How to Travel the U.S. by Train

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Chugging Across America with Kids in Tow

Traveling the U.S. by train gets your family from point A to point B, but it’s also fun and usually educational. Comments like “Look at that!” and “Do you want to walk to the cafe car?” replace laments like “I’m bored,” or “Stop! I have to go to the bathroom.” Everybody gets to look out the window on a train trip, and the sound of wheels on rails lulls everyone to sleep.

Auto Train to Disney

Amtrak’s Auto Train operates between Lorton (8006 Lorton Rd., Lorton, VA), outside Washington, D.C., to Orlando, FL (600 S. Persimmon Ave., Sanford, FL). Passengers load their car, van or small RV onto the train for the 17-hour trip and unload it 900 miles south. All meals are included in the fare, including menus tailored for children. Passengers choose from coach or business seating, roomettes or bedrooms. The best bet for traveling with kids is a family bedroom large enough for two adults and two children. Daytime seating converts to beds and pull-down bunks, and shared bathrooms are in the same car. Once you’ve unloaded your vehicle in Orlando, it’s about an hour’s drive to Walt Disney World.

The Sunset Limited

The Sunset Limited pulls out of the station in New Orleans (1001 Loyola Ave., New Orleans, LA) and chuffs across the American Southwest, making stops in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before pulling into the station in Los Angeles (800 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, CA) 48 hours later. Arrange for a family bedroom for accommodations, and find seats in the Sightseer Lounge Car for views of a landscape that morphs from bayou to desert to mountains. If your kids fall asleep in a reclining seat easily, try budget-friendly coach seating, a less expensive alternative to a bedroom. The Sunset Limited has a dining car serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a lounge car with carryout food.

Acela Express

Your kids will be in awe on the Acela Express, Amtrak’s version of a bullet train. Trains operate between Washington (701 First St. NE, Washington, D.C.) and Boston (2 S. Station St., Boston, MA) multiple times a day. The station-to-station trip takes seven hours, but many passengers use the service to shuttle between D.C., Philadelphia (2955 Market St., Philadelphia, PA) and New York City (234 W. 31st St., New York, NY). Trains equipped with comfy seats and updated Wi-Fi travel at speeds up to 150 mph. Upgrade to first-class for dining service in your seat. When your kids tire of watching the scenery zip by, they can refuel when a server brings their meal.

Southwest Chief

Break up the 40-hour ride between Chicago (225 S. Canal St., Chicago, IL) and Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief with a stop at the Grand Canyon. Passengers can disembark at Flagstaff, AZ (1 Historic Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ) and rent a car or take a shuttle bus for the 80 miles to the South Rim. Families with children might choose to stay on the train to Williams Junction and connect with the Grand Canyon Railway (1201 W. Old Route 66, Williams, AZ), a scenic excursion train pulled by a diesel locomotive. The Southwest Chief offers the same accommodation choices as other Amtrak long-distance trains, including family bedrooms, a sightseer car and a cafe.

Empire Builder

Roll through Big Sky Country in Montana, over the Rocky Mountains and on to the Pacific Northwest on the Empire Builder. The train originates in Chicago and arrives in Spokane (221 W. First Ave., Spokane, WA) 46 hours later. From there you can transfer to a train to Portland, OR (800 NW Sixth Ave., Portland, OR), or to Seattle (303 S. Washington St., Seattle, WA). The Gassman Coulee Trestle, 1,792 feet long and 117 feet tall, near Minot, ND, is one of the highlights of the trip. If you have a few extra days, get off the train at Glacier National Park and arrange for a rental car or shuttle service to your hotel.

Budget and Weather Considerations

Expanding tracks in extremely high temperatures, blizzards and the occasional washout can delay Amtrak trains, but these conditions are relatively rare along most train routes. Call ahead if you’re concerned that an impending weather event might affect your route.

If you can plan a trip in advance, you should be able to take advantage of Amtrak’s frequent deals and promotions. Early booking rewards, rail passes and deep discounts for kids can reduce fares considerably. On excursion trains, check for family packages and discounts for children.