlight train consists of the following cars. The configuration of cars for any particular AMTRAK train is referred to as the “Consist”
Coastal Starlight Consist
- Baggage Car
- Dorm Car for Employees
- First Class Lounge Car aka Pacific Parlour Car
- Coach Sightseer Lounge Car
We settled into our roomette and got organized as best we could in such a small space before heading off to the Parlour Lounge Car. We learned that the normal Parlour Car for the Coastal Starlight was out of service so they substituted a standard lounge car in its place. We were told that the normal Parlour Car has a small movie theater on the lower level and the bar/café attendant on the upper level. It also has more ornate wooden wall coverings and decorations.
For most of our journey the Coastal Starlight is too far from the coast to see the ocean. However, the 104-mile section from Ventura to Pismo Beach hugs the coast and offers spectacular views from the west facing windows.
Meals are served in the dining car by reservation only. Attendants start up forward in the sleeper cars and walk to the back of the train taking reservations. Passengers traveling in the sleeper cars get first choice and then the passengers in coach get whatever’s left. We chose the latest time available 1:30 pm and when your time becomes available they make an announcement to the entire train. You may be called a few minutes early or late depending on how the service is progressing. Here is the layout of the dining car.
The tables are all 4 tops with 2 bench seats facing each other. You are required to share your table with another couple or singles as space is limited. Folks in the sleeper cars have the option for their SCA to bring the dinner or lunch to their room if they don’t want to go to the dining room. Meals are included in your fare if you are in a sleeper car. Here are some pictures of the menu with the prices if you are in coach.
Judy and I each had the Angus steakburger and it was pretty good.
Once it gets dark, there isn’t a very much to see but Judy was able to get some knitting done while I was able to catch up on some reading.
We arrived in Emeryville about 30 minutes late – 10:30 PM local time. We were staying at the Hyatt House which was within easy walking distance of the train station.
Tomorrow we rent a car and explore San Francisco. It’s been a while since we have been here for more than a short stop on a cruise ship.This entry was posted in Uncategorized