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See America by train: Tips for a great ride

Kids waiting for the train
    Taking the train is a marvelous way for kids to see America. In the 19th century, train routes sprung up from coast to coast, carrying people and freight. Today, a family train trip is a different way to experience the United States. It's not only awesome scenery, but it's sights, such as an old-fashioned swing railroad bridge, mist rising off the plains at sunrise, lines of freight cars carrying coal, fishermen standing in the rivers, a big letter C carved in a brown mountain, signals flashing, cars and people waiting at the railroad crossing for the train to pass by. Kids and train travel are a wonderful combination.
    A train trip is about taking time to get from here to there, and all the things you'll see in between. The long-distance Amtrak trains are roomy, coach seats have lots of leg room and wide aisles, sightseeing lounges have large windows, sleeper accommodations provide a good night's rest. There's time to talk, play card or board games, and read stories out loud. On a car trip, parents have to drive and navigate; on a train, parents can sit back and watch the landscape go by. Unlike an airplane, traveling by train is not about the quickest way to arrive at your destination – the train is a destination in itself.
    Train journeys
      A train trip can be a short jaunt on a scenic steam railroad, or a long-distance train ride that lasts a day or more.
    Excursion trains – A ride on a steam train has great appeal for little kids. It's all those puffy white steam clouds coming out the locomotive, the whistle blowing, and sounds of wheels rolling down the track. And, it's truly a trip back to another time, when steam powered the locomotives. Check out these excursion steam trains:
      Roaring Camp Railroad (California)
      Heber Valley Railroad (Utah)
    Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (Colorado)
    Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (New Mexico)
    Blue Ridge Scenic Railway (Georgia)
      Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (Maryland)
    Long-distance trains – Amtrak runs the long-distance trains that crisscross the United States. Routes have nifty names, such as the Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief. Our favorite train routes, California Zephyr and Empire Builder, are in the western United States. These routes traverse wide open country, and are more scenic that the more urbanized train routes of the northeast United States. The long-distance trains have double-decker cars (Superliners), sightseeing lounges, and a real dining car. On shorter trains, such as New York to Washington, DC, the cars are single level and a snack bar only.
    Planning your itinerary
      For a long-distance train trip, you'll need to purchase tickets in advance, with a defined itinerary (departure and destination points), even if you're traveling coach class.
    A long route, such as the Empire Builder from Seattle (or Portland) to Chicago, takes nearly two full days. Traveling with kids, rather than going straight through, break up the trip, stopping off to see the sights. For example, start in Portland, get off at Glacier National Park, spend time exploring the magnificent scenery in Glacier, then pick up the train again, and ride to Minot, North Dakota ("Why not, Minot?"). Minot is not far from Fort Mandan, the winter home of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. After Minot, get on the train again and ride to Chicago.
      Coach class is not expensive, the seats are roomy, there's plenty of leg room (much, much better than economy class on an airplane), and on the double-decker Superliner trains, coach has great views out the windows. However, you won't have specific reserved seats, although Amtrak does often set aside groups of coach seats for families on the long-distance trains.
      On your itinerary, if you're traveling overnight, consider sleeping accommodations. Sleeper cars have comfortable berths (which turn into seats during the day). A Family Bedroom sleeps two adults and two children, and other options are available. Your sleeper car ticket is a reserved compartment and also includes meals in the dining car.
      Reserve your sleeping accommodations months in advance (four to six months in advance is preferable). There just aren't that many sleeper cars on the train, so reservations go quickly. Especially in summer, trains are quite full, so book sleeping accommodations early.
      Tip: Amtrak trains may not keep to the schedule. When you plan your overall trip itinerary, don't make closely-timed connections with Amtrak trains.
      Here's where you can plan your trip on the Amtrak. Amtrak often has combination train tickets and rental cars, and look for special deals, e.g. in August, AAA might offer a promotion that kids ride free on Amtrak.
    On the train
      There are one-level and two-level long-distance Amtrak trains. The two-level trains, Superliners, are the most fun. The Superliner trains have coach cars, sleepers, a sightseeing lounge car and dining car.
      The sightseeing lounge car is lined with windows on the second level, on the lower level is a snack bar and tables. In the evening, videos are shown in the lounge car, entertaining movies or documentaries, such as Lewis and Clark, as the train passes through Lewis and Clark territory.
      In the dining car, breakfast and lunch are served on a first-come, first- serve basis. Dinner is served by reservation for a timed seating, e.g. 5:15, 6:00, 7:30, 8:15pm. Passengers in the sleeper accommodations get first crack at the dinner reservations, and if the train is very crowded, coach passengers may not always get a seating. If you have little kids, take an early seating, so they don't get hungry waiting for dinner.
      The food in the dining car is kid-friendly and reasonably priced if you're traveling coach (meals are included in sleeper tickets). You'll find choices of pancakes or French toast for breakfast, hamburgers or garden burgers for lunch. At dinner, there's a kid's menu with chicken strips or macaroni and cheese, and you can also order from the regular menu, such as cheese ravioli. For dessert, there's always ice cream with chocolate sauce and other sweets. Kosher and vegan meals can be reserved in advance.
      The snack bar has a limited selection of hot dogs, sandwiches bagels, chips, sodas, bottled water, but it isn't always open. If you're looking for snacks on the train, you're much better off bringing your own food.
      Bathrooms in the cars have changing facilities and places to dispose of used diapers in the trash. In sleeper cars, there are also showers, towels and soap are provided.
      Accessible areas are available to store your bags on the train, but if your destination allows it, check your larger luggage at the train station, and only carry what you need on the train. You really don't want to heave around heavy luggage, or crowd your sleeper compartment with baggage. Ask Amtrak about checked baggage when you make your ticket reservations, or look on the train schedule.
      In our experience, the staff is very kid friendly on Amtrak. The car attendants, in both sleeper and coach class, will help you out with whatever you might need. Conductors wear the traditional dark blue uniform, and are happy to pose with your kids for a photo.
      Tip: Because there may be delays on Amtrak trains, sign up for text alerts or call the station before you set off. Here's the number to call for train status: 1.800.872.7245
    What to bring
      Traveling on the train all day (or night), you'll want to be comfortable.
    Lightweight blankets and pillows – If you're traveling in coach, bring your own blankets and pillows. (Although, if you forget blankets, they can be purchased on the train.) If you have a sleeper, blankets and pillows are provided, but the kids may want their favorite snuggly blanket or stuffed animal.
    Food, food, food – Bring food with you on the train, even if you have a sleeper car that includes meals. Traveling coach class, you will definitely want to have food along, and not just snacks. You may not be able to get a reservation in the dining car for dinner, and the snack bar can be closed for an hour or more, just when you have a famished child. With a sleeper ticket, meals are included, but if the train is delayed three or four hours, and there's no dinner service, kids are going to be hungry and grumpy. Bring a cooler filled with your favorite foods and drinks – you can have a picnic on the train.

Pastimes – One of the great things about a train trip is plenty of time to read books and listen to music (with headphones). Reading books out loud on the train is one of the most enjoyable pastimes. Bigger kids can stretch out and read a long chapter book for themselves. Activity packs and coloring books are fun for little kids. Board games and card games are fun for everyone in the family. Bring a detailed map so kids can trace your train route through the United States as you go along. Teenagers will enjoy listening to music for hours on end.


Tip: In our most recent trip, the coach cars had outlets to plug in cell phones, iPads, laptops, iPods etc., but you might want to bring along back-up batteries for your electronics, just to be safe. Wi-Fi is available on some trains.

    Our favorite train route
    The California Zephyr travels through some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States, places without cars or roads, and is our favorite route for a family train trip. Going west, the train climbs up the Rocky Mountains, chugging through tunnel after tunnel in inky darkness, past high mountains with snowy peaks, then gradually descends along the Little Colorado River, where you can wave at river rafters floating by. Continuing westward, the train rolls on through boundless western landscapes, golden sandstone cliffs and sagebrush valleys filled with hopping jackrabbits. From Reno to Truckee, the California Zephyr slowly winds up a steep horseshoe grade, following the emerald green Truckee River into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. After Donner Pass, it's the home stretch, finishing on a high note, as the train skims along the edges of San Francisco Bay, sunlight sparkling on the water, whistles blowing, as the train arrives in the Emeryville station.
kids books trains united states
USA by Rail  
USA by Rail
John Pitt

This is an essential guide to 37 long-distance train routes in the United States, plus fascinating history and information about towns and places of interest you'll pass along the way. A great reference for all the stops on your train trip. (Guidebook)


travel for kids | travel tips | see america by train
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