Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Save $ by Traveling by Train

When I was in college (that's so fun to say, since I just graduated) I rode Amtrak from San Francisco to Sacramento, to see my family. It took about 2 hours 1-way and cost less than a tank of gas and it was faster then having mom come pick me up.

Tips on Local Train Rides (in particular in California)

Every state varies with Amtrak regulations, but the San Joaquin line is very flexible. When planning a trip home, I'd go to Amtrak's website and check for the next train. Then I'd take public transit to the main station in San Francisco. By going to the main bus station this saves time not having to ride the bus picking up everyone else up at the other SF stops. If you have time, go to the office and buy your ticket. Not all bus stops have offices, so keep that in mind. If you don't have a ticket, you can still get on the bus. You just need your ID. Enjoy the bus ride over the Bay Bridge to the train station in Emeryville.

In the station I'd buy the round trip ticket from SF to Sacramento. It is cheaper than purchasing 2 one-way tickets. Also, be sure to buy your ticket in the station and not on the train. Otherwise it will be marked up 40% (it might even be higher now). If your bus is late getting to Emeryville and you don't have time to buy your ticket in the station, calmly explain this to the ticket person on the train. They might cut you a deal.

Wait for the train to show up (you can bring your bike or suitcase) and hop aboard. For me, I always fall asleep from the train rocking back and forth. I'm always paranoid that I will sleep right through my stop, so when boarding I set the alarm on my cell phone to go off the stop before.

If I dont fall asleep, I sometimes talk to my neighbors. Several have been commuters who live in Sacramento but work in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lots of them had their laptops out and typing away. It rides along the bay for a good chunk of the trip. So pretty!

Buy discounted BART tickets in the Amtrak snack car. A $10 value blue ticket costs you $8. You can only buy one (because of the punks that ruined it for everyone else who were caught reselling them).

Sometimes I got rides from Sac town to SF. My return ticket was still good for another time, since I can use it anytime over the next 12 months.

Tips for long train trips

  • Buy tickets in advance to guarantee a seat on the train. You can't show up at the station on the day of to go from California to another state.
  • I've always ridden coach, but you can rent a sleeper. The seats recline and often I've had both seats to myself. There's a ton more leg room than on a plane. I've slept on the floor before in a sleeping bag. You can also sleep in the observation car.
  • Check into the discount programs, like for students.
  • FYI- Amtrak doesn't own the tracks. This means Amtrak doesn't have the right away, so you'll have to sit on the tracks to let the other trains pass. Amtrak is notoriously late. Every trip I've taken from Cali to Colorado, the train has been hours late. It is still worth it, because you ride through the beautiful Sierras and the Rockies.
  • Bring food in a cooler (meals in the snack car and dining car ads up really fast), a pillow, a blanket, a book, slippers, water (the train water is really bad!!!), playing cards and wine (alcohol is sold on the train, but it's expensive). Also pack gum (everyone will thank you), headphones (sometimes they play movies and have headphones for sale), ear plugs, camera, extra batteries, charger for laptop, cell phone or Nintendo DS.
  • Strategically pick your seat (and move around until you have the one you like). I like to sit far away from families because kids make noise when I'm trying to sleep or read. I also avoid being near the doors at either end of the car, since cold air gets sucked in from the outside. Sometimes, people break the taboo and talk on their cell phones in the coach area. I always relocate when they appear. You can also just ask these people to please talk in the observation car or by the downstairs bathrooms.
  • Don't be in a rush. Driving is much faster then the train, but it's also more expensive. Enjoy the scenery from the observation car. Be on the look out for wildlife and random lakes and waterfalls. Watch the sunrise and sunset. Eat in the dining car with strangers (you're seated 4 to a table, whether you know each other or not). Bring your musical instrument and gather up strangers to play in the observation car.
  • Traveling by train is stressful if you have a schedule to keep, like catching a plane, since Amtrak is often late. I get ancy when I'm going from California to Colorado, because I want to hurry up and get there to see my friends. It can be a hassle to get cell phone reception to let them know how late you are going to be. I like to take the train when I don't know anyone where I am going, like the 6 week trip I took around the Pacific Northwest last summer. To read about that trip traveling by train, the Oregon Country Fair and staying in hostels, check out my posts on my Liberating Trip from BART.
  • Riding the train is a beautiful, slow transition into a relaxing vacation. You get to watch the change of scenery going from one state to the next. It forces you to slow down, which is something I often need. Unlike driving, you can walk around, stretch, eat and sleep and still be moving toward your destination.

I'd love to hear about your wonderful train trips. Anyone have a story?

For a huge list of other Works-For-me-Wednesday tips, go to we are that family.


  1. I'm Swiss (here since 1996) and riding a train there is very common, not so much here and unfortunately the trains aren't that nice. But maybe if more people were using them, they would be improved.

  2. I haven't had the opportunity to take a train ride in the US, but I -love- the rail system in The Netherlands. It usually is faster than driving anywhere!

  3. I fall asleep on trains very easily. They are the best for napping!!! I slept all the way from England to France. I slept all around Ireland. Sleeping on trains is sooo good....


  4. We have taken the train to San Francisco twice & love it. We get off at Emeryville, take the bus in to the city. The bus takes us right to Pier 39, we spend the day there & then hop back onto the bus to Emeryville.
    The first time we went, the bus was really old & J sat on our lap. We were with my sister & her husband who happened to have shingles at the time, poor guy. Anyway, the bus driver sang us into the city. He sang I Left My Heart in SF. It was great!
    You are right about train schedules. We left late because another train was stalled on the tracks. Boy, did the conductor make up time. We got to Emeryville just in time.
    Coming home, they annouced the train was light because of a train crash somewhere on the line. It turned out fine & our trained showed up.
    I love train travel & look forward t taking a longer trip someday!

  5. Hi Elizabeth,
    I read your menu every week and always enjoy it, but I had to come give you a special shout-out today after reading your comment on NAOmni's blog about Settlers.

    Best. Game. Ever.

  6. In 2006, I took a train (well, 2 trains) from White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia to East Glacier, Montana. Maybe the most amazing trip of my life.

  7. Hey there! Sounds like you're having a great time with some great eats of your own! You can't taste the dye in green beer...but if you drink enough you can imagine what happens to your urine lol...

    That's really cool one of your friends brews his own stuff...I think I'm going to get into that next year after my move...