And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that,
like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going
- Bruce Catton
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the memorable cross-country train trip I took with my son Sam when he was 11. (See this post for more about that trip.) Together we became train converts on that adventure and it looks like we're not alone in our fandom: train ridership is at record levels this year in the US. If you're considering a trip, here are some of the nitty-gritty details of train travel with kids and teens.
When you book online with Amtrak, you can choose either coach seats or sleeping "roomettes" that have comfy recliners by day and fold-down bunks by night. When we went, we opted for the cheaper coach seats for the first night on the Lakeshore Limited (Boston-->Chicago) and beds for the next two nights on the Southwest Chief (Chicago-->LA).
The coach seats are wide recliners with a nice stretch of leg room. I found it to be more comfortable than a red-eye plane flight but I'm not sure I would have wanted to do more than one night that way. "Recliner" might be a little generous. More like "slight-tilters."
Though booking a room (Amtrak calls them "roomettes") on the sleeping car is more expensive, roomettes also include three meals a day in the dining car, access to showers, fresh towel and linens, and personal attendant service (turn-down, newspapers, coffee/bottled water, make-up bed). There are limited roomettes on each train, though, so be sure to book early if you know that's the way you want to go.
What does that look like, pricewise? If we were doing this same trip next month (one night in coach seats, two nights in a roomette) it looks like the cost for the two of us combined would be $656 one way (and doing the whole trip in coach seats would only be $327 for both of us). Compared to driving that distance (including gas, lodging, food) it's definitely a bargain. While it's true that compared to flying it's not really much cheaper, we were really in it for the adventure factor as well as the transportation so it was still worth it for us.
If you have a little more time or want to see more of the country, Amtrak has a fantastic rail passes program, much like the Eurail passes in Europe. You can get unlimited Amtrak coach seat tickets for 15 days/8 segments for $439 for adult, $220 for kids. (They also have 30-day and 45-day options.) Wouldn't that be a fun backpacking adventure for a graduation present?!
What to take (besides the usual):
- a pillow and an extra blanket, especially if you're in seats overnight (they're provided in the sleeping cars).
- games and decks of cards. It's fun to go to the observation car and strike up a game with another family, too.
- books galore (my Kindle really came in handy that trip so I didn't have to lug lots of books).
- a map to trace your trek, or you could stitch your route on a map as you go like this.
- I recommend this book, which gives a nice overview of what you're seeing out the window all along the way.
- comfortable clothes for lounging in (and remember pajamas/robe suitable for dashing down the hall to the restroom if you're in a roomette).
- you can bring electronics--and there are plugs available for charging--but there's no wi-fi, at least when we went. I found it to be a great excuse to take a break from all that connectivity for a few days. (You can hop off and access wi-fi at stations along the way.)
- stamps to mail home postcards from each station (You can even make a book of them when you get back home if you're so inclined.)
- a willingness to go with the flow and enjoy the journey. Really, that's the whole point, right?
Intrigued by the idea? Here's some more information to get you started:
Check out Amtrak's America by Rail blog.
If you just know you want a train adventure but don't know where, here are five best train trips in the US.
If you're not sure about a longer train adventure, here are some of the best "starter" train route suggestions.
Things to do on train layovers. Plus, those beautiful train stations are all worth a look themselves!
Finally, a few tunes to get you in the train state of mind:
Feist & Ben Gibbard : Train Song
Johnny Cash : Folsom Prison Blues
Simon & Garfunkel: Homeward Bound (did you know it was written in a train station?)