I just got back from a train trip on Amtrak’s Empire Builder from St. Paul, Minnesota to Chicago and I got a ton of feedback and questions about the trip. I’ll have more details on that specific route in another post, because the first and most frequent question I received was about how my 4-year-old son did on the trip.
The short answer is, he was in heaven. That’s partially because he’s currently obsessed with trains and partially because of the ten reasons I’ve listed below. This started out as a list about why you should try train travel with kids, but after talking with my aunt (who just completed a train journey of her own), I realized that the reasons train travel made sense for a kid also resonated with us as well.
Here’s why you should try the train.
1. It’s cheap.
This is listed as #1 because cost is a major factor for most of us when we’re planning a vacation. Saving money on transportation can add days to a trip, so it’s smart to consider all your options.
And a few extra dollars per ticket can add up to hundreds of dollars if you have a family. Price was a factor for me on this trip, and I only have one kid! I’m all about maximizing my time and money, and although it might seem counterintuitive to spend a little extra time on a train, it really made sense for us.
If you’re you’re going from one city center to another and you’re comfortable walking or taking public transportation, taking the train is an absolute no-brainer. (Ditto if you’re staying with family and have someone to pick you up.)
Having a car in Chicago is a hassle and our hotel was right in The Loop, just steps from bus stops and the train. My friends initially saved money by driving, but immediately lost it in $40 a day parking fees. And they wound up walking and taking the bus anyway, because it was cheaper and more convenience than moving their vehicle.
2. You can be productive (or not).
Yes, smart reader, driving or taking a bus is may be cheaper if you don’t have parking fees to consider. But taking the train seemed a whole lot more sane to me. That’s because you can actually use that time to do something — or nothing, if that’s what you prefer.
I travel a lot for this job, and I’m almost always the driver. That means that I listen to a lot of National Public Radio, catch up on podcasts and catch-up with friends, if I’m lucky enough to have somebody along for the ride. Yes, they offer to drive. But I’m usually the one that knows our schedule, so I stay behind the wheel, busy, but not terribly productive.
In contrast, I spent my eight hour train ride to Chicago having lunch, writing a magazine article, responding to emails, reading a few chapters in a book, editing photos, brainstorming ideas for this website, watching the scenery roll by and doing a whole lot of daydreaming because I didn’t have to worry about keeping a vehicle on the road. It was much better. The only bummer was that the Empire Builder wasn’t one of the trains with wi-fi. Boo.
The observation car
3. You can move around. Like, whenever you want.
Do not underestimate the seductive power of the freedom of movement. I never realized how having to plan my exit for the 10.5 seconds the beverage cart wasn’t in the aisle (lest all hell break loose) annoyed me until I didn’t have to do it. My aunt said she also found the train weirdly liberating — and she’s a flight attendant that’s usually working the beverage cart!
With kids, the effect is even more pronounced. My son is an epic traveler, but (like most 4 year olds) he’s all energy. It takes some serious strategy to stem the “Are we there yet?” chorus. If he doesn’t start asking until we’ve been not the road for seven minutes, I count that as a win. On the train, he made it seven hours before he asked.
It also helps tremendously that there were different places to explore. Instead of being stuck at our seats, we could recline in front of (admittedly smudged) nearly floor to ceiling windows in the observation car, head down to the first floor of the train for the bathrooms (my son was really into the idea of stairs on a train) or grab a snack on the first floor of the observation car. (More on the dining car shortly.)
A quick note on those bathrooms — like airplane bathrooms, these are apparently sized for toddlers, not adults and certainly not for more than one person (even tiny ones) at the same time. If someone in your party needs assistance, use the bathroom with a vanity. You can stand in a separate but connected room (with the outside door closed) and help as needed.
4. Dining on a train is fun
With white tablecloths and scenic views, the dining car on a train is a kick. Okay, so the food is served on plastic plates, the menu isn’t huge and it’s not exactly a bargain, but you’re really paying for the experience here. And it delivers. So bring the fam, order an adult beverage (or two or three — you’re not driving!) and eat while the countryside flies by.
You can usually drop in for lunch on the train, but dinner is by reservation only. And they don’t mess around. A steward will come through each car exactly once and take reservations for specific times. You may have to be flexible with your dinner time. And once reservations are done, they’re done. (My aunt and her boyfriend changed their mind and decided to eat after all, but no dice.)
Oh, and this part is important — the tables are for four and if the reservation list is full, they’ll fill those suckers to capacity. This means that a party of three (like us) will be seated with a single traveler, two couples will be seated together etc. This isn’t as stressful as it sounds, but it surprised the heck out of me at first. (Thankfully, our dinner companion was lovely.) I just wanted to give you a heads up so you know that, unless you’re a party of four, you will probably be seated with a stranger or two.
5. You can bring a ton of food and drinks aboard
If dining with new people isn’t your thing, you can just bring your own meals, wine, beer — whatever you like. My best friend’s parents traveled with a cooler. A colleague of mine brought enough wine and finger food to feed a small army. Since there’s hot water available on the train, I saw lots of people on my this trip walking around snacking on cups of noodles and sipping hot cocoa.
Personally, the beer writer in me was excited that the “bring all the liquids that you want on the train” policy extended to beer. I celebrated by cracking open a (sort of cold) IPA and taking in the view. You can bring enough stuff to stock a small buffet (or bar) along, because you can also bring…
6. So. Much. Baggage. (For free! Mostly.)
If you’re used to watching airline baggage fees make your bargain fare look like a rip off (or if you like vacationing with a whole bunch of stuff) traveling by train is gonna to blow your mind. Each Amtrak passenger can bring not one but two personal items up to 25 pounds and 14 x 11 x 7 inches each and two carry-on items of up to 50 pounds and 28 x 22 x 14 inches each.
If, for some ungodly reason you need more luggage than that, you can also check up to four bags. (Sorry, I’m not trying to judge, but I haven’t checked a bag in years and can’t even imagine myself galavanting around the world with more than carry-ons. Seriously, what do you put in those things? Please comment below and tell me. I’m genuinely curious.) The first two checked bags are free and the second cost $20 each.
Think about that for a second. You can bring six bags for free and eight bags for $40. I can barely check a bag on a commercial flight for that price. And that’s per person. All the luggage probably won’t even fit in your car anyway, so it’s a good thing you elected to take the train.
Union Depot in St. Paul, Minnesota
7. You basically show up and board
Okay, imagine you’re actually bringing eight bags. You’re going to want to get to the station super early, right? How early do the Amtrak folks recommend, you ask? A hour.
If you’re not checking bags, they recommend 45 minutes. You’ll probably only need half that. (Not that I recommend cutting it close. I’m just saying that we arrived at St. Paul’s Union Depot 47 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive, used the rest room, looked around, charged our phones, took photos, cleaned up a coffee spill and played ping-pong before the train was scheduled to arrive, so…)
There’s no massive line to get a boarding pass (I just used the Amtrak app on my phone) and no security lines to plan for. You just show up, check bags if you need to, double check which platform your train will arrive at and wait a couple minutes. Personnel will typically have you board according to your final destination (on the Empire Builder, at least), so you really don’t even need think that much about what to do after you get to the platform. Getting your luggage up the narrow stairway to your seat will be the trickiest part.
Folks that need additional assistance and those with small kids can board first. Bonus.
8. There’s plenty of room
Trains offer a lot of leg room. (I’m almost 5’7″ and I could recline my seat, stretch out my legs and not come close to the seat in front of me.) The tray tables were big (those six inch wide ones on economy airlines drive me nuts!) and the seats felt generous.
When you have baggage to store or a little one with you, all this space comes in handy. My kiddo spent about an hour playing with toys on his tray table and goofing around on the floor in between the seats. I can’t even imagine having enough space on a plane to do this.
Our nice conductor and my kiddo — a.k.a. the happiest boy in the world at this moment.
10. Table space = options
If you’re lucky enough to snag a booth in the observation car, you can really take advantage of that table space. (And break up the monotony that creeps into any journey with a change of venue.)
I saw families playing travel sized board games and groups of retirees playing rousing games of cards, which seemed like a smart way to pass the time. A woman next to me was drawing in a sketchbook, but pulled out pens when a table opened up. I’m pretty sure another lady was scrapbooking. (Hey, you can bring a million bags, so why not?) And my own kiddo played with Play-Dough for what felt like forever.
I’ll take it. It gave me more time to read my book. And it definitely beat having to come up with things to do while seated or just parking him in front of a screen to keep him quiet. And when he got bored, we just kept on walking.
It was a sanity saver, one of many on this leisurely train ride south. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
How about you?
Have you traveled by train? Why or why not?
What do you like about train travel?
Tell me about your favorite train journey!
What train trips are you dying to try?
Tell me about your favorite train station!
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