All Aboard! Great Northwest Train Vacations for Families
Written by Elisa Murray
When Heather Timm’s now 7-year-old son Isaac was 4, he developed a fear of flying after a particularly turbulent flight back from a trip to Arizona. “It scared him a lot. He was white as a ghost,” remembers Timm, who lives in Seattle’s Central District. After that, any mention of flying caused him anxiety and visible stress.
A few years later, when Timm and her partner were planning a family summer vacation, avoiding flying was a priority. And given Isaac’s obsession with all things train oriented, the decision to travel by rail was “a natural.” So last summer they booked a family car — a sleeper car with beds for four — on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route from Seattle to San Francisco. The train trip served as the first chapter in a two-week vacation to the Bay Area and the California coast.
“It was amazing,” Timm says. “The getting there became part of the adventure, if not the biggest adventure.” During the 24-hour journey, they gawked at the scenery from the upper-level viewing car — including stunning coastline in Washington state and a rail’s-eye view of the Cascades in central Oregon. They listened to National Parks Service guides who gave talks on the landscape they were passing through. They played games. They ate in the dining car. They tromped through the cars. They met other travelers. They even managed to sleep in their sleeper bunk beds.
Most of all, they enjoyed having a long stretch of uninterrupted time together.
“Isaac loved it,” says Timm. “It was really nice, quality family time.”
Not just for train fanatics
Ask a child if he’d rather travel by plane, train or automobile, and chances are — especially if said child is in the throes of a Thomas the Tank Engine obsession — the rails will win. But there are plenty of adult reasons to vacation by rail these days. With gas prices on the rise — predicted by some to reach $5 a gallon this summer — economics don’t always favor cars, especially for short weekend jaunts.
“It’s surprisingly inexpensive, as long as your family’s not really big,” says Lauren Braden, a West Seattle mom and travel writer at Northwest TripFinder (nwtripfinder.com); she notes that the savings in parking alone can be substantial.
It’s also a greener choice. Traveling by rail is more climate friendly, per person, than driving or flying. And given that transit networks in Northwest destinations (and beyond) are increasingly robust, you can often do the whole vacation car-free. Your small train fanatic will be just as enthusiastic about exploring by light rail, streetcar, SkyTrain, the bus — and even an aerial tram (thank you, Portland).
Kids can learn some social lessons as well. “So often, middle-class American kids are shuttled from home to school to soccer practice to play dates in a car,” notes Carla Saulter, a Seattle mom of two who lives without a car and blogs about it at buschick.com. “They are given very few opportunities to meet and interact with people outside their immediate social circle. Taking the train once in a while is good practice.”
Best of all, she adds, trains are fun! “There’s plenty of legroom, the views are amazing, and you can get up and walk around if your little people start to get squirrelly.”
Northwest weekend jaunts and one-day wonders
Ready to climb aboard? Here are six ideas for trips you can take from the Seattle area, from starter day trips to multiday journeys.
Portland. Experienced train travelers cite Portland — a four-hour trip from Seattle by Amtrak — as an ideal choice for a starter weekend trip, using a downtown hotel as home base. Braden recommends the Hotel Monaco in particular, which provides a loaner goldfish for kids and has family-friendly happy hours. (Find other suggestions in the book Northwest Kid Trips.) Explore the city by its numerous transit options and leave plenty of time for wandering, suggests Saulter. On a recent trip she took with her family, unplanned highlights included “story time at the downtown library, an outdoor Saturday market, the Children’s Museum, Powell’s bookstore, several cool restaurants and a beautiful park that we just happened to come across in our wanderings.”
Centralia. For an even quicker dose of train travel, take Amtrak to Centralia (one and a half hours from Seattle) and spend some time at the Olympic Club hotel, a historic hotel bought and restored by the McMenamin’s chain, which sits just off the train tracks. You can take in a family movie, eat at the pub, browse downtown Centralia’s antique shops and stay overnight or return the same day.
Tacoma/Seattle. With light rail running from Tacoma’s Amtrak station to its vibrant downtown museum scene, it’s easier than ever for Seattleites to take the train down to Tacoma for a weekend or a day. Braden of Northwest TripFinder recommends staying in a neighborhood rather than downtown, such as the Proctor area, which has an excellent weekend farmers market and is accessible by bus. As for Tacoma residents: After your stress-free, one-hour train ride to Seattle, head to a downtown hotel (Northwest Kid Trips has recommendations) and use it as home base for a “best of Seattle” family weekend, with gems such as Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square and the waterfront within walking distance, and Seattle Center a mere monorail ride away. During the week, you can also travel by Sounder commuter train — only $4.75 a ticket!
Fairhaven/Bellingham. An easy two-hour trip from Seattle, with spectacular coastline views much of the way, historic Fairhaven is another excellent getaway. Check into a Fairhaven hotel and, if your kids are good walkers, hike the two-mile-long South Bay Trail to downtown Bellingham, where you can browse the Saturday farmers market, one of the state’s largest, and hit Mallard Ice Cream, a beloved Bellingham institution that was churning out quirky, gourmet scoops long before the trend hit Seattle.
Vancouver, B.C. Making the four-hour rail journey to what is arguably the Northwest’s most vibrant city is a little more complicated. Yes, you’ll go through customs, but compared to an international flight, it’s still a breeze. Downtown is a quick SkyTrain trip from the Amtrak station, and the city is dense, exceptionally international and very well served by transit; you can even take a little ferry over to Granville Island. Consider staying near the ultra kid-friendly Stanley Park, and don’t miss the world-famous aquarium as well as humbler treasures such as the Japadog food cart.
Multistate train adventures
As Timm’s family experienced, Seattle and Tacoma can also be the starting point for a longer adventure by rail. To the south, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train runs from Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles. If you book a family sleeper car, as Timm’s family did, you’ll have access to a special viewing car for sleeper guests only. And if kids get bored with the views, there’s even an arcade room with video games.
If a national park adventure is more your family’s style, consider a trip to Glacier National Park via rail. You can board the Empire Builder in Seattle in the evening, nod off as the train climbs and tunnels through the North Cascades, and arrive at the Amtrak station at East Glacier, Mont., by late morning. Grab a free bus shuttle to one of several historic lodges in the park and use that as a base for your park vacation.
A longer trip, of course, requires more planning ahead; sleeper cars, in particular, tend to sell out during the summer months. Overnight trips also add in the wild card of sleep. Sleeper cars are substantially more expensive than traveling coach, and, of course, don’t guarantee that sleep will occur. A longer trip is also more prone to delays — sometimes quite lengthy ones.
Cultivating your “It’s about the journey” mindset is essential, says Heather Timm, whose family is planning to take the Empire Builder journey all the way to Chicago this coming summer, a 45-hour journey.
She suggests you think of it this way: “If you have to wait for a freight train, it’s an extra hour you get to spend with your family,” says Timm. “If you get in that mode, train’s a great way to travel.”
Elisa Murray, ParentMap’s Out + About editor, is mom to one train fanatic and wife to another.
Rail-travel resources for families
Northwest Kid Trips. Chock-full of itineraries, inside info and ideas for family travel to Northwest cities
Travelportland.com. Deals, itineraries and other resources
Nwtripfinder.com. Detailed itineraries for transit-friendly travel to Northwest cities
Buschick.com. Carla Saulter’s Seattle-based resource on traveling by transit with kids
Chinook Book. Local coupon book with Amtrak deals and many activity coupons
Top tips for train travel
1. Book in advance and consider off-season. Book in advance, especially for summer travel and for longer trips. As always, shoulder-season travel is cheaper and less crowded.
2. Look for deals. The Chinook Book has Amtrak coupons. Sign up for Amtrak e-news for access to special discounts. Children younger than age 2 are always free, and ages 2 to 15 are half price. Sleeper cars are much more expensive than coach, but include meals and amenities, such as access to a special viewing car.
3. Travel somewhere where you won’t need a car. “Then you won’t have to worry about schlepping car seats — or renting them at your destination,” says Carla Saulter. And it will encourage everyone to pack lightly.
4. Set your kids up for success. Make sure everyone is well rested and fed before boarding, and remind kids about behavior in public settings. During the trip, a good alternative to your seat is the lounge car, a café car that has tables, lots of windows and is typically a noisier atmosphere.
5. Learn along the way. “Show your kids the parts of the train before you get on,” recommends Saulter. “Say hello to the people who work on the train and ask them about their jobs.”
6. Get on train time. Book travel with wiggle room on either side and leave type A tendencies at the door. Train travel takes longer than driving under the best of circumstances, and there can be delays.
7. Make sure you book the train, not the bus. Amtrak also runs buses to Vancouver, B.C., which are booked through the same online reservation system.