Your Guide to Riding One of Amtrak’s Most Scenic Train Routes Along the Pacific Coast

The Coast Starlight offers breathtaking views of the Pacific coast. Here's everything you need to know about taking the trip.

All aboard, y’all! It’s Trains Week at Thrillist, which means we’re celebrating our obsession with trains—fast trains, slow trains, wine trains, even snow trains. Throughout the week, you’ll find off-the-rails stories and handy locomotive guides to help you plan your next great adventure. In the meantime, we’ll see you in the bar car!

Traveling large swaths of America isn’t especially easy. And while an approximately 35-hour train ride on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight presents its own pain points, it’s also worth it if you can swing it. The Coast Starlight is a passenger train that has been in service since 1971 that currently runs between Seattle and Los Angeles by way of Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific coast along the way.

Booking a ticket

First, plan ahead and book early. According to an Amtrak representative, “Amtrak is having capacity issues as many trains are booking up 60 days in advance.” Second, and maybe most importantly, to experience the Coast Starlight properly, you need to make sure you’re filtering your ticket search to reflect the named train as opposed to Mixed Service, which will take you off the rails and onto the road via bus connections.

Roomette | Photo by Becca James for Thrillist

Selecting a seat

Amtrak trains provide a variety of seating accommodations depending on the route. The Coast Starlight includes Lower/Upper-Level Coach Class, a Superliner Roomette option, and four different Superliner Bedroom options. Of note, unlike flying, Amtrak offers ample space in Coach. As for choosing a lower or upper-level seat, that all depends on your disposition. While seats on the upper level may offer a better view, they also experience heavier foot traffic as the train’s throughway among cars. Meanwhile, the lower seats are closer to the restrooms and any larger luggage you may be traveling with.

Roomette and Bedroom options are considered First-Class and come with a dedicated attendant, complimentary lounge access, priority boarding, and complimentary meals. The bedrooms also offer much more space as well as private restroom and shower access in your car.

Insuring your trip

When selecting your Coach Class seat, you will be given three options with increasing prices. These include Saver, which is a non-refundable ticket, meaning a cancel or change fee may apply; Value, which includes refundability options and no change fee; and Flexible, which is 100% refundable before departure with no cancel or change fees. It’s up to you whether you want to pay for the reassurance or roll the dice.

Boarding the train with your baggage, er, bags

Depending on the class of your ticket, you will either be waiting for your train to arrive at a station or in that station’s lounge, which offers a quiet seating area, complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, snacks, and free Wi-Fi. Once your boarding group is called, the options for storing your luggage are as plentiful as the luggage allowance. For specifics, you can check Amtrak’s website, but it’s safe to say the experience runs much more smoothly than anything going on with TSA and those overhead bins. Amtrak's generous luggage policies, which include special items, make it nearly impossible to overpack. Amtrak does provide helpful suggestions for perfect packing, but if you’re looking for more specific tips, especially ones related to overnight train travel, we’ve got you covered.

Riding the rails

I was fortunate enough to snag a sleeper car via the Roomette. If you’re comfortable with a communal restroom and shower, which I am, the Roomette is perfect for a solo traveler in search of a main character moment, which I was. Outfitted with everything from outlets to a selfie mirror, but not Wi-Fi, it was the perfect place to disconnect for an unforgettable experience. The views kept my eyes glued to the window for almost the entirety of the trip save for nighttime, which obscures parts of Oregon and Northern California, but not before I was treated to snowfall that called to mind a Narnia adventure as we passed through pine-filled mountain ranges. That said, if you’re not in a coast-side sleeper, your best bet for the best views is to find a seat on the right side of southbound trains and the left side of northbound trains or to head to the observation car, which offers floor-to-ceiling views of everything along the way. Wherever you find yourself, the move is to sit back and relax as the train weaves its way through the overwhelmingly beautiful tapestry of America, providing ocean views that will literally make you cry. Yes, I did sob. Don’t worry. The train slows down along the water so you can fully take in the beauty, let go of your emotional baggage, and dry your eyes with the provided tissues. 

When you need a break from yourself, however, the dining car is where it’s at, an inarguable highlight of the trip. Included in the price of a room, the dining car can also be accessed for a fee if you’re not in a room. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served at communal tables, meaning you will be paired up accordingly to fill out a four-top. This ride is over a full day long without internet access, so you'll find yourself sitting with other people who have carved out the time for a long, unplugged trip. Often, that means they’re retired. And that means you’re going to hear stories, the sort that come from a life lived. Share your own if you have them. The entire point is to enjoy the conversation as much as you enjoy your meal.

Amtrak Signature Railroad French Toast
Amtrak Signature Railroad French Toast | Photo by Becca James for Thrillist
Natural Angus Burger
Natural Angus Burger | Photo by Becca James for Thrillist
Pan Roasted Chicken Breast
Pan Roasted Chicken Breast | Photo by Becca James for Thrillist
Chocolate cake with caramel, fudge, and whipped cream
Dessert | Photo by Becca James for Thrillist

Speaking of which, sample menus can be found online, featuring seasonal menu items with various entree, beverage, and dessert selections that assure you will not go hungry. But may I suggest the Amtrak Signature Railroad French Toast for breakfast, the Natural Angus Burger for lunch, and the Pan Roasted Chicken Breast for dinner, and absolutely do not skip the desserts, all of which are delicious. Still hungry? Hit up the snack car for a variety of munchies.

Reflecting on your trip before booking the next

If you’re anything like me, by the time you reach your destination, you will have felt like you lived an entire other life during your journey. After all, it’s possible to see both glittering snow and gleaming waves during the same ride, which is beautiful and trippy. So take stock of all you experienced, making any necessary tweaks before your next long-haul train trip. Or if you decide that another go around isn’t for you, maybe a shorter trip will do.

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Becca James is a Senior Editor at Thrillist.