TRAVEL

Free food, nice views but spotty Wi-Fi: What it's like to work from Amtrak's business class

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train from Los Angeles to San Diego on April 5, 2022.
  • With more people able to travel remotely these days, I set off on the Pacific Surfliner Amtrak route to San Diego.
  • There isn't assigned seating on the train, so early arrivals had the chance to choose an ocean-side seat.
  • But if you're planning to work through the ride, a hotspot would offer a more reliable internet.

There was a moment of panic on my Amtrak ride toward San Diego Tuesday.

A bumpy section of the track had me scrambling to grab my can of soda before it went flying across my work laptop, which was stationed on a small tray attached to the seat in front of mine.

I grabbed the can in time, but other passengers weren't so lucky.

"Can we have some napkins?" I overheard a passenger behind me ask an attendant.

The Pacific Surfliner train, which runs along the west coast.

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While working from a train's business class comes with plenty of perks (nice view, complimentary drinks and snacks), having your laptop in a splash zone is one of the drawbacks travelers should be prepared for.

With more people able to travel while working these days, I set off on the Pacific Surfliner Amtrak route from Los Angeles to San Diego to find out whether working from a train is a viable option for remote workers. Here's what I learned.

If you want a power outlet, get there early

Nearly every seat in my car on April 5 was taken – an announcement noted that the train was filled with spring break travelers that week. I was among the first to board and was able to grab a window seat with a power outlet, but those who boarded later were out of luck.

Each window seat comes with a desk and a power outlet.

There wasn't assigned seating on the Amtrak train, so early arrivals had the chance to choose an oceanside seat – one of the best perks of the trip. The last stretch of the ride offered a view of dolphins and surfers near San Clemente Pier in California. 

A view of the ocean from the Pacific Surfliner Amtrak train.

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Amtrak business class gets plenty of freebies

Soon after boarding, passengers in business class were handed a box full of goodies: chocolate chip cookies, two bags of pretzels, a meat stick, trail mix, an asiago cheese spread and a moist towelette – all of this for a three-hour ride. The snacks came in a train-car-shaped box that maps out the route's stops, and I could ask for more if I wanted. A cafe offered all kinds of additional food and beverages, from $4.50 breakfast burritos to $7.50 local craft beer, and the cafe train was equipped with a microwave to warm up any orders. 

Amtrak also offers free beverages to business class passengers. My afternoon train had water, Diet Coke, Sprite and red or white Barefoot wine.

A snack box on the Pacific Surfliner Amtrak train outlines the stops.
The snack box from the Pacific Surfliner train on April 5, 2022.

Amtrak Surfliner: Bring a hotspot, or be prepared for spotty Wi-Fi

Amtrak offers free Wi-Fi, but the connection can be spotty; my laptop was kicked off a couple of times on my trip to San Diego. If you're planning to work through the ride, a hotspot would offer a more reliable internet connection.

The business class seating on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train.

Cellphone connection was also weak at times. One phone call I made toward the end of the trip dropped twice.  

Amtrak trains are a shared space – expect some background noise

If you're expecting a quiet ride, this may not be your best option. There were plenty of conversations, phone calls and movies I overheard throughout my trip. Headphones help, or you can opt for the quiet car if available outside business class. 

It's harder to overpack for an Amtrak ride

Amtrak's baggage policy is more friendly than most airlines' and allows two personal items and two carry-on items.

Amtrak's website says carry-on items cannot exceed 50 pounds and 28 by 22 by 14 inches, and personal items cannot exceed 25 pounds and 14 by 11 by 7 inches. Amtrak says passengers will need to pay an extra $20 for each overweight carry-on and personal item, but I didn't see anyone have their luggage weighed or measured before boarding. 

The train ride was also much more lenient on what items passengers can carry onboard. I was able to bring back a bottle of California wine in my carry-on back to Los Angeles, something that would have been taken by the Transportation Security Administration at an airport. 

Amtrak allows passengers to have two personal items and two carry-on items and offers overhead storage space.

Amtrak pre-trip check: Don’t forget about the COVID protocols

Just like airports and airplanes, people at train stations and on trains are required to wear a mask under federal mandate. The masking rule will be in place through at least April 18.

A sign at the Santa Fe Depot train station in San Diego reminds travelers to wear a mask inside the train station.

I found that the mix of people following the rule within train stations was hit-or-miss, but most people seemed to mask up while on the train. Masks can be taken off when eating or drinking. 

Other COVID-19 precautions included allowing only one person in the café car at a time and requiring passengers to fill out an online pre-departure COVID-19 check within 24 hours before departure. The questionnaire is quick – Amtrak just wants to know if you're experiencing symptoms or have been around others with the virus.

A sign at the Santa Fe Depot train station in San Diego reminds travelers to complete a pre-trip COVID-19 check.

Keep an eye out for Amtrak sales

Amtrak is often running sales – USA TODAY reported on sales for Roommette bookings and the USA Rail Pass just last month. Both deals are over, but travelers should keep an eye on Amtrak's website for future offers, because tickets can be pricey. The total for my round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego was $110. 

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