Ingrid goes to USA and Canada

Staff member: Ingrid // Trip date: Apr 2009

Coast Starlight - San Francisco/Portland

After three weeks travelling the South Western States of the USA by car we finally started the second half of our trip on board the trains of the United States & Canada.

We began our journey from San Francisco. First things first we had to go and collect our tickets. I had my vouchers with me which I received before I left home and went to the Ferry Terminal Amtrak Station in San Francisco where I was required to present my vouchers which contained by booking number as well as my passport as proof of identity.

We could collect all of our Amtrak tickets from this station so we didn't need to worry about it as we went. The first thing we were advised was that the bus we were taking from San Francisco would not be picking up from our designated inner city stop anymore due to a parade happening in the city so instead we were to come back to the Ferry Terminal Station to get the bus to Emeryville to meet the train.

This all happened with ease. There was a nice warm waiting room and as the bus was about to arrive they made an announcement for everyone to go outside to board the bus. You have the option of checking in any luggage at the ferry terminal station so you don't need to carry it on the bus. They transfer it for you to the train. The bus ride is a short 15 minute trip from San Francisco city. Upon arrival in Emeryville we just had to wait in the waiting room until the train arrived. The train station at Emeryville is small- it consists of merely one large room with chairs, a check-in/ticket desk & a café which wasn't open when we were there as it was already almost 10pm. The train arrived 15 minutes late. They made announcements as to where you had to stand on the platform depending on what type of accommodation you had booked on board the train. Once the train arrived each carriage was clearly marked with the carriage number and it was just a matter of walking down to find the correct carriage number to match the one on our ticket. An attendant was waiting outside each cabin to check our tickets and point us in the direction of our room. As we hadn't checked in our big suitcase the attendant also pointed out that we would need to leave this in the luggage racks just inside the door of the carriage downstairs.

We had an upstairs Superliner Roomette which included king single sized bunk beds, a small closet area to hang jackets, sink, toilet & shower. There was also one chair to sit on. Our porter came in soon after to explain everything in the room to us and ask if we would like the second bunk pulled down or not. We decided to squeeze onto the bottom bunk as it was quite big but I later regretted that. He also explained that there is complimentary juice, tea & coffee always available at the end of our carriage.

Wake up call in the morning was at around 8am. We were free to have breakfast anytime up until around 10am. Also being in the Superliner rooms we had a choice of dining in the "Parlour Car" or the regular Dining car. The Parlour car was closer so we went there first but as they only offer two choices for breakfast and we were quite late they only had one choice left so we decided to try the dining car instead, The Dining Car offered numerous choices and all non alcoholic drinks were also free of charge on board.

Tables in the Dining cars were in groups of four so we were seated with another couple. I had "Classic Railroad French Toast" which apparently is a popular old fashioned breakfast on the American Railways & my husband had the Continental Breakfast which consisted of a croissant, yoghurt, cereal & fruit.

There is also an observation car on board which both Coach & Sleeper Class have access too. It was quite crowded in there as a lot of the coach class seemed to spend all their time there as it was much more spacious than the coach carriages. Coach class was seating in configuration of two seats- aisle - two seats. Seats reclined and toilets were at the end of the carriage.Downstairs in the observation car was a bar which served snacks & drinks for the coach class passengers.

Our room had been made into daytime configuration for us when we got back from breakfast and a cabin attendant came around asking what time we would like lunch and whether we would like the Dining Car or Parlour Car. Again the Parlour car has more limited choice but finer foods so we chose the Parlour Car. The menus are announced over loudspeaker before you have to make your decision. The Parlour car was offering the choice of a Roast Beef Salad or a Pasta dish and choice of many different cakes for dessert. Any alcoholic drinks needed to be purchased on board. If we had chosen to eat in the dining car the food is more along the lines of burgers, basic salads & steak sandwiches.

The train was late arriving into Portland. Our tickets were actually to Longview- which is one hour further along but due to late arrival of the train we decided to get off earlier so we could pick up a car before the hire places closed. It was easy to do this as we didn't check in luggage. However if we had checked in our bags we wouldn't have been able to do this.

The Cascades Train - Eugene/Seattle/Vancouver

Cascades runs between Eugene, Oregon & Seattle, Washington with a connecting bus to Vancouver, BC, Canada. We got on in Longview/Kelso, WA. The train was 20 minutes late and apparently that is not at all unusual! This was a simple three hours trip north to Seattle for us. We took our bags on board as there is no option to check in baggage at Longview/Kelso. In fact there are no staff at the station at all! You just have to wait for the announcement as the train arrives!

There are no reserved seats in coach class on Amtrak regional services so we were directed to a particular carriage and told to turn left and just find a seat. The conductor then came around to check our tickets and put a little note above our seats to remind herself & advise others that those seats were taken up until Seattle. There wasn't very much luggage room so it was a bit of a squeeze for our bags! Seating configuration was again 2 & 2 with a few groups of four facing each other at either end of the carriage. All the seats were leather and extremely comfortable and spacious! TV's in the carriage showed movies on the journey and you can use your own headphones in the seat sockets.

Because of the late departure plus other delays along the way we ended up arriving in to Seattle half an hour late. However the great thing about Amtrak buses is that because you book it as a single journey the bus just waits and won't leave until the train has arrived and all passengers have collected their luggage. The bus was an air conditioned coach with a toilet at the back.

We made a short stop on the way at the duty free shop before the border for anyone to make purchases. As it was so late at night there wasn't much traffic so luckily the hold up at the border was not long. Our bus was also less than a quarter full which meant customs procedures were quicker. The bus stops on the US side and everyone needs to get off the bus and collect their luggage then queue up and show passports to a customs officer before re-boarding the bus and proceeding across to Canada. This whole process probably took around minutes

As customs process was quicker than usual for us because of lack of passengers on the bus we made up time and arrived into Vancouver as per the scheduled time. Taxis were waiting outside the station so it was easy to take one to our hotel.

The Rocky Mountaineer - Vancouver/Banff

Now this trip truly was the trip of a lifetime! We had such a fabulous two days! We travelled on the original Kicking Horse Route from Vancouver to Banff. The train leaves very early in the morning from Vancouver and if you haven't booked a package that includes pre-train accommodation then you need to make your own way to the station. We caught a taxi and it took about 15mins from the centre of the CBD to the Rocky Mountaineer station.

Upon arrival a porter helped with our luggage and guided us inside to the check-in desk where we swapped our voucher for our official boarding documentation which included the hotel we were booked for in Kamloops and because we were travelling in Gold Leaf, a memorial gold maple leaf pin.

Our carriage was full as were many of the other gold leaf carriages however most of the red leaf were not. Each Gold Leaf Carriage has 4 attendants to look after it. Two upstairs who serve drinks & do on board commentary throughout the trip and two downstairs who serve food in the dining room. Because our carriage was full we had two sittings for every meal. On day one we were in the second seating which meant we had a while to wait until we got breakfast. Because it was such an early start and everyone was already hungry they served a snack of blueberry scones & hot tea & coffee whilst we were waiting for our turn for breakfast. The Gold leaf seating is upstairs with panoramic windows almost around the entire ceiling. Downstairs is the dining room as well as two toilets per carriage, an outdoor observation area so you can take photos without the glass windows in the way & also an elevator for those who cannot climb the stairs in the carriage.

Breakfast consisted of about 5 different choices as well as tea & coffee. Again tables were groups of four so we were seated with another couple. This was a great social event as every meal we got to sit with a different couple and hear all about their travels.

Commentary occurred throughout the day with our attendants letting us know exactly when they saw any wildlife or a particular place of interest was coming up. They were full of plenty of stories throughout the trip and kept everyone thoroughly entertained. The drinks service did not stop throughout the day. All drinks are fully included in Gold Leaf - both alcoholic & non alcoholic and all food in Gold Leaf is cooked fresh on board with each Gold Leaf carriage containing its own kitchen downstairs.

Lunch again was in two sittings and as we were in the 2nd seating we were again given a snack to tie us over until lunchtime. This consisted of cheese, dried fruit & crackers. Lunch was 3 courses with plenty of different main choices including one vegetarian with wine served. They only have one red & one white option for the wines though but they were of course of a good quality. Any souvenirs that people wish to purchase have to be ordered on the first day which our attendants made sure we were aware of and each seat pocket has a copy of the guide of souvenirs on offer.

Just before our arrival into Kamloops we were given our room keys for our hotel for one night and told which coach number we had to get on when we arrived at the station. It was so easy. We didn't have to check in or anything. We got off the train and straight onto a coach where we were taken 2 minutes up the road to our hotel and then we could go straight to our rooms where our bags were already waiting for us. Passengers in Red Leaf didn't get their bags delivered to their rooms. They are required to pack an overnight bag which they take on board the train & coach with them and then take to their rooms themselves.

Upon arrival at the hotel there was a notice-board which explained what time our coach would be leaving in the morning to go back to the train and also for all people who had booked the evening entertainment show in Kamloops there was a time for coach pick up for that also.

We had booked for the new show which began at the start of this 2009 season, called "Rhythm on the Rails." We had around an hour and a half at our hotel to freshen up for dinner. Then the coach ride took us 10 minutes up the road to the Kamloops convention centre for dinner and the show. We were shown to a table and were lucky enough to be right at the front and sharing a smaller table with 3 other people. Dinner was a self service buffet of roast chicken, salmon, vegetarian pasta, 10 different salads & a carvery station of pork & beef as well. It was plenty of food and after a day where we felt like all we did was eat it was amazing we actually still felt hungry enough for dinner! It was too good to pass up! Each table is looked after by a waiter/ess who will take drink orders for the night. All Non-alcoholic drinks are included whereas alcohol must be paid for. After the main meal each table was served a dessert platter to share as well as tea and coffee. The show itself does not start until between 9-9:30, which means we had almost 2 hours to eat our meals! I thought this might be a bit long and boring but there was plenty to talk about with the people we were sharing a table with as we got to know each other.

The show itself is about an hour long and is a musical about a man travelling across Canada by train trying to write the "perfect" song. It's a lot of fun and all the actors have musical backgrounds so the singing is of a quality standard. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and I think it is a definite part of the Rocky Mountaineer experience people should attend. Those Gold Leaf passengers who chose not to attend had dinner provided at one of the hotel restaurants and Red Leaf had to find their own dinner.

An even earlier start the following morning with the coach back to the train leaving the hotel at 6:15. Our Souvenirs we ordered were already waiting for us in our seats when we boarded and the best part is you only have to pay for what you want to keep. So if you aren't sure if you want something you are best off ordering it then when you see it the next day if you decide you don't like it you just give it back to the attendants and they won't charge you for it. Luckily today we were on the first sitting for breakfast which means we didn't have to wait long for food! Breakfast menu is the same on both mornings and if you are in the first sitting you don't receive the snack that you get on the 2nd sitting.
The Scenery changes a lot of the 2nd day and becomes much more exciting as you get into the heart of the Canadian mountain ranges. We saw much more wildlife on the 2nd day including Bald Eagles, Mountain Goats, Elk & some people even got to see a bear although we missed it ourselves! The Lunch menu was different on Day 2 so we had a different choice of dishes. Again 3 course meal.

In the afternoon I had a look in Red Leaf - which usually people cannot do but because I work in the industry the train manager took me through to have a look. Red Leaf is only downstairs with picture windows. However they have done it well in that the seats are very low down so you can actually see up quite well so people aren't missing out too much on all the tops of the mountains along the way. Although of course the view still doesn't begin to rival that of what you can see in Gold Leaf. Red Leaf Cabins have one attendant who serves all non alcoholic drinks and provides the commentary. The official commentary is the same in both Red or Gold so people aren't missing out on key features along the way. There are toilets at the end of the carriage and room above the seats for people's overnight bags. All Meals served in Red Leaf are cold and served at their seat.

We were also served freshly baked chocolate chip cookies just before our arrival into Banff.
We actually arrived in Banff an hour and a half early which is apparently quite unusual so it was quite good to have plenty of light and time before dinner when we arrived. The train travels on to Calgary for those passengers booked through to there. When we got off there were coaches waiting to take anyone booked on a package straight to their hotels in Banff however as we were booked independently we either had to walk or take a taxi. I would say now we probably could have walked but we weren't sure where we were going so we took a 2 min taxi ride into town to our hotel. The Brewsters Mountain Lodge is right at the beginning of the main town area in a great location. It's a fabulous little place with spacious rooms and a "log cabin" feel to it.

The Canadian - Jasper/Toronto

Our next train was The Canadian from Jasper to Toronto. We arrived at the station an hour before the train was due to depart as recommended. We swapped our VIA Rail vouchers for our actual tickets which had coach and sleeper numbers on them and checked in our big luggage. Now, I would recommend everyone be careful with how much their baggage weighs when you check in on this service. As we had been travelling for quite a while I hadn't taken much notice of how heavy my suitcase was, however each item can only be a max of 23.5kg or 50pounds in weight. Anything above that is charged an extra $20CAD per approx 10kg extra. Luckily we had an extra bag with us so we packed a bit of stuff in there and then we were fine to check both bags in. Be sure to have everything you need for the entire journey in a small bag to take on board with you as there is not much room for luggage in the sleeper cabins and you have no access to your checked-in luggage for the duration of your journey.

Finding our carriage was again simply a matter of matching the carriage number printed on our ticket to that on the side of the carriage. We walked down and eventually found it then were directed once again to our cabin. This train was only one storey so no need to worry about stairs.

The train arrived an hour late so when we finally got on board and got started we were called for the first sitting of dinner almost immediately. For those who wish there is champagne and hor-deuvres served in the Park Car for all Sleeper cabin passengers. The park car also has a lounge area for people to relax in with some board games available to play and upstairs is an observation lounge with panoramic windows to take in the views.

Like all the other trains we have been on so far tables in the dining room were in groups of four so we were seated with another couple. It was during this meal we finally got to see a black bear which we were very excited about! The train driver gave us plenty of warning as we were toward the back of the train and it was great it was still just sitting there watching the train as our carriage went past.

The only drinks really provided on board this train are water & tea/coffee. Juice is also provided at breakfast time. Dinner was three courses with around 4-5 choices for main course. Starting with soup or salad, then mains including choice of one vegetarian then a choice of three different desserts.

While we were having dinner our cabin attendant made up on room which was two bunks with a sink, small closet & toilet. There is one shower at the end of each carriage for everyone to share.

The one thing I noticed most of this journey was how the scenery changed each day. Our first evening on the train we were still in the Rockies and mountain region. However when we woke up the next morning we were in the Canadian Prairies- or Flatlands. Then the following day was full of winding rivers, frozen lakes and forests.

Gladly the wake up call for breakfast wasn't too early. They came through the carriage at around 8am to call everyone for breakfast. Breakfast was available each day from 6:30 - 9:30 so if you happened to be an early riser there was always an earlier option for breakfast. Breakfast had plenty of options which changed slightly each day but overall usually offered similar types of dishes each day to choose from - be it hot bacon and eggs, an omelette, pancakes, French toast or continental. At breakfast one of the wait staff will give you a slip of paper which will tell you which sitting you will be on at lunch & dinner that day. We got the 2nd sitting and it was just a matter of listening for the loudspeaker announcement for when to go to the dining car for your sitting.

Lunch was again three courses like dinner. Offering choice of soup or salad along with a few choices of main and just the one standard dessert served with tea or coffee to finish. On the second evening as we were eating dinner we arrived at Winnipeg station where the train stops for 3 &1/2 hours. Everyone is advised to get off so they can have a wander around which we did but I have to say there's not particularly that much to see/do at that time of night in Winnipeg. It would be different going the other direction as the stop is 4 hours between 8am-12pm and they actually offer a choice of activities you can pay to do off the train so you can have an off- board experience during your trip.
Again on the 2nd morning we weren't woken up until 8am for breakfast. Things basically run the same each day. People spend their time reading or watching movies on their laptops they may have brought with them. There are power outlets available in every room. We also played board games and spent time in the observation car enjoying the views. It was an extremely relaxing three days! I can't remember the last time when I didn't have to think about anything AT ALL for that long! The menu again changes so you have a different choice of meals. Staff also change in Winnipeg so we had new staff on board for the rest of the journey to Toronto. We again were given 2nd sitting for lunch & dinner. Meal times were usually 1st sitting for lunch 11:30, 2nd sitting around 1pm then dinner first sitting 5:30 and 2nd sitting between 7 & 7:30pm.

On the final morning we were again woken up at a similar time for breakfast and went down to the dining car- we were supposed to arrive into Toronto at 9:30 however found out that we were running about an hour late so had plenty of time to eat and gather our things together before we got off.

Train to Niagara Falls, ON, Canada

We took the subway back to Union Station from our hotel which was very easy and quick to do. It is definitely the easiest way around Toronto which is surprisingly a very large city! Much bigger than I had expected. We arrived just 20mins before departure and followed the signs to our train. It was easy to find as we just looked at the train number on our ticket and then followed those signs to the train. Conductors on the platform directed us to the correct carriage for where we were going and when we got on the carriage was already almost full! Again there were no seat numbers so we just had to find vacant seats which we were lucky we got the last pair left next to each other! Seating configuration was the same as all the other trains so far. There was lots of luggage room on this train as it was an Amtrak train going all the way to New York City so had a lot of people with a lot of luggage on board. It was a fairly short comfortable trip. There was a dining car on board if you were hungry and also one first class carriage but really it didn't seem that different to economy class which was very spacious and comfortable! Seats were much bigger and more comfortable than economy class on an airline.

We got off on the Canadian side then took a taxi down to Rainbow bridge where we walked across to the American side. This was very easy and I would highly recommend to anyone rather than having to take the train across the border to the US side of Niagara Falls as Customs can take up to two hours! Whereas it took us less than 5 minutes to walk across and show our passports as we crossed on to the other side.

The Empire Builder to New York City

This was our final train journey. A 9 hour trip to NYC. Again we travelled coach/economy and arrived at the station around 30mins before departure. We were the first people there and were directed by a conductor on the platform to a completely empty carriage. The same configuration as the day before- lots of luggage space at the front of the train with two seats - aisle - two seats. There were tray tables at the back of each seat and power outlets also available. There was a dining car/bar on board with food available to purchase however keep in mind it is pretty pricey and not particularly great. Just things like hot dogs, chips, sandwiches, chocolate, drinks etc.... Not a lot to choose from. The seats reclined and again there was plenty of leg room and the seats were quite wide which made it a comfortable journey. The train soon got very busy.

We ended up arriving almost two hours late into NYC due to a medical emergency on board the train when we were stopped at one of the stations along the way. However when we arrived in Penn Station it was very easy to find the subway to make our way to our hotel.

Additional Info:

  • Keep in mind that both Amtrak & Via-Rail are not known for being on time! Its not like Europe so do not make plans for onwards travel without leaving PLENTY of time in between.
  • If you are travelling in a seat you will not receive a seat number on your ticket. They don't overbook the train and everyone will get a seat. You just get on board and find one that is available.
  • Listen for announcements or look for a conductor at a station if you don't know which carriage you need to get on. Don't just get on any carriage as quite often there will be specific carriages for specific destinations. I never had an instance where there wasn't either an announcement and/or a conductor readily available to direct me when the train arrived without me having to ask.

More staff stories

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Amtrak Superliner Roomette
Amtrak Superliner Roomette

Rocky Mountaineer
Rocky Mountaineer

Having a few
Having a few "drinks"

Gold Leaf Dining Car Rocky Moutaineer
Gold Leaf Dining Car Rocky Moutaineer

Gold Leaf seating Rocky Mountaineer
Gold Leaf seating Rocky Mountaineer

The Canadian
The Canadian

Lounge on The Canadian
Lounge on The Canadian

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