Our Family Trip on the Coast Starlight
John O. Andersen
January 15, 1999
We departed from the Portland train station on December 23rd, 1998.
were many other travelers that day. The train left on time. In fact, for
the most part during our journey, we arrived and departed very close to the
schedule. The only significant delay was for about thirty minutes just
outside of Oxnard, California. We had to wait for a freight train to pass
so that we could continue on its track.
Our trip consisted of three legs. The first leg was from Portland
Emeryville, California where we boarded a bus which took us over the
Oakland Bay Bridge to San Francisco (approximately 18 hours). The second
leg came a week later when we took a bus to Oakland where we rejoined the
Starlight and journeyed south to Simi Valley (12 hours). The third and
final leg was a nonstop journey from Simi Valley to Portland (29 hours).
Our family train ticket (coach seating) for all of these legs totaled $717.
Had we traveled at another time (not during the Summer or the Christmas
holidays) we could have paid much less. Traveling first class would have
been much more expensive for us, though that too is somewhat discounted
during the off-season.
Of course, first class travel allows passengers the privacy of a
includes all meals in the dining car and various other benefits. These
would have been nice during this trip, but traveling coach wasn't anything
to be ashamed of. The coach seats are like first class seats in airplanes.
There is plenty of room to stretch out. Our children brought their own
pillows and blankets which helped a great deal. All of us slept, albeit
not as well as in our own beds, but well enough to feel rested. I think my
longest uninterrupted snooze was over six hours.
The restrooms are downstairs in every coach car. There are several
each car including one equipped for the handicapped and an extra dressing
room. Our car attendants were all very "attentive" and made sure the
bathrooms stayed clean. We had the same car attendant on the trip from
Oakland to Simi Valley as we did a week later on the trip back to Portland.
He was a very quiet, intelligent man in his mid sixties. He was born and
raised in Hong Kong. I had a long chat about the history of Hong Kong,
Taiwan, mainland China, and how he almost became a Communist. The train is
great for having interesting conversations.
At Portland we checked some of our bags and carried on the rest.
baggage check service worked perfectly. That was the only time we used it.
The Simi Valley station doesn't have checked baggage service, so we just
carried everything on with us. If the train isn't too full of passengers,
this usually isn't a problem. There are storage racks downstairs near the
car door where passengers can leave their heavy bags. They can carry the
light ones upstairs and stow them in the baggage area above the seats.
From the start of the journey, our children spent much of the time
"Kiddie Car," a special downstairs room equipped with a video screen, toys,
a plastic bench, crayons, and coloring books. Of course, parents are
required to accompany children while in that area. This was the only
complaint my wife and I had about the train ride: the Kiddie Car had only
benches, so sitting in there wasn't exactly comfortable. But our children
had a blast. On the first leg of the journey, Santa himself visited the
Kiddie Car. Everyday after lunch, the train entertainer/juggler/magician
performed his show there.
We brought snacks along with us, but did eat at least lunch or
the dining car. Eating in the dining car is a great experience. Four
people sit at each table. There are all of the touches of a first-rate
restaurant: white linen table cloths and napkins, silverware, china dishes,
and fresh flowers in a vase. There is a full menu for all three meals
including a vegetarian choice. The children have a special menu which
usually included macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, hamburgers or pizza.
Passengers who make a round-trip journey on the Starlight will discover
that the Northbound menu is different from the Southbound menu.
A dinner for two adults and two children in the dining car will run
$35. If you want a less expensive option, you can try the snackbar on the
bottom floor of the Sightseer Lounge Car. Of course, Amtrak allows
passengers to bring their own food, but they have to consume it at their
When we arrived in the Bay Area, we detrained and got on a bus to
the Oakland Bay Bridge (a fifteen minute ride). This bus stops at the
Ferry Building, Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square. Since our hotel was
only a few blocks from Union Square and we were the last people on the bus,
our driver took us right up to the door of our hotel. We tipped him for
We stayed at a hotel near Union Square. We had studied several
guidebooks and found our hotel to be one of the best values for families.
What we particularly enjoyed was the in-room self-catering facilities
including dishes, silverware, a microwave, refrigerator, and sink. This
made it possible for us to not have to "eat out" for every meal; budget
conscious as we are. There is a wide variety of hotels near Union Square
as well as in many other parts of the city. Train travelers who don't want
to rent a car while in San Francisco, will probably want to choose a hotel
either near Union Square or Fisherman's Wharf.
While in San Francisco, we used the public transportation system to
around. This included the cable cars, buses, and light-rail. My wife and
I each purchased a 7-day pass which together cost $30 for unlimited rides
in San Francisco. The child fare for any ride is just 35 cents so we just
paid for them each time we rode. We found the public transportation
efficient, affordable, safe, and tolerably clean. It was certainly much
easier to get around with than had we rented a car.
Along with walking around Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf, window
shopping, and eating in a variety of unique restaurants, we visited several
interesting places. On Christmas Day we spent several hours in the
California Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park. This large museum
houses an aquarium, a natural history museum, and a planetarium all under
one roof. After our visit we walked through Golden Gate Park then on to
the Haight/Ashbury district to look at the places where "flower power" and
the hippie movement got it's start.
On another day we visited the famed Exploratorium. This was a big
the children. Other fun visits included the Strybing Arboretum and the De
Young Art Museum both in Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Zoo, and the
maritime museum. For a bird's eye view of San Francisco, we took the glass
elevator in the St. Francis Hotel to the 31st floor.
The highlight of our trip to San Francisco was walking across the
Gate Bridge and back. Although the total distance was over three miles,
our children didn't once complain. Our eight year old daughter who is a
full-fledged geography nut, said it was the "best day of her life."
We left San Francisco on the morning of New Years Eve. The
that leg of the trip was the coastal views starting south of San Luis
Obispo and continuing until we reached Santa Barbara when it got dark.
We had a very relaxing week with my parents who now live in the high
desert of Southern California. It was a nice change from the tourist week
in San Francisco. We visited the towns where I grew up (between LA and San
Bernardino), had long conversations with my parents, spent a day at
Disneyland, and generally veg'd out watching videos.
Heading back home on January 7th, we enjoyed the coastal views
time in the middle of the day. At some points the track gets within a few
hundred yards of the surf. The other main highlight of the trip home
started at daybreak on the 8th. We were treated to views of Mt. Shasta,
Klamath Lake, and the beautiful Cascade mountains of Southern Oregon.
As our last "official act" of the train journey, we enjoyed lunch in
dining car while passing through Eugene. Our train pulled into the
Portland station within minutes of its scheduled arrival time of 3:40 p.m.
We loved our trip and look forward to more family train trips in the
future. It really was relaxing to not have to do the driving, and we
savored the many hours we spent together. We reconfirmed to ourselves that
we really do love each others company!
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