Destinations – Portland, Ore. – Easy in, easy out

This is the last post inspired by my train trip from L.A. to Portland. The first one was about the ease of using Burbank Airport as the gateway to L.A. and the second concerned the train trip itself.

Simply put, Portland is a terrific place. This post won’t even try to tackle the city. I’ll save that for another occasion when I’m really spending time there, and not just making the place an overnight turnaround point for a trip that was all about the transportation and not so much the destination. In keeping with that, this post is mostly just a look at the ease of getting in and out of the city for arrivals and departures by rail or air.

By the way, when I plan long-distance trips for other people on Amtrak to Seattle or other destinations in the Pacific Northwest, I recommend breaking travel in Portland. It’s a great city to make a stop, whether it’s overnight or longer. And if you’re traveling beyond Portland a layover there means you’re not going to have to worry about late trains and missed connections.


It’s not exactly the Gare du Nord in Paris but Portland Union Station is fairly active and very attractive. Looking at the photo above, you see on the right the train I was on, the Coast Starlight, northbound from Los Angeles to Seattle. In the middle is the rear end of train 28, the Portland section of the Empire Builder, which merges in Spokane with train 8 from Seattle and continues on through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin to end in Chicago, Ill. On the left is one of the Cascades trains, which operate north to Seattle (and beyond to Vancouver, BC) and south to Eugene.

I know Portland’s downtown fairly well after several trips there while living in Seattle in the 80s, and many work-related trips in the first half of the 90s. I knew that the hotel (Residence Inn) I was staying in for my one night in Portland was at the south end of the downtown waterfront along the Willamette River and close to a Portland Streetcar stop. I figured I could find a painless way to get from the train station to my hotel without a taxi and I did.

Trimet, the agency that operates the extensive system consisting of buses, light-rail, streetcars, and (soon) commuter rail, has a fine website for planning transit trips. Using I determined I could get from Union Station to the hotel with one connection. But easier still for me since I was traveling light, would be a 10 block walk to the corner of Glisan and 11th to catch the Portland Streetcar for a no-connections ride to a stop across the street from my hotel. Piece o’ cake.

I waited about 10 minutes for the streetcar to come, hopped on, got one of the last seats on the well-used train, and 20 minutes later I was at the hotel. Easy.

Cost? $0.

Portland has had a huge downtown “fareless” zone for years. (Seattle does, too.)

Take a look at the photo below I snapped at the streetcar stop. Across the street from the platform you’ll see a parked Zipcar (the Honda Element). Zipcar is one of the ultra-short-term (1 hour to 1 day) car-share companies. If you’re not familiar with Zipcar, check out Who knows, maybe they’ll be in Chico someday? At the very least, Zipcar will come to you in the form of its very own post here at “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”.


By the way, in 2009 a light rail line will serve Union Station directly as part of a set of service expansions. Good transit connections with intercity rail in Portland will get even better.

Runner’s note: Although I’ve run along Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park many times, this was the first time I ran a loop that took me on both sides of the river. Up the west side to the Steel Bridge, cross the river, down the east side to the Hawthorne Bridge, cross back to the west (be careful for all of the cyclists especially during rush hour). It was less distance than I expected so I ran east back across the Hawthorne Bridge and back the way I’d come for what amounted to two loops. I needed to stretch my legs after two days without any exercise to speak of while on the train. When running in Portland you’ll have lots of company – it’s a real runners’ city.

Lodging note: I bid $60 on Priceline and won the Residence Inn. ($75.23 including tax and fee.) Bargain? Heck yes! Using Priceline for fun and savings will be the subject of future posts. Suffice to say it was a very nice hotel, in a fine location at a ludicrously low price.

Halloween day was the end of my trip. I was headed back to Chico on United via SFO. The schedule was good: leaving Portland about 1:15 p.m., arriving in Chico about 5:45.

How to get to the airport? In Portland that would be on transit, of course. I caught the streetcar in front of the hotel, made a quick transfer downtown by the Central Library to the airport light-rail line and I was there within an hour, door-to-door. MAX (the name for the light-rail system) drops you right at the baggage claim area at PDX. It’s a short walk then a ride up the escalator to the departures level for check-in. It couldn’t be simpler.

Cost: $2.30

I wish it were this simple for all big city U.S. airports.

The flights back on United were uneventful. Nice, especially since the ticket from Portland to Chico had cost me only $40. Yes, that’s right. A flight cancellation out of Washington-Dulles last January prompted a United ticket agent to give me a $75 voucher for a future trip without my even asking her. Thanks! Vouchers like these are valid for one year after issuance so don’t lose track of them – they’re worth real money.

By the way, this was the first time I’d flown since the wave of fuel increases led airlines to add charges for services historically offered at no cost. I paid $15 to get my bag back to Chico. No problem. I hate carrying bags on the plane and wish the airlines enforced stricter rules regarding carry-ons. My laptop and I found our seat and enjoyed the quick trip back by way of San Francisco. I do like to imagine Horizon Air or United Express flying the PDX-CIC route nonstop. Maybe someday.

As I walked off the plane and into the terminal past those evocative Jake Early prints of Chico I thought of all of the ground I’d covered in less than 36 hours. It had been a great trip. Where to next?

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