When Planning Family Vacations, Don’t Forget the Train

by Suzita Cochran

California  Zephyr

As we stepped up onto Amtrak’s California Zephyr train in Denver one hot July evening, my family had no idea what to expect. I’d booked the trip on the strength of fond childhood memories of chugging up the Northeast Corridor in the 1970s, in the infancy of Amtrak.

My husband Todd had no such memories to buoy him. As we found seats and settled in, I caught a fatigued, this-could-be-a-really-bad-idea look on his face. He’s usually the better trooper when we travel with our three kids, but it was clear I’d be heading the cheerleading squad to Chicago this time.

I reminded him that our train tickets had been darn inexpensive. Round-trip for the five of us was about the cost of two plane tickets. I brought up the environmental advantages of trains, which are among the lowest carbon emitters of all travel options. 

Todd didn’t seem to care. I was running out of upbeat commentary, when the kids came back, breathless, from their initial round of exploration and urged us to look at the sunset.

As we pulled out of Denver, the sun was a brilliant orange, slowly dropping behind the peaks we were leaving to the west. Todd leaned his forehead on the window, smiling. The magic of train travel was taking hold – and just in time, as night was falling. 

To save money, we had foregone a sleeping car. Train seats are similar to first-class airline seats. They recline, to some extent. We’d brought sleeping bags and pillows, but I was still expecting a rough night, similar to camping out. Our kids, ages five, eight, and ten, ended up sleeping soundly. As for Todd and me, we survived. We’re parents after all: a good night’s sleep is never a guarantee.

When we awoke the next morning with most of Nebraska behind us, the kids wanted to show us the Observation Car they’d discovered. It had a lounge-like feel, though not the dark and smoky kind. The seats in this car faced enormous windows and swiveled, and there was more room to walk around than in the other cars.   

It was fun to sit and discuss the passing scenery. A game of Train Bingo really kept us going, drawing in fellow child travelers. Here’s how it works: Adults make up a list of items likely to be glimpsed from a train window (a dog, a red truck, a windmill). Kids cross them out as they spot them. Our game focused everyone on the gems of the rural landscape.

The kids came up with names for each state we passed through. My favorite was: Iowa, The Land of the Sinking Barns. You’ll understand the image if you take the train through Iowa in the summertime. 

The community and camaraderie of the train continually surprised me. It was natural and easy to ask a neighbor where he or she was headed, or to chat about past travel experiences. No one was in a rush. The kids met and spent time with other children, and we didn’t resort to the novelty of the snack bar as much as I’d expected. 

To this day, I can’t put my finger on exactly what made our children love this train trip – both ways – so much. Was it the ever-shifting scenery? The ability to move about and explore on the train? Or perhaps simply the relaxed pace of train travel? 

Whichever it was, our kids responded as I had as a child. I still remember the look on my ten year-old son Stephen’s face as we crossed the Mississippi River, which he’d just studied in school. He was utterly awed by the size of it.  

Recently I came across the term “slow travel” in Juliet Schor’s book, Plenitude. The slow traveler focuses on the journey as a key aspect of the vacation experience. Similar to the slow food movement, it seeks to “enhance the quality of the travel experience, as well as lighten the ecological footprint.” 

As for my husband Todd’s slow travel by train experience, he agreed to use Amtrak again the next Thanksgiving when the five of us traveled to Los Angeles. I think he’s coming around.

For a map that shows all of Amtrak's current rail routes in the U.S., click here.

Suzita Cochran is a clinical psychologist from Colorado. For the past year, she has been writing a blog (http://playfightrepeat.com) on how to incorporate "more of what matters" (and less of what doesn't) into parenting.