7 tips for long train travel with kids

2 days, 2 trains: Oregon to Colorado family vacation on Amtrak

Even before becoming parents, we knew train travel with kids would be a priority on our family travels. Anthony is full of fond memories riding trains throughout the UK and India. For our honeymoon, we rode the train from Eugene, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, seeing everything from misty fields at sunrise to endless fireworks on a Fourth of July evening train ride home.

Yet other than a 3-week trip to Japan when Connor was a toddler and a wee Christmas train ride in Colorado when the kids were little, we haven’t done any train rides for families. Whenever we looked at taking the kids on a long train trip, we had never been able to make the timing work, especially on a more limited family vacation.

Until now!

Our 7 tips for parents when taking a long train ride with kids

At the train station, waiting for the Coast Starlight to arrive: Nervcited for our first long family train trip!
Nervcited for our first long family train trip!

Like anything with travel, especially with children, train travel with kids will have its ups and downs. 

For two days, we traveled from Oregon to Colorado one of the most scenic journeys we’ve ever been on.

Our first train, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, took us from Eugene, Oregon, to Sacramento, California. There we caught the California Zephyr to Denver, Colorado. We also learned a lot about what we liked and found challenging about riding the train. Here are our 7 tips for parents when you take a long train ride with children.

1. Trains are great for combining relaxing in your seat with moving around the train.

When you fly, it can be so hard to move around. But both parents and kids need to get up and move now and again! Riding the train with kids makes it easy to get some movement. Throughout our two days on the train, we would regularly got up, explored different train cars, went to the café car or the observation car, and just wandered about. We could even go to the back of the car for a little space to stretch.

2. Pack the snacks and beverages you want.

Unlike a flight, packing the snacks and drinks you want is easy. Trains don’t have the same liquid restrictions that air travel requires (but check for restrictions around alcohol). We packed a bag full of snacks. Plus, we picked up a pizza from Costco to have a simple dinner that first night. For snacks, we focused on bringing lots of veggies (such as sugar snap peas and bell pepper slices) as well as fresh fruit. In addition to being hydrating, these snacks helped us keep more balance in our diet.

3. Prices in the café car can be reasonable.

If you travel Amtrak in a sleeper car, your reservation will include meals in the dining car. Coach passengers don’t get the same option, but that’s okay. One pleasant surprise? The café car actually had a decent, reasonably priced menu. We would head there for coffee, cocoa, and some main dishes, for prices similar to what we might pay at a restaurant at home.

4. Sometimes train staff give commentary from the observation car.

“For the next two hundred miles of this canyon,” said the conductor over the loudspeaker, “the only way to see this is by train or by car. There are no roads.” We stayed glued to the window views, especially from the observation car. Best part? Train staff would narrate part of the journey, giving us insights into everything from indigenous stories about the area, to the underlying geological forces that shapes what we were passing through.

5. Block in time for school work, work work, and no work.

Amtrak’s coach seats are comfy, and you never have to worry about putting up your tray table. The kids took time throughout the journey for school tasks, and we parents also took the opportunity to get some work done. We knew in advance that we’d typically be offline (more on that below), so we focused on activities that didn’t require an internet connection. But, we were also on the train to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride—so we made certain to do plenty of that too.

6. Sleeping can be tricky.

Okay, this is a big challenge. If you are riding in a coach seat and want to catch a nap or a night’s sleep, it can be tricky. While the seats recline back pretty far, and you can put up a footrest for extra comfort, odds are you’ll never trick yourself into thinking you’re in a nice comfy bed. Some passengers changed into pajamas, or covered themselves in blankets. Others brought neck pillows, full pillows, or stuffed a jacket under their neck for support. Sleeping can be challenging, but try to take that into account, cadge naps during the day, and aim for a good night’s sleep after you get to your destination.

7. If the train line has rewards program, enroll each passenger (even the kids)

Passengers can earn rewards points when riding Amtrak, through their own Amtrak Rewards program. Best part? Just like with airlines and frequent flier miles, kids can sign up for Amtrak Rewards too! Before leaving, we made sure we were all signed up, and our numbers were on our reservations so we could all earn miles toward future rewards.

BONUS! 8. Wifi and cell signal are pretty much non-existent. Download your media before you catch your train!

Just like flying, expect to be offline during your train journey. Typically Amtrak trains do not have wifi. Even if they do, trains travel through very remote areas, and odds are you there simply will not be any wifi or cell signal. Before you leave, download any media you need for entertainment, work, or school, and plan to be offline throughout the trip.

Train travel with kids: Would we take a long train trip with our children again?

Train travel with kids: There's nothing like watching the world go by from the train window.
There’s nothing like watching the world go by from the train window.

There’s no sugarcoating it. Would we do more train travel with kids?

Yes!

We loved riding the train for a family trip. Connor and Aster enjoyed the views, the observation car, the wandering around the train, and especially the (reasonably priced) cocoa in the café car. With more travels planned throughout the United States and around the world, we can’t wait for our next excuse to take a long, long train trip with our kids.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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