It seemed like an exciting, novel way to kick off our family ski trip: taking the train from New Orleans to Denver via Chicago, before renting a car for the last leg to the resort. In reality, the journey went down in family lore for all the wrong reasons: trains packed with rowdy spring breakers, extensive delays, and a chilly night huddled in a frigid upstairs viewing car because it was the only place we could get seats together amidst the chaos and crowds.
About three decades later, the delights of train travel with my own family—my husband and our almost-five-year-old son—thankfully far outweigh the mishaps. We’re lucky to live in Europe, the holy grail of rail networks, and although train travel in the U.S. might not be as extensive, having the right gear and strategy helps make it as seamless as possible.
Along the way, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for how well-suited rail travel can be for families—a view shared by parents like Karen Zimet, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based accountant and avid traveler who has explored many train routes with her husband and two daughters.
“You’re strapped into a seat with most other kinds of transportation, but on a train you have this extra freedom kids are always looking for,” Zimet says. “You can move around, go sit in the dining car, or just walk the length of the train. And it’s almost like a little voyeuristic view of parts of cities and towns you wouldn’t get to see otherwise, like walled-in backyards along the route, or spotting animals out the window. I think we once sang ‘Old McDonald’ for two hours because my youngest would see some animal and we’d sing about it.”
Not that every trip will be all cheerful sing-alongs, of course: Traveling with kids, no matter how you do it, is rarely stress-free. But armed with insider tips, tricks, and hacks from train aficionados like Zimet and other industry experts, you can make your family’s train adventure as much fun as the destination itself (i.e., no frostbitten fingers in the frozen viewing deck).
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First, do your research
Parents new to train travel with kids can often be overwhelmed by the idea. Where should they go? How long should the trip be? What kind of tickets should they book?
Katie Brown, an independent affiliate of Ciao Bambino, Inc., a boutique agency that specializes in family travel, recommends Google Maps as a helpful starting point. After choosing two (or more) destinations and selecting the train icon for directions, users can see in a few seconds which operators offer service, how many transfers are involved, and how long the trip is estimated to take, plus other key intel.
“That’s the easiest way to get a general overview,” Brown explains. “It will also give you the names of the train companies and the train stations, so you can look at that to plan things further.”
Dig into the operator’s schedules and deals
In destinations with extensive train networks, some providers offer specific perks for passengers with kids, including free or discounted tickets for younger children, but usually, reservations must be made in order to hold the seat, especially on popular routes. The difference between coach and business fare can be minimal, but many parents say they often prefer non-business class cars because of their more kid-friendly environments.
Private or sleeping rooms that include their own bathroom are also a popular option for families both domestically and abroad, especially as the pandemic lingers. In the U.S., Amtrak’s Family Bedroom, available on all of its overnight routes west of Chicago, is a great choice for up to two adults and two children, according to a company spokesperson.