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Ride the Rails for West Coast Savings

The Deal Detective
by , SmarterTravel Staff
The Deal Detective -Female
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 19, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Amtrak, Avis, destination, Greyhound, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Portland, road trip, Sacramento, Seattle, The Deal Detective, The Deal Detective, US Airways.

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Dear Deal Detective:
My wife and I will be flying into Seattle in late July. We will be renting a car and driving down the coast of Oregon and California. From there we will be travelling to Las Vegas where we will drop the car off and fly back home to Canada. My question is this: Is there an easier way to see the above without renting a car? The car alone is costing about $1,000 for a one-way drop off. P.S. We will be going as far as Burbank, CA, before driving to Las Vegas.
—Tommy

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Dear Tommy,

This happens to be one of my all-time favorite U.S. drives. But you're right, the rising price of fuel plus the cost of a one-way car rental is sure to make it an expensive trip.

One way to avoid the extra costs while still seeing the incredible West Coast scenery is to ride the rails. Amtrak's Coast Starlight route travels from Seattle to Los Angeles, with stops along the way in Portland, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Santa Barbara. As I write this article, two tickets for a weekday departure at the end of July are going for $184 ($92 per person) without a sleeper car or $497 ($248.50 per person) with a sleeper car. The journey takes about 35 hours, passing through a myriad of different landscapes, including mountains, forests, and long stretches of shoreline.

The one drawback to traveling by train is the lack of freedom. It's just not as easy to pull over and try BBQ oysters, or stop and take a photo of the seascape. Plus, the train doesn't follow Highway One the entire way down the coast. This is a trade-off you may have to make to save a little extra cash. If you want to spend more time in a particular destination, you can buy individual tickets for each stop. It may end up costing more, but it could be worth it for the extra time you'll have in each place. For instance, two tickets for July 30 currently cost $56 to go from Seattle to Portland; $128 from Portland to Sacramento; and $104 from Sacramento to Los Angeles, for a grand total of $288 (or $144 per person). Be aware that prices are also typically more expensive during weekends, but you may be able to save a little extra if you qualify for a discount.

Once you reach Los Angeles, you have several options for getting to Las Vegas. You can rent an intermediate car through, say, Avis, with pick-up at the Los Angeles airport and drop-off at the Las Vegas airport, for $70. You can also take a Greyhound bus, for example, at $70 ($35 per person), if you purchase tickets seven days in advance. A one-way flight from L.A. to Las Vegas will cost about $91 per person on US Airways, but that doesn't include extra fees you may incur for luggage. If you each check one bag, you'll have to factor in an additional $30.

If you choose to take the train with the additional stops and fly to Las Vegas from L.A., you'll spend about $500, or almost half of what you would spend just to rent the car.

I hope this helps! If any of you other readers have tips or recommendations on ways to save along this drive, please add your comments below.

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