Train review: Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, the best way from Los Angeles to San Diego
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we have resumed the publication of new, previously unpublished flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown. We are also republishing a selection of our most popular reviews from 2019 and 2020, including the one below, which was originally published in September 2019. We hope this will help you choose once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
Please note that Amtrak says it can limit ticket sales to allow for physical distancing. Amtrak is also waiving all change and cancellation fees for reservations made by August 31, including reservations booked with points. All customers are required to wear a facial covering.
This review, part of TPG’s coverage of train travel, has been edited from the original to reflect changed schedules.
You don’t have to live in Los Angeles to know the horror stories of being stuck in traffic on California’s notoriously clogged interstates — the 5, the 1, the 101, the 405 … the list goes on.
A straight line is usually the shortest distance between two points, but not on these highways. So when it came time last summer to get from Disneyland in Anaheim to San Diego, I booked what has to be the best way to get there: a train ride on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.
A quick check of Google Maps says that the one-way drive between Los Angeles and San Diego can take anywhere from 1 hour and 40 minutes to closer to four hours, depending on traffic. By comparison, the train ride is estimated at an easy 2 hours and 50 minutes between those cities and you can nap, work, read or enjoy the scenery during that time with no chance of road rage. The daily schedule for the Pacific Surfliner route offers currently six round-trip runs between San Diego and the Los Angeles area, far fewer than before service reductions due to the pandemic.
Taking the train made sense for this trip because I didn’t plan to have a car and needed to travel one-way from Anaheim after a visit to Disneyland for the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.I would meet my family in San Diego before leaving on Hawaiian Airlines to start a family Hawaiian vacation. There are no nonstop flights from Anaheim to San Diego, and traveling back to Los Angeles to fly from LAX would guarantee that the trip would be longer and more stressful than a simple train ride of 2 hours and 13 minutes.
Related: Guide to maximizing Amtrak Rewards
I fly way more than I ride the train, so I’m used to a dizzying array of ticket options with prices that vary from outstanding to stomach-turning. That was not the case when pricing out Pacific Surfliner tickets. You simply picked the departure time that worked best and then selected seating in economy or business, with the latter costing $14 more. The grand total for my one-way, business-class Amtrak ticket from Anaheim to San Diego, booked a couple weeks before departure, was $44.45. (A check of the same route in June 2020 revealed that prices are the same as they were last year, and also the same for each of the six services running every day.)
If you have Amtrak points available, this itinerary would have cost 1,200 points (or 1,534 in June 2020.) Even if you don’t travel via Amtrak regularly, you can earn points by shopping online or from the Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard that currently has a welcome bonus of 20,000 points after hitting the spending requirements. (This information was collected independently by TPG.)
You can also charge the ticket to a card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and wipe the travel charge out with your points (about 4,445 points in this case) or charge it to a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and earn 3 points per dollar on travel charges.
The information for the Amtrak Guest Rewards card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Check-in and station
Because I was on a business-class ticket, I had a guaranteed seat (though not a specific seat assignment) and was able to change my ticket at no extra charge at the Anaheim station, which enabled me to hop on an earlier train when I arrived earlier than expected.
The Anaheim station is bright, airy and clean, but there wasn’t much going on there on this particular afternoon. There’s generally no need to add lots of buffer time for train travel the way you would at an airport, especially when leaving from a smaller station. (If you are traveling out of Los Angeles Union Station in business class, you can visit the Los Angeles Metropolitan Lounge.)
A few minutes before the train was set to arrive to Anaheim, I made the short walk outside to the tracks.
The train was running a few minutes behind schedule when it pulled into the station. Business-class boarding was toward the front of the train, so line up in that area if you have a business-class ticket. There aren’t assigned seats, so think of this as a Southwest Airlines first-on, first-seat choice situation. For larger groups of three or four people, there were tables with assigned names on them.
I boarded the train and headed upstairs where I found an open pair of seats. As you can see in the photo, the seating area has great legroom, but it was pretty tired from years of use and stained on both the seats and the carpet. I ended up not having a seatmate for the entire journey.
Stains aside, there’s no question that these seats are more comfortable and roomy than what you’d find on most flights along the California coast.
Families or groups of friends could potentially get a table for four to spread out and enjoy. I saw a number of card games going on around me.
At 1:18 p.m., we were pulling out of the Anaheim station and heading south to San Diego. A few minutes later, an attendant came by to see if I needed anything. Being a bit of a train newbie, I told him I had no clue what my choices were but I would take whatever he had. He said I was a quick learner and promptly brought out a snack box, water and bottle of sparkling wine. These extras are included with the business-class ticket but would not be included in economy. This alone was probably worth the $14 business-class upcharge versus buying the items from the snack car.
If you forgot what route you were on, the box would remind you.
The snack box contents weren’t award-winning but were not too shabby for a two-hour ride. The box included jerky, multi-grain crackers, cheese spread, a dried fruit/nut mix. pretzels and the “best chocolate chip cookies in the world.” Or, at least that’s what the bag said. My kids stole them later that night so I can neither confirm nor deny the claim.
After a few snacks and sips, it was time to peer out at the coastline. This was approximately when I realized the strategic error I had made when boarding. You see, one side of the train hugs the coastline with views of the surf while the other has views in the opposite direction. You can see which one I selected.
Since I didn’t board until the second stop at Anaheim, the poor seat selection wasn’t fully my fault as there weren’t any seats still available on the “surf” side of the train. But, if you have the luxury of choice, grab that right-hand side for the best coastal views heading south.
The passenger count started to diminish as we reached Oceanside, one of the few brief stops on the line. If you don’t like your first seat, there may be a chance to swap to another one somewhere down the tracks.
When it came time to get some work done on the train, there was a working power outlet and Wi-Fi, which certainly wouldn’t win any awards. It is powered by cellular carriers that have towers along the route, but it worked well enough for light internet browsing. Unlike the airlines, there was no fee to connect. Of course, because you’re on the ground, you can also just run off your own cellular service.
But let’s be real, I wasn’t working much on this journey. I wanted to explore what the train had to offer. The next stop for me was the snack car, located about two cars behind where I was seated.
There were packaged snacks and hot food available from the snack car’s Market Cafe. You could find pizza or cheeseburgers for about $6, alcohol from $6-$15, or a kid’s snack pack for $5 — but don’t save stomach space for it, necessarily. There weren’t any can’t-miss items here. For example, the pizza and cheeseburgers are frozen, then taken out of their packages and heated on the train.
But hey — at least, you won’t go thirsty.
In addition to roomier seats, another big advantage of the train over flying or driving, are the large bathrooms. Compare this facility pictured below to say this new aircraft lavatory — especially if you have to take your baby for a diaper change or a kid for a potty break. The nod goes to the train. That said, the train bathroom is far from luxurious and felt like a bit of a flashback, but it was large.
At 3:21 p.m., the journey south was over and we had arrived at the Santa Fe Depot in sunny San Diego.
The Santa Fe Depot in San Diego was totally different from the modern Anaheim station. It was clearly older, with a classical style and had a small number of bathrooms that could nicely be described as “retro.” If you need to use the facilities there, make a beeline to the bathrooms as you exit the station because the line got long when all the train passengers disembarked.
Getting an Uber from the station to my hotel near the San Diego Airport about three miles away was a breeze, and just like that, this part of the journey was over.
For my situation, there was absolutely no better way to travel one-way from Disneyland in Anaheim to San Diego. However, even from the Los Angeles area, I’d argue that the Surfliner is the easiest way to get to San Diego without the hassles of air travel or the congestion of California traffic. The Amtrak cars were neither updated nor modern, but they were certainly spacious and were fine for a short trip. (If you decide instead on a California road trip, here are tips for that adventure.)
The staff on board the train were friendly and the two hours passed quickly and without any hiccup. If you book well in advance, you can snag tickets starting at about $30 or 1,000 Amtrak points each way, slightly more in business class. Of course, if you can book via a sale, then your prices may be even better than that.
The Pacific Surfliner is not one of those luxurious or romantic train trips, but it is certainly an affordable, easy and convenient way to get around California.
All photos by the author, except featured image courtesy of Amtrak.
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