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Ten Train Travel Tips to Save You Money on Your Family Vacation

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Thirty-one hours on a westbound train with three kids, ages thirteen to four, might never have originally entered my mind as a recipe for the perfect family vacation until I did it (and survived!)

My husband and I were on a mission to find a way to take the family to Arizona to see Grandma over spring break. I’m the daughter of a commercial airline pilot, so I’ve never really considered other means of travel, but the price of airfare was too expensive and we have been working hard to pay down debt promised ourselves that we’d find a way to get out there that fit our budget.

We crunched the numbers comparing air travel, train travel, taking our own car, and renting a car. Air travel to Arizona during spring break for us was ridiculously expensive. Accounting for hotels, wear and tear on the car, and gas, or miles and car rental fees driving would have been our next best option, but hands down, taking the Amtrak train was our best-bet budget wise, coming in at $907 round-trip for our family of five.

It also turned out to be one of the best family friendly vacations we’ve ever had! The coach attendants made sure that we all sat together and had everything we needed to make our trip enjoyable. (Last time we took a flight somewhere my husband and I had to divide and conquer with the kids.)

There was no worrying about finding a place to pull over to potty because we had the flexibility to go walk around, go to the lounge car, get a snack or eat a yummy, healthy meal at any time. The bathrooms were clean and the handicapped bathroom was plenty large enough to take a child in with you and not have to play “twister” helping them use the facilities.

The cars were roomy with electrical outlets at each seat. There were lift-up leg rests and foot rests and plenty of legroom for the grown-ups, plus great big windows to watch the changing landscape!

The demographics seemed to be mostly families, baby boomers and seniors who loved to travel by train, and young adults/college age kids. What we didn’t see was the grumpy hassled business traveler. Everyone we met was very friendly.

Here are some of the things I learned and things we did to have a great time and save money:

  1. Book early and travel during the week when possible

    Just like traveling by air, fares fluctuate considerably when you travel. Holidays, summer, and weekends will be higher price than traveling off-season during the weekday. We saved a couple hundred bucks by being flexible and playing around with our dates online.

  2. Look for money-saving discounts

    • Amtrak SmartFares allow you to save 25% off certain one-way coach fares with new deals each week.

    • Kids travel for half price which was a huge savings for us! When kids travel with an adult, their ticket is half price.
    • Check to see what other discounts you qualify for. We used our AAA card to save some money on our tickets (even the kids’ fares). Amtrak also offers discounts for students, military, and seniors.
  3. Sign up for rewards points with Amtrak

    We singed up for the Amtrak Guest Rewards, but instead of signing up separately, we signed up my husband first. Then each of us signed up under him since he earned an extra 500 points for each person who signed up under him. (This included points for the kids!) With one round trip ticket from Mendota, Illinois to Flagstaff, Arizona my husband earned over 3000 points and already qualifies for travel benefits.

  4. Leave from a smaller station

    We lucked out in the train station we selected because it offered free parking. It turns out that this is common, after talking with other passengers. If you’ve got a choice between leaving from a large city or a small town train station, you may be better choosing the smaller station. For us, the train fare to leave from Chicago and Mendota was exactly the same, but leaving from Mendota meant we didn’t have to pay for Metra train tickets for us all to get to Chicago or parking in the city.

  5. Coach is pretty luxurious compared to air travel

    I was worried about traveling coach, but compared to air travel, it’s pretty darned cushy! The seats reclined with pop up leg rests and foot rests. There was plenty of leg room for me to stretch out and with the let rest fully up, plenty of room to curl up in the seat too. (One family that traveled to Flagstaff with us even brought a chest cooler that they put in front of their kids’ seats with snacks, since the kids didn’t need the legroom.)

  6. Consider a sleeper car

    One area they get you, cost wise on the train, is food. It’s not outrageous, but when you’re feeding a family of five, food adds up. We learned that when you reserve one of the sleepers, all your meals are included. If you have it in the budget to reserve a room, it may be a more comfortable option, giving you some additional privacy, a bed, and savings on your food.

  7. Eat breakfast or lunch in the diner car instead of dinner

    I highly encourage you to take advantage of the diner car experience, but if you’re on a strict budget, try breakfast or lunch instead. The food is just as yummy, but our bill for breakfast was less than half of what we spent on dinner.

    Dinner prices ranged from around $15 to $25 per plate and included salad, bread, and the main dish. The menu changed nightly, and we tried the spinach lasagna, herb chicken, and chipotle beef, which were all very delicious with reasonable portion sizes. Our dinner the first night came to just under $100 including drinks and tip.

    Note: Dinner reservations are often required so let your coach attendant or the dining car attendant know if you’re planning on heading to the dining car.

  8. Pack snacks and food to carry on the train

    There is a snack car in the lower level of the lounge car with a variety of things from cereal to candy. The prices weren’t horrible, but several trips a day would add up.

    We packed a back pack full of water bottles, juice boxes, granola bars, and snacks for the trip, which helped us save money by preventing the need to hit the snack car or the diner car for every meal. My husband and I even enjoyed a delicious bottle of Cabernet as we rolled through Kansas the first night. (Remember your bottle opener!)

    An advantage to traveling by train is that you don’t have the same restrictions on baggage as you do on the airlines. We had 13 bags including a car seat on the train! You’re even allowed to bring a bicycle on many of the trains.

  9. Bring activities: laptop, tablets, phone, iPod, etc.

    There are no movies on these trains like there are on many planes, but with outlets by all your seats you can keep your gadgets fully charged and your kids entertained! There was WIFI available on our train and at certain stations, but I used my hot-spot on my phone instead. I would recommend downloading any movies ahead of time since the signal was sporadic in some of the more deserted parts of the country through which we traveled.

    I also recommend you take advantage to get off the train at the stops it makes along the way! They don’t allow you to get off at all the stops, but there is usually one every couple of hours. It’s nice to get some fresh air and at several locations there were people selling jewelry and crafts. We even encountered a very enterprising girl scout selling cookies in La Junta Colorado!

  10. Plan ahead if you’ll be on the train overnight

    I suggest you pack a small overnight bag with toothbrushes, pillows, and a blanket for each seat.

    Amtrak does pass out pillows for your comfort during travel, but honestly, they’re pretty darned tiny and I was so glad we bought travel neck-pillows for everyone on clearance for $5 each before the trip. They were so worth the money and we still used the pillows the coach attendants passed out for a little more padding on the armrest or against the window.

    We didn’t bring a blanket the first night and my daughters were a little chilly. We ended up buying some Mexican blankets in Albuquerque for $9 each that were perfect for the trip home.

    I also wasn’t as prepared at bedtime as I will be next time. I had to dig deep through our bags for tooth brushes, toothpaste and my son’s “blankie.”

All in all, it was an amazing trip and there isn’t much I would change. The kids had a great time as well, and we all learned so much, getting to see the landscape change as we crossed the country, meeting interesting people and having time together to talk.

If seeing the country is on your bucket list, I encourage you to move it up to the top and plan to see it from the train! We’ve already talked Grandma and Grandma into coming along on another train trip with us next summer!

Heather C. Stephens is a serial blogger who writes for the well known online coupon site, FatWallet.com, sharing money saving information and deal guides to help shoppers know what to buy when to get the best deals. You’ll also find her online blogging about social media, marketing for small businesses, and her adventures as a mom of three.

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10 Responses to “Ten Train Travel Tips to Save You Money on Your Family Vacation”

  1. HatHed says:

    I heard the train through the Rockies to Cali is really cool and I have an ex-coworker who would only travel by train. He used to go from Chicago to Montana and back. He’d be gone a while tho, this was before 3G, so luckily it was a huge customer. If you have the extra time, this sounds like a great way to travel and save some money, see the world from the ground w/o the hassle of road rage. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the comment, HatHed! I’d love to take the train all the way to LA. Maybe on our next trip we’ll do that. I’d also love to take the train up the West Coast. I’m sure the scenery is breathtaking.

  3. Great tip about leaving from a different station. It’s amazing how much of a premium train companies place on major stations. I’ve saved upto 25% just by driving 2 or 3 minutes to the next station and catching the train from there.

    • Thanks for the comment! The ticket prices were the same for us leaving from Mendota or Chicago and we decided that Mendota would be easier with the kids. The free parking was an unexpected bonus for us!

  4. Shirley says:

    Heather, I really enjoyed this article!

    The only real experience I have had with train traveling was coach from CA to NY 45 years ago and it was a nightmare. Now, after reading this, I am ready to try again.

    • Hi Shirley,

      My husband’s family freaked us out when we told them we were traveling by train because of bad experiences they had years and years ago. We looked into things and decided to take the risk and I’m so glad we did. I can’t wait to book another trip! Thanks for the comment!

  5. Glenn Lasher says:

    I love traveling by train. There are some problems in the Amtrak system, which can sometimes make it painful (e.g. if you are traveling east-west across New York State, the train is late, period, full stop, end of sentence, no qualifiers), but if you figure these delays into your trip, you will have no problem.

    Being a radio geek, I will usually bring my 2m ham radio with me (it’s a small, hand-held radio, about the size of a police walkie-talkie and with much of the same innards) and chat with people along the way. If I get bored of that, I’ll turn the dial a bit and listen to the train crew talk to the dispatchers.

    If I get tired of that, I’ll get out the computer and do something that is difficult to impossible on an airplane: plug it in.

    On top of that, it’s easy to get relaxed once you are on the train because you didn’t have to deal with the TSA or any of the horrors that are reservations/ticketing/checkin surrounding air travel.

    But most importantly, I can sit back, be comfortable, and watch the world go by, because you can actually see it from a train.

    Traveling between New York’s Capital District (Albany/Schenectady/Troy area) and New York City, the train is the only way to go, and gets you there reliably in about 2.5 hours. When you get off the train in NYC, you are in midtown. It doesn’t get any more convenient than that.

    I have also used the train to go to Toronto from the same area. There is no standing in line at passport control and customs; they board the train and come to your seat.

    I’d like to amend the advice about where to board. You should consider where the train goes from where you are, in the interest of saving time, effort and money. I live in Schenectady. When going south or east, I board in Rensselaer (which is where the “Albany” station is — a major station, even though Albany is not a big city) and when going north or west, I board in Schenectady. This shaves about $22 off of the ticket price, and if I didn’t have transport of my own, the CDTA buses make that “$22″ trip for only $3.

    • Hi Glenn,

      Wow! I love hearing from an experienced Train Traveler! You bring up some great points.

      For us the ticket prices were the same from all the stations close to us so it didn’t matter. We decided that the hustle and bustle of the city would be a lot to juggle with 3 kids and baggage, so we opted for the small town station instead. The free parking was a lucky surprise. It makes sense that on some routs the station choice could play a factor in the ticket price.

      Also, on our way East the train stayed pretty close to the scheduled times. It was late picking us up in Flagstaff on our trip home, but they made up the time in Albuquerque. For us it didn’t matter because we weren’t on a schedule, but that’s a great point for those traveling with deadlines. Passenger trains have to wait for freight trains, so if there is heavy freight traffic, the train will be late.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  6. Thank you Jonathan@Friends and Money!

    I wouldn’t have thought about the differences in the stations until we got to Mendota and realized we didn’t have to pay for parking. The ticket prices for us were the same leaving from Chicago as they were leaving from Mendota, so we figured it would be easier with the kids. We got lucky. :)

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    @Shirley,

    My husband’s parents freaked us out when we first told them we were taking the train because of a bad experience they had years and years ago. But we looked into it and it didn’t seem that bad. I’m glad we didn’t listen to them, and I can’t wait to book another trip!

    Thanks for your input and your comments!
    :) Heather

  7. Duncan Faber says:

    Here’s a tip for traveling with kids. Audiobooks and lots of them! You can fill up your iPod at lots of sites, but we found one where you an download original children’s stories for free. Original is the key word here. How many times can I possible listen to Little Red Riding Hood?! Also, chewing gum! Hope this helps.


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