Grey clouds, with a line of mist-shrouded trees about half-way up the picture. There is a row of conifer trees in the middle distance. In the foreground are a white building with orange lettering on the left, with telephone wires above it, and some grey buildings on the right.

The Coast Starlight

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Saturday, March 23. We began our trip this morning, boarding the Coast Starlight out of Seattle at 9:50 this morning.

Grey clouds, with a line of mist-shrouded trees about half-way up the picture. There is a row of conifer trees in the middle distance. In the foreground are a white building with orange lettering on the left, with telephone wires above it, and some grey buildings on the right.
Misty morning, leaving Seattle on the Coast Starlight

This meant getting up much earlier than we normally do, as there were things to pack which had to be used overnight or first thing in the morning, and a lot of general scurrying around receiving last minute hugs from the family members who weren’t going along with us this time.

Indeed, the only family member who was going with me is my firstborn, M. I decided several years ago that, before my children grew old enough to fly the nest and live apart from me, I wanted to take each of them on a major trip together, just the two of us… making memories that will help to hold me when they’re no longer there every day. The summer before last, I took my youngest, J, to Italy — you read part of the account of that trip here, but it involves learning so much at one shot that I couldn’t keep up with the writing as well, and had to give it up partway through. But the trip itself was wonderful, and J and I had a lovely time in Rome, Florence, Venice and Napoli.

This trip is M’s. We’re going across the United States by rail — M is the only one of my children who has inherited my love of long distance train travel, at least in theory; this will be the first time they’ve tried it. But it was what they wanted for their trip. Then, both to fill out the time and to fit multiple things in while we could, we added two additional segments: New York, to visit my father and stepmother; and the Netherlands, which M pointed out that the entire family has now seen except them.

And so, for now, the Coast Starlight. We could have gone directly East on the Empire Builder out of Seattle, but first of all that wasn’t as interesting a route as the California Zephyr; and second of all, we had hoped to meet up with my college friend Stef during a stopover tomorrow in Oakland.

The best laid plans, alas, still bend to the pandemic. Stef’s children came down with Covid during the last week, and although Stef has so far tested negative, he has been nursing them, and we can’t know whether he might be infectious in the stage before testing could show it. Sadly, we agreed that this was not the time to risk our own health, at the very beginning of a long trip and one where we were going to be seeing my elderly parents.

So there was a frantic scramble on the phone a few days ago, trying to get hotel accommodations worked out. It wasn’t hard getting a hotel for the night in between the arrival of our train and the departure of ours; what was difficult was getting a hotel for the day in between! Our train arrives at Emeryville, California tomorrow morning at 7:30, you see; and I have never met a hotel in all my years of traveling which allowed early check-in as early as eight in the morning. What were we going to do?

We were going, it seemed, to take advice from the hotel deal agent. I called one of the two hotels within walking distance of the Emeryville station (or at least the only two in walking distance for a pair of exhausted people with fibromyalgia and a large rolling suitcase apiece), and I asked the agent about the possibility of buying a second night of the room — between Saturday and Sunday, in addition to the one between Sunday and Monday when we’d actually be staying there. I was willing to pay for a whole additional night of hotel accommodation, just in order to use seven hours of it in the morning.

Well, it wouldn’t work: even if you pay in advance, the hotels apparently won’t save your room for you unless you are physically present to check in by around midnight. Not even if you leave a note on your file saying “This guest won’t be checking in until 7:30am, but is still paying.” It just isn’t done.

Route of the Amtrak Coast Starlight, running along the West coast from Seattle to Los Angeles
jkan997, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Conifer trees standing in the snow
Trees in the snow, seen from the Coast Starlight

What the agent suggested instead, was a website called Hotels By Day. Apparently this is the major hotel chains’ way of making some extra money with the rooms that are empty in the daytime: they rent them out to people who want a base of operations from which to enjoy the use of the hotel’s swimming pool, restaurants, and other entertaining facilities. If I booked a room at the hotel for the night, he explained to me, and then immediately went to Hotels By Day and booked a room at the same hotel for the day leading up to that night, then we could leave a note on our file asking to be given the same type of room in the daytime as we had booked overnight. Then we wouldn’t even have to change rooms… just go downstairs at check-in time and get our room re-checked for the night.

So that’s what we are doing. I’m not sure how it will go. It was made clear to us that there’s no guarantee of the same room type… it’s just what they have, and you can’t choose your daytime room type at booking the way you can your nighttime room type. You can only request, and see what happens. But even if we don’t get the right room, we should get a room, at least; and in the right hotel. Then, all we will have to do is to check in and move our things to a different room in the building.

That’s if everything works as planned, of course. I’ve never tried this system before… in fact, I’ve never tried Hotels By Day before at all, and I half expect to arrive at the hotel and be told they have nothing at all for us until the 4pm check-in for our regular nightly room. If this happens, however, I am prepared: now that I know that many hotels offer day rates (even if that particular one goes only through the HbD website) I can find another if necessary where we can spend the day before going back to our nightly room. It won’t be good, but it will be manageable if it has to be.

But if all goes as planned, we will have a lovely, comfortable place to curl up from early in the morning onward, within a four block walk of the train station. There, we can rest and relax, get good meals, pick up a couple of items we forgot to bring (there’s always something), and get back on the train the next morning.

But for now, the Coast Starlight.

It’s a pretty route, with the river running alongside it on the eastern side for the northern section and the sea visible to the west further south. We’re only taking the north end, of course. We’re in daylight through Washington and Oregon; then after we hit Klamath Falls at 9:30 tonight, we’re in darkness through northern California until we reach Emeryville early tomorrow morning. The train “bedrooms,” even though they’re the biggest accommodation on the train, don’t really fit two people and two large suitcases, but it was the last time we needed to squeeze in.

Day after tomorrow, we will be in two separate roomettes… same total amount of space, but better arranged for us; and because they’re directly opposite each other, we can look out either side of the train whenever we want to. That was a suggestion I got from a travel YouTuber, and it was brilliant. The two roomettes cost a little less than one bedroom, and it gets us far more comfort, plus the access to those both-sides windows on what is usually described as the prettiest train route in the country.

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