Train travel with young children is tricky but if you prepare it is an amazing experience! This summer we took a family trip to Elkhart Lake WI. I elected to take our 3-year-old on a long Amtrak train ride with my mother-in-law (Grin). Long. Like LAX to Chicago long (almost 48 hours). We not only survived but it was very enjoyable.
FYI – There are so many reasons why you should take the train every once in a while (instead of flying). That’s a topic for another day. For now I’m simply focusing on what to do when taking tiny humans on a lengthy train adventure.
Everyone thought I was crazy to do a 48 hour train ride with a 3-year-old (birthday was 1 week before the trip). Including a few passengers waiting at the LAX Union Station Amtrak lounge with us. But I know my kid and I was ready.
Family train travel is actually quite popular. I was shocked to see how many kids were on the train! Day 2 of our trip a lovely family moved into the family room in our sleeper car (2 adults and 3 children). C loved having other kids so close! When we walked down to the Observation Car on the second day he met several children that sat at the table with us and helped him with his puzzles.
Despite the popularity, when I started my search I could not find much advice on overnight train travel with young children. I compiled what little I found with my experience traveling on planes with my son and Grin’s knowledge on all things Amtrak to find our perfect solution. Hopefully it helps you too!
Overnight Train Travel with Young Children
**Note: my descriptions of the roomettes are for the Superliner which is what you take heading east to Chicago. There is another type of roomette in the Viewliner. Make sure you know which train you are on! The other roomette actually has a bit more space (I think you can even store your larger luggage in an overhead area).
ARRIVE EARLY & LET YOUR CHILDREN RUN
Let your children run around every chance you get!! When you get to the train station don’t head straight to the lounge. When we arrived at LAX Union Station we found a nice area outside where C could run like crazy. We spent about 45 minutes out there playing games and racing.
Get off the train every chance you get! We had several stops where they let us get off for 10-15 minutes. It may not seem worth it but do not pass up on this opportunity. We would take a walk along side the train. Just getting out of the train for a few minutes makes a huge difference. On one stop in New Mexico we got to get off for 45 minutes. And we didn’t waste one minute of it.
There will be times when you do not want your child to run. Like right before boarding when you are standing among the trains. Very dangerous for a young one. My solution was to give him his own child size roller bag of heavy stuff to pull so running was not an option (I also do this at the airport). C felt like such a big boy and was so proud to have his own bag that he was responsible for! Thanks to Grin’s advise, we used the Amtrak Red Cap service to get to the boarding area. We basically didn’t have to walk at all but the heavy bag kept him from bolting.
SPLURGE ON A ROOMETTE!
I highly recommend booking a roomette (each have 2 sleeping bunks) or one of the family rooms (have their own toilet) for train travel with young children. They are much more expensive than even a business class seat however TOTALLY worth it! I would have never gotten through this trip in business seats. Amtrak includes all meals with the roomettes and complimentary coffee in the mornings.
Each roomette has 2 large chairs that face each other with a folding table in between. The chairs fold down to make the lower bunk at night. The upper bunk folds down when it is time to sleep. We did not use the upper bunk. I slept on the lower bunk with C (his head on one end and mine on the other). If you are tall this might not work but I’m 5’4″ and it worked beautifully. The lower bunk is pretty large considering the space and the upper bunk is fairy small. With no window. It was worth squeezing into the same bed because C slept very well with me next to him.
We had 2 adults and one child and booked 2 roomettes (instead of the family room). That way I could put C to bed and then go have some wine with Grin in her roomette. When we booked them I immediately called and requested rooms across from each other (instead of side-by-side). Again, thanks to Grin’s expertise! The hallways are so narrow that it gave us a feel of having a 2 “room” suite. This worked better for us than having the large family room (plus it cost less).
When requesting roomette location consider the level. The main level for each car is actually the upper level. Passengers prefer this level because of the slightly better view. And also not having to climb the narrow stairs to go to a different car (at first this was a plus for me). But ultimately the lower level was much more desirable for overnight train travel with young children for several reasons.
First there are only a handful of rooms and fewer people (our sleeper car had only 4 roomettes and 1 family room on the lower level). All of the passengers concerned about the youngster going all the way to Chicago were very relieved to see that we were downstairs. Since there is no passenger traffic passing through the lower level there is a bit more freedom for kids to play (and be loud (ish) during the day) in the small hallway.
Second, there are bathrooms and showers on the lower level so you don’t have far to walk. You also do not have to wait long if at all which is very important with a potty training toddler!
Third, everyone stores larger luggage on the lower level of the sleeper cars. I did the best I could to have everything we needed inside the roomette but I did have to get to my bag a few times. It was very convenient to have it stored right next to us. I could leave my son sleeping in the roomette and get to the bag when I needed to.
CONSIDER THE SMALL SPACE WHEN PACKING
I brought a pretty large tote that sat on the step for the top bunk (next to one of the chairs) filled with lots of snacks, wine and all the clothes C and I needed while on the train. There is a small (very small) closet area next to the other seat that you can hang a few jackets and other items on. There are also a few hooks to hang things such as toiletry bags. My backpack (containing my laptop and personal items) stayed in the space under the “closet area”. C’s roller bag (filled with toys) slid easily under his seat. Keep in mind when the chairs are folded down to make the lower bunk at night you cannot easily access the bags under the seats. During the day you can store some items on the top bunk however it will need to be folded up for head room so it cannot be anything too large.
The roomettes have an outlet to charge your phone, laptop, etc. However, I highly recommend bringing a surge protector with you. Not only does this protect your devices but it also gives you extra outlets. You will also benefit from having a small flashlight or headlamp to find things in the room when your kids are asleep. There are a few hooks in the room so a hanging toiletry bag comes in quite handy. I also brought my sons toddler pillow and blanket for a little comfort from home.
RESERVE DINNER TIME AS SOON AS YOU BOARD
The beauty of going east on Amtrak from LAX is that it leaves around 6 pm. Perfect time to get on board, unpack a bit and head straight to the dining car. They gave us a 7:30 pm dinner time which would not work with a 3-year-old. We asked (begged) our attendant to see if she could get it switched. She worked her magic and we got the 6:30 pm slot!
By the way…. this is a good time for me to mention how helpful and important the attendants are. They will literally do anything for you! No matter how big or small. If you simply need a water they will go get it for you. Attendants also help you get your beds setup at night if you need it. Don’t forget to bring tip money that you will give them on your way out! As well as small bills to tip your servers in the dining car and the Red Cap employees if you use them.
The first time dining experience is great for anyone traveling by train but especially children. Each dining car has huge windows and they are quickly distracted by the scenery whizzing by and the newness of the train.
DINING CAR TIPS:
- Don’t forget something to play with! My son preferred his binoculars and puzzles. Bring some crayons too. They cover the table with white paper and change it out between passengers. So it’s great to draw on! I’ve included a long list of recommended toys for the train.
- Request your preferred dinner time immediately upon boarding. If you do not get a good time slot for your kids you can also order dinner via your attendant and eat in your roomette. You obviously don’t get the benefit of the change of space you get going to the dining car. But at least your kids will go to bed on time. (We actually ate 2 meals in our roomettes and it was great! I did miss the change of venue however it’s an adventure either way you do it.)
- When done with your meals always ask a server for some bottled water to take back to your roomette. They will give them to you for free.
TOYS TOYS AND MORE TOYS
You will need lots of toys and other distractions including paper and crayons, a way to watch movies (just in case), puzzles etc. I am working on a full list of the best toddler/preschool travel toys. Here are our favorites for the train:
I ended up getting a Leapfrog Leappad because I wanted C to have screen time if we got desperate (and avoid having to hand him my phone!). I downloaded several games and a few of his favorite TV shows. He did not ask for this until the last few hours of the train trip which is AMAZING!! I downloaded 3 movies on my tablet and we watched none of them. Don’t forget headphones!
Read Search & Find Books are so fun! They are even something I’ll pick up and look at myself. But that’s just me. 🙂
If you are considering train travel with young children (especially an overnight Amtrak train trip!)….. DO IT. I had zero stress during the trip and it was SO amazing to experience it with C. Even at such a young age he remembers every detail and talks about it often.
A few last thoughts…. When you are booking your overnight train trip do not have expectations on the accuracy of your arrival time. Honestly, it’s merely a suggestion. There is always a chance being delayed. But that’s OK! Just tell yourself that if you are willing to take the train you aren’t in a hurry to get there anyway. 🙂 The scenery is usually amazing and it really is a fun experience. So just relax and enjoy it. And finally…. if you are in a sleeper car….. Don’t forget to tip your attendant when you are leaving the train!
**Amtrak has a page for first time train passengers that could be useful as well.