Making the most of a train trip for the whole family

by Matt Villano

Making the most of a train trip for the whole family

May 12 is the fifth annual National Train Day, a series of local tributes to train travel in cities across the U.S. With that in mind, it’s high time to examine how family travelers can make the most out of a vacation along the rails.

May 12 is National Train Day, and it’s worth celebrating for a few important reasons. First, it’s the 143rd anniversary of the creation of the first transcontinental railroad. Second, it is the impetus behind a series of local tributes to train travel in cities across the U.S.

(Oh, also: Rosario Dawson is the official spokesperson for the event. And we heart her. A lot.)

Anyway, in anticipation of the big event, yours truly figured it’d be a good time to examine how family travelers can make the most out of a vacation along the rails. Since Amtrak has a monopoly on long-distance train travel in the U.S., I’m really talking about making the most out of an Amtrak vacation. Still, the general advice contained herein applies to long-distance train travel just about anywhere (obviously, specifics on accommodation configuration and pricing are going to vary). All aboard!

Embrace the differences
Train travel is much different from plane travel. It’s slower. It’s more susceptible to delays. And just about everybody wants to chitchat and share stories about where they came from and where they’re headed next. With this method of transportation, the journey itself is half the fun. Before booking your trip, it’s important to recognize and appreciate these realities; if your kids need constant stimulation or can’t function without the ability to run around, they may not be ideal candidates for a railroad retreat.

Don’t cheap out
Because most serious train trips take anywhere from 20 to 50 hours (or more!), it’s important to make sure your family is comfortable. In other words: DO NOT CHEAP OUT AND BUY COACH SEATS THAT YOUR KIDS WILL DESPISE. Most long-distance trains heading west and south from Chicago offer “family rooms,” which consist of two beds, a small sitting area (that practically disappears when it’s time for sleep) and a private shower and sink. These trains also offer other overnight accommodations, including “roomettes” (which would be perfect for a single parent traveling with one child) and plain-old “bedrooms” (which are like family rooms but lack private showers and sinks). Pricing for all of these options is straightforward. Rooms are priced as hotel rooms, with a flat fee; each traveler pays a standard coach fare (kids ages 15 and under are 50 percent off, or less), the cost of each overnight accommodation is then added as a surcharge. Once you book a room, you are considered a “sleeping-car passenger.” [NOTE: If you’re interested in booking a special family room, I suggest you call a human reservations agent at 800-872-7245 instead of booking online; sometimes the Amtrak website can be confusing to book these types of special rooms.]

Take advantage of on-board programming
Many long-distance trains offer formal programming for families and other interested passengers. Amtrak’s trains are no exception. Through the Trails & Rails program, a partnership that Amtrak has developed with the National Park Service, real-life park rangers give talks about the local area and any relevant history. What’s more, on the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle, there’s a parlor car (for sleeping-car passengers only) with a private movie room and a cabinet with traditional board games. If you want to wing it and find your own entertainment on board, note that Amtrak currently does not offer WiFi on trains outside of the Northeast; for Web access on devices such an iPad or Smartphone, you’ll need to rely on your mobile carrier’s network (which can be a dicey and/or expensive proposition, depending on your situation).

Relish the meals
On most trains, the dining car is where real fun occurs; strangers make smalltalk while the countryside zooms by. Amtrak has tried to make the experience as family-friendly as possible by offering a kids’ menu with all of the standard options (grilled cheese, French fries, pasta, etc.). Even if your child has trouble in restaurant settings, give it a try—he or she likely never has eaten in a “restaurant” like this one.

Have you taken your family on a long-distance train trip? If so, what advice can you share with others? Please feel free to share your insights in the comment field below.