Trains Versus Planes – The Amtrak Experience!

Neatstep parking comic - staycation beats vacation

Everybody wants to travel these days, but as Neatstep always says, “traveling is expensive and dangerous!” What people don’t tell you about their holiday, is usually much more interesting than what they do tell you. Having said that, we just returned from a family reunion in California. After a week in our favorite city, San Diego, we needed to get to our meeting place in San Francisco, a short flight away. That was before my wife had the brilliant idea of going by train…..

I did some research and all the online reviews confirmed my suspicions that this was a really bad idea. The average opinion was that traveling with Amtrak is not so much a journey as an adventure. We even met some people whose train never made it (but that’s another story!) After studying the timetables from every possible angle, it took me six weeks of valuable time to figure out how we could manage it. Even though I am an absolute train enthusiast, I didn’t fancy a 15-hour train journey, starting early morning. Then, I had the inspiration of breaking the trip into two days and staying at Santa Barbara en-route. The timetable suddenly fitted perfectly for us.

We collected our pre-booked tickets at the station and the clerk said, “Good job you’re not traveling today because all our trains have been canceled”. Fortunately, that didn’t happen to us a week later and our train was dead on time, all the way. We had traveled with Amtrak only once before, from Boston to New York, which was really easy. This is the West however and California Amtrak is a little different. Everyone had to wait in the main building until they were called to line up and follow instructions for boarding the Pacific Surfliner. It worked surprisingly well. In fact, it was a wonderfully relaxing first stage of our journey and the scenery was beautiful.

The next day, we boarded the Coast Starlight train for the onward journey, looking forward to some spectacular views. I had read online that one thing you should never do aboard Amtrak is change your seats. The conductors apparently don’t like it. As soon as we were shown our seats, it was no surprise when my wife said, “We’re moving over there to get a better view!” It wasn’t long before the attendant noticed. “Is there a special reason why you changed seats?”, she said. The correct answer would have been, “Because my wife said so!”, however, I wasn’t sure this would qualify as a special reason. “There’s a better view from this window”, I replied. The conductor was not impressed. “Are we okay here, for the moment?” I said, knowing the next station was three hours away. “For the moment!”, was the only response. All was well until the next stop when a passenger boarded and we had moved seats again. “Where’s my ****** seat?”, said the new guy. We quickly slid back into our old seats and the conductor, hearing the commotion chimed in, “That’s what happens when you people change seats!” We completed our journey and the train was right on time, only the restaurant seatings were getting later and later because the train was full.

The Amtrak experience was still fresh in our minds when we reached the airport for our journey home. On our inbound journey, the computer had surreptitiously changed our selected seats and dumped us at the rear of the plane on both flights. So, it was no surprise to find the same thing had happened again for the return journey. The only problem this time was, the computer had placed us both in the same seat. The check-in clerk said she had never seen that before (maybe it’s a world first!) however it didn’t matter because our flight was delayed anyway, so she would need to change everything and rebook our connecting flights. Everything seemed to be wrong with our booking and the clerk spent a long time hammering the keys on the check-in kiosk, breathing deeply and looking anxious. Then she announced triumphantly, “We got the last two seats on your connecting flights”. What do you mean “connecting flight(s)?”, I asked. “Well, there’s just one seat on one plane and one seat on another plane!” she said. Oh, well – maybe that computer was smarter after all, putting us both in the same seat on the same plane!

So it was, that the flight home took almost as long as the Amtrak journey and not nearly as comfortable. Would I recommend this Amtrak experience for others? Absolutely! It was wonderful!