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You don’t often hear people talking about the train ride they’ve taken with their kids. Instead, you hear about the dreaded security lines at airports, the aircraft delay for absolutely no discernible reason whatsoever and the screaming kids on the flight. There may be a reason for that — train travel that is often overlooked by families but may be more preferable to air travel.
In the United States, Amtrak has routes around the country and it may even save you a good amount of money over flying. Amtrak also avoids some weather delays and you don’t really have to worry about traffic. It is actually one of my favorite ways to travel around with my kids, specifically within the Northeast.
Here are seven tips for traveling by train with your children.
1. Buy Discounted Kid Fares
Amtrak’s kids’ fares can save your family a ton of money. Kids under 2 always ride for free and, if the train is not sold out, they can easily occupy their own seat since there are no assigned seats. The cool thing is that being an older kid has its perks, too: kids 2 to 15 years old pay half-price when traveling with an adult (each adult can travel with up to two kids at half-price). The half-price discount even applies when using Amtrak Guest Rewards points.
Free and half-price fares are a major reason why I typically opt for the train when taking my kids between Boston and New York City.
Amtrak also offers many other discounts to help your family travel for less:
- Group travel: Travel with 20+ friends and family members to receive an additional discount off the normal fare
- Active duty US military personnel, their spouses and their dependents: 10% off
- Overnight Auto Train: Kids ride free during the summer
You’ll want to book your train tickets as far in advance as possible. Unlike airplane tickets, Amtrak prices don’t generally go up and down on a daily basis. Tickets go on sale 11 months in advance and once a fare class sells out, the price will continue to increase. Fortunately though, if Amtrak happens to run a sale that decreases the price less than what you paid, a quick phone call to Amtrak will typically result in a price match.
2. Earn Points the Easy Way
Even if your family doesn’t travel on Amtrak often enough to earn points, there are many other ways to increase your point balance to redeem for free train rides.
- Apply for an Amtrak credit card. There are two Amtrak credit cards that will earn you between 12,000 and 20,000 bonus points each — Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard and Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum MasterCard. Similar to any other points and miles credit card, you’ll also earn points for your regular credit card spend.
- Watch for Amtrak promotions like this recent double points day.
- Shopping online. Similar to many of the airline programs, Amtrak also has its own online shopping portal where you can earn points at many popular merchants. This is one of my favorite ways to earn points and miles.
- Transfer partner points into your Amtrak account. Although typically not the best value when redeeming your points, there are a few partners where you can transfer points at the following rates:
- Choice Privileges: 32,000 Choice Privileges points = 5,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points
- Hilton Honors: 10,000 Hilton Honors points = 1,500 Amtrak Guest Rewards points
- Wyndham Rewards: 6,000 Wyndham Rewards points = 1,200 Amtrak Guest Rewards points; 16,000 Wyndham Rewards points = 3,200 Amtrak Guest Rewards points; 30,000 Wyndham Rewards points = 6,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points.
- La Quinta Returns: 6,000 La Quinta Returns points = 1,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points (although if you have La Quinta points, you are better off transferring them to your Wyndham Rewards account and then transferring them to Amtrak)
- Hertz: 600 Hertz points = 500 Amtrak Guest Rewards points
- Renting a car. With partner car rentals, such as Budget, Enterprise and Hertz, you can earn 50 Amtrak Guest Rewards points per day on qualifying rentals.
3. Check Bags for Free
Amtrak allows you to check two bags (up to 50 pounds) per person for free. Also, if you are traveling with kids under 2, you can check anything related to the child, such as a stroller, diaper bag, Pack ‘n Play, etc. Those items do not count against your two check bag limit. Think of Amtrak as the Southwest Airlines of train travel!
I highly suggest utilizing the Red Cap service, which is also absolutely free. Around many popular stations (though not all), you will see uniformed Red Cap employees who will help you with your bags. This is a great service if you are juggling kids and luggage and do not have enough hands for everything. (Just be sure to tip the porter for his or her help.)
4. Bring Activities to Occupy the Kids
While riding a train is fun in itself and looking outside can keep kids entertained for hours, I also suggest bringing some activities too. I always try to snag a seat with a table that allows us to spread out with our tablets, coloring books and snacks.
Some recommended train activities include:
- Tablets: Similar to an airplane, a tablet can be a great way to pass the time. While Amtrak does offer free Wi-Fi, I have found the service to be hit or miss. Make sure to load up the tablet with movies and games. On most trains, almost every single seat has an outlet to keep your electronics charged — and bring headphones.
- Coloring books: Coloring books and crayons are a favorite no matter what age.
- Games: If you are able to grab seats with a table, there is plenty of space to play cards or any other travel game. Unlike air travel, you will not have to worry about turbulence, so pick your family’s favorite game and go play. This could be the perfect opportunity to actually finish a game of Monopoly!
- Pretend play toys: Depending on your child’s age and interest, bring some Matchbox cars or other figurines (think Polly Pockets). My son pretends the table is a racetrack while my daughter sets up her little dolls to cheer them on.
5. Bring Your Stroller On Board
You can strap your kids right into the stroller and roll them right onto the train. You can sometimes even park your stroller in the snack area or other open spots on the train (such as the accessible area as long as it is not occupied by someone in a wheelchair), which is helpful for young kids who will sleep in their stroller. This is a huge advantage over airplane travel as I find getting a kid to sleep on a train much easier. When my kids were younger, I also loved that I did not have to wake them up from a nap when boarding.
6. Arrive About 30 Minutes Early
Unlike air travel, you do not need to arrive to an Amtrak station too far ahead of time. When traveling with kids, I suggest arriving about 30 minutes early to get yourself situated, maybe a little earlier if bathroom stops and snack breaks are on the agenda. Typically, the boarding process will not start until 10 minutes before departure at most, but you do not want to scramble and find yourself running through a busy station. Amtrak also doesn’t have assigned seats in most cars (some first class cars do), so you’ll want to arrive with enough time to ensure your family can sit together. You do not want to be the last people boarding a packed train!
7. Pack Food
The amount of food available on the train depends on your route. While longer distance Amtrak trains offer full-service dining, the shorter routes only offer a snack car. (Here’s the menu for the Northeast Corridor.) The snack car offers some sandwiches, although you probably will not find many kid-friendly lunch or dinner options. Also, the snack car is not open while stopping at major stations or if there is a power outage (it can happen). Food options and snack varieties can also sell out. Your best bet is to always be prepared with your own food and snacks to feed the little ones.
I find traveling on Amtrak with my family extremely stress-free. My kids are not required to sit as still as on the plane. They can get up and walk the aisle as much as they want. They can look out the window and see scenery they do not typically see from the car. They can count the number of times they hear the choo-choo sound. They can spread out and enjoy their activities. They can sleep comfortably. They do not complain about their ears popping, and best of all, we travel for a lot less!
Oh, and when making your Amtrak purchases, make sure to use a card that earns bonus points on travel like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Premier Card — both earn 3x points on all travel purchases. The Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard earns 3x Amtrak points on all purchases with the company.
Does your family travel by train? What are your tips?
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