Advise a circle trip for me!

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ScottR

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May 24, 2021
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Monterey
I’ve read a bit about the “circle“ trips people on here take and would like to give that a try. My home station is in Salinas, CA on the Coast Starlight route. So I can go up the coast leaving a 6.16 pm or down the coast leaving at 11.48 am. I’d love to make a trip around the country in some sort of contiguous route. No flying. Ive had enough of that after 25 years of business travel.

I‘ve gone up and down the coast from home station Salinas to Seattle and LA a few times, and once connected with the Texas Eagle in LA to my hometown of Longview, TX…a miserable experience. Flex meals, grouchy people, no lounges…I know there is a thread about it.

I know I have the options to Chicago on the SWC, the Zephyr, and the EB and the Sunset to NOLA depending on whether it’s CS north or south…but no experience on the Eastern Trains.

I guess the other info is this.

1. single traveler and can vaguely afford roomette. a somewhat spry 60
2. want to minimize overnight stays in a hotel. The train is my hotel🥱Don’t mind “camping out” in a train lounge and seeing a bit of a city for 8 hours or so
3. no Texas Eagle from San Antonio to Chicago. Never again unless they fix that train
4. I’ve got 14 days at most to do it
5. would like a winter trip…Nov, Dec, Jan

What I’m looking for is some advice on those eastern routes. I see the western trains west coast to Chicago and I think the EB would be fun in winter…but what then? And perhaps the others are better?

And I can read the route map so CS to Portland, EB to Chicago, LSL to Boston? NEC to DC, DC to NOLA on the Cresent? Back up to Chicago On CONO? Or wait a day or two in NOLA for the Sunset?

I’ve heard many bad things on this site about LSL and CONO, and Eastern trains in general, so maybe there are other less obvious routes?

Any advice is deeply appreciated.
 

Cal

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Well if you didn't enjoy the Eagle due to the flex meals I'm afraid that leaves the following trains open for a circle trip: Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Southwest Chief. The Sunset would require either going on the Eagle or a different train with flex dining.

If I were you, I would go up north to Portland and transfer to the Empire Builder to Chicago (note: I am not sure if this is still a guaranteed connection, might have issues there). Spend a night in Chicago, and then take the Zephyr to Sacramento. At Sacramento you spend a night and then take the Starlight back to Salinas. This will put you on three trains with excellent scenery, traditional dining, and sightseer lounges.

You will have to spend a night in Chicago and Sacramento. Possible in Portland, or you could try to link the two reservations if they are no longer guaranteed.

Your only other option is replacing the Zephyr with the Chief to LA, then the Starlight back up to Salinas. This will allow you to skip a hotel in LA, but the Zephyr far outshines the Chief when it comes to scenery. Other than that, it requires a train with flex meals.


Note: The CONO does have flex meals, but also still has a sightseer lounge. If you'd be okay with that you could go south from Chicago without spending a night and head to NOL. At NOL you'd spend the night and then head to LA on the Sunset, where you should be able to get a straight connection back to Salinas on the Starlight although that connection might no longer be available.
 

zephyr17

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Well, I am not a huge fan of the single level eastern trains generally. Even before flex dining, the lack of good lounge space (just Amcafes) made them less enjoyable for me than Western Superliners. However, I do like Viewliner roomettes more than Superliner roomettes, with the higher ceilings and upper windows they feel much more open than the Superliners. I haven't ridden since flex dining and the supposed use of Viewliner diners as "sleeper lounges". While I think using these well equipped (and expensive) cars as lounges is a waste, I do think they'd make for nice lounge space. I look forward to seeing if that is true on a trip in a couple weeks.

But if you want to go east you are pretty much stuck with them. I used to like the Capitol because it had a Sightseer Lounge, but that's gone. Now it is like thr Eagle. Without the Sightseer, I'd rather have the better roomette on a Viewliner if I am going to be sitting in my roomette more.

I like the Sunset, primarily because every time I've ridden it, the crew has been great. But that still leaves you with the CONO or the Crescent out of New Orleans. I understand that the Crescent doesn't even have the Viewliner diner "sleeper lounge" now. The excreable flex dining meals are handled out of an Amcafe that is the only food service car on the entire train and it is a pretty long ride. That train has gone on my avoid list along with the Eagle. If you are heading out of New Orleans, take the CONO. It at least still has a Sightseer Lounge.

I'd take the SW Chief to or from Chicago one direction, the Portland section of the Builder the other.

I'd take the LSL over the Crescent given the Crescent's current condition. It at least has a Viewliner diner "sleeper lounge".

In two weeks I am taking a big "circle" (sorta) trip involving thr Builder, the LSL, the SW Chief and the Starlight:
EVR-CHI-NYP (8 & 48)
NYP-CHI-LAX (49 & 3)
LAX-SEA (14).

I plan on doing a trip report. It'll be the first time for me with a Viewliner diner as a "sleeper lounge". I did enjoy a Viewliner diner in full dining service onboard the Crescent a couple years ago fairly shortly after they were introduced.
 
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ScottR

Train Attendant
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May 24, 2021
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Monterey
so as I read this
Everett WA to Chicago on the EB train 8
Chicago to NYC on the LSL train 48
NYC back to Chicago on the LSL (or maybe there is another way?…that actually what I’m curious about.) 49
Chicago to Los Angeles on the SWC train 3
CS back to WA train 14

almost what I envision, but once I’m in NYC (or maybe Boston) going back the southern way to DC, Crescent to NOLA, Sunset to LA, CS to Salinas.

btw…I priced that trip out …roomettes…this Nov 4500$ In roomettes. 12days. Zounds!!

for compare

Cunard line on the QM2 NYC to Southampton 2600$
inside room 6 days

10 days around the British Islands 4500$

flight back in business 10k$ or175k points. Fortunately I’ve the points.

I’ve priced it all out…I’m taking the cruise but Im gonna take that circle train trip….by the time I spent all the money:above I’ll be in coach, and I’ll still be going somewhere and I will still love it.

Just everyone travel on my friends. the QM2 is a bucket list but Via from Vancouver to Halifax and a rounder across the US is too.

and the Siberian Express…anyone.?
 

zephyr17

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You got my itinerary right.

My outbound itinerary EVR-CHI-NYP, I scored at low bucket on both the EB and the LSL. Roomettes all the way for $840.

The return via LA I used AGR points. I managed decent buckets and the cost was 52,044 points total. Roomettes on the LSL, SWC and Starlight. Both the LSL and SWC tend to be on the pricey side, btw.

I guess my point is it doesn't have to be $4500. Lower buckets are harder to come by, the old techniques (like buy 11 months in advance) to get low buckets no longer are reliable. The current aggressiveness of Amtrak's yield managers have been the source of endless posts here over the last several months.

But you can still avoid high buckets. It takes patience, persistence, flexibility and knowledge. @niemi24s' bucket fare tables are invaluable to set expectations (even low buckets are not cheap) and to recognize what is a good deal and what is not.

I've been retired the last couple of years, but even when I was working I was able to avoid high buckets, which I flatly refuse to pay. I avoid peak travel periods during the summer and holidays. I travel in the shoulder and off seasons. I set a fairly large window of time when I'd want to travel. Then I'd check fares regularly, and if I found dates within my window for an acceptable price, usually a combination of lower and middle buckets (it is not a reasonable expectation to find low buckets on all segments of a long trip), I'd book it immediately. Then put in the request for that time with my employer, which would have still been months in advance. And if I could not find a price I could accept, I'd bag Amtrak. Depending on the objective of the proposed trip, I'd fly, drive or just not go.

It isn't easy now, with Amtrak's aggressive yield management, shorter consists and limited inventory, and the death of Amsnag. But Amtrak's fares are not set, they do vary across the five yield management buckets, and you can take advantage of those variations.

You need to start checking and planning at least 8 months in advance though. October planning for a November trip is pretty much a guarantee for high bucket, especially since that last part of November is a high demand travel period.
 
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Sidney

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I ve been taking Circle trips since 1990. Until recently,I never had a problem finding low buckets. I was looking for anytime from May to September of next year. With the EB and the CZ usually over $1000 for a roomette from Chicago to Portland or Sacramento I can not justify that price,no matter how good the food is. As stated above,even booking eleven months out does not give you low buckets.

I did book the CZ and Sunset/TE for low bucket in late January. You have to punch in every day to find those fares.
 
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jiml

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flight back in business 10k$ or175k points. Fortunately I’ve the points.
That's very high unless you're committed to a specific date or flight. Although availability is dwindling as travel returns, you should be able to find one-way BC from the UK/Europe for under 90K points/miles depending on the airline. Points are the best choice if booking one-way internationally.

Back to your train trip though, if you're not committed to going to the east coast I'd consider the Sunset to New Orleans, City Of New Orleans to Chicago, Empire Builder to Portland and Coast Starlight back to California. That might make better use of your available resources and time, while still covering a lot of interesting ground. As others have pointed out, the City still has inferior dining but retains a Sightseer lounge.
 

joelkfla

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NYC back to Chicago on the LSL (or maybe there is another way?…that actually what I’m curious about.) 49
The other option from NYC to Chicago is the Cardinal, which travels via Washington, DC. I don't have any personal experience with it. It will cost more than the LSL, but you'd get to see some different scenery.
 

zephyr17

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The other option from NYC to Chicago is the Cardinal, which travels via Washington, DC. I don't have any personal experience with it. It will cost more than the LSL, but you'd get to see some different scenery.
Bucket price levels are the same on the LSL and the Card, but the Card tends to get pushed into higher buckets since there is less capacity. One sleeper 3 days a week versus 2 New York and one Boston sleeper daily. But with the frequent high buckets these days, the two are often the same price.

Too bad the Card doesn't have decent lounge space, not even a Viewliner diner "sleeper lounge" as it has scenery that is second only to the CZ through West Virginia.
 
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Cal

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I booked the cardinal e
Bucket price levels are the same on the LSL and the Card, but the Card tends to get pushed into higher buckets since there is less capacity. One sleeper 3 days a week versus 2 New York and one Boston sleeper daily. But with the frequent high buckets these days, the two are often the same price.

Too bad the Card doesn't have decent lounge space, not even a Viewliner diner "sleeper lounge" as it has scenery that is second only to the CZ through West Virginia.
I booked the cardinal westbound last may, it was cheaper then the LSL. My trip was on late July of this year.

and I’d argue that the EB and CS has better scenery than the cardinal. New River gorge is pretty obscured by trees. And I gotta say, having no decent lounge space didn’t help either.
 

joelkfla

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Bucket price levels are the same on the LSL and the Card, but the Card tends to get pushed into higher buckets since there is less capacity.
I booked the cardinal westbound last may, it was cheaper then the LSL. My trip was on late July of this year.
OK. I've only looked at it between WAS & CHI, and every time I've checked it was more expensive than the Capitol Ltd, so I assumed it was just priced higher.
 

20th Century Rider

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I’ve read a bit about the “circle“ trips people on here take and would like to give that a try. My home station is in Salinas, CA on the Coast Starlight route. So I can go up the coast leaving a 6.16 pm or down the coast leaving at 11.48 am. I’d love to make a trip around the country in some sort of contiguous route. No flying. Ive had enough of that after 25 years of business travel.

I‘ve gone up and down the coast from home station Salinas to Seattle and LA a few times, and once connected with the Texas Eagle in LA to my hometown of Longview, TX…a miserable experience. Flex meals, grouchy people, no lounges…I know there is a thread about it.

I know I have the options to Chicago on the SWC, the Zephyr, and the EB and the Sunset to NOLA depending on whether it’s CS north or south…but no experience on the Eastern Trains.

I guess the other info is this.

1. single traveler and can vaguely afford roomette. a somewhat spry 60
2. want to minimize overnight stays in a hotel. The train is my hotel🥱Don’t mind “camping out” in a train lounge and seeing a bit of a city for 8 hours or so
3. no Texas Eagle from San Antonio to Chicago. Never again unless they fix that train
4. I’ve got 14 days at most to do it
5. would like a winter trip…Nov, Dec, Jan

What I’m looking for is some advice on those eastern routes. I see the western trains west coast to Chicago and I think the EB would be fun in winter…but what then? And perhaps the others are better?

And I can read the route map so CS to Portland, EB to Chicago, LSL to Boston? NEC to DC, DC to NOLA on the Cresent? Back up to Chicago On CONO? Or wait a day or two in NOLA for the Sunset?

I’ve heard many bad things on this site about LSL and CONO, and Eastern trains in general, so maybe there are other less obvious routes?

Any advice is deeply appreciated.
I'm afraid Amtrak routes are very limited. So ya gotta find a good Amtrak agent that can uncover the low bucket rates. Also, know the Eastern LD trains are brutal with notoriously bad service. The best triangle is EMY to CHI on the CZ; CHI to SEA on the EB, and down to EMY on the CS.

I just completed a grand tour of the country mostly in sleepers... in the East found the Crescent to be pretty good; the CONO was also very clean, shiny, and good crew. But you must endure flex meals... the worst train food in the entire world. If you don't like this food don't worry... there's hardly enough of it to actually matter. Bring along some PB&J sandwiches and be happy! If you can get yourself into Moynihan, go to the lounge and let them fill your tummy with gourmet samplings... all available to sleeper car pax. Truly nice staff... incongruent with Amtrak's inconsistent existence.

Just a quick take. Be prepared to do a lot of planning... then pray for good crews, good trains, and good luck!
 

Rambling Robert

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Yeah, don’t forget Boston. BOS is very near Chinatown and the New SeaPort District that has good rates because they overbuilt for a convention industry that’s in recession. Got kids or grand kids? The Children’s Museum, T Party Ships (2), ICA Art Museum then a shortcut to the Aquarium, then Galleria Umbertto - BEST for another $1.65/slice - classic. of pizzerias.
Up until this point you’ve either been on the Rose Kennedy Greenway (JFK’s Mom) or a long stretch of the HarborWalk. Maybe a Lyft/Uber from the North End to the Science Museum and maybe a water taxi back to BOS.

also the DownEaster runs out of BON. I hope it after a good snow. OOB, seasonal, but amusement huge for kids. Portland ME, nice art museum, tons of waterfront restaurants - a local bus could get you to Brunswick - Artic Museum and Freeport has many designer outlet stores.
 

caravanman

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I did the QM2 trip the other way in 2014. Single inside room, and flight back after an extended stay in America (on my dime) included, cost around £850.
A railpass might be a good way to pay for a circular rail trip of the US if coach is acceptable?
Keep travelling while we can, how we can, whenever we can!
 

20th Century Rider

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Add to your criteria... travel very light so you can move around easy... this is so very important! If you can fit everything into a backpack your happiness and sense of freedom will be all you want it to be.

Although I am very critical of the dilapidated condition and design of the superliners, the coach seating can be comfortable if [and only if] the train is not crowded and you can get the pair of seats for yourself... and only if you get an attendant who isn't constantly barking and threatening about the masks.

I did do a short segment on the infamous TE between Bloomington and CHI... and although the darn thing was running two hours late... it was not a bad ride. I was smart enough to use the loo at the station and not to risk the filthy ones on the train... so it all worked out well.

That and some of your own food you pick up along the way can make for a happy trip... do seek out grocery stores at your destinations... for fresh fruit, veggies, cheese, good loaf of bread etc.

Be resourceful and flexible... fun can be had on an Amtrak trip! 😇 😇 😇
 

BarbW

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WAS or ORL
I’ve read a bit about the “circle“ trips people on here take and would like to give that a try. My home station is in Salinas, CA on the Coast Starlight route. So I can go up the coast leaving a 6.16 pm or down the coast leaving at 11.48 am. I’d love to make a trip around the country in some sort of contiguous route. No flying. Ive had enough of that after 25 years of business travel.

I‘ve gone up and down the coast from home station Salinas to Seattle and LA a few times, and once connected with the Texas Eagle in LA to my hometown of Longview, TX…a miserable experience. Flex meals, grouchy people, no lounges…I know there is a thread about it.

I know I have the options to Chicago on the SWC, the Zephyr, and the EB and the Sunset to NOLA depending on whether it’s CS north or south…but no experience on the Eastern Trains.

I guess the other info is this.

1. single traveler and can vaguely afford roomette. a somewhat spry 60
2. want to minimize overnight stays in a hotel. The train is my hotel🥱Don’t mind “camping out” in a train lounge and seeing a bit of a city for 8 hours or so
3. no Texas Eagle from San Antonio to Chicago. Never again unless they fix that train
4. I’ve got 14 days at most to do it
5. would like a winter trip…Nov, Dec, Jan

What I’m looking for is some advice on those eastern routes. I see the western trains west coast to Chicago and I think the EB would be fun in winter…but what then? And perhaps the others are better?

And I can read the route map so CS to Portland, EB to Chicago, LSL to Boston? NEC to DC, DC to NOLA on the Cresent? Back up to Chicago On CONO? Or wait a day or two in NOLA for the Sunset?

I’ve heard many bad things on this site about LSL and CONO, and Eastern trains in general, so maybe there are other less obvious routes?

Any advice is deeply appreciated.
I don't know why no one has mentioned the Cardinal. It is by far the best (most scenic) route from New York/Washington to Chicago.
 

denmarks

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so as I read this
Everett WA to Chicago on the EB train 8
Chicago to NYC on the LSL train 48
NYC back to Chicago on the LSL (or maybe there is another way?…that actually what I’m curious about.) 49
Chicago to Los Angeles on the SWC train 3
CS back to WA train 14

almost what I envision, but once I’m in NYC (or maybe Boston) going back the southern way to DC, Crescent to NOLA, Sunset to LA, CS to Salinas.

btw…I priced that trip out …roomettes…this Nov 4500$ In roomettes. 12days. Zounds!!

for compare

Cunard line on the QM2 NYC to Southampton 2600$
inside room 6 days

10 days around the British Islands 4500$

...
Don't forget that the cruise prices are per person. I have gone on a cruise as a single many times and you pay double. $4500 may not be bad. I am paying about that for 4 nights (2 each way) in a bedroom on the CZ next April.
 

20th Century Rider

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I don't know why no one has mentioned the Cardinal. It is by far the best (most scenic) route from New York/Washington to Chicago.
The Cardinal is certainly one of the most scenic routes in the East... but the train itself has gained a reputation for being among the poorest on Amtrak... along with the TE. I found the staff to be angry and always shouting at customers; threatening to throw them off the train if they don't wear masks [OK we get it!] and forbidden to ride Amtrak ever again... and of course the police would be waiting. Passengers are confined to seats or rooms and may come to the cafe lounge only when ordering food which can be eaten there. The train itself is absolutely filthy... barely able to see the scenery through the unwashed windows. This is the account I wrote for my trip report of the Amtrak system recently completed...

Oct 12 Cardinal - CHI - CVS in H Room
Probably the best private room in entire Amtrak Fleet… very comfortable forward facing private accommodation with facility. Entire train very dirty inside and out… windows so filthy the view was extremely dimmed. Attendants appeared upset about their jobs and working conditions… and barking at pax to wear masks or be kicked off of train with threat of banishment from ever riding Amtrak again. Food service car lounge area adjacent to sleepers - for staff only but if eating sleeper pax could use the opposite side closest to coach cars. Otherwise must remain in rooms. Fresh air stops extremely restricted. Meals were brought to rooms on attendant's schedule; same with turn down and turn up bed service. Done hastily; dirty towels not removed… with pax expected to tidy up. Coffee and water available at end of car; coffee served from 6am to 11am only. Very regimented, militant, and 'hostile' MINIMAL service. I finally asked one of the crew why everyone was so unhappy… he said… "Cause it feels like a Monday morning." Hmmm I thought… if you don't like your job don't take it out on the passengers! Many of the elderly were terrified at some of the sharp comments. Personal opinion score: a solid F.

Sooo... it shouldn't be this way... and Amtrak has been shamefully neglectful of train maintenance and staffing behavior. You should take the Cardinal for a scenic adventure... but should not have to experience a shameful lack of service.
 
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Cal

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The Cardinal is certainly one of the most scenic routes in the East... but the train itself has gained a reputation for being among the poorest on Amtrak... along with the TE. I found the staff to be angry and always shouting at customers; threatening to throw them off the train if they don't wear masks [OK we get it!] and forbidden to ride Amtrak ever again... and of course the police would be waiting. Passengers are confined to seats or rooms and may come to the cafe lounge only when ordering food which can be eaten there. The train itself is absolutely filthy... barely able to see the scenery through the unwashed windows. This is the account I wrote for my trip report of the Amtrak system recently completed...

Oct 12 Cardinal - CHI - CVS in H Room
Probably the best private room in entire Amtrak Fleet… very comfortable forward facing private accommodation with facility. Entire train very dirty inside and out… windows so filthy the view was extremely dimmed. Attendants appeared upset about their jobs and working conditions… and barking at pax to wear masks or be kicked off of train with threat of banishment from ever riding Amtrak again. Food service car lounge area adjacent to sleepers - for staff only but if eating sleeper pax could use the opposite side closest to coach cars. Otherwise must remain in rooms. Fresh air stops extremely restricted. Meals were brought to rooms on attendant's schedule; same with turn down and turn up bed service. Done hastily; dirty towels not removed… with pax expected to tidy up. Coffee and water available at end of car; coffee served from 6am to 11am only. Very regimented, militant, and 'hostile' MINIMAL service. I finally asked one of the crew why everyone was so unhappy… he said… "Cause it feels like a Monday morning." Hmmm I thought… if you don't like your job don't take it out on the passengers! Many of the elderly were terrified at some of the sharp comments. Personal opinion score: a solid F.

Sooo... it shouldn't be this way... and Amtrak has been shamefully neglectful of train maintenance and staffing behavior. You should take the Cardinal for a scenic adventure... but should not have to experience a shameful lack of service.
Ditto. Again, my Cardinal trip was far from a highlight. Which is a shame, because I was very much looking forward to it.

And personally, I don't think any of the Eastern trains would be as nice as the western trains with SSL's. Now, I have never been on an Eastern train other than the Cardinal, but I don't see how the diner can level up to the comfortable SSL.
 

zephyr17

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Luckily, I rode the Card in the 90s when it was Superliner and had a Sightseer. Plus it was early spring and the trees were still bare. It really did give the CZ a run for its money in the scenery department.
 

20th Century Rider

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When do you want to go? How much time do you have? Financial resources for the trip??? Finally, do you want to do a cross country or just East or Just West??? I'm sure our AU'ers can come up with something that will fit into what you want to do... that will fit into your possibilities.

Money wise... a good Amtrak agent makes all the difference in the world! If you get a grumpy one, or one who needs to put you on hold to check with a supervisor, etc. say thank you, hang up, and try again.

You may be able to go coast to coast in a roomette RT for under $2000... or mix it up with BC / roomette / coach / for a lot less. Many possibilities for sure!
 

joelkfla

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When do you want to go? How much time do you have? Financial resources for the trip??? Finally, do you want to do a cross country or just East or Just West??? I'm sure our AU'ers can come up with something that will fit into what you want to do... that will fit into your possibilities.

Money wise... a good Amtrak agent makes all the difference in the world! If you get a grumpy one, or one who needs to put you on hold to check with a supervisor, etc. say thank you, hang up, and try again.

You may be able to go coast to coast in a roomette RT for under $2000... or mix it up with BC / roomette / coach / for a lot less. Many possibilities for sure!
That was a link to my post suggesting the Cardinal, not a request. Looks like the BB software displays it as the thread title.
 
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v v

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You may already be aware of this but you can buy your Amtrak ticket starting in Monterey, we use the Transit Plaza in Munras Avenue, (MRY) in Amtrak parlance. There are other Monterey pickup options too. It's an Amtrak Thriuway bus through to Salinas to connect into whichever train you use.

We found the service friendly and efficient, only added a Dollar or two to the Amtrak long distance fare. We really enjoy visiting Monterey, nice place to live.

You may find using an occassional Thruway bus you can switch between routes part way through to make a journey more interesting or convenient, they are shown on Amtrak's Sytem Map.

If you decide on Coast Starlight -> Empire Builder maybe use Seattle. I am currently picking up info on Seattle at the moment on this thread...
Catching the train in Seattle
it has amazed me the range of different things to do and visit in the Seattle area even in winter.

Exactly as @caravanman #14 above, we have travelled QM2 from Southampton to NYC, absolutely magnificent ship.

There is a travelogue in the process of being written by @Seaboard92 re a Train journey(s) across Russia, it will be very up to date.

Enjoy your travels
 

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ScottR

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Well if you didn't enjoy the Eagle due to the flex meals I'm afraid that leaves the following trains open for a circle trip: Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Southwest Chief. The Sunset would require either going on the Eagle or a different train with flex dining.

If I were you, I would go up north to Portland and transfer to the Empire Builder to Chicago (note: I am not sure if this is still a guaranteed connection, might have issues there). Spend a night in Chicago, and then take the Zephyr to Sacramento. At Sacramento you spend a night and then take the Starlight back to Salinas. This will put you on three trains with excellent scenery, traditional dining, and sightseer lounges.

You will have to spend a night in Chicago and Sacramento. Possible in Portland, or you could try to link the two reservations if they are no longer guaranteed.

Your only other option is replacing the Zephyr with the Chief to LA, then the Starlight back up to Salinas. This will allow you to skip a hotel in LA, but the Zephyr far outshines the Chief when it comes to scenery. Other than that, it requires a train with flex meals.


Note: The CONO does have flex meals, but also still has a sightseer lounge. If you'd be okay with that you could go south from Chicago without spending a night and head to NOL. At NOL you'd spend the night and then head to LA on the Sunset, where you should be able to get a straight connection back to Salinas on the Starlight although that connection might no longer be available.
That's very high unless you're committed to a specific date or flight. Although availability is dwindling as travel returns, you should be able to find one-way BC from the UK/Europe for under 90K points/miles depending on the airline. Points are the best choice if booking one-way internationally.

Back to your train trip though, if you're not committed to going to the east coast I'd consider the Sunset to New Orleans, City Of New Orleans to Chicago, Empire Builder to Portland and Coast Starlight back to California. That might make better use of your available resources and time, while still covering a lot of interesting ground. As others have pointed out, the City still has inferior dining but retains a Sightseer lounge.
I have to be back on a Sunday so no flexibility with the flight.
 
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