Because we love to travel, and because our family and dear friends live in opposite corners of the United States, we spend a fair amount of time traversing the country. Our preferred method of transportation is by train, on the Amtrak. I tend to get a lot of questions about train travel, especially how to make it work when you’re traveling with kids, and how to make train travel affordable, so I wanted to share our experiences. (And yes, I am writing this on the train!)
Although commuter train travel does not seem to be economical for larger families, our family of four is usually traveling long distances, such as this Missouri to Arizona trip. The train makes it possible for us to explore the country and visit loved ones on a homesteader’s budget.
Here’s how we make train travel affordable for our family:
- We joined Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program to collect points for travel (even the kids have an account now).
- Brian and I each have an Amtrak credit card which, like an airline credit card, earns points redeemable for travel each time we spend money on regular everyday purchases. When we first signed up for the Amtrak credit card, we got a sign-on bonus of 20,000 points, enough for two free adult fares.
- We purchase as much as we can on our credit card – gas, groceries, our Etsy bill, homestead supplies – and pay it off each billing cycle.
Aside from using our Guest Reward points for free travel, we also benefit from the fact that kids under 12 get a 50% discount on Amtrak. Often the best financial strategy is to use points for our adult tickets and pay the fares for our kids. Doing that last summer, we were able to travel from Missouri to Boston, and then from Los Angeles back to Missouri for only $350! To travel round trip from Missouri to Arizona, we redeemed 30,000 points for two adult and two child tickets. Had we paid cash it would have cost about $700 round trip for all four of us to travel. In comparison, round trip plane tickets would have been at least $1,200.
Saving money is one benefit of riding the train, but the best part of train travel is the trip itself. Our kids LOVE the train. They see it is totally uninterrupted parent time with tons of fun activities. This year they even asked for luggage for Christmas, because they love traveling as much as we do.
Our train trips are usually 25-30 hours long, and include at least one overnight. Once, when I was 8 months pregnant with Everett, we splurged for a sleeper car, but otherwise we ride coach.
To prepare for train travel with kids, we bring:
- Sleeping bags & pillows for the overnights.
- Enough food for the entire trip (train food is very expensive, and station stops are usually not long enough for a restaurant or shopping trip).
- Our iPhone loaded with podcasts (Sparkle Stories are our favorite for kids, and Brian and I love Radiolab, Serial, and Mystery Show). This year I purchased a splitter and kid-friendly headphones that have a volume adjuster so both kids can listen at the same time.
- Backpacks filled with colored pencils and pens, a sketch pad, coloring book, and one or two small toys (we brought a few more toys when they were very young).
- At least one chapter book for reading aloud.
- Special treats. This usually includes Lara type bars, fruit squirt tubes, and a trip to the café car for juice each day.
Of course there are moments when the kids get bored and restless, just like they do at home, but the scenery is usually so beautiful (mountain passes, creeks, herds of elk and prancing antelope!) that gazing out the window is a wonderful diversion. And because our attention is focused just on them and not on the 101 homestead tasks that need to get done, their cups of love are full to the brim.
I know not everyone has an extra 25-30 hours of travel time to spare, but if you are able to allow for longer travel time, the train is a wonderful, kid-friendly, and fairly affordable way to see the United States.
P.S. If a road trip is in your future, this post shares my best tips for having a totally awesome camping road trip with kids!
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