Sunday, June 2, 2019

Santa Barbara Donuts

People do not know how to order donuts.  While standing in line on a Sunday morning at Anna’s Bakery, I observed dozens of people lined up to pick up more than dozens of donuts--but nobody knows what to call them.  I’ve witnessed patrons get to the front of the line only to experience ordering anxiety, temporary amnesia, lack of awareness or feigned lack of practice at choosing their morning treat.  I can help.
A large selection at Anna's Bakery
If you’ve ever been to a donut shop and been suddenly perplexed, you’re not alone.  We lack a common language for donuts.  The word itself even has two spellings!  “Donut” is the commonly accepted American word, while the international word is “Doughnut.”  In Santa Barbara, we have both: Eller’s Donut House on Milpas and Eller’s Doughnut House on upper State.With National Doughtnut Day approaching on June 7, I hope to raise (get it?) your donut IQ to remove some of the confusion around the ordering process to save time and frustration for all and to share my take on Santa Barbara’s donut offerings based on years of thorough personal research.

Typically, donuts are fried dough shaped into a ring and are often coated or filled with a liquid frosting.  There are many variations once the initial donut is created (filled, coated with chocolate, dusted with sugar, etc.) but there are really only eight main types of donut:

Star Wars donuts from Hook and Press for May-The-Fourth
1) Yeast round donut – like the standard Krispy Kreme, this has a yeasty batter base that is cut into a circle with the “hole” removed.  It is then fried and typically coated on both sides with a thin coat of icing, hence the common name of “glazed.”  There are also chocolate varieties and those coated with chocolate or crumbs in addition to the glaze.  These are a standard donut in most shops and cost between a dollar and $1.50 anywhere in town.  Hook and Press, which can be found at Mosaic, sells the nicest of these in Santa Barbara for $3.25.   To order, ask for a “glazed” Except at Hook and Press where they are all yeast raised and fancy!

2) Bars and twists - Like their cousin, the yeast round, the bars and twists are an elongated yeast batter base cut into a rectangle bar (usually around 3”x6”) and potentially twisted before being fried – no hole removed.  Usually they are coated with glaze and can then be left as-is or coated with chocolate, maple, or other icing.  Occasionally they can be found filled, but it is uncommon in this shape, and would most certainly take on “fancy” premium pricing.  Chocolate coated bear the name of “long johns.”  Dunkin Donuts has a glaze twist in the shape of a bowtie while some shops in town offer a fancy cinnamon twist.  To order, ask for a “twist” or “maple bar.”

Billy Jankowski eating a raspberry cream from Handlebars
3) Filled – typically these are the dense yeast dough but the “hole” is left intact.  Once fried, it is injected with a filling such as jelly or a cream.  These are often glazed and can sometimes be coated with powdered sugar or icing.  Filled donuts always bear premium “fancy” pricing with the most expensive and delicious in town coming from Handlebar Coffee Roasters (either location).  There, $5 will give you whichever delicious filled donut they have chosen to create this week.  Raspberry cream, blueberry and lemon, pistachio, peaches and cream – their new kitchen on De La Vina is producing some of the finest fancy donuts in town.  To order, ask for a “raspberry filled.”

3A) Boston Cream – while technically just a filled donut with a cream filling and coated in chocolate, the specific type of donut will leave anyone that’s ever been to Boston saying “it’s good, but not as good as the real thing” following that the chocolate or cream is just not right.  Boston Cream donuts are most certainly “fancy.”

4) Cake – This donut is made from a cake batter.  It is usually coated with chocolate or icing and often sprinkles - the kind you would see Homer Simpson eating.  This is usually smaller than a yeast round and denser.  You can order these “plain,” without any icing, glaze or chocolate.  The sprinkles used on cake donuts can bring out their personality – while they are generally colored rainbow, seasonally one can find them with orange and black for Halloween or red, white and blue for Independence Day.  Depending on the types of sprinkles, these donuts can move from the standard pricing into “fancy.”  When ordering, mention both the topping and type of cake: “the rainbow sprinkles on chocolate.” 

4A) Crumb – This is usually a cake donut (though potentially a yeast) coated with icing and then sugar-cinnamon crumbles.  Variations include cake crumbs (such as those found at Anna’s Bakery).  Some shops have both the cake and yeast round donuts with crumb coating, making things quite confusing when ordering.   Order again by its topping: “I’ll have a crumb”

Red Kettle Coffee Donut Holes
5) Holes – These are just fried balls of dough usually coated with icing.  They can be cake or a dense dough.  Eller’s uses the holes from their yeast rounds while Winchell’s sells a bag of cake donut holes.  These can be coated with sprinkles in addition to their glaze.  At Eller’s and the Bagel Market Café one can find jelly-filled holes!  Often Eller’s will toss in a handful of holes if you purchase a dozen or more.  To order, ask for “A dozen donut holes.”

6) Old Fashioned – These are a cake donut typically made with buttermilk, though like at Eller’s, can contain sourdough.  This is a heavier donut usually with cuts to the top in a square or triangle.  These crevices do a great job of holding icing, but coating an old fashioned is optional.  Some old fashioned will be coated with powdered sugar, cinnamon, chocolate or some combination.  A variation on the Old Fashioned is the Sour Cream Old Fashioned, made with sour cream instead of buttermilk.  Depending on the shop, the Old Fashioned is a special or regular donut.  Some are considered fancy if they have a coating while others are already considered fancy without.  Order by name: “I’ll have an old fashioned.”

6A) “Buttermilk” bar – This usually has the heavier buttermilk and is the densest of normal donuts.  This bar is shorter than a glazed bar, but taller like a miniature loaf of bread.  Often these are coated with a thick glaze but can be coated with chocolate or other toppings. To order one of these you usually have to point.

7) Cruller – Sometimes called a “French cruller,” it is typically an extruded yeast dough in a circular shape (though sometimes square) often coated with powdered sugar or icing. This looks an awful lot like a fancy yeast round and typically comes with the fancy pricing as well.  After being fried, the dough is usually light, fluffy and full of holes.  These take some work to create and are not offered in every donut shop.  When they are, they are considered “fancy.” To order, you will get points with your local donut baker by asking for a “cruller” pronounced like “crawler” and not “crueler.”

Eller's Doughnut House on Upper State
8) Fritters - Usually this is an apple fritter: large, heavily fried and filled with solid fruit.  Variations include other savory donuts filled with bacon.  Fritters may be plain like a corn fritter (aka hush puppy) but these are not usually found in Santa Barbara ever since Tupelo Junction and Georgia’s Smokehouse left.  Fritters are always on the high-end of the fancy scale often with their own price tier.  If you see an apple fritter, you can ask for it by name.

8A) The Bear claw is a fritter that is in the rough shape of a bear’s paw and, depending on the shop, will have apples in a solid or mushy form.  There are bear claws that have no apples in them, so be sure to ask if your preference is one way or the other.  Crumb-coated bear claws can be found and take the “fancy” to a new level.  Bear claws can be requested by name.

Muffins, cinnamon rolls, scones, danishes and other pastries may be delicious, but outside of the scope of this Donut Day article.  Still, if you visit your favorite donut shop, you may find hybrids and other items for sale:

1) Cronut - Becoming more common are the “cronut” or “dossaunt.”  This is a combination donut-croissant.  While the “cronut” itself is trademarked, one can find “dossaunts” at Spudnuts.  These are a layered, flakier pastry (like a croissant) but shaped in a ring (like a donut).  

2) Beignets – This New Orleans tradition comes and goes from different restaurants in town.  These are a rounded square donut coated with excessive powdered sugar.

3) Beavertails - Once sold in a shop on State Street in the 90s bearing this name, these are long, flat donuts resembling naan and usually coated with sugar and cinnamon, but chocolate may be used as well.  

4) Churros – depending on who you ask, a churro is considered a donut or is very much not a donut.  Churros are typically extruded and round like a cruller, but thin and long, so not necessarily like a donut.  They are usually just fried dough covered with cinnamon and sugar.  Costco may have cornered the market on regular churro sales in town, though vendors at Fiesta have fancy churros filled with cream, chocolate or fruit.

Blue Owl Donuts and Pastries
There are various toppings that can make a donut catch your eye – glaze, chocolate, maple, cinnamon sugar, plain sugar, powdered sugar, sprinkles, flavored glaze, coconut and even peanut butter.  Becoming more common are premium coatings such as breakfast cereal, mini marshmallows, pretzel bits, toffee, bacon, chocolate chips and graham crackers.  Donuts are a confectionary canvas that can be adorned with many colors and textures..  Santa Barbara has not yet caught up with other major metropolitan areas that have donut ice cream sandwiches (a warm yeast glaze cut in half with ice cream in the middle).  We’re far from the donut cheeseburger.  

Until recently, Yelp users rated Spudnuts on upper State Street as the best donuts in town.  This beat out Eller’s on Milpas, which presently has the highest rating on Trip Advisor.  In my opinion, the most delicious donut goes to Hook and Press It has a selection of delicious, unique donut flavors.  This is followed closely by Handlebar on De La Vina, made fresh in front of you in its new kitchen, visible from line.  That said, there is not much to the selection.  If you want the raspberry donut and peaches are in season, you are out of luck.  My favorite donuts overall are at Anna’s Bakery in the Camino Real Marketplace – there is a great selection and the quality is good.  Through the past year, during my extensive research, I found the selection of donuts throughout town to be an opportunity for innovation.  Hook and Press has already shown that this is not just possible but that Santa Barbara is ready.  Other towns have donut delivery, donuts in different shapes and creative toppings.  One might say that there is a gaping hole in the Santa Barbara donut potential.

Handlebar Donuts at original Canon Perdido location

Because the donuts found in town are so similar between shops, it is good to compare prices.  See the chart below to help you choose.  My research extended primarily toward donut shops, though basic glazed rounds and twists can be found in many grocery stores.  One can also find donuts at other pastry or bread shops, but the selection is inconsistent.

Dozen Regular
Dozen Holes


Anna's Bakery
7018 Marketplace Dr.
Bagel Market Café
2000 Cliff Dr.
Blue Owl
5 W. Canon Perdido



$1 Churros
Dunkin’ Donuts
3771 State

Eller's on State
4217 State
Eller's Donut House 
22 N. Milpas
Fat Uncle Farms
Farmers Market Saturday

Handlebar Coffee Roasters
2720 De La Vina


Helena Avenue Bakery
131 Anacapa


Hook & Press
1131 State St.

Red Kettle Coffee
2275 #A Ortega Hill Rd

Spudnuts Carrillo
220 W. Carrillo
Spudnuts Goleta
5718 Hollister
Spudnuts Isla Vista
6530 Seville Rd. #101
Spudnuts Upper State
3629 State
Tyler's Donuts in Carpinteria
1002 Casitas Pass
202 N. Milpas
 $12.99 (14 donuts)
 $2.99 (14)

Eller’s on State has the least-expensive donut from a donut shop if you just want to buy one for $1.  Tyler’s in Carpinteria will match that as well.  7-11 will beat this by a penny, but I don’t believe that their staff are making the donuts in the back like they are at a normal donut shop.  Most expensive is Handlebar, but it’s worth it to try if you haven’t.  The least expensive dozen is Eller’s on State – what’s more is that they usually come with a handful of holes!  Spudnuts charges the most for its dozen - $13 (if you don’t count the donut shops that don’t cut a deal on dozens).  Winchell’s will also charge $13 for a dozen, but its dozen is 14 donuts!  Eller’s on Milpas and Tyler’s in Carpentaria have the least expensive donut holes at $2 per dozen.  Red Kettle and Hook and Press will charge the most at $3 for a dozen.
My son with a variety of samples from our research
As my research has concluded for this article, my children have begun to ask why we aren’t buying another dozen each weekend.  I look forward to revisiting this research in the future.  Hopefully by next Donut Day we will have additional innovations and flavors for all of Santa Barbara to enjoy.

My kids making some tough choices at Spudnuts in Goleta

Special thanks on this article to Liz Alves for your many edits and to Billy Jankowski and my family for trying so many donuts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Five Halloween Safety Tips

It's that time of year again!  Halloween is almost upon us.  Every year I have a blast walking my kids about the neighborhood collecting candy.  Over the years I have learned a number of safety tips through experience as well as observing other neighborhood children.  You can choose to just go to the retail Halloween celebrations (like the one on Calle Real) but they’re not the same as going out the night-of.

Tip #1: Be Seen!  If possible, when helping your kids choose their costumes, consider steering them towards lighter and brighter costumes.  If your child chooses to be a dark costume like Darth Vader (as mine has), consider getting them a bright accessory like a light saber.  If nothing else, if you have a way to work in reflective strips or glow sticks, it helps them be seen.  If that’s no good, consider a glow stick inside of their plastic pumpkin candy holder.

Tip #2: Flashlights.  In advance of Halloween, check your flashlights for batteries.  The last thing you want to do is hold up your crew looking for a flashlight that works.  Consider getting your kids flashlights as well!  This time of year is when retailers are selling three-packs of LED flashlights for next to nothing.

Tip#3: Prepare the group.  After dinner sometime the week before Halloween, consider walking the neighborhood.  Pay attention to protruding tree roots, places that sidewalk has lifted up or areas you don’t want to walk a group of kids in the dark.  The night-of, talk with everyone before opening the door and watching everyone run off.  Know who is in your trick-or-treating group.  Try to establish rules like “no running” and “stay off the lawns.”  Cross the street as a group.  Tell your kids not to enter someone's home unless they’re accompanied by the chaperon.  Even if the kids don’t follow these rules, at least you tried.

Tip #4: Minimize the costume.  Once your kids leave the house, their objective can switch quickly between looking cute, collecting candy and enjoying time with friends.  Regardless of what they’re wearing, they probably look adorable already.  Take pictures in advance of going out and leave the accessories at home (unless they serve as safety accessories).  Anything that can be lost, tripped over or neglected should be left at home.  Replace the fancy shoes with tennis shoes.  Don’t get me started on fake plastic high heels on a 6-year-old.

Tip#5: Candy Management.  You’re likely going to be stuck with a mountain of candy at the end of the night.  It’s best to discuss and set expectations in advance with regard to how much candy consumption is allowed.  While rumors of tainted candy persisted since long before I was trick-or-treating, consider reading up on these rumors in advance.  While it’s comforting to know that your chances of getting hurt from bad candy are significantly lower than getting hurt tripping over your lightsaber, it doesn’t hurt to consider a quick once-over look of the kids’ haul.  Not a fan of your kids consuming a pile of sugar?  Read my article on How to Disappear the Candy.  Finally, since your kids are likely to sneak a few skittles on their journey, make sure that your kids have had a full meal before going out.  If you’re thinking of ordering pizza, consider getting it for pick-up as the delivery delay is usually over an hour on Halloween night.

If you’re thinking that all of this is a bit overthought, you may be right.  Halloween is supposed to be a good for everyone, especially the kids.  Still, the night can turn quickly from fun to tears.  If those tears can be prevented with some minor preparation, I’m always a fan of thinking it through in advance.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Riding the Train in Santa Barbara – Your Guide to Using Amtrak with the Family - Part 2

In Part 1 of the Train Guide we discussed planning, purchasing and train stations.

Once your train arrives and you have stepped on board, most passengers typically head up stairs.  The lower levels are reserved for the elderly and those with disabilities.  If you purchased a business class ticket, ask the conductor before the train arrives which rail car will be the business class rail car.  It is typically at one end of the train and easier to enter from the outside than it is to walk the aisle of each coach car with your baggage.  Once you have found a seat, place your baggage in the overhead space and wait with your ticket.  If you have a stroller, bike or large suitcase, you are expected to place them on the lower level in the storage area near the exit.  Bring a lock and cable with you if you are afraid they might be stolen.

Once you are upstairs, it is usually a good time to plug in your laptop and connect to the wifi if you will be using it.  After a few minutes the conductor will walk about your train car asking for tickets.  In return, they will provide you with a small slip of paper color coded to your destination and with the number of passengers in your party.  They may place this paper for you over your seat.  This is the signal to other conductors who may swing by later not to bother you again for your ticket.  If you change seats mid-trip, bring your paper with you.  A common scam on train travel is for passengers to stealthily grab the paper over your seat and place it over their seat.  You will be asked again to show your ticket to the next conductor who provides you with a second paper and the scam artist didn't pay a dime.  If you head to the restroom or dining car, bring your paper slip with you.

Any seat on the train can be a good one.  Like on an airplane, aisle seats offer more flexibility.  Unfortunately if you are seated next to someone on a window seat that takes frequent restroom breaks, you will be getting up and down just as often.  Those who prefer the ocean-side of the train should consider swapping sides just as you’re pulling into LA Union Station – as the train pulls back out again, it changes direction!  Train seats may face forwards or backwards.  If you get travel sickness when facing backwards when in motion, be sure to secure your forward-facing seat early and change at Union Station.

At some point in your journey, you might get hungry.  If your snack pack in business class doesn’t satisfy you, head on over to the dining car.  This is the lower level of the car just next to the business class car.  All of the train cars are connected and you can traverse between each of them by pressing the button on the car door to open the passage.  Forget about old-fashioned trains and jumping over the hitch between train cars.  This is safe and easy to do with a metal plate at your feet and guard to prevent you from falling out.  While there are a few of snacking options in the Business Class car, you can go back and forth to the dining car without any trouble.  Once inside the dining car, you might be surprised by the number of options!  Unfortunately they are mostly unhealthy.  The most filling on the menu include microwave pizza and cup-o-noodles.  Still, as far as snacks are concerned, there are a variety.  There is also a surprising alcohol selection.  If you are on the Coast Starlight, there is a formal dining car called the Pacific Parlour.  This is a restaurant on the rail and is somewhat formal.  With a little bit of preparation, though, consider bringing your own food with you onto the train.

As you your train moves, it will make an announcement at each stop a few minutes before you arrive.  This will give you sufficient time to collect your belongings and head to the exit.  When you arrive at your final train station and exit the train, it’s time to get to your true destination.  If you brought your bike, I recommend heading downstairs one stop before your final destination to unlock your bike from the hook and move other baggage that may have collected around your bike during your travels.  If you didn’t bring a bike, taxi services hover around train stations waiting for easy pickups.  If you prefer, Uber or Lyft are becoming more popular.  If you will be staying at a hotel, most hotels that cost over $100/night have a shuttle that can pick you up on request and later drop you back off at the station.  Save yourself the cab fare and keep your hotel’s front desk number handy.

If you are traveling to or beyond Los Angeles from Santa Barbara, you will go through LA Union Station.  This train hub has a rich history and beautiful architecture.  It handles trains near and far.  It also can be a destination all to its own.  In the heart of downtown LA, you are walking distance from the Staples Center, Fashion District, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Echo Park, Dodger Stadium, various film locations, Chinatown, Alameda Street and my favorite: Philippe’s.  No Travel Channel or Food Network show about LA cuisine is complete without a quick trip to Philippe’s and the story of the original French Dip sandwich.  If you are taking the early train from Santa Barbara to San Diego, consider taking a layover at Union Station to take in some of the sights and tastes of LA before moving on.

It is important to note that when purchasing your tickets on Amtrak, it refers to LA Union Station as “LAX.”  This is not to be confused with Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).  The airport is a good 40 minutes away from Union Station in good traffic, which you will never find (you’re in LA!).  If you are trying to take the train to the airport, there are a few options, including a shuttle service that leaves each hour.  All of the options are expensive and will take you over an hour – and you never want to be in a hurry when getting to an airport.  If you want to ride and fly, I recommend flying out of Burbank; the train station is a 10 minute walk from the airport.

Whether you have decided to take the train to the park in Carpinteria, up to San Luis Obispo to the Children’s’ Museum, to Anaheim for the Angels game, or to another location, there are a variety of options and reasons for taking the train.  Traveling with family on the train is often fun and enjoyable because you don’t have to worry about crashing your car.  You can finally play those travel games with your kids that have been collecting dust in the closet.  Plus, most kids simply like trains.

While I have pointed out a significant number of stressful scenarios, the trip itself is ordinarily stress-free.  It just helps to know and be acquainted with all of your options.  Often I will walk aboard, take my seat upstairs and just sit and read the whole trip (when I’m alone).   The train can be a very relaxing and enjoyable travel option. Ultimately, taking the train is a choice of preference, schedule, cost and flexibility.  The train is not always a good option if you need the control, like to drive or have a large group.  Amtrak matches the cost of driving dollar for dollar, but that price increases with each ticket purchased.  If you’re in a hurry or need to travel at odd hours, driving may be a better option.  With all of this in mind, using the train should be considered as an option the next time you travel outside of town.

Riding the Train in Santa Barbara – Your Guide to Using Amtrak with the Family - Part 1

So you have decided to consider taking the train somewhere!  I have been riding the train for years and absolutely love it.  It doesn’t matter if I’m riding the model train at the South Coast Train Museum in Goleta, the diesel train at the Santa Barbara Zoo, Amtrak’s Pacific Coastliner, a light rail in Germany or the bullet train in Shanghai.  The experience is one that I have always enjoyed.  What’s more, I’m always excited to give my thoughts and strategies for riding the train, especially for those with families in Santa Barbara.

If you are considering the train, I recommend first going to to plan your trip.  If your destination is anywhere on the southern California coast, you probably have a train station that can accommodate your trip.  The trip planner on the site will give you several options.  Typical trips in Southern California will travel part of the Pacific Coastliner route, which runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego and back several times per day.  You may also see the Coast Starlight route occasionally available.  This goes from Seattle to LA and back but less often.  If you’re traveling overnight, the Coast Starlight offers a variety of sleeper car options, each of which gets more expensive with added extravagance.  Still, when accounting for the cost of a hotel, traveling while you sleep can be a potential option.  

Be very aware of bus routes that may be offered in your trip planner and avoid them unless you intend to include a bus route on your trip.

A common point of confusion when ordering train tickets is the concept of seat reservations.  Unlike an airplane, individual seats on the train are not reserved.  Even if you purchase the business class seats, the seats are unreserved and first come – first served.  If you want a seat in the aisle, you cannot pay more to guarantee that one will be available.  It is based upon availability once you get onto the train.  What’s more, there is no guarantee you will get a seat on the train you plan to ride!  

Particularly on busy days when everyone rides the train to an event like an Angels game, the closer you are to the event, the more packed the train can get – people may even be standing in the aisles.  However, on typical trips the rail cars are only half full and you need not worry about getting a seat or dealing with claustrophobia.  When traveling long distance or on event days, I prefer to purchase the “business class” ticket.  This will add a couple of extra dollars to your trip but it is often worth it.  The seating in both business class and regular coach is virtually the same – two seats to the right and left of the aisle for the length of the car with a restroom and water fountain at the end.  Both coach and business class offer free (limited) wifi and outlets to plug in and charge your phone or laptop as you go.  I prefer business class because it is normally significantly less crowded on busy days.  What’s more, each passenger gets a free snack box filled with an assortment of crackers, cookies and snacks.  You also get a free soft beverage or can upgrade to an alcoholic beverage for a couple of dollars more.  Still hungry?  There are often extra muffins, juice boxes and coffee in the back of the car with a copy of the newspaper.  Finally, if you are traveling with the family, there are special 4-person bench seats with a fold-out table in between to play card games or color in coloring books.

Once you have selected your tickets on the Amtrak website, you may be surprised when you get to the final order button and your total.  Traveling from Santa Barbara to San Diego, you might think “$42 one way?  Are you out of your mind?”  Doing the math, if you drive an SUV that averages 21 MPG the 220 miles to San Diego at $4 per gallon, it comes out to a surprising $42!  There are, of course, Amtrak discounts for AAA, AARP, students and the military.  If you are traveling alone, the cost often is about the same, but when you travel with more than one person the train quickly gets more expensive than driving.  Next to your $42 charge you might also notice the outrageous time of 6 hours to get from Santa Barbara to San Diego and think “that’s twice the time it took me that one time to drive down there.”  The train has multiple stops and is not the fastest and most direct mode of transportation available.  Still, if you are driving through both LA and Orange County traffic making multiple stops for food and bathroom breaks for you and your family, six hours starts sounding a lot more reasonable.  The train also offers the benefit of being able to do something else during your travel time, like reading, watching a movie, working, playing games with your family, etc.  If you have gotten over the cost and length of trip, pay your fare and print your ticket on your home printer.  If you feel tech-savvy, consider using the QRC code sent to your email instead of wasting the paper. 

Next, it’s time to head to the train station.  The three types of train stations are unannounced, announced and major hubs.  I will admit that this is my own naming scheme not necessarily endorsed by our friends at Amtrak.  Unannounced stations are typically just drop-off locations.  These are typically a small parking lot, a ticket vending machine and some park benches.  Examples of this type of station are Goleta and Carpinteria.  When your train comes, there may be a short announcement via a PA system but it is otherwise unannounced.  At these stations it is usually a good idea to pay attention to the number of tracks available and to determine if there is a Northbound and Southbound side that you should stand on.  A normal stop at these unannounced tracks is around 1 minute in length.  The trains doors may not even open if passengers are not getting out.  If you are at one of these stops to get onto the train, make yourself known and signal the train conductor that you are entering the train.  Because these stations are not major stops, it is best to get to the station 15-20 minutes in advance and wait at the bench.  Trains don’t typically arrive early, but if they do, you want to be there.

Announced train stations are larger than unannounced.  They will typically have a large parking lot, extended overnight parking, a ticket agent as well as a vending machine, snack vending machines and often a small gift shop.   Examples of this station are Santa Barbara and Burbank.  Trains are announced before they arrive.  The stops are typically around 3-5 minutes and conductors will walk outside the train often announcing “all aboard.”  For a first-time rider, one of these stations is preferred as they offer the highest amount of service with the least amount of ambiguity.  You will want to arrive at the train station 10-15 minutes in advance of the expected train’s arrival.

Finally, major hub stations like LA Union Station are giant buildings with an even larger parking lot, overnight parking, multiple ticket agents, vending machines, kiosks and even restaurants.  Hubs like this serve trains going not only up and down the coast but also other directions and may have smaller municipal tracks.  Because of the complexity, it’s best to arrive at least a half hour in advance of your train’s departure.  If it is a train station that you are unfamiliar with, head to where the display boards announce what trains are arriving at what bays.  Ask questions of the station agents and get directions.  Once you know what you’re doing, take a moment to appreciate the architecture, sights and smells of a major train station.  Walk about the facility if you have time and pay attention to historical notes posted about the rooms.

Never assume that your train will arrive on time – always check online or call 1-800-USA-RAIL for updates.  If your train does not come on time or you’re stuck waiting at the station, it is good to know that your 12:15pm ticket will get you on to a 3pm train – this is the good side of the “unreserved” seats.