Home train travel How can Amtrak get families on board—including yours?

How can Amtrak get families on board—including yours?

by Shelly Rivoli

Last weekend, as my one-car family came out of its post-flu haze, I was inspired to hop aboard Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor line with my youngest for a day trip to visit relatives in Sacramento. It’s a trip our family’s made several times in the past, now complicated by the fact that we have too many people to fit in Grandma’s car—or even a regular taxi from the station—on the other end. Yet with one wee babe, I figured it would be a perfect escape for us.

Now I realize that airfares, BART fares, and bus fares—not to mention the cost of milk and postage—have all been on the rise, but seeing a roundtrip adult ticket price of $44 from the East Bay to Sacramento stopped me in my tracks. Let’s be clear:

  • That’s one passenger only, for a trip that takes just over an hour in my car—which itself seats 7 passengers. 
  • It’s the cost of one tank of gas for that same car, for a trip that uses around ¼ a tank of gas. 
  • Not to mention (barring snarled holiday traffic), the trip takes longer by train than it does by car.
  • What’s more, that $44 ticket doesn’t even get me to either relative’s home on the other end.

And the distance I’d hoped to walk from the station if the weather was fair would have been an additional cab fare if it wasn’t. As I sat staring at my fare quote on Amtrak.com, feeling the full gravity of its implications, I suddenly noticed an optional add-on toward the bottom of the screen—what they had labeled a “deal.” In addition to my $44 roundtrip train fare, I could reserve a Hertz rental car on the other end for a mere $39.50 daily rate.

  • Yes, that’s less than the cost of my single passenger ticket. For a car.  
  • For 24 hours. 
  • That would get me—and a few other people—where we actually needed to go.
  • Yes, we’d still need to buy gas—perhaps the equivalent of one additional rail passenger’s ticket. 
  • All of my kids, however, would still be riding free—unlike on Amtrak where two would ride for 50% of the adult fare (at least the baby would have been free).
Total cost for a family of 4 to purchase RT tickets for this train ride: $132

Total cost for a family of 4 to rent a compact car for 24 hours: $39.50.

Please understand that my purpose in making this post is not simply to rant. Truth is, my heart is breaking over this. As I’ve mentioned before, rail trips have held a special place in my heart since I was young. In fact, I insisted on including the section on Travels by Train in Travels with Baby because I know how great rail travel can be—in the U.S. and abroad, especially when traveling with babies and young children. It can be an ideal mode of transport for families in certain situations, as illustrated in Part 6 of the book. I’ve wanted to help get more families on board our U.S. rail system, where possible, and this post is intended to be one more attempt at doing so.

Furthermore, in these difficult economic times, I think it’s more important than ever that we have affordable long-distance alternatives to travel by airplane and shorter-distance alternatives for driving. For example, if a person is willing to spend 51 hours to get from San Francisco (EMY) to Chicago riding in a coach seat (with no meals included, no sleeper compartment), I think it should cost less than an airplane ticket to travel the same distance in a few hours—don’t you?

For the same dates in February, for travel from San Francisco to Chicago, I found:

  • $309 roundtrip in coach, nonstop flights incl. taxes and fees, 4 – 4.5 hours each way.
  • $364 roundtrip Amtrak coach seats, 51 – 52 hours each way.

Of course, this doesn’t count baggage fees, which have yet to be imposed upon rail passengers and would apply to the air traveler. And children 2 to 15 years can ride Amtrak for half this price, whereas the domestic airlines gave up child discounts long ago. So if you have 104 hours to spend in coach seats with your children, this route may actually save you all some money as a family over flying. You should note, however, that according to Mapquest you could drive the distance in 31 hours.

But government agencies are stuck between rocks, hard places, and hard decisions all over the U.S. these days. Amtrak, which I realize is far more popular (and useful) on the East Coast than it is where I reside on the West, has continued to hike its fares with reason. And across much of the country, ridership has dwindled down to a precious few who can afford the novelty of a rail journey in the U.S. (where sleeper accommodations cost an additional $100-$400 per night) and those who have no other choice but to suck it up in lieu of driving. 

So what can Amtrak do to get more families on board—including yours?

1. How about a second class sleeper option? As I suggest in Travels with Baby, a second class sleeper option would probably have far greater appeal for traveling families than the current sleeper option, which is an automatic first class meal-inclusive (and bottled water, towels for the shower, etc.) upgrade. I share the example of a “Family Sleeper” compartment adding an extra $462 to the family’s passenger fare for an overnight trip from San Francisco to Portland, OR—just one night, and you’ll have to share the bathroom with your fellow passengers. Still, you can probably have filet mignon in the dining car at no extra cost (bwah!). But if you’re like me, packed sandwiches and snacks from home would be well worth an extra $250 in you pocket. At least.

2. What if more kids could ride free? With base ticket prices as high as they are now, it’s hard to argue the case for even a day trip by train for a family of four or more. Perhaps if the infant discount could be extended to allow all children up to 4 or even 6 years to ride free, as is the case in European countries, it would help give Amtrak an edge over airlines that offer free lap child travel up to 24 months—and is not nearly as safe as traveling car-seat-free by train.

3. Your thoughts here? What would it take to get your family onboard Amtrak? Would either of these options help tempt you to take the train? Have you wanted to try a U.S. Rail trip with your children, but held back for some reason? Are you one of the lucky ones who lives in a place where rail works well? Do you have a favorite Amtrak route?

Please share your thoughts, experiences, and suggestions below.

Safe journey,

Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby
The Ultimate Guide for Planning Trips with Babies, Toddlers, and Preschool-Age Children
https://travelswithbaby.com/   twitter   facebook

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Anonymous April 21, 2010 - 6:15 pm

I am speaking at an conference in DC next month. We regulary drive the 8 hours to my wife's family's home in Mid Virginia and my 2 year old doesn't appreciate being in a car seat that long. From New Haven , CT I can take the train for about $120 per person round trip. Flights are $350 each and take almost as long with the trip from downtown to the airport and security etc. In this case, I can book Acela tickets on the company account and cash them in for two regionals, voila, wife travels free!

HarmSkills March 7, 2010 - 1:35 am

in NYC, it costs at least $100 a day to rent a car, there is no way to get deals (simple supply and demand at work). Amtrak is a great option for going to DC or Boston because you can get affordable fares (if you travel off peak… like $49-70 each way) and with a child its easy to nurse, roam around,etc, which you cannot do in a car.

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ethansmomshubby February 15, 2010 - 8:46 pm

I found this blog researching because I'm thinking about taking an overnight Amtrak trip with my family of four, and I wanted to know what to expect. It sounds great, but we're leaning towards flying instead at this point because we can't afford a sleeper, and I have a feeling my young kids wouldn't be very quiet for the other passengers while they're trying to sleep in coach. Have any of you other readers stayed overnight in coach with young kids (2 and 5 in my case)? How did it go?

Shelly Rivoli February 15, 2010 - 5:09 pm

Great points, Linda–and thanks for the shock-and-awe math on your end! One strategy I keep in mind that would help us in theory is to plan shorter journeys by day with stopovers places we can spend the night (motels are far less expensive than sleepers–and may have pools and even free breakfast) and won't need a car. Quite a planning challenge, however, if you want to get very far! 😉

Linda February 13, 2010 - 10:58 pm

I, too, would love to take my kids on a train journey. Washington, D.C. is someplace I've considered, so that we could get along without a car once there.

Amtrak: $1000 in fares, plus another $1300 for bedrooms, for a total of $2300 plus meals for the two daytime portions when we wouldn't purchase a bedroom.

Driving (1200 miles each way): $250 gas, $200 hotel stays, $400 food (generous allowances) for a total of $850. Even renting a car to save on mileage on ours would be considerable cheaper.

We don't mind driving, and our kids ride well in their carseats. The freedom of movement on a train is not necessarily a good thing.

Plus driving gives us the flexibility to leave early or alter our route according to weather, as we often travel in the winter. We can take more luggage and food with a minivan as well.

I just can't get the train to make sense for our large family.

Shelly Rivoli February 8, 2010 - 7:32 pm

Antonio e Ellen, thanks for commenting to my blog. However, I'm not sure how your latest post relates to travel by Amtrak. As a courtesy to other readers following this thread, please keep your comments on topic. Thanks.

Antonio e Ellen February 8, 2010 - 7:14 pm

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John February 5, 2010 - 4:30 am

I like riding the train, it's fun, but it is not a conveniant mode of transportation. Our family rides the train as a vacation, but never as a means to really get anywhere. The price is just too high.

Shelly Rivoli January 27, 2010 - 1:17 am

Anon – Agreed, a totally different experience with the kiddos from car travel. Picturing your hubby having a more relaxing 3-hour drive ALONE, too! 😉 Kim – I've also looked at Bay Area to Santa Barbara via Amtrak for a car-seat free vacation. It's a day-long ride (9+ hours), but scenic, and Santa Barbara is doable without a car. If you drive, however, you can stop and romp with the kids along the way. Maybe a stop and overnight mid-way?

Kim Cotton January 26, 2010 - 11:50 pm

Over here on the west coast, we've been wanting but are unable to commit to taking Amtrak from the Bay Area to LA. Nearly all routes require transfer from train to bus, so we still need to have our 2yo in his car seat. The other option is a nearly 13hr train trip from EMY to LAX that arrives an hour after bedtime on a train with a 80% on-time performance. And it will still cost over $250 for 2 adults and a 2yo. Seems a shame when a drive will be half of the time with a quarter of the cost.
What can they do? I agree with a second class family bedroom. Having any of the rooms be eligible for the AAA discount would be nice. Experiment with different departure times for those trains that only have one train a day. My dreams would include a family car with veggie heavy snacks and a padded area with puzzles, books, and a train table set up (even better if only people with children would be allowed in). With all that, it would actually be worth the cost. We can dream, can't we?

Anonymous January 26, 2010 - 11:00 pm

Could you Priceline the car?

We've used the train a bunch, but we mostly reserve it for convenience. We have one car in our family, and sometimes my husband needs to go home earlier than we do. We can stay in the vacation city (Pacific NW) a little longer before taking the train home (he picks us up at the station). It's incredibly, incredibly relaxing and fun for all of us. A four-hour train ride can be relaxing and fun. A three-hour drive, while shorter, is not relaxing or fun.

Shelly Rivoli January 26, 2010 - 9:10 pm

Emily – We went NYC to DC and I remember thinking, "Yes, this is how it should be!" Especially great with a toddler, as you say. Meg – That's crazy about the cheaper fare to VT, but what a great tip! I'm a fan of Metro North, too–what gorgeous scenery in the fall.

Meg January 26, 2010 - 8:42 pm

This may sound crazy, but sometimes if you book to an onward destination and get off earlier, it can be cheaper. A friend traveling from Philadelphia to Hartford found it was cheaper to book all the way to VT and just get off in CT.

I keep trying to find Amtrak tickets in to NYC but usually just drive to the commuter train which is a fraction of the price (Amtrak = $60, Metro North = $10)

Emily E. January 26, 2010 - 8:23 pm

Yeah, the prices are ridiculous, and it is absolutely no wonder that Amtrak fails so miserably.

However, we do take Amtrak from DC to NYC and love it. My husband does it a lot of work and I recently did it with my daughter. It was far easier than flying and similarly priced, if not cheaper. Plus, it's incredibly easy to change your ticket unlike airlines. But for me the biggest advantage is the ability to freely move around which is a big help when dealing with a toddler. Plus the included entertainment of watching out the window. AND ending up in Penn Station rather than out at JFK, Newark, or Laquardia is a huge bonus. So, the DC/NYC route actually is a really good alternative, but I don't see how it works in many other areas of the country.

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