I’ve only visited Massachusetts a handful of times since moving to Missouri, either by plane or car. But I wanted Rei to meet everyone, especially my Nana (her great, great grandmother), so we decided to visit once she turned six months old. Of course, that meant March, a month notorious for Nor’easters.
For around $300, Spence and I could get from Kansas City to Providence, Rhode Island with three layovers, which I looked at as opportunities to stretch our legs. We are incredibly fortunate to live only a few minutes away from Union Station and have family nearby who are willing to dog/house sit. I only bought the tickets a month in advance, so I’m sure some extra planning could lead to more savings. But it surprised me the cost of two train tickets was so much cheaper than renting a car or flying. Maybe it’s because the train is so much more energy efficient.
Children under the age of two ride the Amtrak for free. And if my understanding is correct, each parent riding with a young child is allowed to bring 2 extra carry-on items, like strollers or baby carriers. I like traveling light so I packed Spencer and Reila’s clothes into one suitcase with our toiletries, put my clothes and books in a backpack, used my diaper bag as my purse (per usual) and brought only Reila’s baby carrier (which converts into a car seat) since we planned on driving back.
Parents of young children riding the Amtrak will also be happy to find they are boarded first along with seniors, veterans and the disabled. Priority boarding is super helpful when it comes to settling in, although Reila is an exceptional traveler so we had no problems getting situated quickly. We actually missed the special boarding on our first train from Kansas City to Chicago because we decided to go out for breakfast with Tate. Totally worth it. Reila fell fast asleep before the train even left the station and slept quite peacefully between feedings the whole way.
Our tickets were for coach seats on the upper deck. I was surprised by how spacious they were, as the chairs had footrests and could learn far enough back to almost feel like a bed. The seats were in pairs – four in a row divided by the aisle. There were no row numbers and each seat was labeled individually.Our first two trains assigned seats to passengers, which kept things orderly. But not the third.
I’ve flown most of my life so I was expecting to find three seats when I boarded. Having only two meant Reila’s baby carrier had to be placed on the floor in front of me since my legs are way shorter than Spence’s. It was no problem except on our third train out of D.C., which had more of a commuter rail feel. There was hardly any leg room so the carrier had to be placed overhead. Again, no biggie. But it was the least comfortable experience on our non-stop, two-day arrangement by far.
Every pair of coach seats is equipped with two 120-volt chargers and some trains even have WiFi. Southwest Chief and Capitol Limited, the first two trains we boarded, didn’t have WiFi but Northeast Regional, the third, did. Let me warn you, however: the WiFi was so slow I wasn’t able to attach files to my email – so don’t count on getting work done reliably. Luckily, I was able to move the files to my phone and send them over 4G while traveling through Pennsylvania at 30 miles per hour thanks to the snow.
Kansas City’s Union Station is super straightforward and easy to navigate. Not so much for Chicago, but the staff were super friendly and made sure we got on with the priority boarding. However, we weren’t impressed with the D.C. terminal at all.
D.C. never listed our train’s gate. When we approached the woman behind the info desk, she told us to come back 15 minutes before departure, which rubbed me the wrong way since we priority boarded a full hour ahead of departure in Chicago. Instead of playing music, a looping robo-voice on the intercom talked about tagging your bags to prep for random TSA searches and reminded everyone “if you see something, say something.” This PSA would be much more effective if they adopted the No Agenda jingle. Chicago and Kansas City had no mention of TSA, searches or bag tagging. But I suppose the police state vibe is to be expected in the country’s capital.
The sights along the track were incredible, granting a glimpse at the blood in America’s veins. There were plenty of fields and farms featuring alpacas, cows, and horses. But in the Pennsylvania backwoods, I saw streams and waterfalls next to midcentury modern homes as well as a coyote on the hunt and bald-headed eagle perched in a tree. Pittsburgh’s city skyline at night was awe-inspiring, Spence says. I was asleep at the time, unfortunately, but I did catch a glimpse of some old railway towns which was like stepping out of a time machine in the 1870s.
We survived the two-day, overnight train ride and so can your family. My only advice to train travelers is to pack your own meals. Eating in the dining car is an experience. It’s cramped, bumpy and incredibly overpriced. They take reservations, but you’ll inevitably share a table with whoever walked in before you. A unique social experiment, for sure. Two ladies from across the aisle were seated at our table: a college administrator mom with her mac n’ cheese picking teen.
All plates come with a side of chips but a single hamburger cost $12.50. If we hadn’t ordered waters, we would have paid an extra $3 for a drink. Buying coffee grants unlimited refills (although the cafe workers are wise to whether or not you purchased it on their train) but our microwaved breakfast sandwiches were $5 each. Unlike airport TSA, your food and beverages won’t be confiscated as you board so make sure to pack meals.
Anyway, if you’re planning a cross-country trip anytime soon I would strongly suggest ditching the airlines or rental car fees and catching a train. Trains good, planes bad. Choo Choo!