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Amtrak Pacific Surfliner Business Class Santa Ana to San Diego

Osman Dadi
I was pleasantly surprised by my experience on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. My train was on time, had a fun cheeky crew, & was very comfortable. The Business Class upgrade was well worth the points redemption, and this was a stellar points deal that avoided a two hour drive to San Diego!

I was pleasantly surprised by my experience on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in Business Class from Santa Ana to San Diego in Southern California late last year.

Coming out of a wedding attendance in Southern California, I wanted to get to San Diego, where I had two Delta A321neo departures booked – one departing 1:40pm, and another at 9:35pm. On this trip I tried BLADE for the first time, JetBlue Mint in the new herringbone suite, a Ford Mustang car rental, and the Avenue of the Arts Hotel in Costa Mesa.

I had San Diego booked instead of SNA or LAX, because it was cheaper (booked in points), because Delta operates its new A321neo on this route, and because I could clear into First Class on a Regional Upgrade Certificate instead of a Global. In the end I did not clear First Class on the second flight, and wanted to leave early anyway rather than on a redeye.

Drive, Or Take The Train?

I thought about driving down – which would have cost an additional $70 USD on my rental, plus gas, and the lack of ability to do anything else but drive for two hours to San Diego. Instead I opted for four Ubers, a train, and a bus. 

This ended up costing ~$50 total, some points, and $3.00 for bus fare.

Why did I do it this way? Coming from wedding (and afterparty), I wanted to sit and lounge rather than needing to drive and exert my attention for two hours.

This was a great choice! On the two hour ride I was able to relax on the train, work, and enjoy the view while going FASTER than traffic on neighboring Interstate 5, even on Sunday morning.

The train was fast, actually slightly early (unheard of on Amtrak), and it also arrived perfectly on time. It was well operated, and the cheeky friendly crew was in good spirits. We were early to several stops, which meant we stopped extra time at those stops.

The economy class seats on the train looked tired and old – the upgrade and extra cost for Business Class was well worth it, in my opinion. I booked a very efficient points redemption even for a last minute trip.

Business Class has comfortable, wide and spacious reclining seats with armrests and a large table, and power port. There were also free amenities like coffee and snacks, water and orange juice (bottled); not to mention the well stocked and organized café, with local beer and wine selection. My only complaint was the lack of working WiFi – but on the ground where you can hotspot your cell phone, this isn’t as crucial as it is in the air.


I made this booking on my phone (not using the Amtrak app) while in a Lyft on the way to the Avenue of the Arts hotel. I am surprised to say this, but I found the Amtrak mobile booking very easy to use. How crazy is that?

First I picked the origin, destination stations and date. I elected to try for points. It seems like trains were leaving every hour or other hour.

I elected for the second departure in the morning at 8:00am, and planned for a 10am arrival. I used points from my 3,372 balance to start. The Business Class ticket was just 1,588 points.

This is 2.7 cents per point redemption, which is very good. Otherwise it was a $43.00 fare – also inexpensive all things considered.

Upon booking in about four steps, I didn’t even need to put in a credit card.

Check In (Online)

I received a mobile boarding pass via PDF.

Even though I elected to, I did not have time to pick up my boarding pass using the Mobile Kiosk.

The Ground Experience

I actually ran late on my Uber coming out of the Avenue of the Arts, due to some closed roads… I was worried I would not make it. Luckily the driver understood and rushed me to the station! 

I checked the train status online, which showed an 8:01 arrival – it was early! I arrived at 7:58 and was just glad MY train had not shown up – but a northbound train had, and was transferring to the single track segment north of here while my train was going south.

Check-In and Boarding

I did not have any time to explore the historic station here, unfortunately – my train’s headlight was already in the distance when I arrived. 

Amtrak has upgraded its locomotives to Siemens Sprinters, which are quite fast and efficient.

The train was five cars long. Announcements are made via loudspeakers to the train exterior, so while it is approaching everyone knows where to board for their section.

As my train approached, the announcement was made that Business Class was in the front TWO cars of this five car train. Score – I was already in the right position at the south side of the platform, near the front of the train! All things considered, this train was super easy to get on – I only showed up with less than a few minutes to spare!

When I got in, I immediately gravitated to the lower level of the car – which on Amtrak I find to be quieter and less congested.  The conductor indicated to me they usually reserve this for families and the elderly, but because it wasn’t very crowded today I’d be okay to sit there.

Amtrak Pacific Surfliner Train Configuration

There are various types of passenger equipment used on this route – two distinct types.

  • First is the classic Pacific Surfliner double decker car.
    • There’s a business class version that has modern leather seats and upgraded finishes.
    • There’s also an economy class version with (worn out) fabric seats.
  • Second is the Amtrak Superliner style car, modified for use on this route.

Upon wandering the train I noticed the upper cabin in my Pacific Surfliner car was pretty congested – however the choice of finishes gives the cabin a bright and airy feel.

The second business class car was the older Amtrak Superliner type but refurbished, it was less crowded even though it was more comfortable.

The Economy Class cabin was pretty congested, and the seats were in poor condition.

Pacific Business Class Upper Level

The classic Amtrak Pacific Surfliner car has two levels. The seat configuration is 1×2 in the lower level, and 2×2 with a narrower aisle on the upper level. 

This car has two entry doors per car. There are two levels, and two stairs on either side.

The upper decks were about 50% full in Business Class on my journey.

The seats are oriented towards the middle of the train, so half of the train is always seated such that you’re moving backwards.

I sat on the lower level near some luggage racks and in a small, quiet area.

I prefer the lower level on these trains. It feels like you’re moving faster, and is less crowded usually.

Pacific Business Class Cafe

At the end of the Business Class car is a small self-serve cafe area, free and available for access for all business class passengers.

This has water bottles, bottles of orange juice, and freshly brewed coffee available to grab in paper cups.

There are also plastic wrapped croissants, scones, and danishes available.

Everything is available to grab and return to your seat. I noticed here that the Business Class amenity area had not been restocked by the end of the journey.

Pacific Business Class Lower Level

Technically the lower level is reserved for seniors, the disabled, and anyone who needs additional space.

The seats alternate between opposite-facing table seats, and in line seats.

I really like the table seats. These have a ton of footspace and a wide table area in both directions.

The table flips up for access into the seat, but also creates lots of working space.

There are power ports to the side – a single outlet, but located every two feet. 

The seats are leather, refinished, in good condition. Armrests are fcushioned and fixed at the ends.

There’s one button available on the armrest to put the seats into a recline.

There are also movable armrests between pairs of seats.

There are large windows, but the columns are in odd places. Each window seat comes with sliding drapes to block light.

However, there are no coat hooks.

The tables here are much larger and more stable than the ones in the Superliner cars.

The in-line seats are VERY narrow – with barely any legroom.

They include a footrest, but one that is pretty high.

The recline on these seats is nice – when in regular position, it feels VERY upright and a bit uncomfortable. 

The seats feel much better at partial or full recline.

The recline eats into the space available to person behind, a tad. I don’t like the inline seats in this car and much prefer the table seating.

Overhead, you’ll find a single button for the reading light.

These cars also have lots of overhead luggage storage space.

Larger storage space and racks are located near the entries. 

Pacific Business Class Restroom

The restrooms are on the lower level by entry doors.

Overall the restroom is quite large on this train.

There are also zero amenities – what you’d expect out of Amtrak.

At least there was soap to wash your hands with.

The restrooms feature a toilet, a sink, one standard vanity mirror, and one additional tall mirror on the side.

Amtrak Superliner (Business Class)

One of the two Business Class cars was a standard 1970s Amtrak Superliner Car

The second level on this car has lots of good features as well, and some bad.

The good part is there’s WAY more legroom on these cars.

There are no footrests offered, but the seats are very spacious, with comfortable, wide seats. 

Each seat also features a large recline, making them very comfortable.

However unlike the Pacific Surfliner sets, there’s no arm rest between each pair of seats.

Each seat also has two power ports, instead of one like the Surfliner series cars.

The one bad feature I noted is that the tray table is very small and almost useless.

There’s simply not enough space to use for working on a laptop.

Pacific Economy Class

Economy class on the Pacific Surfliner also has the standard 2×2 configuration on the upper level.

The Surfliner Economy Class car seems virtually the same as the business class car, except far older and poorly maintained.

The seats were fabric instead of a leather, and very worn out. These are either poorly maintained or just heavily used. There’s also a luggage rack at the end of the car.

I also noticed the economy class section was very crowded – but there were still some pairs of seats open.

Pacific Surfliner Café

The Café section of the Pacific Surfliner is in the lower level of the third economy class car.

An announcement was made midway in the ride after San Juan Capistrano, for people to “come on down to the café car in the third car, downstairs – we’re open and here for you!”

The café area includes two large booth seats with table, and two smaller paired booth seats. 

If seated in economy, this seems like a nice area to set up for work.

I noticed the booths here were very clean, and spacious!

The opposite side also has two single-seat booths.

Behind this is a section stocked with condiments and food supplies for the taking. Everything was presented very cleanly.

Amtrak also has trash bins laid throughout in this area.

The café was well stocked and very cleanly organized.

There are lots of local beer and wine options, plus a huge selection of pre-packaged food.

Honestly, this is better stocked than some Japanese and European train services (Ahem, Eurostar!)

Most of all, this reminds me a bit of cafes in the ICE trains in Germany.

Even though I had free access to coffee in Business Class, I got a $2 coffee here.

Amtrak Pacific Surfliner WiFi

While I was talking to the crew, another passenger came in and asked how to connect to the WiFi.

The crew member explained that the WiFi wasn’t working, and hadn’t been working all week.

Therefore, I didn’t even bother trying to connect.

At least on the ground (unlike in the air) you can still hotspot connect using your phone. This is still a half point off for the train, though!

The Crew

The crew on my train was in very cheerful spirits. Announcements were made at every stop, and plenty of advance warning given for next stops and timing.

Most of all, the crew was cheeky! For example for one crew member, a passenger in a group boarded and showed their mobile ticket with QR code upon request. The agent scanned the code,

Crew said for a group that got on a “Wow, look it worked! Looks like you’re going onwards to the next stop! Fortunately… so are we!” This cheeky Southern California humor continued for the ride to San Diego. It’s an excellent mood-setter for Sunday morning.

I had a series of long conversations with the conductor in my cabin – who told me about their next four hour ride up to San Luis Obispo, and he was asking about Oscape and what it’s like traveling and reviewing different products.

The Ride

The ride was smooth, comfortable, fast and quiet for the most part.

Sometimes you’d hear the train horn and bells from crossing guards, but other than that the ride itself was smooth and quiet. Cabin noise was pretty low in my area, but it’s the USA – we can be as loud as we want!

The ride was beautiful along the coast. I moved to the right side of the train to see the ocean flying by.

For parts of this journey this train line directly parallels I-5, which mostly has a 55mph speed limit and often heavy traffic congestion.

There were times especially after San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente, where we were flying! 79mph top speed and we were going faster than vehicles on the nearby freeway.

While this isn’t fast enough still – where most modern high speed trains exceed 125-150mph.This is still an excellent route for 110-125mph service. Lots of trains passed us going northbound – at least four on the whole ride. We also had one decently long hold at Oceanside, because we were early.

There’s one slow section after Del Mar / Solana Beach, and before San Diego Old Town, where this route winds through an escarpment and meanders thru terrain. There were thirty minutes between stops here.

Arrival in San Diego

There are only two stops in San Diego – old town and downtown at the Santa Fe station in the Gaslamp district. These come after Solana Beach, where the railway meanders thru terrain and hills. This is the slowest part of the entire train route, with a thirty minute section from Solana Beach to the first San Diego stop.

Finally, downtown comes into view, and five minutes after Old Town we were quickly pulling into the old Santa Fe station by the marina.

The train pulled in earlier than listed on the schedule. A massive horde of people got off, and nearly everyone headed south to cross the tracks to go east into downtown.

There’s not a good pathway/exit to the north from here.

I also noticed the Pacific Surfliner headed northbound was getting ready to leave, so I queued up to photograph it leaving.

The crosswalks take you to the main San Diego station, which has a beautiful historic waiting room.

Amtrak ticket sales are also available here.

There’s also a small retail shop and some vending machines

I thought the station was clean and well maintained, especially compared to some other Amtrak stations I’ve seen in my day!

It’s pretty awesome that this train drops you off right in the heart of San Diego’s Gaslamp District!

From here, I had a couple hours to drink coffee in downtown San Diego and walk around, before I took a bus to the airport to catch my flight home in a Delta A321neo.

Final Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by my experience on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.

Firstly, my expectations were dead low – for Amtrak, I pretty much start with Zero! As a rider over many years, I’d had some ruinous rail trips on Amtrak.

For anyone who says fast and reliable train service can’t work in an auto dependent region like Southern California… well, I think you’re wrong. From Dubai to Tokyo to Paris to Germany to Seoul to Southern California , I’ve seen it work in tons of car heavy locales.

I doubt we’ll see it in the USA any time soon, for a multitude of reasons. In this case, people still take the train as an alternative to driving when offered frequent, reliable, and comfortable service.

But this ride was exceptional. All three crew I interacted with were in positive spirits. The train was fast, and it was comfortable. The train was actually slightly early (unheard of on Amtrak), and it also arrived perfectly on time. 

Coming out of a wedding attendance in Southern California, I wanted to sit and lounge, rather than needing to drive and exert my attention for two hours.

On this two hour ride, I was able to relax on the train, work, and enjoy the view while going FASTER than traffic on neighboring Interstate 5, even on Sunday morning. I even shut my eyes for a while, instead of driving and being stressed.

Americans definitely still suck at operating trains, compared to Japanese counterparts for instance. In my situation, this was a great choice!


  • Fast
  • On Time
  • Comfortable and spacious reclining seats with armrests and a large table. 
  • Power ports.
  • Friendly, cheeky crew that was in good spirits the whole ride.
  • Wide seat that reclines.
  • Free amenities like coffee and snacks, water and orange juice (bottled).
  • Well stocked and organized café, with local beer and wine selection.
  • Very efficient points redemption even for a last minute trip.


  • No coat hook at the seat.
  • WiFi wasn’t working. I didn’t even bother trying to connect.
  • The economy class seats looked tired and old – the upgrade and extra cost for Business Class was well worth it, in my opinion.

Verdict: 9/10

This is going to be a surprising verdict for an Amtrak train. My high speed train experience is reasonably extensive – I’ve taken many Shinkansen trains in Green and Gran Class, the TGV in France and ICE in Germany many, many times.

I’ve also taken Amtrak many times, and this was among my best Amtrak experiences over the years. It’s sad to say in a way – for Amtrak outside the Northeast corridor and the Pacific Northwest, this is about as good as it gets!

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