How to stay sane on the train

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(With a 3 and 6 year old)
(cross-country)
(for 3 days and 2 nights)

We had a ton of fun on our train trip to San Francisco last week! If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter (@madebyrae) you probably saw a few pictures from our trip already! We spent one day traveling to Chicago from Ann Arbor, one night in Chicago, three more days (and two nights) on the train, four nights in San Francisco and then flew home. It’s important, I think, to think of your train trip not in comparison to flying (it’s not cheaper, or faster, for sure), but more as a portion of the trip. It’s a great way to spend time with your family and enjoy travel at a slower pace. Here are a few tips from me should you ever decide to take a family train trip.

Coloring pages

To say that you will do a lot of coloring on this trip is a vast understatement. Jan Brett (my mom’s favorite activity site for coloring pages and games) and Mr Printables (my fave!) are both great.

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Snacks

Take a bag of snacks along. Pull them out at intervals. If your kids don’t usually have pre-packaged snacks at home, this will be even more novel.

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Get a sleeping car, or two if you can.

Coaching it cross-country is definitely cheaper, but is far less comfortable and fun. Our two cars had a door between them that opened, so it was a suite (see our suite on the Amtrak website) . Each room had a fold down bunk bed and a “couch” that converted to a lower bunk, plus a sink, and shower/toilet (very small, but very nice when littles need to go).

Explore the train.

Exploring your sleeping car alone should take you NO LESS THAN ONE HOUR. There are nightlights, a bathroom, a fold-down bunkbed, and pop-up tables. Make it last. If you burn though that in a half hour you are in trouble. If you can save the rest of the train for day 2, even better.

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Bring small, portable games

These will buy you less time than you think. But if they’re new, and you pull one out each day as a surprise after breakfast, you will thank yourself when the time comes. We had travel bingo and a magnetic story game.

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Books

If I have to tell you this, you really are a novice. Tin-Tin books are light, thin, and take a long time to read. Bonus: the 6 year old will love it.

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Look outside

Play I-spy!

The route that our train, the California Zephyr, took was really stunning. Even the parts of America that are relatively flat were pretty awesome. We crossed the Mississippi the first evening, and there were many canyons, rivers, and mountains along the way. My favorite part (which I should have taken more pictures of!!!) was going through California between the mountains and Sacramento. This is just about the only time of year when northern California is green and not brown, so it was a real treat to go this time of year!

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Pillows!

There are lots of pillows in your room. Hello, pillow pile!

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Dining Car

The dining car is pretty cool. Eat your meals in the dining car. You make reservations for dinner, and breakfast and lunch are first come, first served, with a waiting list when they get full. Bring coloring stuff along here too, as there may be a bit of a wait between ordering and food. The food is not superb. You will manage for a couple of days.

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Observation Car

Wait until Day 3 to let them know that this even exists, if possible. Bring coloring along.

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Take pictures

I asked for an Instax mini for Christmas and the kids really loved taking pictures with it when they pointed out something interesting that they had seen. You can burn through film pretty fast though, so saying “If you see something really interesting, tell me so you can take a picture!” as a requirement to use the camera may be wise.

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I think everyone should travel on a train at some point. The cross-country routes here in the US are a really beautiful way to see the country, no matter which route you take.

Any tips that I missed here that I should know about? Do tell!!!

30 thoughts on “How to stay sane on the train

  1. I’m so glad more folks are choosing train travel. In October, my husband and I took the Amtrak from Los Angeles to New Orleans; 4 days in NO then train to Chicago for one night, and back to Los Angeles. I cannot wait to book another trip!! Very relaxing. Granted it was the 2 of us. πŸ™‚ We would love to take our 4 year old granddaughter on a short trip! Thank you for sharing your photos.

  2. I have been thinking about doing this (but by myself or with a friend) this summer with the express interest of seeing part of the country that I’ve never seen before. Did you feel like you still got to see parts of each state, or were there big chunks that you slept through and missed? this is the only thing I am nervous about, I don’t want to miss too much overnight!

    • So…we missed all of Nebraska, including Omaha and the first half of Colorado the first night. The second night we missed alot of Nevada and Utah, including Salt Lake City. So…yes. You definitely miss things. Compared to the driving vacations I’ve had cross-country, the scenery is much better from the train than from the Interstate. So that’s nice, but there’s a trade-off. If you intend to see the whole country, you’d either have to drink a lot of coffee or take a car. πŸ™‚

    • Other ways to see as much as possible:
      Go in June/July when the daylight is the longest of course.
      Take the Zephyr both eastward and westward, or take a loop of multiple Amtrak routes.
      Take a segment of a route and get off in Place-You’ve-Never-Seen, stay over and get on the next day’s train. You do have to make sure the town you choose has other transportation/lodging to meet your needs during the stop over.

    • Hey A! So fun to hear from you. You guys should definitely do it (wait until the bebes are a bit older)!! πŸ™‚

  3. We did a three day two night trip in Australia with 3 children aged 3,5 and 7. The main thing we took from it was; talk to other people on the train. We met some fantastic people who once they met the kids were pointing out all sorts of things to them. We went Sydney to Perth but would love to go back and do another journey. The train journey is part of the trip not just a way of getting from a to b.

  4. Ella’s favorite part of the Pacific Northwest is staking the Starlight Express from SEA to PDX. That observation car was the Best. Thing. Ever.

    Flying home was a very wise choice πŸ™‚

  5. My dad takes my nephew on a train trip each summer. One thing he does that is a huge hit is to track their stops on a map with stickers. Each year this activity gets more involved.

    • We did have a map, and Elliot used a marker to mark the stops. He was a bit young for it though, and didn’t finish it up. Maybe when he’s older this will be more fun!

  6. We took our first family train ride a week before you did, although ours was only 3 hours each way, from Mpls/St Paul to La Crosse, WI. We left Monday morning, stayed overnight, and took the train back Tuesday evening. My boys are 9, 7, and 2.5 and all huge train fanatics. Our whole ride was along the Mississippi. We mostly sat in the sightseer lounge watching the river (which had dozens of bald eagles flying around) and reading the Amtrak magazine descriptions of where we were at other stops we could visit. My middle son in particular loves maps and we picked up an Amtrak book at the station listing all the nation’s routes and timetables and my older sons spent hours reading through it and deciding what routes they’d like to take some day. I’d love to take the train to Glacier Natl Park with the family eventually. For us, that’s about a 24 hr ride, which I imagine would be just short enough not to get too bored. It was great being able to walk around and talk. I enjoyed talking to other riders in the sightseer car and there was something exciting about seeing the tickets in the coach cars, knowing where everyone was headed.

    Was it hard to not really be able to walk around more than cabin to cabin after 3 days? I get the feeling that at a longer stop I’d want to start sprinting from one end of the platform to the other just to move more. I think the Empire Builder has 3 45 min stops along its whole 48 hr route and I assume other trains are similar.

    • I think the westboung Zephyr has hour-ish stops in Denver (during awake time) and Salt Lake City (middle of the night)
      Fresh air, stretching the legs, getting new snacks, seeing a few blocks of a town is nice on the long train trips.

      • Yes, we did get out a few times. Once I let the kids run back and forth on the platform though and Elliot tripped Clementine and she got hurt. Crying ensued. MOTHER OF THE YEAR!!!!

  7. Such a fun post! I was totally wondering how you stayed sane for 3 days. So seriously, thank you for sharing with us! πŸ™‚
    And dude, when did you get a sweet camera??

  8. There is no limit to the fun you can have with an empty plastic water bottle. It is the indoors equivalent of a stick for the secret fun potential a kid can release. Depending on the developmental stage / your desperation, it can be: several kinds of percussion (hit it, hit something with it, run a pen up the side, put stuff in it to make it maracary), an “elite skittle” set (it’s really hard to hit one skittle from a distance with a rolled up sock, but when you do it counts as a strike every time), balancing challenge (upside down, on various bits of your body). There’s the kid-appropriate version of spin the bottle with forfeits (just make sure to call it something else for that moment where they tell the teacher what they did on holiday). You can make it into a boat in the sink, if there is one, and work out how to stabilise it for older kids. (Keel, the secret is scavenging for something to serve as a keel and attaching it without letting in water). And challenge them. I hand my kids random stuff and say “hey kid, make this fun”. They have better ideas than me (and facial reactions). And if you dont’ even have a water bottle, there’s also clap games, songs, hijacked songs with your own lyrics (did you know Old MacDonald also played in a band and sold a range of second hand vehicles? ), eye spy, eye spy with your eyes closed (aka I hear with my little ear), can you do what I can do child-to-parent challenges, shadow hands, consequences, story telling without books, writing letters, writing and illustrating a book. And of course, who can stay still and silent the longest competitions, if that’s still working. As for missing things sleeping, waking in the night and sneaking secret peeks at passing countryside in the dark is the best bit of sleeper trains.

  9. Dear Rae,

    this is an awesome idea for a family trip! Thank you!
    And did I mention that I absolutely love your website and keep on getting inspiration from it? I made quite a few of your patterns for my kids and myself, sorry I just can’t find the time to take pictures, organize them and post them on flickr ( I’ll try).

    A

  10. When I rode the Trans-Siberian railway we made sure to always have vodka and a box of orange juice.

  11. Yes! I love trains! I totally agree about getting a sleeper car, and it’s worth knowing that on European overnight trains there may be two classes of sleeper – a ‘couchette’ is far more basic and unless you go with 5 other people you’ll most likely be sharing the World’s Smallest Space with a few strangers (and some strangers are stranger than others…), so look out for that.

    I second Chi’s Seat 61 tip – I’ve used that site to plan various trips around Britain and mainland Europe, and the guy even replies helpfully to emails. And her tip about peeking out of the window at night.

  12. Very cool! I have always wanted to take a train trip. Definitely on my list. Great to have some ideas to keep a little one entertained. Noting for future reference.

  13. The pictures are fantastic….what a fun way to have family time. As a grandma I am now back to looking for things to do with my little man.

    I also just wanted to say thanks for your great blog. My husband and I live and work in Hong Kong. A little time on your blog feels like a touch of home. Thanks….by the way, sewing in Hong Kong has some very different challenges, but always a worthy effort.
    Blessings!
    Carla

  14. What an amazing trip! Thanks for sharing. My boys love trains, so I shared all of your train trip pictures with them. I took trains trips all over Europe when I was young and always loved it. I hope to make a trip like this one day too with my family.

  15. This is amazing Rae! We traveled my train a lot in Europe, even going on the Orient Express with our eldest when she was a baby – from Munich to Paris. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about looking into it here in the States – I love that idea. I think our kids would have a blast! Thank you so much for the inspiration.

  16. My husband and I took a train trip from NYC to Toronto and then on VIA Canada rail to Vancouver, south to Seattle, on to San Francisco, back east to Chicago and then to NYC. It was FANTASTIC and we loved every minute of it. When you are two you get assigned to a table with two others and we met such nice people over meals. I thought the food was very good. You can’t be in a hurry as your train IS your destination while on it. Canada is more “woodsy” but beautiful too. A bit more formal on VIA than Amtrak (British influence?). I love train travel. I’d do the trip again in an instant.

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