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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.