On a whim we decided to try and take the train on an end of summer family vacation. It’s something we’ve talked about quite a few times before, but never gone through with it for one reason or another.
Nearly every person we talked to about it gave us the same response: “OH! We’ve talked about that before too but never gone. You’ll have to let us know if we should go!”
The short answer to all the friends who have asked: You shouldn’t go.
If you want to know additional details then feel free to read on.
Prepping for the trip
There’s surprisingly little information about traveling by train on the internet. Maybe that should have been a red flag? I dunno, but the information on the Amtrak website was incredibly sparse, and the personal accounts that we could find online were more or less really positive.
I’ve learned since that’s probably because no one wants to be the schmuck who paid $300 round trip per person for a lamecation. Well, it’s hour 13 of a 14 hour return trip and my pride is shot, so the timing is perfect for me to give you the 411 on what it’s like to ride the train with kids.
Planning our itinerary
We knew that the trip in general was a little bit of a risk with so many unknowns, so we booked a “short” trip.
The first thing you should know about traveling by train is that there’s no such thing as a short trip. It would take at least four hours to get to the grocery store via Amtrak.
That said, we knew we needed to go far enough that the main attraction at our destination wasn’t “the world’s largest toenail collection” or “a house that multiple serial killers are currently using as a hideout.”
We settled on Denver.
We’d catch a Rockies game, go to the Denver Zoo, swim in the hotel pool, and we’d finish off the weekend
smoking a giant reefer at Bass Pro Shops.
What could possibly go wrong?
They don’t check ID or put bags through any kind of screening process when you board the train. Which is great from a convenience standpoint and not so great from a “HOLY SHIT WHO ARE THEY LETTING ON THIS TRAIN” standpoint.
In fairness, we did purchase our tickets using a valid credit card, so there’s at least some level of verification happening. Literally the only requirement to ride a train is to have a working credit card as far as I can tell.
The good news is that if you leave from the Provo, Utah Amtrak station, you’re in the worst neighborhood in the city. There are six total parking spots and I’ve genuinely seen nicer bus stops many times.
Not exactly the type of place you should leave your car overnight, but Amtrak makes up for that by coming through town at 4:30 in the morning to pick you up.
Granted, it’s not like the train can just chill and wait until a more reasonable hour to pick people up. It gets there when it gets there, but here’s the second thing you should know about riding the train:
Amtrak tells you to arrive 45 minutes before your departure and that’s a bunch of malarkey
If you read this and still think “Hey I’m gonna ride the train” then 1) Congratulations on earning your Sadism Certificate™ and 2) never arrive more than 10 minutes early. It’s totally unnecessary.
Boarding the train
Everything seems so cute and quaint when you first board the train. A Conductor wearing one of those little hats checks you in. Well, he scans your ticket and points you to a car and at that point you’re on your own.
We threw our bags onto the car and stepped inside our “family sleeper”. “Cozy” is a word I used initially. “Torture chamber” became more accurate as time rolled on.
Now, we fully expected things to be tight. They’re designed for two adults and two children. Or at least that was the intent in 1989 when the original room layout was put together.
I take full responsibility for not being the size of an “average” American, and we did have five people instead of four, but any room where a fart can make the eyes of all five passengers well up in a matter of seconds is too small.
At one point I strongly considered breaking the emergency glass because I felt like we had met the baseline qualification for emergency.
Nevertheless we were all excited for this new adventure and took the cramped quarters in stride.
The beds were laid out and we all tried to catch a few more hours of zzz before the sun came up.
The first morning on the train
HAHAHAHAHA JK my kids were totally wired at this point and had no desire to sleep. It took a full 30 minutes before the oldest started yelling “McDonalds”.
He saw no problem with ringing the Conductor and asking him for a quick Egg McMuffin stop. I honestly would have supported the initiative except I knew breakfast was only two hours from being served and the menu I found online actually looked pretty great.
And guess what, the menu looks pretty great when you’re on the train too!
And then they bring the food.
And you consider eating the menu.
If I had one phrase to describe train food I’d say it’s “65% as good as discount airline food”.
We had made it to the Eastern Utah desert just as the sun was coming up and the views were breathtaking. What an incredible world we live in.
Too bad my kids don’t appreciate the beauty that God has created anywhere close to as much as they do the dull glow of their iPad screens.
Speaking of, our room has one electrical outlet that is placed 5 feet off the floor near the door. Super convenient placement. It’s also labeled “razor only” so when I plugged the first iPad into the outlet I fully expected Chernobyl. I chose the cheapest one first on purpose. Nothing terrible happened as far as I can tell.
Oh, and did I mention that the train doesn’t have wi-fi? I think this may have been the first time in my five year old’s life he’s gone without internet for longer than 30 minutes.
And for all you smug jerks thinking “you could have brought a hot spot or tethered.” I did both. But guess what?
THERE ARE PARTS OF AMERICA WITHOUT WIRELESS NETWORKS OF ANY KIND.
I know, terrifying right?
And for everyone saying part of the appeal of train travel is to disconnect from the outside world, you are now in charge of babysitting my kids on Friday night while Jackie and I go on a date. I’m taking my wifi router with me. Good luck.
I’ve never seen more blue hair in my life
There were exactly five people without AARP cards on the train. All of them are in my family.
Have you ever had to perform an actual yoga pose to wipe?
Don’t answer. I think you get the point.
Ryan, Would you go on the train again?
Maybe when I’m 90. If you’re old and have nothing better to do than a train ride might be a great way to unwind and enjoy the beauty this earth has to offer.
If you have kids definitely never take them on a train. Trains lose their luster after about an hour and our “short” little trip was 14 hours from beginning to end.
As whining escalates during the course of your trip, every single place the train stops is more of a temptation to “accidentally forget” at least one of your children.
More than one if iPad batteries are low.
I might be extra jaded because this is hour 13 of our return trip. But I might not be too.
Play it safe and don’t abandon your kids at a train station. Go get an Egg McMuffin instead.