Trains and childhood go together like peanut butter and jelly, so a family vacation by rail is sure to please children (and adults) of all ages. From “Thomas the Tank Engine” to “The Little Engine That Could,” choo-choo trains are a part of your child’s earliest vocabulary. Naturally, a train vacation can be as educational for your family as it is fun.
Combine a train vacation with a couple of national park destinations, and this trip will be one of the best family memories your child will carry into adulthood.
In North America, there are basically two rail providers to choose from: Amtrak in the U.S., and Via Rail in Canada. Both offer family-friendly sleeping arrangements, park and hotel packages, and a unique perspective for some of the continent’s most spectacular scenery. Routes are also available that connect to Disney World in Florida.
One of Amtrak’s most popular route is the Southwest Chief, which travels between Chicago and Los Angeles on a daily basis, stopping at the Grand Canyon and other fabulous sites. Nearly 30,000 people take the Southwest Chief per year, and we found out exactly why.
Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Route
The Southwest Chief route is 2,265 miles that cross through eight states in about 51 hours. The Chief stops in more than 30 cities, including Kansas City, Mo.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and San Bernardino, Calif. Passengers can get on and off at any of these stops, stay as long as they like, and catch the next train through, usually about 24 hours later.
You can get off and stand on a corner in Winslow, Ariz., grab another train to the Grand Canyon or hang out with Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty in Dodge City, Kan. At each of these places, you may stay as long as you like and just catch the next train as it comes through town. For example, if your family would like to spend several days at the Grand Canyon, you may do so. Just make those arrangements as you book your trip. The train follows the same route every day. If you don’t want to haul all of your luggage with you, most of the larger train stations are equipped with storage lockers that you may rent for a few days.
The route follows the path of the old Santa Fe Trail in places, climbs to more than 7,500 feet and crosses both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the two largest rivers in North America. In certain places, the train reaches nearly 100 miles per hour and at other times, creeps through the canyons of northern New Mexico at about 20 miles per hour.
Some of the stops along the way are just long enough for a couple of passengers to hop on or off. But others are 45 minutes or so, long enough for everyone to get off the train, stretch their legs and get some fresh air. National Park Service guides get on and off at various stops to offer interpretive announcements about the historic parts of the country where the train passes.
The stop in Kansas City is about an hour, and unfortunately, most people don’t know to take the elevator up one level to enter the historic Union Station, widely considered one of the most beautiful functioning train stations in North America. Union Station has a rich history of gangster shoot-outs and World War II heroes. Step out the front door for a spectacular view of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, and one of Kansas City’s many fountains spraying in the foreground.
At many of the train platforms in the southwest, Native American artists have tables and booths, offering turquoise jewelry, pottery and blankets, among other pieces of art. Albuquerque is a nice long stop, with a pleasant train station to buy snacks or souvenirs. Consider spending the night in town and take a balloon ride in a city known for its fair weather and great ballooning conditions.
The stop for the Grand Canyon is at Williams Junction. There, you can spend a night or two at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and take the 100-year-old Grand Canyon Railway to the very rim of the canyon. The Grand Canyon Depot is a century-old log structure, one of only three remaining log train depots in the U.S. Spend a couple of days at the Grand Canyon and then pick up the Southwest Chief and continue on your way.
Sleeping on the Southwest Chief
The Southwest Chief is a two-story Superliner and offers five options for sleeping accommodations: Roomette, Bedroom, Bedroom Suite, Family Bedroom and Accessible Bedroom.
A single adult traveling with just one child might enjoy the Roomette, with its two oversized seats that face each other, and a small table in between during the daytime. At night, the seats slide together for one bed and a bunk folds down from the wall for another. A door slides shut and curtains pull tight and you’re as cozy as can be. Each bed has a reading light and electrical outlet, and the compartment has its own climate control. A shared restroom on the same level is about the size of an airplane restroom.
The Bedroom Suites and Family Bedrooms include bunk and double beds, a small sink, and counter space in the compartment, as well as a toilet and tiny shower. Small children might have fun bathing here once or twice, but a normal-sized adult is going to be very cramped. Bath towels and wash cloths are provided.
Each sleeping car has a public shower and multiple toilets on the lower level. Almost as big as a home or hotel shower, there’s a nice-sized counter for shaving, styling hair and applying make-up. Towels and bar soap are provided, but pack slippers for everyone, as well as shampoo and a hairdryer.
Most children will want to travel with their own blankie, and that’s a good idea for the train. The bedding provided is clean, but modest. Moms may want to throw in an extra pillow and blankie of their own.
Other than the Roomette, each compartment has a bit of floor space, but not a lot for little ones who are eager to get down and crawl. The hallways are long and narrow, a great crawling route, but they are also very high traffic areas. So letting little ones out of your compartment to crawl or toddle about is not a good idea.
Parents with infants are advised to bring strollers and child safety seats to help manage children outside of your sleeping compartment. And always, always advise your children to hold on to hand rails as they move about the train. The train is moving and swaying, so accidents can happen. And mom and dad — you hold onto those handrails, as well!
Dining on the Southwest Chief
Kids will love watching their order arrive via a dumbwaiter from the full-sized kitchen below the dining room. Tables only accommodate four people, so depending on your family’s size, you may have others join you for a meal to fill out the four-person slot at your booth. You may be split up to join others as well. Many people consider this the best part of train travel — getting to know others and learn about their travels. And it’s a good lesson for children to be confident in meeting new people.
I was amazed by how good the food was on Amtrak. The menu is not expansive, but each meal offers vegetarian options, child-sized portions and options for pasta, seafood, steak, soups and salads. The children’s menu includes grilled cheese, hot dogs and chicken fingers. If your child needs more than that, consider packing extras.
On each sleeping car is a general refreshment area that includes ice, juice packs, coffee and water, all at no extra charge. The lower level of the Observation Car has a snack bar that offers everything from candy and junk food to milk, fruit and alcoholic beverages. But the good thing about traveling by train is the ability to bring a cooler filled with all of your family favorites. Plus, it’s a lot less expensive.
Tips for a Successful Train Vacation:
1. Not all trains have a Wi-Fi signal, and some of the routes pass through remote areas where cell phone signals are limited. Plan accordingly.
2. While most adults are satisfied with the quiet relaxation as the countryside passes by, some kids will claim boredom. Bring books, coloring books, movies and other entertainment devices.
3.The train does move and sway. Although cases of motion sickness are rare, if your child is prone to car sickness, bring the appropriate medications.
4. There’s no limit or additional charge on the number of checked bags on the train. Some bags can be in the room with you, some accessible in a lower level storage compartment and others not accessible until you reach your destination.
5. Remember to tip porters and wait staff.
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