Headed to LA or LAX from San Diego? Give Amtrak a try

A short while ago I decided to take a weekend trip to LA to visit a friend and do a little sightseeing. Until then, I’d only ever driven to LA. If you’ve ever done the drive, you know it’s not a pleasant experience. Refusing to torture myself yet again with a four-hour Friday afternoon drive – in a car with manual transmission, no less – I immediately explored other options for heading north; I could hop on a flight from San Diego or Carlsbad at a wallet-emptying $300-400, or I could check out the oft-overlooked travel beast-of-burden known as Amtrak. At $74 round trip on the train, it was a pretty easy choice.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never really considered the train for any legitimate intra-city travel unless I was in Europe or Japan. In the United States, trains lost their romantic notions decades ago when jets became commonplace and (relatively) affordable. Additionally, Amtrak – America’s only widely-available commercial passenger train service – has received bad press for continually losing money despite government subsidies, and for having poor service and marginal on-time records. Despite this, I felt it was worth looking into because of the price, and so I could add another experience notch to my belt.

Booking passage

To start, I used their website – which is pretty straightforward and simple to use – to search for fares and stations. My only caution in this process is to note that there are many Amtrak stations littered up and down the coast. Searching for “San Diego” may not be terribly helpful if you actually want to board at their Old Town stop, or if you really mean one of the other stops along the coast, like San Clemente. The station names in the search area are very specific, so make sure you know where you’re planning to board. The upside to that, though, is that there’re lots of places to get on the train.

Also, some stations are serviced by bus as a connection from a nearby station. While this isn’t a giant inconvenience, it will add time to the trip and may be an unwelcome surprise if you’re not expecting it. Besides, taking the train is kind of cool in its own right, and I feel like the bus ruins that a bit. Anyway, this is all clearly noted in the station’s name in the search fields, but be cognizant nonetheless.

The base price for a round trip in an unreserved coach seat from San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot to LA’s Union Station is $74 – or $37 each way. Amtrak has special fares for seniors, military, and other circumstances, so be sure to check those out, too. After purchase, you can elect to have your ticket emailed to you or you can pick it up from a Quik-Trak machine or a real person at the station. If you’re in LA, the Metrolink TVM kiosks can also print your ticket. All options are free of charge. On my northbound ride, I printed out the ticket at home and carried it with me. On my return journey, I just pulled up the email on my phone and the conductor was able to scan the barcode from there. Couldn’t be simpler.

Enjoy the scenery; you’re gonna be there a while

A major scale-tipper in this decision is the journey time. Flights from SAN/CLD to LAX are quite literally 20+ minutes in the air. If you’ve ever flown that segment, it seems you barely have time to reach cruising altitude before the plane is already beginning its descent. United’s website claims the flight is roughly 45 minutes gate-to-gate, but I’ve had the actual flight be nearly half of that. So that’s a huge plus in favor of flying. Amtrak, on the other hand, comes in at a lengthy 2 hours and 45 minutes via their Coast Starlight just to Union Station. To get to LAX you’ll have to hop on the FlyAway shuttle service, which costs $7 each way and can take anywhere from 30-50 minutes on top of the train depending on LA traffic. And, let’s be honest: there’s ALWAYS traffic in LA. Averaging that out, it’s about 3-1/2 hours for the trip. While that’s a bit shorter than driving in Friday afternoon LA traffic – but much less stressful – it’s still over four times the stated travel time by air. Not a strong argument in favor of the train.

Despite the journey time, I still wasn’t willing to part ways with $300+. I mean, I had no plans causing me to rush, and I certainly didn’t cherish the thought of braving traffic on a beautiful Friday afternoon. So I settled on giving Amtrak a try, and I was glad I did.

All aboard!

Both the Santa Fe Depot and the Old Town station are equidistant from my apartment, but as I’m essentially an Amtrak virgin, I opted to have my friend drop me off at the Depot. I figured if I ran into any issues, an Amtrak agent at the Depot would be able to sort things out. Aside from typical downtown San Diego traffic, the drop off was a breeze and I was trackside in no time.

Because Santa Fe Depot has multiple non-Amtrak trains passing through, they’ve developed a fairly unpolished queuing system to corral passengers prior to boarding the train. While I understand this is a safety concern as they don’t want people crossing active tracks unsupervised, I disliked the manner in which they herd passengers into a staging area akin to waiting for a ride at Disneyland, and then lead them to the train like a group of elementary school students on a field trip.

After I figured out which cars are reserved and unreserved coach – something not readily discernible to Amtrak newbies and worth asking a conductor – I plopped down in a window seat on the ocean-view side of the train. The views Amtrak affords on its trek up the coast are pretty amazing. And the seats themselves are on par with domestic first class seats on most airlines. Amtrak’s seats, though, also have a leg rest and a tray table that’s actually big enough to use without spilling things all over the place. I was able to set up my iPad and have a small meal all on the same table.

The condition of the train’s cars, to include the seats, passageways, and restrooms was spectacular. I was actually surprised by this. I didn’t expect things to be terribly worn down, but I’d always kind of envisioned Amtrak to be just slightly above Greyhound. And, given their well-known financial issues, I could see janitorial services and interior upkeep easily falling by the wayside. I’ll have to eat some crow on that one, though. Being as I was traveling alone, I didn’t make it to the café car since I didn’t want to pack up all my belongings or risk my seat being taken, so I can’t really comment on the selection of food and beverages, or on their prices. I should note, however, that on my return trip, I sat in the last unreserved coach car and discovered a little self-serve bar with juice boxes, prepackaged muffins, and cookies. Rest assured I got my money’s worth.

All the conductors were very friendly and cheerful, offering advice to tourists and providing information on the trip as necessary. This is an area where Amtrak has purportedly struggled in the past, with many passengers recounting tales of disinterested or downright surly employees. Perhaps Amtrak received the feedback and has taken active measures to improve its customer service.

All things being equal…

Despite the lengthy ride, one of Amtrak’s offerings really helped make my decision: free Wi-Fi for the entirety of the trip. Yes, I thoroughly enjoy my internet access, and having it readily available for the ride was the deciding factor, I think. It was easy to access and decently fast. I was able to watch Netflix from my iPad, streaming both movies and TV shows. The view from my seat coupled with my ability to surf the net and stream videos really made the time aboard the train fly by, which was something I was genuinely worried about. I hate being bored, you know?

Ultimately I arrived at LA’s Union Station about three minutes ahead of schedule, completely stress free and with a phone full of sunset shots of the Pacific. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I did not continue on to LAX and can’t provide any feedback on the FlyAway shuttle service. I do, however, plan on using Amtrak and FlyAway in November. For me, though, getting to LA was the biggest hurdle, and Amtrak won its place in my heart as the only way to get to LA in the future.