Amtrak's Super Value California Rail Pass
Best USA Travel Bargain?
Giving you 21-days of travel in California to over 100 destinations, the Amtrak California Rail Pass may be the best travel bargain in the U.S
$159 ($79.50 children) gives you seven days of inter-city travel over a 21-day period. California’s state government supports an extensive network of Amtrak routes and these are supplemented by Amtrak “Thruway” buses connecting to smaller cities and places like Yosemite..
The cost of Amtrak's premier train, the Coast Starlight, between Los Angeles to San Francisco alone, included in your pass, costs $59 to $65 in peak season (2018), with sufficient advance purchase, and $125 without, if purchased separately.
To pay just $159 for that and ALL the other trains you will use is a super deal.
Your pass also puts you in Stateline (Lake Tahoe), Las Vegas, and Reno in Nevada, if you wish.
A basic sample itinerary
The following itinerary uses six days of your seven travel days. Start anywhere along it. Clock-wise works best for coastal scenery.
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Yosemite National Park
- Either Las Vegas or Palm Springs area (You could visit both using that extra day you have available.)
- San Diego
- Los Angeles
Pay a bit extra to add overnight stops
By paying a little extra you easily add overnight stops.
For example, Santa Barbara, not far north of Los Angeles, calls itself America’s Riviera. I find it truly a joy to visit.
Pay the regular low fare between LA and Santa Barbara and get that extra destination. Then use your pass to travel to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Both Boltbus and Magabus offer cheap—and I mean cheap—fares between Las Vegas and Los Angeles especially if booked early. That frees you up for another overnight city.
Image above: The high-level sightseeing car on the Coast Starlight, a train included in your California Rail Pass. It follows a beautiful section of the Southern California coastline. You find a snack bar on the lower level. All coaches on this train offer you a choice of high-level or lower-level seating. This is a train that you should book on your pass to maximize your enjoyment. Northbound works best.
The following four timetables show you all the overnight stops you are allowed in California and Nevada and how they connect.
Use Amtrak.com online to check scheduled times for your dates of travel. You can also call 1 800 USA Rail.
You want the Coast Starlight northbound from Los Angeles.
That gives you a half day of experiencing California’s beautiful coastline from high-level cars as shown in the image above. Sit on the left.
Sample Amtrak Coast Starlight Timetable
If the Coast Starlight is sold out, use the morning train departure in the following timetable to San Luis Obispo, with a bus connection to the Bay Area. That way you still experience all of the coastal scenery.
Pacific Surfliner services
Sample Amtrak Pacific Surfliners Timetable
This timetable includes a map of all services in California.
San Joaquin services
Sample Amtrak San Joaquin Services Timetable
Includes connecting service to Yosemite National Park.
Las Vegas Schedules
Amtrak offers Thruway bus connections to Las Vegas from the San Joaquin trains above and from Los Angeles.
The bus connection does show in Amtrak's Southwest Chief schedule but you cannot use the Southwest Chief train as the connection. That will be no problem.
Not included in the pass are Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, California Zephyr, and the combo Texas Eagle/Sunset trains. Except for Needles on the Arizona border, all of their stops are covered by the Amtrak trains and buses included in your pass.
Avoid short connections
Try to avoid short connections. Amtrak operates over freight railway-owned tracks and these are congested. It has little control over this, in spite of federal law giving it priority.
Certain connecting services will usually hold for you such as a connecting bus from your train in Bakersfield to a Las Vegas bound bus.
Cautions and options
Amtrak arrives downtown.
An Amtrak Thruway bus at Amtrak's San Jose station sits ready to take connecting passengers to the beaches and boardwalk in Santa Cruz, a popular surfing locale. Few buses though have bike racks.
Image above: View of Los Angeles as you walk out of Amtrak Union Station. Amtrak nearly always takes you conveniently downtown.
Your pass can include at no extra cost a connection to Anaheim or Fullerton for Disneyland, or anywhere in Southern California.
You can easily connect (at you own expense) from Union Station via Red Line subway to Hollywood or via the City of Santa Monica’s express “Big Blue Bus” #10 to oceanfront Santa Monica.
Yosemite National Park - Yosemite Valley
Do NOT book Amtrak into Yosemite until you have confirmed accommodation that is conveniently reached from your Amtrak bus and is affordable. Rooms book up sometimes weeks in advance.
Budget travellers may want to stay outside the park. For example, the “Yosemite Bug,” a combination hostel and rustic lodge, sits just one-fourth mile from an Amtrak stop and offers transfers to Yosemite Valley, where you can connect to Yosemite’s free intra-park transportation system.
Access Yosemite Bug for information valuable to all who visit the park.
Booking your California Rail Pass
Book all trains in advance via 1 800 USA-RAIL or via a travel agency. If travelling during a peak period, I highly suggest that you have some alternative dates and routes in mind.
Then you must obtain a ticket for each train and bus you are travelling on at an Amtrak station prior to travelling. Do not wait until day of departure.
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