California by Train

Last month, I wanted to travel around a bit and write Green Stars reviews of restaurants, cafés, stores, etc. In the end I decided to travel by Amtrak (the semi-private US rail system) after discovering that their California Rail Pass is a pretty good deal. So, I’m going to describe how the rail pass works (since nobody that I know has ever heard of it!) and in the next post I’ll highlight a few places that I reviewed on my travels.

What’s the greenest way to travel?

If you’d like to find out more about the carbon footprint of various modes of transport, here’s a useful guide. (Spoiler: coach/bus is the greenest way to travel, followed by train, in most scenarios.) According to the guide, Amtrak usage has shrunk from a high of 1.3 billion passengers annually in the 1920s to 26 million in 2007. Only 1% of intercity passengers travel by Amtrak while air travel now accounts for 40%. I have to admit that I’ve considered the cost of Amtrak travel to be a bit prohibitive, but the CA Rail Pass is an exception, if you use it wisely 😉 I think it’s a nice way to see California, especially for a change of pace from often-exhausting travel by air or road. 

California Rail Pass - Routes V2

California Rail Pass – Logistics

The CA Rail Pass costs $159 (per person) and covers 7 days of travel within a 21-day period. The picture above shows available routes. You can also get a rail pass for the entire US, which works a little differently (it goes by journey legs rather than days).

Within each 24-hour period, you can take as many trips as you like, but once you go past midnight you’re into a second day (so if you board a train at 10 p.m. and arrive the next morning, you’ll have used 2 days of your pass).

You need to have a ticket (besides your rail pass) to board each train. You can call Amtrak to book tickets and then pick them up at whatever station you nominate, or just show up at a station and book them on the spot.

You don’t have to book all of your travel at once. I booked only one or two travel days at a time, making four separate trips (12 individual legs) over three weeks, two of which were day trips.

You generally don’t need to plan far in advance. I bought tickets on the spot for most of my trips and, even though it was peak-season, there was only one time where I had to change plans slightly (on the Coast Starlight, the busiest route).

Not all of the Amtrak employees know how the rail pass works. Twice, a station agent didn’t know how to book my tickets when I handed them my rail pass. Be patient and politely suggest that their colleague may know how to do it. Worst case scenario, call Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL) and book tickets by phone and then the agent can print them right away.

You can’t travel the same stretch of track more than four times. So, you can’t make more than four one-way journeys between any two neighboring stations. I presume this rule is to prevent people from using the pass for their commute.

The pass also covers Amtrak coaches. Coaches can get you to a lot of destinations not covered by rail, such as Yosemite, Napa, Tahoe, Santa Cruz, etc. A few coach destinations in Nevada are also covered: Las Vegas, Carson City, and Reno.

California Rail Pass – Experience

Seats are large and comfortable. There’s a lot more leg room than economy class on a plane and seats also recline back a long way, making it feasible to sleep. Bring a blanket or wrap up warm for overnight trips – the air conditioning keeps the trains fairly cool. Seats also have electrical outlets. Some commuter trains,  such as the Capital Corridor and Pacific Surfliner, have basic WiFi. More on WiFi availability here.

On commuter trains you can sit anywhere. On the longer routes like the Coast Starlight you need to meet the conductor at the door of the train, and a seat will be assigned to you.



Most commuter trains are punctual but delays are common on the cross-country routes. Since the Coast Starlight takes 36 hours to get from Seattle to LA, it’s not unusual for the train to accumulate a 1-hour delay. It was about 90 minutes late when I picked it up in Sacramento and then it sat at the platform for 30 minutes while the conductor attempted to seat 50 sleepy new passengers (it was after 1 a.m.). This was the most bizarre aspect of Amtrak for me. You can track trains online but don’t completely rely on it – the trains can make up time between stations.

The observation car (a.k.a., Sightseer Lounge) on the Coast Starlight and other cross-country routes is a great feature. You can get away from your regular seat for a change of scenery, have a beer or glass of wine and gaze out through the floor-to-ceiling windows. On some sections (e.g., from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara) there are National Park guides in this car providing a commentary to go with your view. You learn a lot about California agriculture, history, geology, and wildlife.

All trains have a café car with its own seating where you can get pizza, burgers (including vegan), beer, wine, etc. The longer routes like the Coast Starlight also have a formal dining car, which is a bit pricier and requires a reservation (which you make on the train).

If you’re going to the Bay Area you can pick up tickets for the local metro system (BART) at reduced cost in the café car ($10 tickets for $8, and you can buy as many as you like).

Here are ethical guides to a few places I visited on the rail pass:

Santa Barbara and Dunsmuir, California

Davis, California

I’ll leave you with this video to get you in the mood. Cheerio!

15 thoughts on “California by Train

  1. Great work. It makes Murder on the Orient Express a challenging opportunity.

    Thanks a lot for the like, They are hard to come by for me.

  2. Hey Galtz. I think I know what’s going on (not about the Murder on the OE but about your site) – when I click on your name I’m directed to The Pegasus Files, but I think you want people to look at The Daedelus Files instead ( Also, listing your site(s) on your Gravatar page should help direct some people.

  3. That’s great to know as I’ve been thinking about going to Ca. I used to live there and have family all over the place. I wonder if they have one for the East Coast? I was thinking of using Amtrak to go to FL.

    1. I know that they used to have a FL rail pass but I don’t see any signs that its still available. There’s one for the whole US, so you could use that to travel wherever you like 🙂

  4. Thanks for this blog. I just booked plane tickets from Ohio to LA and Seattle back to Ohio for only $49 a ticket! Someone had posted a video of the Coast Starlight on Facebook. I thought it looked like an awesome experience! I do want to be able to get on and off the train though. Amtrak’s info on the pass is not great, so I really appreciate this blog. I’m hoping to get a rail pass, but I’m not totally certain how it works based on Amtrak’s website. Is the total cost for travel $159? or do you have to also purchase tickets for each leg? Can you purchase the tickets for each leg online or do you need to do it through their phone line? Also, can you use the different train lines with one pass or do you have to stick with one train line? Do you have suggestions for the best places to stop and visit? Thaks for your help.

  5. Thanks for your comment Barbara! Here are some answers:
    Is the total cost for travel $159? Yep!
    Do you have to also purchase tickets for each leg? You have to have tickets, but they are free – just show your pass (or quote the pass reservation number if you’re on the phone).
    Can you purchase the tickets for each leg online or do you need to do it through their phone line? Alas, you can’t do it online. But doing it by phone is pretty easy and you can also do it in person at a station. Either way, you have to go to a station where tickets can be printed.
    Can you use the different train lines with one pass or do you have to stick with one train line? You can use on any of the permitted train (or bus) lines. You can take several trips in one day on multiple lines and it still counts as one day.
    The main image for the post above shows the major places that you can visit. (Amtrak should really show this on their website because it’s the most helpful guide to the pass). Amtrak says that “The California Rail Pass is not valid on the Sunset Limited, the Southwest Chief, the California Zephyr and the Texas Eagle.” This sounds like a lot of limitations but those lines don’t cover that many stations in CA, and you can reach most of them on other lines. It does cover the Coast Starlight, Capital Corridor, Pacific Surfliner, San Joachins, and all bus routes. A good place to start is to download timetables for these 4 train routes to see where they can take you.
    Do you have suggestions for the best places to stop and visit? That’s probably the most difficult question! A lot depends on what you’ve seen already. I live in the Bay Area, but if you didn’t, then SF/Bay Area would be a top recommendation. I could have chosen LA, San Diego, Yosemite Park, and Lake Tahoe (they are all good places to visit) but decided to go to smaller places that I’ve been to less often. The train ride between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara is spectacular, so try to include that section. I liked Santa Barbara a lot. If I go again, I’d like to visit Ventura, maybe Capistrano, and go back to Tahoe and Yosemite.
    Hope you can plan a fun trip!

  6. I know it’s late since the last comment ! However I’m planning a trip to California this summer and you really convinced me to use the California Rail Pass !
    Thank’s a lot for all those informations ! But still there’s some things I wanted to know.
    First, the Thruway bus services are included in the pass, but does it mean that we need to make a reservation by phone each time we take a connecting bus, or is it okay to show the pass or the previous or next train ticket ?
    Besides, I wanted to use the right to take this kind of services to travel inside the towns, e.g to avoid more commuting expense I planned to use the Thruway bus to travel around Los Angeles or maybe San Luis Obispo as well. You know, I don’t know how developed is the Thruway bus service. I don’t really know if I can rely on it, or if I will need to use other services for daily mobility ?
    Thank’s again for sharing your experience !

    1. Hey Sebastian! Thanks for commenting. Never too late!
      You do have to book the bus tickets in advance, but if you get to the station a little early then you can buy a ticket on the spot if you show your pass (but it needs to be in an Amtrak station, not on the bus).
      I think they are actually pretty reliable. I used one to go to San Jose and then Santa Cruz and found them to be on time and comfy. They are better at keeping to their schedule than the long train routes like the Coast Starlight!
      You’d just need to check your schedule for your routes to see how frequent they are.
      OH – I just remembered that the bus tickets can be used at any time on a given day, so if you’re taking a day trip you don’t have to catch your return bus at a specific time.

  7. Does this include travel to Las Vegas? We are planning a trip to CA and would LOVE to use this, but we are including a day trip to Las Vegas. It LOOKS like a Thruway Bus service would be included…

  8. This is so useful, thank you! We are flying to SF from the UK in Jan and planning to use this pass to go SF-Yosemite-San Diego-Disney-Big Sur-SF in 16 days, any tips?!
    I’m hoping that enough of our travel will be during daylight that we won’t have to use up the extra days on overnighters. We’re also travelling with a 4 year old so that wouldn’t be much fun!

  9. Hi I am very interested to use the pass. Is there any restriction to buy the pass for oversea travellers? Are international credit cards accepted? Thanks

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