What A California Train Travel Vacation Is Like, Tips & Advice
For those of you considering taking an overnight or day trip by train, or have never considered train travel, but the headline grabbed you, this article will reveal what a fun, relaxing, experience it is, and offer up a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned from my journeys. Traveling by Amtrak is really one of the best-kept secrets in America, and I am more than happy to let the cat out of the bag.
Riding on a train, especially with family or friends, is a vacation in itself, a destination, instead of just a way to get from point A to B. I travel by plane for business and pleasure more frequently than most, but when my family wants to have a good time, we hop on the train. I’ve traveled mostly up and down the California Coast, so I can only speak from that experience, but have researched other routes extensively, so I have information on those as well.
On my first train trip, 18 years ago, my husband and I fell in love with each other. It was our fifth date, and we were taking the San Joaquin through the central valley of California from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That route actually starts at Union Station, where you get on a bus to Bakersfield, where you board the train, and then you get off in Stockton, where you take a bus to S.F. Not the most glamorous route; since then, we’ve learned to take the train that goes along the coast, but our first train trip was still an incredibly romantic experience. We dined in the dining car with an older couple that had been married forever, and held hands and snuggled in our seats as the train gently rocked and swayed into the black night.
We hadn’t been back on Amtrak for many years, and then my daughter was born in 2001. I started using Amtrak to visit my mom in S.F. It took a lot longer than the one-hour flight, but I had quality time with my new baby in the sleeper car. (We always get a sleeper if it’s available, even if it’s not an overnighter; it’s nice to have the space and privacy; plus your meals are included and you get access to the Parlor Car.)
My rediscovery of Amtrak was infectious, and my whole family started taking the train instead of flying when we traveled up the state. I remember the first time my husband considered the idea, he thought, “Just great. We’re going to take 9 hours to go the distance we could cover in an hour by plane!” But after his first trip on the Coast Starlight, he was disappointed when we pulled into our destination station; the time had gone by way too quickly. To put it bluntly, train travel forces you to spend time with your family for long stretches, without T.V, computers or Barbie (we conveniently forget to tell our daughter that there are media players available on the train). The results are heartwarming moments and family memories that will last a lifetime.
Train travel is the perfect antidote for the road warrior. No arriving at the airport an hour (or more) early, no security checks, no one tells you what to do, where to sit or stand, or listen for your name, the entire time. You experience freedom and civility, a welcoming courteous staff and a sense of calm that is almost meditative and not often found when using other modes of transportation.
You can check out routes and schedules on Amtrak.com. There’s some practical info about luggage and what not, but not an overabundance of information. Speaking of luggage, do yourself a favor and get a light carry on luggage, as lugging around a bulky luggage will hurt your legs and wallet. My personal favorite is this, but YMMV. Tickets and Accommodations are billed separately. If the trip is more than five hours, I recommend spending the extra money and getting a nice sleeper, even if you’re not on an overnight trip. You can close the door and have your own private world on the train. When it was the two of us with a child under 2, we got a Sleeperette for two people, but it provided plenty of space for the three of us. Now that my daughter is older, we get a family bedroom and it’s huge, with windows on both sides of the room. On shorter trips, we go business class. Like I said, being on the train is a vacation in itself, so pony up for the extras; you won’t be sorry.
Meals are included for sleeper car passengers. The dining car meals are actually quite good. On the Coast Starlight, there is a Parlor Car, accessible by only the sleeping car passengers, which is quite lovely and the location of complimentary wine tasting in the evenings. There are also board games and complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic beverages in the Parlor Car. You can buy cocktails with dinner or in the bar car. Sleeping car passengers are also allowed to bring their own private stock of beverages, as long as they are consumed inside the privacy of your sleeper.
Before You Go
We bring a bunch of junk to entertain my daughter, but never end up pulling it out of the bag. She is entertained by walking up and down the train, jumping through the exciting space between the jostling cars, hanging out in the Parlor Cars playing games, dining in the dining car, reading stories in our sleeper, and, of course, watching the dramatic scenery go by. At the end of the day, we’ll let her watch a movie on the media players that are supplied by Amtrak, complimentary for the sleeping car passengers. You really don’t need to bring a lot of stuff, but do make sure to bring your camera. No matter what the route, there’s bound to be some amazing scenery that can only be seen when traveling by train.
After reserving our tickets online, we usually swing by the station and pick them up before the trip. The ticket agents are unbelievably helpful, and that’s a good time to ask any specific questions that you may have as to what to expect on the trip. On the day of your trip, it’s a good idea to call Amtrak before you leave your house, to make sure the train is on time. On the occasion that it is more than an hour late, you’ll save the time and stress of waiting at the station.
As you can read on the web site, you can bring quite a bit of luggage, especially if you’re in a sleeper. We do bring an antique “bar case” that we inherited from my grandfather with a bottle of wine, and the ingredients for a gin and tonic. Sometimes we bring a bottle of Champagne to open in the sleeper when we first get on to make it a celebration. Hey, I’m not driving.
When traveling by train, I haven’t experienced any security checks or any waiting in line. We show our tickets to the attendant and he or she shows us to our sleeper or seat. The attendant will immediately get you some food and a beverage and make sure you’re comfortable. They will also make your bed if you’re in a sleeper. I usually tip them $20 as I am exiting the train, if they gave me good service.
On The Train
If you’re curious about anything, ask your attendant. Our experience has been that they’re more than helpful. Move about the various cars and explore what the train has; that’s some of the fun. On one trip, we found that, at the back of the train, they had an empty car turned into a kid’s playroom. Our daughter had a blast meeting new friends there, so we were glad that we found it. On the Coast Starlight, we make sure to get the sleeper on the ocean side. There are incredible views on that train, many of which can’t be seen any other way than by being on Amtrak. We grab an Oceanside table in the dining car and watch the sun set as we have our coffee and desert after an entrée of Salmon or Beef Bourguignon. We visit the Parlor Car for wine tasting or to play board games with our daughter. We read stories in our Sleeper, and, when my daughter is asleep, my husband and I snuggle in and watch a movie on the media players that are available from the attendant.
Road Warriors Need Not Apply
I can certainly understand hopping on a plane to Orlando in the afternoon, doing a video at 6am the next morning and getting back to L.A. that night to be back home with my family. The Amtrak train is not to be used for that purpose. I will warn you that it is not always on time, but that’s okay if you’re using it as recreational travel, like I do. Remember it’s a vacation in itself, so relax, enjoy the ride and stay on as long as possible.