Amtrak: The bad boyfriend I keep going back to

You know how bad relationships go. You walk away angry, vowing to never engage in that toxic situation again. Years go by and at first you stay strong. Maybe a pandemic happens, and the last thing you’re thinking about is getting together. But then … you weaken.

You remember the good times, the way you’d watch the country unspool together from your bed, the way you could relax together right away and enjoy a few drinks and play a few rounds of Yahtzee.

And you go back to Amtrak.

It just happened to me, again. I had plans to spend the weekend in Monterey for a writing conference. I had a free ride that could get me to the hotel from my front door in just two hours. But then, at the last minute, it occurred to me that I could use Hyatt points to book myself an extra night in Monterey. The only problem: If I went a day early, I wouldn’t be able to accept that ride offer, and my family needed the car over the weekend.

No problem! I could take Amtrak! Just think of all the extra writing time I would have if I took the train rather than riding in a car? (Some people can write in the car. I’m not one of them.)

And that’s how my two-hour trip became an eight hour trip, and my feet got very, very wet. It wasn’t all bad, but it sure wasn’t all good.

The first thing I did when I decided on this plan was to check my Amtrak rewards balance. I’d gotten an Amtrak credit card years ago just for the sign-up bonus, and thanks to pandemic cancellations, more than 20,000 points were just moldering in my acount. A one-way trip from Oakland to Salinas, California, cost 817 Amtrak points, and the return was the same. At a value of abut 2 cents each, that means I paid around $32 in points for my RT. I made some big errors at this stage, but I’ll get to those later.

Then I looked at the weather for the next day. Oh yeah, come to think of it, I had heard about a winter storm rolling into the Bay Area. Thursday is an in-office day for Erik, and a rare occasion that he was planning to drive to work. So the first challenge of my trip was figuring out how our 13-year-old would get to school, about 5 miles away, if it was raining too hard for him to safely bike there.

His school isn’t too far from the Amtrak station, so I decided we should travel together. School starts at 8:30 and the train was scheduled to leave Oakland a little after 9. Perfect. Right? Suuuure.

I considered Lyft, but who would want to take it easy on a wet morning when you’re traveling with a suitcase containing a printer, a ream of paper, and your weekend conference clothes? Besides, teaching Toth how to take the bus to school had been on my to-do list for the past two years. His older sister had bussed to school every day when she went to this middle school, but Toth likes his bike, and there haven’t been many rainy days, so we never got around to it.

We left our house at 7:30 a.m. to walk the three blocks to the bus stop. The bus ride probably would have been easy on a dry day. When it rolled by the stop near our house, right on time, it was pretty empty. But this bus crosses the Bay Bridge to San Francico, and it was morning commute time. As it crossed the island, the bus picked up more and more people, until James and I were pushed against a window in the back row, my suitcase jammed against the wall. The windows were completely fogged over. So in order to know what stop we were at, we relied on our phone GPS and the electronic screen — when we managed to see it beyond the heads of the standing passengers. We realized it was Toth’s stop in the nick of time, which is good, because after his stop, the bus goes through the tube to Oakland, and I wouldn’t have wanted to put him on a bus the other way all on his own.

Another stop, and it was time for me to drag my little suitcase down the bus aisle and out into the rain. People were nice about making room for me to pass. It was raining pretty hard at this point, and I tried opening my umbrella for a hot second. It immediately turned inside out so I put it away. I tightened the strings on my raincoat hood and walked toward the Jack London Square Amtrak station. At some of the curbs, deep puddles were growing.

My old suede boots got soaked, but I was able to protect my suitcase my lifting it at each puddle.

Once I arried outside the station, I saw it was only about 8:15. We had taken an earlyish bus because Toth would rather get to school early than risk being late. So I pressed on through the rain two more blocks to the Bicycle coffee place.

I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet and I didn’t want to rely on train coffee to get me through the day. The piping hot latte I carried back to the station with me was delicious and completely worth it.

I got inside the station at about 8:40, and the first thing I heard was that the Coast Starlight, en route from Seattle to LA, was running about four minutes early. Glory be! I should be in this drafty station for less than half an hour before settling into a cozy train seat. I chatted with a nice older couple who spoke Spanish to one another but English to me, and who were heading back to Simi Valley after visiting their adult daughters in the Bay Area. I checked out the well-stocked book shelf and wondered whether I could build a TikTok career taking trains every day and reviewing books from train station bookshelves. I sipped my delicious latte.

There were some unintelligable announcements over the fuzzy PA sytem, and passengers started to ask one another what was going on. I installed the Amtrak app and learned that the train wa now expected to be 20 minutes late. Then 40 minutes late. What happened to this wonder of punctuality once it entered Northern California? I will never know. The older couple and I watched the water pound the platform. I started to feel cold, since the sliding doors were always opening and closing, and I was kinda damp. The electric message board delivered no information on our train. The only helpful source of information was a luggage lady who explained to us how everything would go down, in between fraught personal phone calls about some loved one’s psychiatric care. I think the train finally rolled in a litle after 10, an hour late.

My seat was everything good I’d remembered about Amtrak. I was the only passenger in a pair of wide recliners, with two power outlets. There was enough room in the overhead for my suitcase. With relative privacy, I did something I wouldn’t have dared to do on a plane: I took off my wet boots and even my wet socks, and put on a pair of dry socks and my house Crocs. Boots and socks hung to dry on the little foot rails they give you in case if you’re not using the recliner.

After getting situated, I took my laptop to the observation lounge and snagged a table so I could start all this writing I was supposed to be doing. I also deleted a mess of emails to stop my Google account from getting shut down. The train didn’t have wifi, so I used my phone as a hot spot.

The Coast Starlight is famous for its scenery, but Oakland to Salinas isn’t the best of it. You do see some water, but the great scapes of Pacific Ocean are more down by Santa Barbara. And with the rain, the scenery was all a lovely contemplative gray. I bought some coffee from the friendly snack bar guy, did some actual writing, and when the train got overly swingy for some reason, I startd to feel car sick and returned to my seat to nearly nap, splayed across two full recliners.

Does this all sound like more than three hours to you? Cause it was. Our first delay was sitting in the Oakland station for approximately one eternity before departing. No idea why. Then there were a lot of announcements like “We’re just going to wait for this train to pass.” I assume they were freight trains, which always have the right of way over passenger trains in our great nation. Then we stopped for a good 20-30 minute in the middle of NOWHERE — still pouring out, mind you — to fix something. At that moment, I was a bit concerned that they would not be able to fix whatever it was, and we’d all have to disembark into a flooding field to get onto a replacement train. Fortunately, the crew managed to bubblegum the train back together, and we moved on.

At least I had plenty of time to let my socks drip dry. When we got close to the end of the ride, I grit my teeth and put on my old, still damp socks and shoes. That way my dry shoes and socks would stay safe in my suitcase to wear once I got to the hotel. At least my socks had dried somewhat on the trip, although my suede boots were a lost cause.

We finally rolled into Salinas around 3 p.m., instead of noon like we were supposed to. Erik had sweetly requested that the Hyatt give me early checkin, which of course now was for naught. Ah well.

This is the part of the journey that for some reason I didn’t plan as well as I usually do. I wasn’t sure whehter I should take a bus or a Lyft from Salinas to Monterey. Well, I had Google mapped from the Salinas Amtrak to my hotel, and saw there was a public but that went there, taking about an hour, so I guess I just figured I would walk over to the public bus stop. I was waiting to see how hard it was raining when I arrived before I decided between the bus and Lyft.

But when I got there, I saw a shuttle bus outside the station. I asked the driver where he was headed, he said Monterey. But he told me I would have to buy a ticket inside, not from him. I went inside and went to the counter, and waited a few minutes, but it seemed like there was no employee at all in this little station. I went back to the bus driver and reported this, and he told me the station employee would show up in the station after the Coast Starlight departed. He promised he wouldn’t leave without me so I went inside and waited until he came back to sell me a ticket.

Unusually for me, I didn’t even ask what the ticket cost. Turns out the ticket was $15 — which is an awful lot since the city bus is $3.50 — and went to the Monterey Transit Center, which isn’t too close to my hotel, but oh well. At least it got there in half the time of the city bus, and I didn’t have to walk through the rain to catch it. I was one of only two passengers on the large shuttle bus, and the only one going to Monterey. The other lady was going to Carmel.

I’ve been to the Monterey Transit Center before, when just walking around Monterey looking for restaurants or shopping or whatever. So I knew there was a Trader Joe’s near it. When I got off my third transit vehicle of the day, into still more rain, I walked over to TJs and plopped my little suitcase into a cart. I also summoned a Lyft, the “wait and save” kind, which always says it will be there in 20 minutes and then arrives almost immediately. Sure enough, I had only thrown a wedge of cheese and a box of crackers in my cart when my Lyft driver arrived. I asked him for a few more minutes, grabbed a bag of snack mix and a chicken marsala microwave dinner, and paid. The super nice driver got me to the Hyatt in just a few minutes, for under $10.

I got checked in about 3:30. A swank hotel never feels as good as it does when you’ve had wet feet for the past 8 hours.

To sum up:

Bus/walk to Amtrak Jack London Square (including coffee stop): 1 hour
Waiting for train at JLS: 1.5 hours
Amtrak Oakland-Salinas: 5 hours
Waiting to buy ticket, boarding shuttle: 15 minutes
Shuttle Salinas-Monterey: 30 minutes
Grocery shopping: 10 minutes
LYft to hotel: 10 minutes

Total: 8 hours

Driving time my house to Monterey Hyatt: 2 hours

My return trip was much smoother, taking only about 4.5 hours from door to door. Part of the difference was that the train ran on time! The other part was that I found out about an Amtrak shuttle picking up right outside my hotel and taking me directly to the Amtrak station. I only happened to learn about the shuttle at the last minute through Google Maps, and then I called Amtrak to buy a ticket on it. Getting on the shuttle was a bit nervewracking since no one at the hotel had any idea where it stopped, so I parked myself at the entrance to the property’s long, winding driveway to watch for it and flagged it down upon arrival. It wasn’t marked Amtrak or anything.

Which brings me to those mistakes I alluded to earlier. One thing I had forgotten about Amtrak is that they offer all these bus connections to and from the train station. If I’d booked the bus connections on the way there and back through the web site, I could have paid with them with points instead of cash. The cost would have been 2,700 points, total, the equivalent of about $54.

Instead, because I’d forgotten to look into the possibility of Amtrak connections, I paid 1600 points for the train segments alone, then an additional $15 cash for the bus connection there, and an additional 800 points for the bus connection on the way home. That’s a total of about $63.

The one thing I haven’t been able to figure out: The shuttle that took me from Salinas to Monterey told me they were only stopping at the Monterey Transit Center. I didn’t find out about the posibility of a transfer directly to my hotel until later. So I ended up spending an additional $10 or so on a Lyft, and of course getting even wetter. But I’m not sure if the Hyatt bus stop wasn’t an option because my train had been so late, or if it only would have taken me there if I’d booked it in advance. Maybe it would have even dropped me at my hotel if I’d just asked! I’m confused.

But that’s Amtrak. They don’t make it very easy to find thing out. In fact, I noticed this bus stop timetable on Cannery Row near the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and for a moment thought I could have gotten picked up for my return trip right there. And maybe I could, but once on noticed the date on this sign, I decided it probably wasn’t reliable up-to-date information.

My takeaway lesson: Check with Amtrak about connections from the station to your ultimate destination, especially if it’s raining and/or you have points to burn!

If I’d known how long it was going to take, would I have changed my mind about Amtrak and accepted the free ride instead? Honestly, no. It was a fun learning experience and I really appreciated that extra (short) day in the hotel for solo writing time. But I defintely would have taken the door-to-door shuttle, if possible, and worn waterproof boots! So in the end, this is one toxic relationship that I will keep going back to. At least until I use the rest of those 20,000 Guest Reward Points!

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