Riding the Rails
Stressed by the thought of flying with your little one? Try riding the rails! Train travel offers relaxation for parents and many amenities that make it the perfect solution for hassle-free family transportation.
Tips for Family Train Travel
Some kids are fabulous travelers no matter what the mode of transportation. Yet for my family, flying with our daughter is an experience not for the faint of heart! After our latest trip by plane, we arrived home exhausted, vowing never to fly again until we can afford first class.
I know we aren’t alone in this predicament; for many families, the stress and unpredictability of air travel make it a non-option. Sound familiar? Consider train travel as a great alternative. If you can spend a bit of extra time en route, traveling by rail offers a rich opportunity for your family members to enjoy one another’s company in a stress-free, roomy environment for a price that is usually equal to or lower than the cost of flying.
The coach sections of most trains offer comfortable seating plus the chance for restless riders to get up and move around. A child can sit on the floor or enjoy playing in the children’s car with other kids. The entire family can eat together in the restaurant car while watching beautiful scenery pass by. There’s also the option of reserving your own private compartment.
Although the American train system pales in comparison to Europe’s extensive Eurail system, Amtrak offers a sizable network reaching more than 500 destinations, with access to the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, and both coasts.
A Ticket to Ride
Amtrak’s in-depth and accessible website includes information on coach and sleeper car options (including virtual tours of the different cars and compartments), as well as routes, schedules, and services. You can book your trip online and pick up your tickets from an agent, or skip the lines and visit a Quik-Trak ticket machine at the station.
If you are planning a trip with children between the ages of two and 15, Amtrak offers rides at half-price (if your child is accompanied by an adult); younger toddlers and infants travel free. Review the Amtrak web site for specific policies regarding seating accommodations for passengers under the age of two.
If you plan to travel for just a couple of hours, your best bet is to reserve seats in a coach car. Coach cars provide wide seats, lap trays, and overhead lights, plus ample legroom—a far cry from the cramped sardine-style seating typical of coach travel in planes. Amtrak allows you to book a number of seats ahead of time, but won’t permit you to pick your actual seat arrangements—seating is first-come first-served. So plan on arriving early at your departing station and be sure to ask about preboarding for families with smaller children to ensure that you claim the optimal seats.
If you are traveling for more than six hours, consider taking an overnight train and book a sleeper car. Most children love the novelty of sleeping in bunks. But if you are traveling with an infant, you’ll need to sleep with your little one—most passenger trains do not offer cribs or bassinets.
There are various sleeper compartments from which to choose, and amenities range from standard to deluxe. All compartments offer daytime seating, which converts into beds for two to four passengers. Some trains also include suite options for larger groups and families. Deluxe amenities include sinks, vanities, electrical outlets, showers, and bathrooms nearby (sometimes private), movie or TV viewing, special restaurant car seating, and complimentary meals.
Before securing your reservation, take a virtual tour of sleepers (standard, deluxe, family, and handicap accessible) and coach cars on Amtrak’s website to get a better idea of which will best suit your family’s needs. If you decide to book a sleeper car, keep in mind that most of your luggage will still need to be stored in baggage. Also, ask about activities or a kids’ car; many routes have a fun place for children to congregate and play board games and video games, enjoy scheduled activities, and even watch cartoons or movies. Inquire about whether a dining car is available and if you can reserve a seating time. Taking advantage of early seating will give your family more time to get settled and enjoy the meal.
If you belong to AAA (Automobile Association of America) or NARP (National Association of Rail Passengers) you may be eligible for a discounted tickets (information not readily posted on Amtrak’s website). To learn more about Amtrak rail schedules, routes, and prices, visit the Amtrak website. (For rail trips outside of the US, be sure to visit Canada’s VIA Rail website, and Europe’s Eurail website for more information.)
Packing Your Bags
When preparing for your trip, pack as lightly as possible and limit each family member to one carry-on bag (although Amtrak does allow each passenger two carry-ons; and sleeper car passengers may bring more).
“Not all stations provide redcaps, and luggage carts are sometimes in short supply,” point out Ted and Sylvia Blishak on their website, Accent on Travel USA. “Since you’ll have to handle your own luggage at times, don’t bring more than you can carry comfortably.”
Just as you would with air or car travel, plan to bring snacks and a toy, book, or crayons to keep your kids occupied. On the days of travel, wear comfortable shoes and pack a change of clothing for each family member (two or three for your littlest ones). Also, pack your family’s medication in your purse or carry-on luggage (as well as toothbrushes for everyone).
When packing for your infant or toddler, remember to bring travel-friendly food. Most trains have a restaurant or cafe car, but bringing along your own snacks alleviates the need to move through the train with your infant or child in tow. Amtrak can heat up a bottle or baby food, and if you ask, they can also refrigerate your baby food or formula as well. Temperatures vary on the trains, so dress your baby in layers of clothing, and be prepared to shed or add layers as necessary.
Plan to be at the station at least an hour before your train’s scheduled departure time. This should give you time to check in baggage, familiarize yourself with the station, and find your departure platform. You may also be allowed to preboard the train at this time.
Before boarding the train, keep children, especially toddlers, close at hand. And, if you can, carry your toddler when embarking and disembarking the train. Amtrak reminds you to, “Be careful. Watch your step when boarding and leaving the train, and always use handrails when moving about on board.”
If your station employs redcaps take advantage of their services. Although tipping the train service crew is not required, a gratuity of $2 to $5 per bag is common. “Consider our service attendants your personal valets,” write the Amtrak folks on their website. “Especially among sleeping car passengers, it is customary to tip service attendants for their assistance throughout the trip. As for our dining car attendants, think of them as your waiters—they appreciate tips as well.”
When you first board the train, locate the closest bathroom and ask your attendant if there is a diaper-changing table. If you are sitting in a coach car, Kate Capage of the Pediatric Advisor suggests, “Try to get seats facing each other, so you can put the baby in the seat across from you.” These seats can usually be found toward the middle of the coach car, and sometimes are situated around a convertible table, which is perfect for family travel.
When moving about the train, take caution as the train can stop at any moment. “Wear shoes at all times when walking around the train, and always walk, don’t run,” adds Amtrak. If you have reserved a sleeper car, check the upper bunks for sleeping safety belts, harness, or safety rails. Try to position younger children on the lowest possible bunk.
Don’t forget to ask your train attendant if your route has travel guides available outlining the sights you’ll see on your trip (many do). And be sure to point out scenery to your children. This is a wonderful time to play “I Spy,” “Twenty Questions,” and other travel games.
Riding the rails connects us with an American past free from the hustle of busy airports or the rush of five-o’clock traffic. Today’s trains are veritable hotels on the go—with restaurants, cafes, entertainment, and recreation cars, as well as comfortable lounge and coach cars, and cozy private sleeping compartments. Take advantage of the extra room, relaxed pace, and enjoy putting your feet up or cuddling with your children while you watch the landscape roll by!
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