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Can we visit Vancouver, then go by rail to San Francisco without breaking the bank?

The Coast Starlight

Courtesy of Amtrak

The question

We would like to visit Vancouver, then travel by train to San Francisco. Do you have any advice as to how to do this, keeping costs to a minimum?

The answer

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It certainly has a romantic name – the San Francisco-bound Coast Starlight – and while some forum posts complain about the delays and difficulties of sleeping upright on the full-day journey, John Pitt says there's nothing like travelling by train.

Which is rather like him, as he has rattled over 120,000 kilometres of track in North America and is the author of Bradt's USA by Rail, plus Canada (

"The Coast Starlight route takes you through spectacular landscapes, from the high mountains and deep forest valleys of the Northwest to long stretches of otherwise inaccessible Pacific shoreline shared only with gulls, yachts and fishing boats," Pitt says. "Chance encounters are also for me a part of what makes a train journey such a rewarding experience."

Here are his tips on this journey:

From Vancouver, there are two ways to do this: You can take the Amtrak Cascades train ( from Vancouver to Seattle, where the Coast Starlight begins, or you can board Amtrak's early-hour (5:30 a.m.!) Thruway bus from Vancouver's Pacific Central Station. Here you can check your bags, and then pick them up in San Francisco, Pitt says. With the first option, the Cascades service doesn't arrive in time for the morning Starlight departure, so you would have to spend a night in Seattle. Which, if you have the time, wouldn't be like doing hard time.

The Coast Starlight pulls into Emeryville, a suburb of San Francisco, around 8:15 a.m. The ticket includes a bus transfer to stops within the city, including Fisherman's Wharf. (Taking the train back? The Starlight leaves Emeryville around 10 p.m. and arrives in Seattle the next night at around 8:45 p.m., Pitt says. The Thruway bus would then get you back to Vancouver after midnight.)

Pitt suggests that you "make reservations early in order to get the best fares," which he estimates cost $300 (U.S.) round-trip. "If you drove in a small car instead, the gas costs alone would be $200 and you would have to pay to sleep at motels on at least two nights. So that's not much cheaper than flying, plus you would probably have to pay for parking."

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The big question – and budget deal – is of course whether you can sleep in coach class on the 25-hour journey. "I've generally found coach-class seats fine and mostly travel overnight this way, though a sleeper is a nice luxury," Pitt says. "There are a few things to keep in mind when sleeping in coach. The seats are large and comfortable, but it pays to select one in the middle of the car, away from the doors." His other cattle-class tips? Take a coat or blanket for warmth at night; and make sure the reclining mechanism is working properly on the seat you choose. (If you do opt for the sleeping car, besides a bed, you will have access to the train's wood-panelled Pacific Parlour Car, with its library, theatre and candlelit dining.)

"Any long-distance train journey is an adventure as much as a means of getting from one place to another," Pitt adds. "Flying is faster, but on a train, you stay in contact with the country as it unrolls outside the wrap-around windows."

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Follow Karan Smith on Twitter: @karan_smith.

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