top of page

Coast Starlight Amtrak Train Review From LA To San Francisco By In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

The Amtrak Coast Starlight train travels along almost the entire length of the West Coast in the USA and is one of the most scenic train rides in America. Join us for the sights as we take the ride north from Los Angeles to San Francisco, then save this article for your bucket list!


CONTENTS



Coast Starlight Amtrak Train Route

We began our month-long train trip across the U.S. and back using the Amtrak USA Rail Passes at the historic Los Angeles Union Station. Being LA locals, we’ve been through here a number of times, but if you haven’t, I’m sure it will feel like the beginning of a magical adventure. Our next stop would be Emeryville, just across the bay from San Francisco, but the Coast Starlight actually travels all the way up to Seattle. We rode the full length at the very end of our train trip to return to Los Angeles, so we’ll talk more about that later.


Taking the train from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one of the most scenic train rides in the United States, but it takes around 10-12 hours, so if you’re just trying to GET THERE, this probably isn’t for you. We learned very quickly that train travel is a completely different form of travel from what most people are used to, which is “get me from point A to point B as quickly as possible.” Trains are for slow travel, and you have to think about the train ride itself as part of your trip, not just the destination it’s taking you to. So sit back and enjoy the views! (Which you can do with a drink in your hand since you’re not sitting in traffic. Cheers!)


Amtrak Coast Starlight Train Route Map In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

To get across the bay from the train station in Emeryville into San Francisco proper, there is a short bus connection that will take you just inside SoMa. Since we were boarding the California Zephyr the very next morning, we decided to stay at an Airbnb close to the train station and not use the bus connection, which would have used up another of our 10 available legs in our USA Rail Passes and cannot be bought separately. But the USA Rail Passes are yet another topic that warrants a whole other blog post that will be coming soon!


Along the way, we made stops in Burbank, Van Nuys, Simi Valley, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Salinas, San Jose, and Oakland. Some stops were super quick - just long enough for some people to exit and board - and some were fresh air breaks / smoking breaks when we would have 10-15 minutes to step off the train if we wanted. Beware of the smokers if you are stepping off for fresh air though; you will have to move further away to get away from the cigarette smoke. It wasn’t too bad on the Coast Starlight, as most of the train stations are open-air, but we had problems with it on some of Amtrak’s other routes.


Beautiful West Coast Views Of Pacific Ocean On Amtrak Coast Starlight Train From Los Angeles To San Francisco Review By In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

Sights on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Train Between Los Angeles and San Francisco

We took the Coast Starlight north to Emeryville before embarking on what is generally considered to be the most scenic train ride in the United States: the California Zephyr. And while the California Zephyr had our favorite sights of any of the 7 routes we took, the Coast Starlight is the best if you want incredible views the entire time you’re on the train.


If you’re heading north out of Los Angeles like we did, as you check in for your train at LA Union Station, you can request to sit on the west side of the train, which we highly recommend. Even though we had originally been assigned to the east side of the train, the attendant was happy to move us since there was still space available, and we really appreciated it. While the east side of the train does get some nice views of the hills, the west side gets you gorgeous coastline views for a few hours! And although we recommend going to the observation car to see them, if the train is at full capacity, they may ask people to rotate out, but you still want to be able to enjoy the views from your seats in coach!


Pro Tip: Get to the train station to check in early so you can request to sit on the west side of the train before the seats get filled up!


Speaking of the observation car, you’ll want to head there as soon as you have your ticket scanned after the train starts moving, because it WILL fill up. (Read more about this in the Our Experience section of this article.) Heading north on the Coast Starlight route, the ocean views will begin shortly after the Oxnard stop and will continue until you’re getting close to San Luis Obispo. That’s about a 2½ hour section of coastline views!


Pro Tip: Don’t forget to wear sunscreen when you’re sitting in the observation car! The huge windows are great for the views but offer no refuge from harsh UV rays.


After the ocean views as you’re taking the train from LA to San Francisco, you’ll get to go through the central coast wine country between San Luis Obispo and Monterey. Keep your cameras ready, because this area is also beautiful, and every once in a while you’ll even see cars backed up on the freeway and you’ll think to yourself, “Man, I’m glad I’m not them right now.” But for a lot of the time, the train cuts through areas that cars don’t, so it’s a totally different experience from driving. We even saw a family of deer right off the train tracks! The train went by too quickly to be able to get pictures of them, but it was a nice moment.


If you start the journey around 10am like we did, you’ll likely get to watch the sunset over wine country. After that when it gets dark, you can’t see anything outside the train, so that’s the perfect time to read a book or watch a movie you’ve downloaded onto a device (while wearing headphones).


One more Pro Tip: When you want to take pictures or videos out the windows while on the train, press your phone or camera lens up against the window to get rid of glare!


Coach Seats On Amtrak Coast Starlight Train From LA To San Francisco Review By In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

What is the Coast Starlight Amtrak Train Like?

Types of Seats on the Amtrak Coast Starlight

The Coast Starlight Amtrak train is broken up into four types of cars: the sleeper cars (where the private rooms are), the dining car (which is only accessible to those with private rooms), the coach class cars, and the observation car (which also includes the cafe on the lower deck).


With the USA Rail Pass, you’re assigned to coach class and you cannot pay to upgrade to a private room (believe me, I asked!), but you still get access to the observation car / cafe car. The Coast Starlight also offers business class, roomettes (small private room for up to 2 people on one side of the train), bedrooms (similar to a roomette but a little bigger), and family bedrooms (up to 2 adults and 2 kids). All private rooms have access to a shower, which is one of the biggest downsides that riding in coach does not offer.


Amtrak Coast Starlight Train Sleeper Car Features

In addition to the showers (although I’ve heard it’s only cold water), private rooms also have all meals included, you can bring your own alcohol (to consume in your private room only), and of course you’ll have a private space to store your belongings while you move about the train. With all that being said, we do not recommend the private rooms if you’re just taking the train from LA to San Francisco because it’s only a 10-12 hour ride, so you really don’t need all that.


Amtrak Coast Starlight Coach Seats

The seats in the coach car are all facing forward, so you do not need to worry about traveling “backwards,” which I know can throw some people off. There are two seats on each side of the aisle, just like the business class on an airplane. If you’re under 6’ tall, you’ll have plenty of legroom; if you’re over 6’ tall, it won’t be as much, but it won’t be entirely uncomfortable. The seats recline fairly far back and include a leg rest that comes up from under your chair, plus a footrest that comes down from the chair in front of you. The leg rest comes up enough that you can slide a backpack or a smaller carry-on under your legs, keeping your belongings much safer if you want to sleep than they would be just leaving them out in the open.


You’ll also have a tray table that folds down from the seat in front of you, which has a small divot for a drink, but it’s not the most secure spot. I would be nervous to use it for a drink without a lid while the train is moving, as the train can rock back and forth quite a bit in some areas. (And although I sometimes struggle with carsickness, I never had a problem on the trains.) The tray table itself is much larger than what you see on an airplane too; it’s about the same size as my 15” laptop, but it can’t be used for anything else while the laptop is on it. There aren’t any other cupholders in the seats either, so I had to hold my drink in my lap while using my laptop on the tray, which can get a little annoying. The tray can actually extend out towards you too, which is a nice feature, but it’d be nicer if it could extend out just a bit more and still stay sturdy. Even at full extension, I had to reach forward for my laptop, which can be painful for my back and shoulders after a while. And if you’re sitting at the very front of your coach car, be aware that you won’t have a tray table or footrest to use (but you’ll still have a leg rest).


At every pair of coach seats, there are two outlet plugs just under the window. We realized early on in our trip that a short extension cord would be helpful for the person sitting in the aisle seat, especially if you’re traveling solo and could possibly end up sitting next to a stranger. Laptop cords were essentially draped over the person sitting next to the window, but that wasn’t a big deal for us since we’re together. The coach seat windows are quite large too and provide a great view, even when sitting in the aisle seat, but they also have curtains with velcro attached to them, so when you open them, they’ll stay open, and when you close them, they’ll stay closed. There is also an overhead shelf to put your small carry-on bags, but rolling carry-on bags must be stored on the lower level of the train.


Amtrak Double Decker Train

The Coast Starlight is a double-decker train, with most of the coach seating on the top floor. The stairs to get up to the top floor are narrow and steep, so be very careful when moving up and down them. There are some coach seats on the lower level for people who can’t use the stairs, but the top deck is where all of the fantastic views are. All restrooms and the cafe car are located on the lower floors however, but all movement between train cars happens on the upper level, so you will have to traverse the stairs a few times along the train ride.


Amtrak Coast Starlight Observation Car From LA To San Francisco On A Train Review By In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

Observation Car in the Coast Starlight

Everyone gets access to the observation car, regardless of what class ticket you’ve booked. There are large bay windows that stretch and curve above you onto the corner of the ceiling, giving you an enormous field of view. (That extra bit on the top really helps on the California Zephyr!) There are clusters of seats that face towards the windows and 8 four-top tables facing forward/backward for eating, playing games, or working (and more power outlets at each table). The observation car runs on a first-come, first-serve basis, so if it’s full, the attendants will politely tell you to return to your seat and wait a bit before trying again, which is why it’s crucial to get there early so you won’t miss out on the ocean views between Oxnard and San Luis Obispo.


Cafe Car, Dining Car, and Food on Amtrak Coast Starlight

The cafe car is on the bottom deck of the observation car, via some narrow stairs in the middle of the car. They offer convenience store style snacks and refreshments, including a few hot selections, but make no mistake, this is frozen food being reheated for you and is not restaurant-quality food. They offer breakfast items like donut holes, bagels, coffee, and tea, and for lunch and dinner there are things like hot dogs, hamburgers, ramen, and sodas. Food prices range from $3 - $8.


The cafe car also offers limited beer, wine, and mini-bottles of liquor, which cost around $8 each. They’ll also provide ice water at no charge, either from the cafe car attendant, or via some water fountains dispersed throughout the observation and coach cars. Despite some people giving sour looks while drinking it, we thought it tasted just fine (we drink filtered water at home).


Pro Tip: If you enjoy hot tea, bring your own tea bags and ask the attendant at the cafe for a cup of hot water. This small thing made my mornings on the train way better because I got to still have my specialty teas instead of the generic stuff they have and it didn’t cost me anything extra.


You are allowed to bring on your own food and non-alcoholic drinks onto the train as well. If you’ve booked a sleeper car, you are allowed to bring your own alcoholic drinks, but they can only be consumed in your private room (not in the observation or dining cars). Due to food safety laws, Amtrak employees cannot store or reheat any food you bring onboard, which means you need to take food that will stay good at room temperature for however long you’ll be onboard, or you can bring a small cooler as a carry-on, which we saw a few people do while we were traveling. We’re writing a full, separate article on what to eat and drink while traveling in an Amtrak coach car, so you can sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this page if you’re interested in seeing that when it comes out!


The train dining car is only available to those who booked the sleeper cars, but meals will be included there if you do. We tried to upgrade while using the USA Rail Pass and just pay the difference between the coach and sleeper car tickets for specific legs of our trip, but Amtrak does not allow it. At some point, we’ll try a sleeper car that includes the dining option and report back.


Restrooms On Amtrak Coast Starlight Train Review By In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog

Bathrooms on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Train

As I said before, the bathrooms are all located on the lower levels in the coach cars. There is a small hallway with 3-4 tiny bathrooms, 1 or 2 slightly larger bathrooms with enough space to change clothes, and 1 fairly large handicapped bathroom stall (big enough for a wheelchair to fit in). While it’s nice to have the extra space in the handicapped restrooms, be careful about using them when the train is about to stop. Adam was in one at our very first stop (which only lasted a few minutes), but the door to get off the train blocked the handicapped bathroom stall door from opening and he was stuck inside, but only for a couple minutes. It was a funny text to receive from him while I was sitting upstairs, saying he was trapped in the bathroom, but it was actually fine. He stayed calm and just waited until the train started moving again to leave the bathroom, which surprised the attendant because people (apparently) usually just bang on the door in a panic until they’re let out. It gave us a good laugh, anyway.


Amtrak Baggage Policy

When traveling on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, you’re allowed 2 free checked bags per person, to/from most major stations along this route, such as LA to San Francisco like we were doing. The checked bags are stored in one of the luggage cars and are inaccessible during your trip, so you’re also allowed a generous 2 free carry-on bags & 2 free personal items per person, but you should try to avoid having too much stuff to keep track of while on the train, because not all of it will remain in your sight all the time.


There is an overhead shelf in the coach cars for your carry-ons, but rolling bags are not allowed on the second floor and must be stowed on the shelves on the lower decks next to the restrooms. These lower deck shelves are large enough that they could also be used for what is normally a large checked bag and you’ll have the added bonus of being able to get into those bags if you need something during your trip, but again, they will be out of your sight for the majority of your time onboard and they’ll be accessible for other passengers if someone was trying to be sneaky. After traveling exclusively by train for a month with multiple overnight trips, we have a lot of advice we’re going to put in another blog post about what to pack in your carry-on bags for train travel. You can sign up for our newsletter below so you’ll be notified when the new blog posts come out and learn more about Amtrak’s specific policies on their website.


Wi-Fi

Unfortunately, there is NO WI-FI on the Coast Starlight. Most mobile data will work fine for the length of this train ride because you’re still close enough to the freeway and cell towers, but Amtrak does not provide wi-fi on this route like they do on some of the more commuter-friendly routes on the east coast, such as the Northeast Regional.


Pets

Surprisingly, you CAN take your small dog or cat on the Coast Starlight train! However, there is a limit to 5 non-service animals onboard each train, and it will cost an additional $29-$39, so make sure you reserve that spot well in advance too. See this page on Amtrak’s website for the fine print.


Central California Wine Country Train Review By In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

Our Experience on the Coast Starlight

Our train trip started here, leaving Los Angeles Union Station on the Coast Starlight to San Francisco, before we embarked on the California Zephyr, Capitol Limited, Pennsylvanian, Northeast Regional, Lakeshore Limited, and Empire Builder Amtrak trains, all before landing back on the Coast Starlight in Seattle to come all the way back south to Los Angeles. We did all of it in coach seats using the USA Rail Passes, which worked out perfectly for the train ride from LA to San Francisco.


Coach seats are perfect for this day-long train trip because you’re going to want to be in the observation car anyway to see out both sides of the train, so don’t waste extra money on a private room unless you REALLY feel like you need it.


We were assigned seats when we checked in at LA Union Station, but since we had done our research, we requested to sit on the west side of the train to get the great ocean views, and the attendant was happy to switch us since there was still availability for it. They handed us a paper slip to put above your seat once you’re on the train, so make sure you hold on to it! We saw tons of people make the rookie mistake of throwing it away or tucking it somewhere in their bag and forgetting about it, but the attendant onboard the train WILL ask you for it. This simple, paper slip not only has your seat assignment, but also a code for your final stop so the train attendants know to wake you up before getting to your stop if you’re sleeping, or to generally help make sure you’re getting off the train at the right time.


Once you’re onboard the train, you’re supposed to sit in your assigned seat and wait until the attendant comes by and scans your ticket after the train starts moving, but we were unaware of this and immediately went to the observation car to ensure that we got some good seats for the incredible ocean views. The attendant eventually came in and was a little annoyed that we (and several other people) didn’t wait at our seats, but he scanned our tickets while in the observation car and let us stay. Attendants on other lines we used while traveling were not so polite, forcing everyone out of the observation car until your ticket was scanned. But once your ticket is done, get to the observation car ASAP and grab a seat on the west side of the train (left if you’re heading north like we were) to soak up those gorgeous vistas of the Pacific Ocean while you’re between Oxnard and San Luis Obispo.


The route from Los Angeles to Oxnard is more industrial and not that exciting, but it will pay off when you get to the ocean and everyone who didn’t know it was coming is left competing for a seat at the last second. We were even surprised by a Historical Society that got on at Santa Barbara and told stories about landmarks as we passed them in the observation car, including a small rock just off the beach that once had six ships crashed on it at the same time. The docents stayed in the observation car and you couldn’t hear them outside of there, so it was a random added bonus for us on the first day of our long train trip! We’ve tried to find information about this society to find a schedule, but we couldn’t find anything, so there’s no guarantee they’ll be on your train while you take the Coast Starlight. If you can find information on them, please send it to us!


Adam Neubauer And Phoebe Meador On Amtrak Coast Starlight Train Review By In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

We sat in the observation car for several hours taking in the beautiful views, and we learned very quickly to make sure to wear sunscreen. While the nearly-floor-to-ceiling windows give you incredible panoramic views, they offer no refuge from the glaring sun. The morning was rather gloomy when we started, but by early afternoon, the sun was roaring in, but they also had the AC cranked up, so we recommend wearing sunscreen with a light t-shirt or tank top but also taking a sweater for while you’re sitting in the observation car. The coach cars were usually a bit warmer by comparison so you’ll want to remove your sweater, but they weren’t so hot as to be uncomfortable.


At every stop, we would take turns going from the observation car back to our seats in the coach car so we weren’t just leaving our stuff out in the open while people could potentially just pick it up and take it off the train (although all of our valuables stayed in backpacks with us the entire time), and we also wanted to make sure that no one boarding the train tried to take our seats. During our entire trip, we never had a problem until the very last train ride, when someone moved our things to take our seats while we were away and the train was moving, only to leave before we came back again. This is one of the biggest downsides to riding in coach.


Every few hours, there would also be a fresh air break and we would take turns stepping off for air while the other stayed with our belongings onboard. The biggest problem with the fresh air breaks is that they are also smoke breaks and there isn’t always a ton of room to get away from all the cigarette smoke while also staying close enough to the train to hear the “all aboard” call before the train takes off again, because the stops only last 10-15 minutes. This isn’t as much of a problem on the Coast Starlight as on trains like the Pennsylvanian and the Northeast Regional because the train stations in California are mostly open-air, but it’s still annoying. Amtrak really should separate out a specific space for smokers at each of these stations and leave the rest of the train platform as truly fresh air. Regardless though, the breaks offer an opportunity to fully stretch your legs and be outside for a moment, which is crucial on long train rides.


To find out which stops are fresh air breaks along your specific train ride, you can look at the detailed schedule on the Amtrak app. Some stops will be scheduled to arrive and depart in the same minute, but some will have 10-15 minutes scheduled between arrival and departure, which means that it is a fresh air stop. You can also ask an Amtrak attendant as they patrol through the cars when the next one is, but we still recommend having the Amtrak app for at least your tickets.


Amtrak Coast Starlight Train From Los Angeles To San Francisco Review By In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

How to Make a Reservation for the Coast Starlight

You can make a reservation on the Amtrak Coast Starlight train through Amtrak’s website or their app. We’ve heard from multiple people that they had problems with the website (although we did not) and that their app is far superior. We used the app a lot during our trip, but we booked our USA Rail Passes and all of the individual legs of our trip on their website. Reminder: we have another blog article coming with all the details about the USA Rail Passes, so sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this page to be notified when it comes out!


If you’re not using the USA Rail Passes or the California Rail Pass and you just want to do this trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the train, coach seats (which is what we recommend) start around $54 one-way, per person, which includes the train to Emeryville and the short bus transfer into the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco.


The Coast Starlight also has business class (although it’s unclear what difference that really makes on this route) starting at $93 one-way, and multiple levels of private rooms starting at $308 for 1 person or $394 for 2 people. Those costs are for the same room (a roomette), but it’s a higher cost for 2 people because it also includes meals.


If you just want to go to Emeryville like us and not use the bus transfer to get the rest of the way into San Francisco, the coach price is only a few dollars cheaper (starts at $51 one-way). It’s definitely more cost effective to use the bus transfer (which cannot be purchased individually) to get across the bay into the city instead of getting off the train and getting an Uber, which we also looked into. Since we essentially just had an overnight layover before getting on the California Zephyr to head to Denver the following morning, we didn’t want to use the extra leg of our USA Rail Passes for the bus ride into San Francisco, so we just stayed at an Airbnb nearby.


Keep in mind that you will also encounter food and drink costs for your day on the train, but since you’re allowed to bring your own food and non-alcoholic drinks, this is the perfect time to do so because the trip is only 10-12 hours. Bring some room-temperature foods and a soda, then you ask the cafe attendant for a cup of ice or even purchase one of their single-serving bottles of liquor to mix into your soda. If you don’t want to bring your own, expect to pay around $7 for a small meal, $2.50 for a soda, and $8 for an alcoholic beverage.


As far as what credit card to put this all on to make sure you’re getting the most points, our USA Rail Pass purchases were classified as a travel purchase (so I think it’s safe to assume an individual ticket for the Coast Starlight would be the same) and the food and drinks we purchased onboard were classified as food & beverage purchases. I hope that information will help you know how to get the most reward points on your own credit cards!


Pink And Orange Sunset Over Wine Country In Central California Sights From Coast Starlight Amtrak Train Review By In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

Our Verdict

Heading to San Francisco from Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight train is a fantastic way to travel and appreciate the beautiful west coast landscape! Hurtling along the coastline, sometimes mere yards from the sparkling Pacific Ocean, is an experience that everyone should have at least once in their lifetimes. Save this for your bucket list!


Quick Reference Guide

What

Amtrak Coast Starlight train

Where

Los Angeles to Emeryville via train, then a short bus connection to cross the bay into San Francisco

How to Get There

Public transit will get you to Los Angeles Union Station, a major hub for public transportation in LA

You can also board at a number of stops along the west coast

Time Commitment

The train trip takes 10-12 hours, so sit back and enjoy the views!

Cost

Approximately $54 one-way for coach, $308 and up for sleeper cars, which you do not need for this day trip

Reservation Info

Amtrak.com or the Amtrak app

Our Verdict

It’s a beautiful ride up the Pacific coastline and a fantastic way to enjoy the time traveling to San Francisco from Los Angeles!


Pin this article!


Phoebe Meador Travel Blogger For In The Great Wide Los Angeles Travel Blog

Comments


In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog Phoebe and Adam at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh, Scotland

We’re Phoebe & Adam
the couple behind
In The Great Wide!

This is our travel lifestyle blog where we not only share stories from our adventures while traveling the world, but also our thorough research of the places we visit & practical advice on how to save money so you can travel more too!

Featured Blog Posts

Recent Blog Posts

Destinations

bottom of page