One of the many things I have in common with my kids, is that I love riding on trains. So, in case you don’t feel like reading the whole article below, I’ll summarize in a sentence for my American readers what most of my European readers already know:
Doing long-distance trips with kids is awesome on the train, and is a hugely more pleasant and less-stressful way to travel than taking an airplane.
That said, here’s some detail on my rationale. And please, if you’ve not yet taken your kids on a long train ride, TRY IT. I highly doubt you’ll be sorry.
Plane Travel is Generally Unpleasant with Toddlers
The powers that be seem to be on a never-ending mission to make traveling by airplane into the most unpleasant experience possible. Remember the days when you were a kid, and you could get up and walk up to the cockpit and talk to the pilot and get your cool “flight wings” pin and such? Yep – that doesn’t happen anymore. You sit in your seat with its generous 1.3 inches of legroom, trying frantically to make a toddler understand why he can’t get up and run around the airplane. For hours. I don’t know about you, but I find that unpleasant. My flight to Hawaii with the kids last year was, unquestionably, the worst travel experience I’ve had. Crashing would have been only mildly worse.
Additionally, the other little parts of the airplane ride experience add up for me in negative ways.
Airport Security: Just try making two toddlers stay in one place when you’re in line for an hour. Some airports have priority lines for when they see you have kids climbing up your shirt and down your back, but others don’t, which is heavily unpleasant. Perhaps if I traveled regularly, I could put together some causative ways to make airport security fun, like my friend Cindy’s outstanding article on traveling while being a breastfeeding mommy. But honestly, I’ve not worked out how to make this pleasant with two little ones.
Baggage Fees: When you’re traveling with presents for grandma, or even just with your stroller and carseats and such, most volume airlines charge EXORBITANTLY for this. On one of our last trips, we paid more for our luggage than we did for our plane tickets, just because of our normal necessities of traveling with toddlers.
Obviously, when doing things like a transcontinental flight (DC –> LA, etc) the only practical way to get there is to fly. So, you deal with it. But, when one is on vacation, one generally has as a guiding principle that the vacation should be pleasant. And as one of our guiding principles revolves around preserving a child’s self-determinism, spending a day basically full-time telling a child that they can’t do anything but sit there is a special kind of torture.
Why I Like Traveling By Train
So, enter train travel – something (unfortunately) many Americans don’t even consider as a viable option. But oh, there are so many nice things about it. My daughter is 3 right now, and at this point she’s logged approximately 6,000 miles on long-distance trains. 7,000 if you include the trip on the Coast Starlight her mommy and I took while pregnant with her.
Here are the plusses:
Trains are Super Low-Stress
The actual experience of traveling on a train is a super low-stress activity. My kids are 2 and 3 right now. Once we board the train (an event in awesomeness in and of itself – “DADDY WE’RE ON A TRAIN LIKE THOMAS!!!!!!!!!!!!”), the kids can literally just run up and down the train until they pass out. You just sort of meander behind them with your coffee, and then they pass out for a nap. It’s AWESOME. Compare that to being jammed onto a plane with two squirming monkeys. And my kids nap like Rip Van Winkel on the train. I don’t know if it’s just the rhythmic sound or what, but their naps are 3-4 hours when on the train, and on all-night rides, they sleep the whole night – 9 hours straight. Just BLAM. It’s pretty excellent.
Adding to the lack of stress, on long-distance trains there’s always a dining car with real dinners (and they always have mac & cheese), plus a snack car and a lounge car with the awesome panoramic windows that let you take in the scenery.
Discussing dinner in the Dining Car on the Coast Starlight.
All-told, they don’t feel like a nonstop torture chamber for the kids (and parents). You’re not interrupting their self-determinism full-time, and telling them all of the things that they cannot do no matter how illogical it sounds. They just enjoy it.
Sleeper Cars are Awesome
For train rides longer than a day, I definitely recommend sleeper cars. They can be spendy, but if you’re on a vacation and a primary concern is how pleasant your trip is, do it. In the US, Amtrak has three different kinds of rooms. The smallest, a “roomette”, was perfect for us with just my preggers wife and I, was perfect for traveling with a 2-year old and a newborn, but was too small for 2 parents/2 toddlers. Our next trip will be with one of the mid-sized rooms.
But the perks are very perky. Free unlimited coffee, juice and apples/oranges, free meals in the dining car (full meals – like steak and potatoes & dessert), and of course, a fully-private “home base” where you can keep all your gear during the trip, and a quiet place to nap.
For shorter trips (anything under 15 hours), they’re not really needed. For example, on the Amtrak AutoTrain, we found we don’t really need a sleeping car. But for longer ones, like Coast Starlight (up & down the Pacific Coast), I’d recommend them highly.
The USA is BEAUTIFUL to see by Train
When you fly, you miss the amazing scenery that’s available by train. Even taking road trips (which is another passion of mine) you tend to drive through endless suburbia and miss some of the more beautiful scenery out there. As nobody pulls the train over to stop for McDonalds, you of course don’t end up going through that endless copy/paste of American chain restaurants & hotels that surround our cities, and instead just travel through fields, mountains & valleys with basically NOTHING on them. It’s pretty rad. And, in case you haven’t been across the USA, and only spend time in LA or New Jersey, you might not actually know that every state of the USA is factually BEAUTIFUL, and if you don’t go through it at ground level, you’ll miss it.
That being said, not every train trip is as gorgeous as the next. We’ve taken the train a lot from DC to Florida, and that trip is fairly unremarkable, except in the Fall. And in the Fall, it’s pretty stunning. But, my commentary on relative beauty of the train trips I’ve taken (if you’re interested in such) is:
The Coast Starlight: I’ve taken this trip a few times from LA –> Portland, and it is among the most beautiful train rides you can do on this planet. You skirt the California coast, literally feet away from the surf, for hours, and then after winding through Napa wine country, you sleep for the boring San Joaquin Valley, and wake up to the stunning Mt. Shasta, and then wind through the Cascades into the Willamette Valley. It’s AMAZING.
The California Zephyr: This goes between Chicago and San Francisco, and has too many gorgeous points to mention. The climb out of Denver is breathtaking, and the trek through the Sierras is awesome. Only problem is it’s really long.
The Maple Leaf: in doing work for my Buffalo Church, I took this one often in the fall. There is just no better way to see the Hudson valley than this trip from New York to Buffalo. It’s pretty gorgeous.
Mt. Shasta at sunrise, as seen from the Coast Starlight.
Our train snaking its way through Napa wine country in California
Crossing the Appomattox River at sunrise on the Amtrak AutoTrain.
Stretching our legs at the Raleigh Amtrak station.
There’s tons more that I’ve not been on. We have a trip we’re planning for next year to do the Empire Builder from DC through Chicago & Montana to Portland, which I know is going to be epic.
The Amtrak AutoTrain is Pure Radness
As I have family in Florida, we take frequent trips from DC down to Florida. And for things like Christmas time, when we have a load of presents to bring down, and then a load of presents to bring back, there is simply nothing as amazing as the Amtrak AutoTrain. It runs from Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL, and allows you to just take your car on the train. Then, for a fraction of what it would cost you to ship all of your presents or check them on the plane, you just load them into your car, load your car on the train, and glide down there. Then, you don’t have to rent a car while you’re down there, and there’s another chunk of change saved. Add that to not even having to bother with the car seats & such, and there’s just not a more stress-free way to do it.
I shot a video below which shows us loading our car on & off the train.
Getting to & through the Train Station is (by & large) Easier & Faster
Another perk of train travel is that train stations are generally right in the middle of town, whilst airports are way outside of town. So, for us, we just take the metro down to the train station, and we’re done.
Also, there’s no security to go through, and checked bags are generally free. So the experience of actually boarding the train is about 1000 times more stress-free than traveling by plane.
Luggage Fees are Nearly Nonexistant
Every time we’ve traveled by train, we’ve not paid anything to check bags. The amount of baggage you’re allowed on the train is generally way more than you need, and if you don’t want to carry your stroller with you, just check it. It’s so much better than getting to the airport and realizing that you’re going to need to drop another $200 to get all your bags & car seats on the plane.
Kids Love Trains
Anyone who knows the first thing about toddlers knows that Thomas the Tank Engine is a marketing force to be reckoned with. Kids just TOTALLY LOVE trains for some reason. My two kids have both been train aficionados since the word go, so taking them on the train is a vacation and experience in and of itself.
A significantly more limited subset of children dream about being TSA security personnel, so that airport experience is much less charming for most than riding a big choo choo.
Every time I go on a train trip, friends ask about it, and once I’m done explaining, any of them that have small kids say, “dang…we gotta try that”. And that’s the main point I’m trying to make here. If you’ve got small kids, and especially if you loathe the airline experience and love seeing gorgeous scenery, you should absolutely give it a go.