Amtrak: Things to Consider When Traveling by Train
Amtrak: Coast Starlight
All Aboard Amtrak
Last year, my family and I were planning a trip to see relatives in Salinas. We had made the trip many times in our SUV, but when you have two you children in car seats, things can get a bit crazy. Between cries for food, bathroom breaks and just all around boredom, it makes the trip that much more of a hassle. So we decided to try something different.
We booked a trip on Amtrak
There are some real advantages with taking the family on a trip by train rather than driving, but also some things to consider before purchasing your tickets.
Advantages of Taking the Train
This is by far the number one reason to take the train. Although the trip would probably take about the same amount of time as if you were to take a car, anyone who has been on a long family drive would agree that being strapped to the same seat for long durations of time can bring some serious wear and tear to your body, and mind.
By train you can relax, read a book, listen to music or surf the web. When we took the train, one passenger actually brought his entire gaming PC, plugged into the available power socket and played "Gears of War 2" at his seat. Good thing he brought headphones.
Available Amtrak Amenities
When traveling by train there are many amenities available, making life on the train so much easier. Of course there are multiple bathrooms in each train car, similar to what you’d see on an airplane. However, there are also changing rooms with enough space for changing a child’s diaper. No more changing your child on the seat next to you or having to manage the tiny bathroom stall.
There is also a dining car that serves lunch and dinner, a snack bar stocked with various hot and cold food as well as beverages (including beer and wine), a viewing car which allows you to sit and enjoy the landscape and, in our case, a lounge that offered a wine tasting hour. There was also a small arcade with a coin machine on the lower cars that allow kids to spend their allowance money.
The cost is comparably affordable. Compared to flying, the cost of a round trip ticket for a family of four (two adults and two children ages 2 to 4) from Los Angeles to Monterey, the cost is roughly $1,060. A round trip ticket for Amtrak, with a AAA member discount comes out to be $280. Of course if you were to drive you only have to worry about spending money on gas. But then again filling up your tank an estimated four times would cost about $200 anyway. Why not spend more and save the sanity and wear and tear on your vehicle?
Taking in the Scenery
It sounds cliché but there is a definite benefit to just sitting and observing the beauty of the land that surrounds us. Through this mode of transportation we are afforded time to enjoy the earth, sea, mountains and other natural wonders that we wouldn't be able to enjoy while driving.
Things To Consider Before Booking
For those of you who have used the old trick of buying two adult tickets while considering your child a “lap child,” it’s best not to do it while traveling on the train. Here’s why.
Whereas an airline might be able to make concessions and accommodate your little one by placing you next to an empty seat for you to utilize, Amtrak will make no such concession. In fact the conductor actually laughed at us when we said we had a lap child (Let’s be honest, as parents you have to try this trick or you’re not looking out for the betterment of your family). On a train, the lap child can be inconvenient for your but also for the person you're sitting next to.
There are, however, options of foregoing coach seating and upgrading to a room with its own sleeping quarters and bathroom, which would allow privacy and comfort for a family. But I would only suggest this if you anticipate being on the train more than a day. The cost is considerably more for the first class rooms, and if you are only going to be on the train for 6 - 8 horus the train amenities provide plenty of comfort.
Don’t be fooled by the distance. A trip from Los Angeles to Salinas may not seem that far in miles, but remember you are not on the Shinkansen in Japan. Amtrak travels on average about 45 MPH depending on terrain. So you’d think a trip from Los Angeles to Salinas would take about 4 hours, when actually it takes 8. You'll need to incorporate the speed as well as the number of stops.
My friend once booked his parents on Amtrak from Los Angeles to Seattle (WA), and the one-way trip took 35 hours. They flew home after the visit.
Lack of Transportation at Your Destination
This is really a minor point. If you can get over not having to spend money on gas, you won’t mind not having your own transportation when you get to your destination. Most stations have shuttle service to Enterprise, Budget or other car rental agencies for your convenience. Be sure to make reservations for vehicles ahead of time.
The other option is to have your relatives drive you and the family around. Lucky you if you do.
A note about Car Seats:
Remember that just because you don’t need the car seats on the train, doesn’t mean you can leave them at home for the trip. Checking in the children’s car seats are easy enough to do at the Amtrak counter. It’s just a little bulky and hard to carry through the station. A small price to pay for child safety.