Last August, I fulfilled two long-standing travel goals in a single trip. For a few years, I’d wanted to ride Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. Running daily between Los Angeles, CA and Seattle, WA, the Coast Starlight travels one of the most scenic routes of any train in the United States. I also wanted to revisit Crater Lake National Park, a beautiful volcanic lake in southern Oregon which I had first visited over a decade ago. Amtrak’s Klamath Falls station is less than an hour from Crater Lake by car, killing two birds with one stone.
Points Save the Day
We were able to afford this particular trip only because we saved well over $1,000 by redeeming points for tickets. Rachel and I decided to burn our US Airways Dividend Miles points on roundtrip tickets from Philadelphia to LAX, figuring that the currency would devalue once merged with the American Airlines AAvantage program. I also used 25,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points to book a bedroom on the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Klamath Falls, OR. The itinerary also included travel on in business class on the Pacific Surfliner from Fullerton, CA to Los Angeles at no extra charge. (For a discussion of the merits of Amtrak’s unsung Guest Rewards program, which has changed significantly since this itinerary was booked, please see the appendix at the bottom of this post.)
Our rail journey began the morning of Thursday, August 14, 2014. Rachel’s mother gave us a ride to nearby Fullerton, CA. Fullerton has a lovely train station originally built by the Santa Fe in 1930. Business class on the double-decker Pacific Surfliner is 2×1 seating with complimentary cinnamon buns, muffins, and juice. We had a pleasant journey on the Surfliner, which arrived in Los Angeles about ten minutes late but with plenty of time to make our connection.
Los Angeles Union Station
Many cities in the United States and Canada have union stations. The designation refers not to any political union but the decision of several passenger railroads of yesteryear to decrease their costs and increase customer convenience by building shared depots in major cities. Los Angeles Union Station, opened in 1939, was the final union station built. While not quite as impressive as its fellow union stations in Chicago or Washington, Los Angeles Union Station has an attractive Mission Revival exterior with a tower and a fairly elegant waiting area.
We headed upstairs to the Metropolitan Lounge to check in for the Coast Starlight. The lounge is an amenity open to passengers with first class and business class tickets. The friendly lounge staff took care of making sure our suitcase made it into the baggage car. (There’s relatively little space for luggage in sleeping cars…not every station offers checked luggage, but unlike airlines it’s still free of charge.) When we advised that we planned to look around, the staff also volunteered to look after our carry-on luggage. We explored the station grounds. Outside, there’s a courtyard with beautiful flowers.
We returned to the lounge and picked up bottles of orange juice before the staff announced boarding. About 30 minutes before departure, one of the lounge attendants, Maria, escorted us to Track 10. We located our car and met Roman, our sleeping car attendant.
Roman was very friendly and helpful throughout our journey. He insisted on carrying our bags upstairs to our room, something that I found interesting as a contrast between Amtrak’s on board staff and flight attendants, who often do not assist passengers with stowing luggage. The two-level Amtrak Superliners have four different types of rooms, of which the two principal ones are roomette and bedroom. The bedroom is by no means large, but is spacious in comparison with the tiny roomette, which has no room to move around in once the bunks are made up. Unlike the roomettes, the bedroom has an en suite toilet/shower. In daytime configuration, it has a chair and a small couch. The coach turns into the lower bunk and an upper bunk folds down from the bulkhead.
Coast Starlight Gets Underway
The train got an on-time start just after 10am PDT and quickly made its way out of downtown Los Angeles. The terrain was rocky and arid at this point. Roman came by to schedule our lunch reservations. I asked him to put the top bunk down so Rachel could take a nap and I headed back to the Pacific Parlour Car. (That’s no typo, the name is a curious example of British-style “u”.)
The Pacific Parlour Cars are unique to the Coast Starlight and are only accessible to sleeping car passengers; coach passengers get the Sightseer Lounge found on other Amtrak long distance trains. The Pacific Parlour Cars are among the oldest in the Amtrak fleet. Ours started life in 1956 as a Budd Hi-Level lounge car built for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. Its upper level features plenty of windows and eight comfy easy chairs on a swivel, a set of couches, and half a dining car. There are electric outlets and Wi-Fi, though the latter seems to be piggybacked on cell phones and is absent in rural areas. The Parlour Car does provide meal service to sleeping car passengers, but with a more limited menu than the adjacent dining car. There is a movie theatre downstairs.
About 30 minutes after passing Oxnard, the Pacific Ocean came into view. The beaches were crowded with swimmers, surfers, and sunbathers. I called Rachel on her cell phone to let her know she was missing the scenery. Unfortunately – and she has never let me forget this – when the phone woke her, she instinctively jolted up in bed and bumped her head on the ceiling above the upper berth!
The Pacific Coast
We sat down in the dining car for lunch just before Santa Barbara. Except for alcohol, meals are complimentary to sleeping car passengers. I enjoyed my chicken panko. The dining car attendants seemed a bit harried during meals in the crowded dining car, even as the dining section in the Pacific Parlour Car sat mostly vacant, presumably due to its limited menu. I’m curious as to why Amtrak doesn’t just have one menu for both cars, allowing the Parlour Car to take some of the pressure off at peak mealtimes.
After Santa Barbara, the rail route continues along the beautiful cliffs adjacent to Pacific Ocean. For a long stretch, there is little or no sign of civilization. It’s jarring how after just a few hours travel by ground from one of the densest metropolitan areas in the world, you can be somewhere with little sign of human civilization, rail lines and offshore platforms notwithstanding. West of Lompoc, the coast turned foggy. This area was the site of an accident back in 1922 when seven destroyers ran aground and sank nearby with the loss of 23 sailors following a series of navigational errors in heavy fog. It was the worst peacetime disaster in US Navy history.
North of Lompoc, the rails headed inland. Abruptly, the fog vanished and the sun came out as we passed the arid Casmalia Hills. We pulled into San Luis Obispo just before 4pm, roughly 30 minutes late. There is a brief layover here for a crew change, although the sleeping car and dining staff stay aboard for the entire journey.
We had a chance to stretch our legs and get some fresh air on the platform. I chatted for a while with Roman. The man seemed to genuinely love his job. He told me to keep an eye out after we departed the station, as the train would enter a horseshoe curve during which both the front and back of the train would be visible at the same time. After the journey resumed, the train climbed into the foothills in a steep section of track known as the Cuesta Grade.
Evening on the train
We sat down to dinner about 7:15pm. My herb roasted half chicken was quite good, with the meat so tender it fell off the bone. I was surprised when we passed through a wetland north of Salinas filled with herons, egrets, ducks, cormorants, and other waterfowl. Up until that point, the terrain had been quite dry. In fact, we were very close to Monterey Bay, passing through the estuary known as Elkhorn Slough. After dinner, we socialized with other passengers in the Pacific Parlour Car while the train approached Oakland, before heading back to our room for the night. The train was stopped for quite a while after Oakland. The crew announced was a “police action” on the tracks ahead. In general, the crew kept the passengers well informed about delays. As a result of the lengthy stop, the train was running a little under two hours late by morning.
For a light sleeper, spending the night on the train takes some getting used to. I got five hours’ sleep at most. Amtrak’s pillows aren’t great and the lower bunk had a gap that I could feel through the mattress. The jostling from the train’s movement and the locomotive’s horn sounding at crossings all night didn’t help any.
The transformation in the terrain that occurred overnight was striking. After sunrise somewhere between Redding and Dunsmuir, I could see that the arid foothills and cities of south and central California had given way to the rural pine forests and streams of northern California. I wasn’t particularly upset by the delay since we’d probably have a better view of Mt. Shasta than we would have passing it before dawn on schedule.
We first caught sight of Shasta’s cone silhouetted against the morning sky at around 7:15am while sitting in the dining car waiting for our omelets to arrive. At 14,179′ (4,322 m), Mt. Shasta is second only to Mt. Rainier in among the tallest volcanoes in the Cascade Range. The volcano’s main cone and its satellite cone, Shastina, were visible for about an hour as the train continued north.
Although there were quite a few eruptions in the Cascades during the 18th and 19th centuries, only Lassen Peak and Mt. St. Helens have erupted in the past 120 years. One day, this may prove more curse than blessing, since it allowed so many people to build their homes in the shadows of Rainier, Hood, and Shasta, ignorant of the fact that these volcanoes had been dormant for only a moment in terms of geologic time. One day, the foolhardiness of building towns and cities atop pyroclastic and mudflow deposits from historical eruptions might be tragically demonstrated.
It wouldn’t even take a particularly powerful eruption for Mt. Rainier’s snowcap to melt enough to devastate the Puyallup Valley, where tens of thousands of people now live. An eruption on the scale of the one that caused the collapse of ancient Mt. Mazama to form Crater Lake would cause unthinkable devastation; even after 7,000 years or so, virtually nothing grows in the Pumice Desert, where the Mazama deposited volcanic material to a depth of 200′ (61m) while blowing itself apart. For now, however, the peaks of the Cascades appear defined (to all but volcanologists, perhaps) by their beauty rather than their peril.
The train crossed the state line into Oregon. Roman let us know the train would be arriving in Klamath Falls around 9am. The Coast Starlight did make up some time and we arrived in Klamath Falls just over an hour late. We bade Roman farewell and eagerly headed to pick up our rental car for the road to Crater Lake.
- Date: Thursday August 14, to Friday August 15, 2014
- Distance: 872 miles (1403.4km)
- Train: Amtrak #14 Coast Starlight
- Equipment: GE Genesis P42 diesel locomotives (2) and Superliner cars
- Performance: On-time departure from Los Angeles Union Station 10:10am PDT, arrival about 70 minutes late to Klamath Falls (scheduled 8:17am PDT) (23 hours)
Appendix: Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Program
Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program is somewhat underrated among the mostly airline- and hotel-oriented points crowd. Certainly, Amtrak really can’t compete with the airlines in terms of speed with the possible exception of some areas of the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak really shines in cases where the experience of traveling by train – in terms of scenery, comfort, and service – is better than traveling by plane.
Note: The following three paragraphs describe the Guest Rewards program prior to 2016, but are no longer accurate.
Amtrak points can be a great value, especially for sleeping accommodations. Amtrak has a simple chart based on three main zones: Eastern, Central, and Western. Travel that is wholly within with the Northeast Zone (as far south as Norfolk, as far west as Lynchburg, Harrisburg, and Niagara Falls, and as far north as Montreal, St. Albans, and Brunswick) costs slightly less points than a coach ticket from one of the other zones. Because of the zone designs, north-south travel is particularly lucrative. A person could travel from New York to Miami or Los Angeles to Seattle in coach for a mere 5,500 points. Amtrak also doesn’t appear to have the capacity controls that make booking an award ticket on most airlines so frustrating. If the seat is available, it can be booked with points, notwithstanding some blackouts on certain dates and Acela service during certain times.
Sleeping car accommodations are particularly lucrative. As rooms on a train are booked up, the price for the remaining room increases in cash but not in points. Also, while two travelers sharing a room would have to buy the room for the first passenger and a coach ticket for the second, using points secures the room and its occupancy up to the maximum number of occupants (2 for most, 4 for family bedrooms). As an example of a lucrative redemption, two travelers going from Los Angeles, CA to West Glacier, MT via Portland, OR departing August 12 this year would have to pay $1,561 for a bedroom plus $167 for a coach seat for the second passenger for a total of $1,728. West Glacier is in the same zone as Los Angeles, so a much better choice is to use 25,000 Guest Rewards points, a redemption of 6.9 cents/point. (Generally, a redemption worth more than 2 cents/point is a good redemption). A family of four could travel in a family bedroom for the same number of points, which is an even better value considering the fact that meals are complimentary to sleeping car passengers.
Amtrak points can be accumulated through riding Amtrak, although at 2 points earned per dollar spent you’d have to spend a small fortune on Amtrak tickets to earn a bedroom. A better option is
transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak (no longer possible as of December 8, 2015) or using the Amtrak Guest Rewards Credit Card, one of the few co-branded credit cards that doesn’t have an annual fee.
Update on August 29, 2015: Guest Rewards is undergoing a major overhaul effective January 2016. The price in points is based on a fixed value for points rather than the zone or class of service format discussed here. Since points will be worth about 2.9 cents for non-Acela travel, some of the sleeping car accommodations will become a lot more expensive to purchase with points. On the other hand, some shorter routes like Washington to Chicago that were expensive in terms of points because they were two zones may be slightly cheaper than they were. Presumably additional occupants will be charged points as they would for a coach fare.
One silver lining is that cheaper coach tickets, like shorter distance trips on the Northeast Corridor, will cost fewer points with the new format. An overview of the new program can be viewed on View From the Wing: Amtrak’s New Revenue Based Program Details Revealed – Here’s What it Will Mean.