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Ride the Long-Distance Rails: All Aboard for a Family Train Trip

Train travel is time travel and the ultimate family adventure, as long as you leave your impatience behind

Published on: June 09, 2020

mother and son on a train looking out the window

Once upon a time, many years ago in mid-February 2020, when people still traveled without washing their hands every 15 seconds, my family arrived at the elegant King Street Station in downtown Seattle with three overnight bags, three backpacks, one duffel, two long ski bags, a million books and one Nintendo Switch. We checked many of those bags at no extra cost, and at precisely 3:20 p.m., we boarded Amtrak’s storied Empire Builder on its daily rail service to Chicago. Guided by a capped attendant, we made our way to the back of a car and to a compartment that was to be our abode for the next 15 hours.

It was not spacious, but it was all ours, a 45-square-foot space that spanned the width of the car and was furnished with one couch-like seat, two chairs, a foldout table, a shallow closet and one poorly placed outlet. At bedtime, an attendant would “prepare our beds” by converting the seating to foldout bunks for sleeping (one full-size, three twins) — plenty big enough for two large adults and one 10-year-old boy.

We dropped our bags, pulled back the blue window curtains and settled in for sunset views of Puget Sound before the train took a right turn and headed east for the Cascades, where, near the tiny town of Berne, it would pass through the Cascade Tunnel. Our destination: the fabled ski town of Whitefish, Montana, just outside Glacier National Park.

At the time of this writing, no one is talking about traveling anywhere, especially when — as with train travel — it involves long periods of togetherness, time, and shared (gulp!) dining and restroom spaces. But when we do get to that point again, I’m here to tell you that a rail trip might be the answer to your family’s vacation hopes and dreams.

First, you can travel long distances without getting behind a steering wheel or stepping foot in the claustrophobic metal bullet known as an airplane. And if you invest in a sleeper car, your family will have your own space for the duration of the journey. Even if you stick to economical coach, the ample leg room and ability to move around make it a much more comfortable journey than traveling by air. Second, you will have eons of family togetherness, for games, reading, knitting and simply gawking at the scenery. Because Wi-Fi is sporadic, much of this time will, by necessity, be spent unplugged. In other words, you will not only be traveling across space, but also back in time.

Which brings me to my next point: As you likely know, our country’s passenger rail system is not high-speed, high-tech or particularly efficient. Many routes, such as the Los Angeles–bound Coast Starlight, are particularly infamous for delays. So, your family will also get to practice those critical travel skills of adaptability and flexibility. On a train, the journey really is the destination.

It’s also a greener choice. Traveling by rail is more climate-friendly, per person, than driving or flying. And while our passenger rail system might not compare to that of Europe, the transit networks in destination cities are becoming increasingly robust, which makes it easier to do the whole vacation car-free. Here are some long-distance routes to try. (For quick trip ideas, see the Small Destinations, Big Fun sidebar below.) 

train views

Empire Builder to Montana and beyond

Booking a sleeper car to Whitefish, Montana, is the perfect introductory long-distance rail trip for families. After boarding the Empire Builder, we had an excellent dinner at around 6:30 p.m. in the dining car; if you’ve booked a “sleeping car” ticket, as it’s called, meals are included (though not alcohol), which means that in our case, we could order the Angus steak, the root beer and the Bundt cake without worrying about extra costs. After dinner, we read for an hour or so, and then fell asleep after chatting cozily for a while across our inches-apart beds. (Our son slept like a rock; we did not, but it was still miles better than plane sleep. We also found that insomnia to the tune of a train’s rocking is almost lovely.)

We arrived at Whitefish at around 8 a.m. and were shuttled to our hotel — the Grouse Mountain Lodge — which offered an affordable two-night ski-and-stay package that included lift tickets. Staff (unbelievably) checked us in right away, bused us to The Big Mountain, and we were skiing under blue skies by 10:30 a.m. During our two-night, three-day stay, the lodge’s shuttle — which made regular trips to the mountain and the historic town of Whitefish — made it easy to be without a car.

In the summer, you might head one more stop east to the historic train depot at East Glacier; the depot is just outside Glacier National Park and open from mid-spring to mid-fall only. Book a stay at one of the park’s historic lodges and take one of the famous red “jammer” buses to your destination; keep your eyes peeled for moose and grizzly bears. Another idea: Take the Empire Builder all the way to Chicago — an additional 30-odd hours of rail time — and then fly back.

Coast Starlight to San Francisco

The dreamy-sounding Coast Starlight train runs from Seattle to Los Angeles, passing through the Central Cascades, by Mount Shasta and along the Pacific Coast. Traveling to Portland makes a perfect half-day trip, no sleeping car required, but if you’re up for a 20-hour journey, head to San Francisco. You can visit the second-level Sightseer Lounge, with its panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows (bonus: there’s a café on the first level). If you’re the inquisitive sort, National Park rangers will be on hand to point out the sights as you pass. The train doesn’t stop in San Francisco itself — you’ll disembark in either Emeryville or Oakland — but you can easily take a shuttle into the city. Or, go all the way to Los Angeles, a full 35 hours of rad rail relaxation.

California Zephyr from San Francisco to Denver

What’s the most scenic route on the Amtrak network? According to many, it’s the California Zephyr, a double-decker Superliner train that leaves daily from Emeryville, California, bound for Chicago. The 30-hour, 939-mile trip to Denver will give you a front-row seat to some of the most glorious scenery in the United States, including the Sierra Nevada and Donner Pass, Utah’s mesas and buttes, and the Continental Divide and the Rocky Mountains. Whether you leave from Emeryville or Denver (both morning departures), the trains are timed to deliver jaw-dropping views.

From Vancouver to Jasper or Banff

There are two distinct ways to rail from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the stunning region around Jasper and Banff national parks. The economic way is to book a Via Rail ticket on the Canadian, an elegant 1950s train that leaves Vancouver every afternoon for a five-day transcontinental journey, making a stop in Jasper 19 hours into the trip. You can choose from economy class or several classes of sleeper accommodations. The hitch is that much of the rail journey will be in the dark.

Or, you can decide it’s bucket-list time and book a package on the Rocky Mountaineer, one of the most storied rail journeys in the world. This seasonal railway — it runs from mid-April until mid-October and only travels in the daylight to afford spectacular views to passengers — offers several packages, which start at $1,300 per person for a two-day, one-night journey. The “Passage to the West” route, from Vancouver to Kamloops (where you’ll spend the night) and on to Banff, travels through spiral train tunnels and across the Continental Divide. Breakfast, lunch and an abundant coffee/tea/snack service are included, as well as the stay in Kamloops.

train car all windows

Top Tips for Sleeper-Car Success

If you’re taking a long-distance train trip, a “sleeping car,” as it’s officially called, is vastly preferable to traveling in coach class. And while it’s substantially more expensive than coach (from three to four times the price), there are plenty of ways to rationalize the cost. If you’re traveling overnight, count it as a hotel night. With kids’ train tickets discounted 50 percent, it can be cheaper than air travel. Plus, meals are included. (The round-trip tally for our rail trip to Montana was about $1,000 for three of us.)
 
The best sleeper-car choice for families is usually a “family bedroom suite,” available on Superliners. You can squeeze five people into the three bunk-style beds (which fold out for sleeping) and a sofa that converts to a bed. One downside: It does not have its own bathroom; you have to walk down the hall. If your party is larger, consider the option of a two-bedroom suite, which does have a bathroom. 

Here are a few more tips we learned on our side of the tracks.

Check it. Arrive early at the station and check all the baggage you won’t need on the trip. There are no surcharges for extra baggage. You can bring carry-on luggage into your compartment, and leave bags on luggage racks outside. Keep valuables close, though, because you can lock your sleeper car from the inside but not the outside.

Bring a booster. Amtrak occasionally substitutes a bus for a train, and though it will alert you ahead of time, if you have little ones, consider bringing a booster or car seat, just in case.

Pillow talk. The beds are like cots, narrow and a bit hard, but not uncomfortable, and the one thin blanket we had for each of us was surprisingly warm. But amenities such as a sleep mask, ear plugs, a small travel pillow and perhaps an extra blanket will help increase your chances of catching restful z’s, so pack those, too. Slippers are also a good call.
 
Light it up. The lighting in our car was better for some beds than others. Bringing reading lights and a night light will pave the way for a peaceful evening.

Plan for snacks. In case of an inconvenient mealtime (our return breakfast was scheduled from 5:30 to 7 a.m.) or delays, make sure you have snacks and water bottles on hand. Check the train details to find out if there’s a café car that offers snacks at alternative times.

Don’t count on Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi access is sporadic at best. Pack a very long cord for your phone; the placement of the electrical outlets is not ideal.

Get your small talk on. While we had many hours to nurture our introverted natures in our sleeping car, a surprisingly enjoyable part of our Montana trip was chatting with other diners in the second-level dining car, which had the best views on our Empire Builder train. Each table seats four, and you will be seated with others if your party is not exactly that number. We met a young man railing it to Florida to help out his ailing mother, and a retired couple headed to see the northern lights in Alaska with a grandson exactly my son’s age; we also enjoyed hearing stories from the conductor who wandered by. If meeting strangers isn’t your thing, it’s easy to dine and dash.

The grit factor. A bonus of a sleeping car, in our new world, is that you are separated from the sneezes of strangers. However, don’t expect luxury. Our car felt reasonably clean but well-used and outdated, and the restroom down the hall was a bit ripe by the end of the journey. Speaking of viruses, Amtrak does say it’s cleaning more frequently, but I say you can never have enough disinfectant wipes.

Embrace delays. Memorize this mantra: Leave your sense of urgency behind, you’ll be fine. In our case, a delay was a blessing. On our return trip from Montana, which left Whitefish at 9 p.m., the train was delayed for three hours near Spokane because of an engine problem. The lovely result was that we had a later breakfast time and stunning views — of the red rocks around Yakima, the Columbia River and the snowy Cascades — that we would have otherwise chugged by in the dark.

train station

Rail travel in the time of the coronavirus

At press time, American and Canadian rail systems had temporarily suspended some services on some of these routes, and had made a number of changes to service and sanitation practices. Check websites and travel destinations to see what restrictions might still be in place.

Rail savings

Amtrak offers everyday discounts, including half-price tickets for children ages 2–12 as well as discounts for seniors and veterans. You can also save by booking far in advance. Check the Amtrak website for information on flash sales, or sign up for its e-newsletter for earlier notice. If you have plans for an epic, around-the-country journey, look into the USA or California rail pass.

Small Destinations, Big Fun

You don’t have to spend days on board to please your favorite train fanatics. They’ll be just as happy with these day or overnight destinations — no sleeper car required.

Portland. Experienced train travelers cite Portland — a four-hour trip from Seattle by Amtrak — as an ideal choice for an introductory weekend trip. Explore the city by its numerous transit options and leave plenty of time for wandering.

Centralia. For an even quicker dose of rail fun, take Amtrak to Centralia (a one-and-a-half-hour trip from Seattle) and spend some time at the Olympic Club. This historic hotel was bought and restored by the McMenamins chain, and it sits just off the train tracks. During your visit, 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.

Fairhaven/Bellingham. An easy two-hour rail trip from Seattle, with coastline views much of the way, historic Fairhaven is another great getaway. Check into a Fairhaven hotel or an Airbnb, and hike the 2-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. Bring bikes on board for more adventures.

Vancouver, B.C. The four-hour rail journey to what is arguably the Northwest’s most exciting city is a little more complicated because of customs, but it’s worth it. Downtown is a quick SkyTrain trip from the Amtrak station, and the city is dense, exceptionally international and very well served by transit. Consider staying near Stanley Park.

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