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.
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.
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.