I want to travel the West Coast for cheap
June 20, 2006 11:49 AM   Subscribe

How do I travel the West Coast by rail for cheap? I have the general plan mapped out (I want to go north... or south?). I most certainly will see people and places in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego. Hopefully in a semi-linear fashion with interesting walk-abouts in between. I'm thinking railpass. I'm not really asking for nuts and bolts, I'm asking for

your impressions. I would prefer not to wander farther East than Vegas.

Now then. If you were doing this, and you were traveling this general path, in either direction, or hopping from place to place, what would you want to do and see, and why? Oh yeah, one more thing, I'm not hung up on too many specifics, I'm just more interested in the first thing you would do, the first impression you have, because if I like it, I'll eventually do it, or some form thereof, during the trip. The only boundary is that outside a rail pass and a plane ticket I won't have more than $100 to spend. I know I can swing it. Anyway, I look forward to your responses. Also, I'd rather not read the Lonely Planet or any travel books written in vague generalities for 'Joe Reader'. Thanks in advance. I will probably ask more specific follow up questions when I remember that I wrote this post and actually hit the Post button.
posted by tweak to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, certainly in Los Angeles and San Diego there is plenty to see within walking distance of the train station. LA's Union Station is a short walk from downtown, chinatown, Olvera street, Our Lady of the Angels (definitely worth checking out), etc. You can take a bus to Santa Monica and from there the shuttle bus up to the (free) Getty Museum, too, but there's more than enough to see in one full day within walking distance of Union Station, which is one of the prettiest train stations in the state.

In San Diego there is plenty to see and do within walking distance of the train station. I think the downtown light rail may be free, just like in Portland. You can take it out to Balboa Park which is lots of fun.

San Francisco will be tough since Amtrak doesn't run into the city and transbay service is not super cheap and you can't walk. Since you've only got $100 to spend, that's what - maybe 5 days of uber-cheap meals while traveling? - so I'd stick near the train station - get off at Berkeley, walk up University or take a bus/hitch to the campus, Shattuck, Telegraph walking/shopping districts. Plenty of cheap eats up there. Save a few bucks to take the elevator to the top of the Campanile. There's a good art museum here too but again, with that budget I doubt you'll be able to afford anything but food.

I'm not sure of the location of Amtrak stations in Vancouver and Portland though, so I can't help you out there. If you want cheap things to see/do near Amtrak in the LA and San Francisco area, though, you can email me at hundertwasser@Yahoo.com.

Also, sign up for couchsurfing and maybe one of the travelers clubs and you can find some places to stay for free if there's a place you want to check out for more than one day.

Good luck. How much is the Amtrak pass, anyway? With their prices as high as they are now, I'm assuming something like this is at least double the cost of combined plane tickets, yes?
posted by luriete at 12:37 PM on June 20, 2006

In San Diego you can connect to the trolley system or the commuter rail that goes up the coast. The trolley is generally around $1.25 for most stops within downtown, but you could easily walk most anywhere downtown you'd want to go. Balboa Park/San Diego Zoo is great, but you'd want to catch a bus to get there because the trolley doesn't stop that close and it would be a long, uphill walk from the station. The Gaslamp District is fun for restaurants and nightlife, and Petco Park is a great place to see a baseball game. The trolley will also get you down to the border if you're interested in seeing the splendor that is Tijuana.

From commuter rail in San Diego you can get up to Encinitas or Solana Beach, which are great beach towns up the coast.

Another option on the main Amtrak line in SoCal is Santa Barbara. I used to take the train up from San Diego to visit my sister at school there. It's about a 3-4 hour ride, and the Santa Barbara train station is right downtown.

Eugene, OR would be my vote for the Pacific Northwest. A great, hippie-infested college town. The train station is right downtown and there is plenty to do within walking distance.

Keep in mind that the train trips will probably be really long. When I was at school in Eugene some friends of mine took the train home to Sacramento and it was a 2 day trip or something like that. By car it would have been about 8 hours.
posted by sbrollins at 1:01 PM on June 20, 2006

One thing I can't stress enough - make sure that you'll actually be traveling by train when you plan your trip and buy the tickets. There are large portions of California that do not have rail service and you'll likely end up on an Greyhound bus. Trains are a great way to travel. Paying train rates to ride on a bus is not.

There used to be a line, I think it was called the Starlighter, that ran between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles along the coast. If at all possible you should at least try to take the coast line between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, there's some beautiful coastline there and seeing it by train is really the best way.
posted by lekvar at 1:04 PM on June 20, 2006

San Francisco will be tough since Amtrak doesn't run into the city and transbay service is not super cheap and you can't walk.

This Amtrak page suggests that the California Rail Pass ($159) allows travel on "most connecting Thruway services" -- my guess is SF would be one of these -- but you'd want to check.

SF *may* be worth it if you schedule it around first thursday -- free wine and cheese at art openings -- check fecalface.com, flavorpill, and squidlist for other events that may have free food.

I can't find any up to date Food Not Bombs schedules, but they serve a couple times a week in People's Park in Berkeley, and the same in .. uh, UN Plaza (I think) in SF. Everyone is usually welcome -- if you feel bad about "taking food from the homeless"* you can offer to help serve or make a small donation. The food is usually (always?) vegan, and often quite good, although I have had a friend (who ate there an entire summer when his scholarships ran out) that suggested bringing your own salt and pepper shakers. FNB is probably in most major West coast cities, so it may be a good place to get some free food.

*totally not the case -- usually there is so much food it's thrown into the compost pile after it's eaten.

i was unemployed in SF for about 6 months and considered writing a SF on the cheap guidebook -- I found TONS of things to do for free. I'd probably stay out of the smaller cities on your trip, because there'll be more opportunities for free stuff in the larger ones.

If possible, I'd bring a bike with you -- Amtrak CA has room for bikes on almost all of their trains; you'll want to check any other routes you're considering to make sure that A) you don't have to box it and B) you can take it, but if you bring a bike with you, I think you'll save considerable amounts of money on local transportation.

that said, a $100 budget is slim indeed -- I'm guessing you're going to be sleeping under the stars?

posted by fishfucker at 1:13 PM on June 20, 2006

Seconding or thirding the SoCal coast route. The Santa Barbara train station is not only right downtown, it's like a block from the beach and wharf, and probably less than a mile from the zoo. It's also just a couple blocks from a hostel, and about a half mile from the public bus depot (express route out to UCSB if you're interested in that side trip).
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:16 PM on June 20, 2006

Emeryville's the closest Amtrak stop to San Francisco. There's a free Emery Go Round shuttle (map) between the Emeryville Amtrak Station and the MacArthur BART station. It's $2.95 from MacArthur to downtown San Francisco.

I've taken Amtrak between Portland and San Francisco.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:38 PM on June 20, 2006

The Coast Starlight runs just about that entire route, from Seattle to LA. So I'd just do it in from top to bottom.
However, right now, there is UP construction down LA way, so you'll end up on a bus between LA and Santa Barbara.

The train stops at Jack London Square in Oakland, so you can get over to San Francisco from there for a quick detour.
posted by madajb at 1:40 PM on June 20, 2006

For cheap eats near the Seattle train station, go to any of the many Vietnamese restaurants in the International District (just east across the tracks from the station). You should be able to get a delicious, filling Vietnamese sandwich (on fresh baguette) for $2.00. Or go to any Noodle house - should be able to get a big bowl of noodles for $2-3. Have fun!
Also, the train station in Davis, California is gorgeous.
posted by dbmcd at 3:55 PM on June 20, 2006

I'm not interested in hostels if the temperature is consistently above 40 degrees. Fahrenheit.
posted by tweak at 4:53 PM on June 20, 2006

I would love to mark all of these as best answers but then it would be obnoxious to read, so I highlighted two and gave up.
posted by tweak at 4:53 PM on June 20, 2006

Digihitch has some good stories/info on hitching, and presumedly, living cheap on the road. I'll add other stuff as i think of it.
posted by fishfucker at 6:43 PM on June 20, 2006

The Portland train station is downtown, and certainly within walking distance of cheap food. You can also walk to Powells from there and spend a day reading.
posted by cmonkey at 7:50 PM on June 20, 2006

I think Amtrak actually runs a connecting bus between Jack London Square and SF. I'd assume the rail pass covers any fare.
posted by majick at 8:38 PM on June 20, 2006

the connection is officially at Emeryville, although there may be connections at Jack London. The connection is via bus, which, as I mentioned above, "should" be included with the railpass.

There's a couple other amtrak tips worth mentioning: I don't know if you've ridden amtrak before, but don't expect to be able to jump off at stops and get food, or even smoke a cigarette (if you're a smoker). I did the Portland to Berkeley hop, and there were maybe two stops that lasted longer than 30 seconds -- this on a nearly .. 18 hour train ride. The train food actually *isn't* that bad, and it's not as expensive as it could be, but it's much easier to bring your own food on board. The cafe guy has always been happy to give me cups of ice, and I'm sure they'd hook you up with boiling water if you brought a cup'o'noodles aboard or whatever (although they also sell it). Policy is that you cannot bring your own alcohol aboard, but I've always been fairly discreet and never had a problem with it -- I doubt they enforce this unless it is a problem.

It may be tempting to try and dodge the conductors to stretch your railpass a little further.* This is probably possible for 2 hour sections if you get lucky because IME most conductors *won't* go out of their way to ask for your ticket if you're wandering around the train while they're checking tickets and then sit in a section that they don't go through. This has happened to me (unintentionally, on my part -- i was usually going to get a beer from the cafe car while they were collecting tickets) more than a few times, but more often on train rides that were outside of the main commute hours, on the Capitol Corridor. The upside for you will be that you have a rail-pass if they ask you for a ticket, so you'll neither get kicked off the train or have to pay the hefty "boarded at a manned station without a ticket" fee (50% of the original ticket cost). I wouldn't try to do anything tricky with the seat passes because 1) each conductor has their own methods with them and you'll probably get it wrong and 2) most of the conductors seem to have a pretty good memory of whose tickets they've collected and whose they haven't .

Uh, what else -- Monday and Friday are big commute days on the Capitol Corridor (San Jose to Sac), although outside the 9 o clock and 5 o clock trains it's pretty empty. Tuesday is a pretty big day for schoolchildren fieldtrips, which I would recommend avoiding, unless you really like kids. Don't ever count on your train arriving on time, because odds are it will not. Connecting buses will usually hold for your train, however, so you don't have to worry about those.

* Obviously, this isn't legal, but neither is hitch-hiking or sleeping in public, two other travel tatics I'm sure you've considered.
posted by fishfucker at 12:51 AM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Vancouver Amtrak station isn't right downtown. It kind of straddles a semi-sketch area, Chinatown, and a semi-industrial area. BUT there is a Skytrain (think El/raised subway) right next door. You can hop on that and it'll take you downtown. From there, lots of buses and even a Seabus - part of the same transit system, and it gives you a great view of the city, mountains, Stanley Park and Burrard Inlet from the ocean. Ride it roundtrip to get back to the city and continue with walking around.
posted by fionab at 1:18 AM on June 21, 2006

Legality doesn't concern me. There is a balance between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. My plan is to bring one rucksack, wear flip flops, maybe a bedroll, a white gas stove, and top ramen (maruchan). My pocket knife as well.

I'd love to bring a glock (a little too theatrical for my tastes) or something to intimidate people but I'd rather have a scary looking pocket knife.

I greatly appreciate all the responses.
posted by tweak at 9:14 PM on June 22, 2006

« Older Nashville neighborhoods   |   Should I seek counseling for unhappiness? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.