A Complete Guide to Train Travel in California

Railroad, Central California Coast
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The romance and convenience of train travel is something that countries throughout Europe and Asia have embraced with open arms. Trains are easy to navigate, budget-friendly, space-saving, and are oftentimes safer than driving. Plus, it sure beats having to keep your eyes on the road while venturing up the beautiful California coast.

Perhaps the best part? Trains are much better for the environment than flying or driving. Amtrak trains, for example, are 47 percent more energy efficient than traveling by car and 36 percent more efficient than domestic air travel. Trains can move a larger number of people at once than cars can, which means they produce less CO2, lower pollution levels, and healthier air quality. Win, win, win.

So, what are you waiting for? TripSavvy rounded up some of the best train routes in California to supplement your staycation, road trip, or domestic travel plans.

Amtrak Coast Starlight (Los Angeles - Seattle) train at Moorpark, California
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Coast Starlight

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train is considered by many to be one of the most scenic train tours on the west coast, passing through spectacular cities like San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Portland. Passengers have the opportunity to pass by each climate that California is famous for, from snowy Mount Shasta to the coast of the Pacific Ocean and everything in between. If you choose to travel the Coast Starlight, you’ll get to enjoy an onboard theater and arcade room to help pass the time (or if you need a break from the scenic views) and sleeper car passengers even have access to local wine and cheese tastings in the Parlour Car. It’s about as California as it gets.

The route takes passengers on a journey from Los Angeles to Seattle, stopping in Sacramento and Portland along the way. The whole trip takes about 35 hours start to finish and the train departs daily, with different accommodations to fit different travel styles and budgets. Choose from Roomettes with two seats that fold up into bunk-style cots at night and a private restroom with shower; a Bedroom with twice the space; an even bigger Bedroom Suite; and a Family Bedroom with room for two adults and two children. Private rooms get priority boarding, a dedicated Sleeping Car attendant, access to the train lounge, and complimentary meals included. For guests traveling with a disability, the train has several Accessible Bedrooms located on the entry level with space for a wheelchair and two adults.

Coach passengers will still enjoy roomy, comfortable seats with much more legroom than a plane or car, and Business Class guests receive an onboard credit for food or drinks and a fully refundable ticket.

Amtrak Surfliner train beside Highway 101 along the California coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara
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Pacific Surfliner

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner serves stations on the southern side of the state. The route hugs the coast the whole way, stopping in 27 stations along 351 miles throughout San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obisbo counties. Once the train reaches the far north, passengers can go even further using the supplementary thruway bus systems.

Unlike the Starlight, the Pacific Surfliner doesn’t include any sleeper trains, making it more of a day trip type of train. Passengers still get comfy reclining seats with power outlets, free Wi-Fi, restrooms, bike and luggage racks, and massive windows to enjoy the views of the sea as it whips by. There’s also an onboard cafe with fresh food, snacks, and drinks.

Coach tickets are unreserved, so you can ride any Pacific Surfliner train from the origin station to the destination station listed on the ticket, making it a bit more flexible should travelers miss a train or if travel plans change. Business Class tickets offer guaranteed seating and a few other perks like more legroom and complimentary snacks, but advance reservations are required.

Amtrak San Joaquins

With 135 destinations to choose from, 365 miles of track, 18 stations, and over a million riders every year, the Amtrak San Joaquins offers a connection to the Central Valley and popular spots like Yosemite National Park. There are seven daily round trips featured on this train, five between the cities of Oakland and Bakersfield, and two between Sacramento and Bakersfield. The extensive Thruway Bus network can even take passengers as far as Las Vegas or Napa, and the train connects directly to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at the Richmond Station.

Some of the more scenic highlights of this route include the section between Stockton and Oakland with views of the Delta and the Bay, between Lodi and Sacramento through vineyards, and between Merced and Fresno with views of the sierras and Central California farmland.

There is free Wi-Fi available onboard as well as a cafe car for food and drink purchases. Keep in mind that this route has a lot of stops, and can get pretty crowded. Also, Amtrak San Joaquins doesn’t offer a Business Class ticket selection, so reserving seats isn’t possible.

Diesel locomotive in Caltrain livery is approaching Palo Alto
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Caltrain

Caltrain is a Northern California commuter rail line that services the San Francisco Peninsula and Santa Clara Valley. Because it is a commuter train and pretty casual, it is much cheaper than Amtrak, and will take you further than the BART and MUNI public transportation networks that mostly cater to the Bay Area regionally. It runs from the ballpark in San Francisco south through San Jose, Silicon Valley, and ends in Gilroy. It serves dozens of stations, but unfortunately doesn’t connect riders to the heart of San Francisco (you’ll need more local public transportation for that).

Metrolink

Similar to Caltrain, Metrolink offers services on a smaller scale, covering the Southern California regions connecting Los Angeles, Ventura County, Antelope Valley, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County, and the Inland Empire. Metrolink has a $10 Weekend Day Pass that is good for unlimited system wide travel either Saturday or Sunday (perfect for that Disneyland vacation) and a five day flex pass that gives riders 10 percent off. The company recently installed brand new ticket machines located at each station, but tickets can also be purchased through a mobile app.

Seats for both Caltrain and Metrolink commuter trains aren’t assigned, and are much smaller than the long-distance train, similar to city-wide public transportation or subways.

Wine Train in Fields
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Napa Valley Wine Train

If the thought of traveling by train didn’t give you enough of a European feel, try throwing in the Mediterranean-esque views of the Napa Valley along with it. The Napa Valley Wine Train has been a must-do staple of Napa tourism for years thanks to its gourmet cuisine and world-class wine. The train cars are made up of restored vintage Pullman cars from the early 20th century and the decor is an homage to the glory days of luxury train travel with all its mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass partitions, and intimate seating.

The Wine Train isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey, since the track is a fairly short 36-mile loop starting and ending in the small town of St. Helena. Tour options range from 2-3 hour journeys complete with a four-course meal to full or half-day trips that last for 3 to 6 hours and include wine tastings at some of Napa Valley’s most famous wineries. You’re paying for the ride, but also for the food or wine along with it, so save this train ride for a special occasion.

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