Taking an Amtrak overnight is a great option for family travel. The cost for seats is usually less than airfare. It beats driving because there is no stopping for meals, restroom breaks or sleeping. We’ve taken Amtrak overnight trains for two different family vacations and I see many more in our future. Check out these 10 things you need to know before you ride Amtrak overnight to make you look like a pro.
- The train most likely will not be on time. If you are on an extremely tight schedule, don’t ride the train. Having said that, Amtrak’s app and website is great for checking to see if the train will be on time or running late. Our first Amtrak trip 5 years ago was extremely delayed due to flooding in the Midwest. During our most recent, trip the train was on time from Mount Pleasant, Iowa all the way to Winter Park, Colorado.
- Lower level coach seats are worth the price. I am one of those people who isn’t willing to splurge on a sleeper car for one night. However, after having lower level seats on our most recent trip, I would only buy lower level from now on. When you are trying to sleep in your seat on the upper level, you will hear people all night walking back and forth from the lounge car. The lower levels of the train aren’t all connected. The lower level is 100 times quieter than the upper level. When putting kids to bed on a train, lower level seats are invaluable.
- Bring food and drinks…lots and lots of food and drinks. Our kids think having a picnic dinner in the lounge car is fun. We like to pack a cooler with fruit, vegetables, water, lunch meat, and yogurt. There is a dining car on the train and snacks can be ordered from the lower level of the lounge car. You can absolutely make a meal out of the snacks. They have meal items such as ramon cups, small pizzas, sandwiches, and pastries. However, they can run out. On our most recent trip, a large group bought almost all the food from the lounge car. I went down to buy milk and pastries for breakfast, only to find out there was one milk left, one cup of ramon, and one container of hummus. I quickly bought the last milk, split it between the kids in cups of dry cereal we brought with us, and made reservations in the dining car. Luckily the dining car got us in before our stop, but it was close. You don’t want to be on the train with hungry kids.
- Plan ahead if you want to eat in the dining car. You have to make reservations for dinner in the dining car. Breakfast and lunch are first come first served. They start taking names for the breakfast list at 6:30am. I went to the dining car at 7:45am to put our name on the breakfast list and was almost too late. We were one of the last groups called for breakfast. I overheard that they start taking names down for lunch service around 10:30am. If you want to eat in the dining car, plan ahead.
- The lounge car has the best seats in the house. The scenery through the mountains from Denver to Winter Park Colorado kept our little ones entertained for an hour. The lounge car is also the best place for the family to just hang out. The kids can roam around the seats, snuggle up with a good book, and play board games on the tables. Keep in mind that the lounge car is opening to everyone. Make sure to grab seats before major stations such as Chicago and Denver.
- If you are taking the Amtrak overnight, be sure to pack a separate overnight bag. We had each kid pack a bag with p.j.’s, small pillow, stuffed animal, and toiletries. These bags were near us at all times and not with our larger luggage on the carry on baggage racks. This made bed time go a lot smoother having all their stuff handy.
- Pack a separate activity bag. Our kids backpacks are large enough to be an overnight and activity bag. It was convenient to have their games, books, tablets and small toys readily available. As opposed to those items being with the carry on luggage.
- Utilize your car seat, if you brought one. When my son was one, he had a hard time settling down for bed time on the train. We set his car seat on his seat, strapped him in, and he settled right now. It was completely normal to him to be in a moving vehicle strapped into a car seat.
- Pack ear plugs. Amtrak overnight trains make stops along the way. People will be coming into and going out of your train car as they get on and off the train at various stops. Ear plugs will help you get some sleep.
- Sit back and relax. Enjoy the views, the slow pace, and the freedom to walk around. Play games, catch up on a book, and talk to fellow travelers.
I do want to make a note that our experiences are based on traveling on the California Zephyr. Please refer to Amtak’s website for specific information about other trains.
Kim is the founder of Kids and Carry-Ons. She works as a director at a nonprofit organization. She lives in Iowa with her husband and two children. Kim and her husband have always loved to travel and share their advice with anyone who will listen. Having kids didn’t stop their love of travel, it just meant they had to adapt. Follow along on their adventures.