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Traveling with Toddlers

The Case for Amtrak

by Janna Parsons

My dad has a thing for trains: every Father's Day we would seek out a train and go for a ride. It could be a mini kid train or daytrip-type ride — any train would do, that was our tradition. I realized recently that I wasn't quite sure why my dad liked trains, so I asked him. He said when he was little his neighbor had a model train setup in his garage and that sparked his interest in model trains and the real deal. He also cited the general romantic (he also likes James Bond movies) and nostalgic feeling that goes along with the concept of rail travel.

This Father's Day tradition nurtured my own fondness (and possible genetic predisposition) of rail travel. I have taken my love of trains to next level with long distance train travel and have come to appreciate it as one of the best ways to travel with a toddler. If for nothing else, I love taking the train due to the fact that the gentle rocking, push pull, and swaying of the train is a very powerful baby, toddler (and mommy) sleep inducer.

Beside its sleep-inducing qualities, the beauty of the train is that you actually get to enjoy the travel involved with getting to your destination. There is ample space and legroom in the Coach class seats or you can upgrade to various rooms with sleeping accommodations (highly recommended). You are free to roam and can even step outside for a few minutes at longer station stops. There is no need to stop the car for members of your party to use the restroom or to get energy out. Plus, opposed to driving — all members of your party get to relax — no one has to drive. The icing on the cake is the fact that the train is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel.

While you sit back and enjoy your journey you can marvel at the amazing scenery en route to your destination instead of simply flying over it or only seeing what is along the highway. The scenery ranges from flat fields to rolling hills to breathtaking mountains and coastline. We even were able to catch a glimpse of migrating bald eagles on a recent trip south to Texas.

For whatever reason, the people I've met on the train have been much more friendly than those flying the friendly skies. My post may not be all that groundbreaking, as there tend to be quite a number of families when we travel by train but there is another large population of train travelers that are worth noting in my case for Amtrak — grandmas and grandpas. This lovely group of people have always doted on Henry and been extremely patient with his toddler ways. Henry once woke up from his nap on the train congested, teething and generally unpleasant. Our adorable across the hall neighbor came and knocked on our door told me "now don't you worry about me, you just do what you need to do and I'll be thinking of you" and some generally kind and encouraging words. That little interaction was enough to get Henry to stop crying and to lift a little anxiety about his behavior off my shoulders.

I guess since this is mainly a food blog I should mention the food available on Amtrak. The food in the Dining Car puts roadside fast food and even Air France's in-flight meals to shame. There is a vegetarian option at all meal times. All meals are included in the price of any room purchased. Kids meals are available although menus differ by train line (sample menus can be found on the Amtrak website.) There is also a snack car.

Things to Keep in Mind

One of the things I first noticed when we moved to Enid, America, was the train horns — I especially noticed them at midnight and 4 am. As odd as it sounds, I've come to love them — maybe out of my own nostalgia or because Henry excitedly announces "choo choo train" whenever he hears one. If your little one doesn't have this kind of first hand experience with trains I encourage you to read about them, have them play with a small train, or maybe watch some train cartoons before your trip to make the train exciting and familiar as they are large and noisy from the outside and I'd imagine quite daunting to someone pint-sized. Amtrak offers a Kids Depot website with train-related games and activities.

Tips

  1. Bring snacks — especially fresh fruits and veggies as they are in short supply on the train.
  2. Even though there will be no lack of things to look at out the windows, bring entertainment. Some of Henry's favorites: coloring books, books, a small bag of toys, stickers, a few episodes of his favorite show and music, etc. I usually also have a couple new toys or books that I'll pack for a trip. Also, if you bring along anything that makes noise and don't have your own room you'll need to bring headphones.
  3. Get a room. If they are available on your route and it is in your budget traveling Amtrak in your own room is a very, very enjoyable experience. The pricing is done per room (not per person) and this includes complimentary beverages and meals in the Dining Car. Virtual tours of the rooms are on the Amtrak website. For larger families there is the option of purchasing a Family Bedroom, adjoining Bedrooms, or Roomettes across the hall from each other.
  4. The momentum of the train can be a little unpredictable so make sure you've got a good grip on little ones and encourage walking about the train during station stops.
  5. Along the same reasoning, expect some spills and have a change of clothes easily accessible.
  6. Shoes must be worn whenever moving about the train so wear shoes that are easy to get on and off.
  7. You do have some control over the temperature in the rooms but if you are in the coaches dress in layers.
  8. Be flexible and have a positive attitude. As with any form of transportation there can be delays. At least a delay on the train allows for much more freedom than the confines of a car in bumper-to-bumper traffic or sitting in an airplane on the tarmac.