Let’s not forget about trains. Real trains, I mean, not the Brio / Thomas toy kind. Real trains are romantic, scenic, yes – sometimes stinky, but also just a real transportation option to consider instead of driving or flying.

Trains in the US are in a sad state, but they have a few things going for them. First, they’re more fun than planes and cars!  And tickets are not expensive, especially with kids ages 2-12, who ride half price on Amtrak. They go through some very scenic parts of the USA, at speeds that actually let you enjoy the scenery.

Most importantly, when taking medium-length trips, they are better for the environment than plane rides.

Taking Kids on the Train

Kids are just naturally excited about trains. They look cool, they go through tunnels and over bridges, they scream choo-choo and chugga-chugga. What more could you want? It’s transportation and a destination all in one.

King Street Station, Seattle

King Street Station, Seattle

I love taking my kid on the train. I love it because he loves it. It’s less confining than a car or plane, so an active little guy can run around, jump and shout (within reason). You can watch videos, but only for so long. There is no escaping quality time on a train. My kiddo turned 4 this week – what?! I can’t believe how fast he’s growing up! Spending a day or three on the train, as we’ve done, forces us to just take a break from everyday responsibilities and enjoy each other’s company.

We recently got back from our first roundtrip on the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Oakland. It takes 23 hours one way, which is a nice length. You get a whole day and night, which is long enough to get the full experience but not long enough to get sleep-deprived, stinky, and sick of the da-dum, da-dum. We made many memories this time – watching part of Shaun the Sheep in the Parlour Car’s movie theater, counting the 22 tunnels in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, and standing at the very back window of the train, seeing the tracks split and merge behind us as we approached Seattle.

Comparable Costs

The roundtrip cost $482 for the 2 of us. Hubby’s plane ticket was $210 roundtrip, so we spent $42 more to go by train. Getting a sleeper car on the way there was $186 of that cost. I thought it was worth it because I didn’t want us to be exhausted at the beginning of our vacation. But we traveled coach on the way back, and it was fine. N slept at least 8 hours overnight and then took a 2-hour nap in the afternoon. I caught some Zzz where I could, and I wasn’t too tired by the end of it. In Europe, I used to take overnight trains from place to place and saved myself the cost of a hotel room. But that strategy only really works if you two destinations are about 8-12 hours apart and there happens to be an overnight train scheduled. Boarding_Coast_Starlight

Part of what I like about just going coach is that you don’t feel compelled to overeat. That’s a real danger when you have three meals included in the price of your reservation as a sleeping car passenger. I just don’t need three big meals when I’m just lounging around a train all day! But going to the dining car is a nice change of pace, and I always enjoy chatting with the other passengers who get seated across from me. It’s hard to avoid the mountains of eggs, beef, and sugary desserts on offer, but there are options for vegetarians and food allergy sufferers. My picks from the menu are the continental breakfast (with oatmeal, or you can request soymilk for cereal) and the veggie burger (decent, though overpriced). For dinner there is a special light & healthy option that is usually vegetarian.

trains and scenery

Dawn in the Dining Car

Scenery & the Leisure to Look at it

Isn’t it frustrating when you’re driving through a beautiful area but can’t really feast your eyes on it because you’re driving? Or when you’re on a plane and you have to crane your neck to catch a glimpse of something awesome below? Yes, there is some “flyover country,” and it’s frustrating when the train gets to Mount Shasta or Glacier National Park (on the Empire Builder route we took last fall) just as the sun sets. But sunrise is sunrise, whether over the plains of the Big Sky state (Montana) or the desert landscape of Northern California.

Cascades from Coast Starlight

Cascades from Coast Starlight

I’m sure the Oakland, CA to Los Angeles part along the coast is amazing – we have yet to do that. Some of my favorite areas to ride through by train are the Berkshire mountains in Western MA / Upstate NY on the Lakeshore Limited to Boston, the Cascades in Oregon on the Coast Starlight, and any coasts. The Mystic River area between Hartford, CT and Providence, RI is pretty spectacular. So is the area around Old Orchard Beach south of Portland, ME. With so much to see and so little time to spend with our families, let’s make every moment count, even between destinations.


  1. Hi Julia,

    Thank you for sharing this! I love the way you write and illustrate the story, while also covering topics that are important to me in regards to food, scenery and kid friendliness.

    I’d also love to know about the carbon footprint. I think you eluded to it in the beginning. Tell more!

  2. Will do, Alison! I thought this post was long enough as is, so I’m writing up the eco-facts separately. It’s not easy to do an apples to apples comparison because so much depends on the type of car, type of train (electric or diesel), how many people are in each, etc. But more info is coming soon!

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