Traveling by train is not usually a commuter’s first choice for long-distance travel. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, train trips were the best way to explore the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century. Despite the decline in their appeal, train trips are a fun way for families to travel together. Here are 9 tips to help you plan long-distance train trips in an Amtrak sleeper car.
Planning Train Trips With the Family
Sleeper Cars Are Cozy With Tight Quarters
Upon first sight, one might question how the family is going to fit in a sleeper car during long-distance train trips. Sleeper cars sleep families of 4, but even 2.5 people can feel a little cramped. Since sleeper car real estate is a commodity on train trips, plan to pack accordingly. Storage space is also minimal – a small closet to hang 2-3 garments, one under-the-chair space to stow a small suitcase, and one small shelf good for storing a purse and backpack. Whatever doesn’t fit in these three spaces will ultimately need to be stored on the lower levels of the train or stored as checked baggage for the duration of the trip.
Escape Cabin Fever in the Observation Car
If the sleeper car seems too confined, a great way to spread out and meet fellow passengers on train trips is by spending time in the observation car. The observation car has booths good for playing card games, using laptops, or spending time together as a family. The observation car also has window facing seats which are fantastic considering there are floor-to-ceiling windows in this car. Part of the appeal of train trips is the ability to take in the beautiful vistas and magnificent scenery and the Observation Car allows you to do so in a panoramic way.
When & What Do We Eat?
Rail passengers learn quickly that their days are divided by their mealtimes. An important tip for train trips, make sure to get to know the dining car staff as they will help schedule your dining reservations. If traveling in a group of 3 or less, be prepared to sit with a stranger during a meal. This is a great way to meet other passengers and hear their stories, especially where they’re traveling from and why they chose to travel by train. Other dining options include a café car and there are beverage stations with complimentary coffee and water.
Entertaining Kids on Train Trips
When traveling with kids, it’s best to pack compact toys and games to keep them entertained. Things like card games, books, coloring/drawing tablets, small Lego kits, etc. are all good options for train trips. The best way to approach entertaining kids on the train is to approach the activities as if you’re a teacher and pull out a new activity in between mealtimes.
We Sleep Where?
Sleeping accommodations on long-distance train trips are tight. It’s amazing, however, how Amtrak maximizes every nook and cranny and takes a 6 x 6 space and fit two beds in it. The sleeper car features a sofa that converts to a bed as well as a bunk bed. Sometime after dinner, while passengers are entertaining themselves in the Observation Car, Amtrak conductors come through and offer turndown service on so that when you return, the room is all set.
Bathrooms On the Train
In addition to communal bathrooms, sleeper cars have a private sink and vanity as well as a toilet/shower commode. If planning overnight train trips, booking a sleeper car room is worth the extra money in order to guarantee the private bathroom space. While the size of the en suite bathrooms is a bit of a shock at first, they are functional, clean and nice enough. Amtrak provides soap and towels, but other toiletries are passenger provided.
Why Does the Train Keep Stopping?
Aside from regular stops, rail passengers often wonder why the train stops so often. Unlike other countries, Amtrak, which is the largest rail service in the United States, does not own the railroad tracks. Fully 97% of the route miles are run on tracks owned by private industry. Consequently, those private railroad operators take priority on train routes.
A good tip for train trips is to pay attention to the regular stops. Listen for the conductor to announce which of those regular stops will be a longer stop. That’s your best bet to take a break from the train, breathe in the fresh air, and stretch your legs. But, don’t wander fair because it could be a full 24 hours before “your next train” comes through again.
Have Train, Will Travel – But Where?
If planning train trips with the family is a bucket list vacation, why not consider any number of iconic and stunningly beautiful routes right here in the USA? The California Zephyr route travels across the country from Chicago, Illinois to Northern California. The Grand Canyon Railway is a hassle-free way to travel to one of the natural wonders of the world. The Lakeshore Limited is another iconic line that travels between Chicago, Illinois, and Boston, Massachusetts. Amtrak has a handy travel planner to help with planning train trips along the various routes.
Is there WiFi onboard?
One final tip before you board, check to see if the train route offers WiFi. Not all trains do, and despite the dreaminess of traveling by train, it is nice to have access to WiFi to keep the world at your fingertips or the kids entertained.
If you subscribe to the adage that life is a journey and not a destination, then perhaps long-distance train trips are in your future. Remember to pack smart and keep an open mind because while traveling by train takes longer, it is definitely an adventure and a fun way to explore the country.
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