young child in red sweatshirt looking out window during train trip
(Photo: @TYLim via Twenty20)

Post-Pandemic Travel Ideas: How About a Family Train Trip?

If you’re turned off by the prospect of flying—the close quarters and tiny seats, lines, and hassles—consider a train trip next time you feel like traveling. In the U.S, train travel on Amtrak is really pleasant: Coach seats are roomy and comfortable, the wide windows let you take in the scenery passing by, and you can get up and wander around a bit, including to get a snack. There are no security lines, and there’s plenty of space for carry-on baggage. When it’s safe to travel again in the United States, a train trip could offer an appealing alternative to air travel. 

Train Trips Fit for Families

The easiest scenic train routes on Amtrak are those where you hit key highlights on a single all-day journey. Among the best:

  • The Adirondack operates between New York and Montreal; it includes extensive trackage along the banks of the Hudson River and the shore of Lake Champlain. It’s good in either direction, but a bit better heading southbound. If the Canadian border remains closed, you get almost the full trip New York City to/from Plattsburgh or Rouses Point, New York, which you can reach reasonably easily through Burlington, Vermont.
  • The Coast Starlight operates between Los Angeles and Seattle, but the daytime segment between Los Angeles and Emeryville (for San Francisco/Oakland) is a top one-day trip. It hugs the Pacific Ocean coastline between Ventura and Vandenberg Air Force Base, including stretches without highway access. For best viewing, do it the northbound way.
  • The California Zephyr runs between Chicago and Emeryville via Denver, Salt Lake City, and Omaha; but the starring segment has to be the Rocky Mountains between Denver and Glenwood Springs. Amtrak’s California Zephyr segment through the Sierras between Reno and Emeryville also has its partisans. Both are good for one-day viewing in either direction.

Other popular all-day Amtrak segments are the Portland-Minot (North Dakota) segment of Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which includes both the Columbia River Gorge and Glacier Park; the several daily short Pacific Surfliner trips between Santa Barbara and San Diego for great coastline viewing; the Cardinal segment between Charleston West Virginia and Washington through the Appalachians, good for passengers in either direction; the Pennsylvanian between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia through the mountains and Horseshoe Curve, best eastbound; and the Vermonter segment through the Berkshires between St Albans/Burlington and Springfield, Mass, best southbound. 

Comfortable Train Travel for Families

Multi-day Amtrak trips in coach can be a drag, with the usual problems of trying to sleep sitting up and lack of shower facilities. For an extended multi-day “land cruise,” the most comfortable approach for family travel is to book a “sleeper” accommodation in a private room. A Family Bedroom accommodates two adults plus to children in lie-flat beds and it includes access to a restroom and shower in your car. Even better is a Bedroom Suite accommodating up to four adults in lie-flat beds and offering private restroom and shower in your bedroom. As you might expect, you pay a stiff premium for a private room—but it’s a lot less than you pay for the several luxury excursion trains that operate in Europe and Asia.

Train Tickets and Discounts

Amtrak trains have fares that are capacity-controlled, which means that the earlier you book, the better deal you get. As a sample, in early December, Amtrak quotes $162 for a family of two adults and two children ages 2 to 12 from Los Angeles to Emeryville in coach in mid-February. By contrast, a Family Bedroom would cost $643. You wouldn’t need a bedroom for this trip, but the fares show how much of a premium you pay for a room. A Family bedroom for the two-night California Zephyr trip between Chicago and Emeryville would cost $1,293, compared with $423 in Coach.

Amtrak offers some useful family deals: 10 percent off for seniors age 65 or over, 50 Percent off for a child ages 2 to12 when accompanying an adult, and “share fares” with up to 35 percent off for groups of three or more adults. These discounts are almost always limited to Coach travel, and you can’t combine one with another. 

Beyond the regular discounts, Amtrak has recently started running flash sales with even better deals. One such sale earlier this year applied to sleeper accommodations. If you’re interested, Amtrak’s booking system at amtrak.com automatically quotes discounts when you check for a trip. But for the best deals, you need to keep on the lookout for flash sales.

As you might expect, Amtrak sightseeing trips work best in late spring and summer, when daylight hours are longest. But winter snowscapes can be exciting, too. 

Once you’re able to travel without limitations, you can find great scenic rail trips in other parts of the world, most notably Canada, Europe, and the South Pacific. I’ll review some of them in the near future.

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Ed Perkins
Ed Perkins is a longtime consumer advocate and reporter. He spent 25 years in travel research and consulting and was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004). He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union. Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America,” "The CBS Evening News," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.