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Give Thanks for Train Travel with Children

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Ever since the first mention of this year’s Thanksgiving, the girls have been anxiously awaiting their next trip on what they are calling “The Thanksgiving Train (exclamation point).” I can relate. When I was young, my family traveled by train over many Thanksgiving weekends from Oregon to Seattle to visit relatives. For my brother and I, it was always an adventure–a chance to meet other kids, explore fascinating ViewLiner cars and snack cars, and of course: flush the toilets to see the tracks whizzing by below. Like most kids growing up in the States, train travel was a novelty for us and we counted ourselves lucky to do it at all.

When we became “big kids,” with passports and rail passes in hand, we dove into train travel in Europe head first, naturally. But it’s not as easy to travel around the U.S. by train. Amtrak’s routes are limited, sleeper cars for a family are steeply priced, and most often you’ll still need a car at the other end which tempts most people to just drive theirs instead.

That’s why holiday travel to visit friends and relatives may be the perfect opportunity for many of us to do a little U.S. train travel. If the obvous benefits of not having backseat hostages in heavy traffic aren’t excuse enough for you already, consider these points:

1. You may have relatives happy to greet you at the station with their own car–and possibly even a borrowed or rented car seat.

2. On peak traffic days like Thanksgiving, you’ll stand a chance of actually arriving by Amtrak faster than you would by car (probably not so most other times).

Heading to Grandma’s for a long Thanksgiving weekend with promises of marshmallows in the fruit salad, pie with whipped cream AND ice cream, a new kid’s movie to watch in the evening, pajama parties while mom and dad disappear for a date (exclamation point) and so on, we can’t get there fast enough. But that’s when the usual 1 hour 15 minute drive to Sacramento easily becomes 2 hours and 30 minutes, and feels more like 6 hours.

If you don’t relish the thought of an extra hour or more spent creeping along down crowded interstates and highways this Thanksgiving, particularly with a toddler strapped in your backseat, I’m with you. For us, weekend Bay Area traffic can be bad enough, so when it comes to Thanksgiving weekend, we are onboard with the Amtrak plan.

We can board the Capitol Corridor at Emeryville and arrive at the Old Town station in about 1 hour and 30 minutes, chugging by way of the C&H sugar mill and expanses of wetlands dotted with more egrets than we can count, neither of which we see when driving by car. With little ones along for the ride, it’s been easy to nurse the baby when feeding time was upon us, hop to the loo to exercise potty power just in time, and keep our toddler amused as we smile smugly to ourselves and think of the cars idling on Interstate 80.

We explore the train cars, make faces at the conductor, color pictures, read books, enjoy snacks, sip hot chocolates, and arrived almost too soon for all the fun we are having. From our first Thanksgiving Day arrival with the fanfare of Grandma waving to us and waiting on the platform with big hugs ready to hear all about the Thanksgiving train adventure, it was clear that this should be and would be a new holiday tradition for us.

Although you can no longer see the tracks whizzing by when you flush the toilets on Amtrak, I highly recommend taking the train wherever possible as an alternative to driving with kids during the big holidays. Bring toys, bring snacks, bring a deck of matching cards. And instead of converting 4-letter descriptors of the drivers in front of you into child-friendly euphemisms, spend some quality face time with your kids. After all, isn’t that what family holidays are supposed to be about?

Tips for your trip:

To see if Amtrak is an option for your holiday travels, visit http://www.amtrak.com/ and see their route maps and interactive atlas.

Remember that AAA members get a discount for leaving their cars behind, too, and children 2 years to 15 years old ride for half price on most Amtrak trains. Babies under 2 years get a free ride.

In California, Amtrak has added extra cars and hundreds of seats to each of it’s popular “Thanksgiving Trains” (Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin, and Capitol Corridor) in anticipation of the highest number of holiday train travelers yet. Tickets for all but the Capitol Corridor must be purchased in advance.

For more tips on planning train trips with children in the U.S., Canada, or Europe, check out Part 6 of Travels with Baby, where you’ll find 40+ pages on the subject including great scenic day trips by train, sleeper car info, best family pass info, and more.

Winner of “Get a Baby Bedtime Routine that Travels…and Grooves”: Congratulations to “Jesi and Joe” and their 11-month-old twins who will indeed have some familiar music on their next trip. Strap on those babies and groove! Contact me with your details and I’ll get your Lullaby Exercises CD/DVD set out to you ASAP.

Safe journey,
Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby
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