When Planning Family Vacations, Don’t Forget the Train

As we stepped up onto Amtrak’s California Zephyr train in Denver one hot July evening, my family had no idea what to expect. I’d booked the trip on the strength of fond childhood memories of chugging up the Northeast Corridor in the 1970s, in the infancy of Amtrak.

My husband Todd had no such memories to buoy him. As we found seats and settled in, I caught a fatigued, this-could-be-a-really-bad-idea look on his face. He’s usually the better trooper when we travel with our three kids, but it was clear I’d be heading the cheerleading squad to Chicago this time.

I reminded him that our train tickets had been darn inexpensive. Round-trip for the five of us was about the cost of two plane tickets. I brought up the environmental advantages of trains, which are among the lowest carbon emitters of all travel options. 

Todd didn’t seem to care. I was running out of upbeat commentary, when the kids came back, breathless, from their initial round of exploration and urged us to look at the sunset.

As we pulled out of Denver, the sun was a brilliant orange, slowly dropping behind the peaks we were leaving to the west. Todd leaned his forehead on the window, smiling. The magic of train travel was taking hold – and just in time, as night was falling. 

To save money, we had foregone a sleeping car. Train seats are similar to first-class airline seats. They recline, to some extent. We’d brought sleeping bags and pillows, but I was still expecting a rough night, similar to camping out. Our kids, ages five, eight, and ten, ended up sleeping soundly. As for Todd and me, we survived. We’re parents after all: a good night’s sleep is never a guarantee.

When we awoke the next morning with most of Nebraska behind us, the kids wanted to show us the Observation Car they’d discovered. It had a lounge-like feel, though not the dark and smoky kind. The seats in this car faced enormous windows and swiveled, and there was more room to walk around than in the other cars.   

It was fun to sit and discuss the passing scenery. A game of Train Bingo really kept us going, drawing in fellow child travelers. Here’s how it works: Adults make up a list of items likely to be glimpsed from a train window (a dog, a red truck, a windmill). Kids cross them out as they spot them. Our game focused everyone on the gems of the rural landscape.

The kids came up with names for each state we passed through. My favorite was: Iowa, The Land of the Sinking Barns. You’ll understand the image if you take the train through Iowa in the summertime. 

The community and camaraderie of the train continually surprised me. It was natural and easy to ask a neighbor where he or she was headed, or to chat about past travel experiences. No one was in a rush. The kids met and spent time with other children, and we didn’t resort to the novelty of the snack bar as much as I’d expected. 

To this day, I can’t put my finger on exactly what made our children love this train trip – both ways – so much. Was it the ever-shifting scenery? The ability to move about and explore on the train? Or perhaps simply the relaxed pace of train travel? 

Whichever it was, our kids responded as I had as a child. I still remember the look on my ten year-old son Stephen’s face as we crossed the Mississippi River, which he’d just studied in school. He was utterly awed by the size of it.  

Recently I came across the term “slow travel” in Juliet Schor’s book, Plenitude. The slow traveler focuses on the journey as a key aspect of the vacation experience. Similar to the slow food movement, it seeks to “enhance the quality of the travel experience, as well as lighten the ecological footprint.” 

As for my husband Todd’s slow travel by train experience, he agreed to use Amtrak again the next Thanksgiving when the five of us traveled to Los Angeles. I think he’s coming around.

Suzita Cochran is a clinical psychologist from Colorado. For the past year, she has been writing a blog ( on how to incorporate "more of what matters" (and less of what doesn't) into parenting.

For a map that shows all of Amtrak's current rail routes in the U.S., click here.

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Thank you for sharing that and bringing back to me memories of some wonderful train trips I had when I was little going from NY to GA. Got me wanting to plan a trip! :-)

Posted by Sherry Andrea at April 10, 2012 at 12:00am

This article is very interesting and lets readers know really how beneficial it is, not just for the environment but as riders as well.It can help you save on gas money and travel with more than 5 people in a car.It is so nice sometimes to just relax and enjoy the scenery, especially is the busy worlds we all live in.

Posted by Jordyn Honigfeld at March 28, 2012 at 8:36pm

I think taking trains is a great idea! having recently been in europe and witnessing their developed railway infrastructure I think the united states needs to rely more on train transportation!

Posted by flowloko69 at March 28, 2012 at 7:27pm

I enjoyed this article it really opened my eyes to one of the most underutilized forms of passenger travel.

Posted by Cory Cross at March 28, 2012 at 4:47pm

I really liked this article and I think that sometime in the future I would like to travel by train it would be a great experience and also a more sustainable action! I thought it was great how your children were able to look out that window at all the passing states something that you can’t do on a plane. It’s great that you saved money and had such a great experience!

Posted by Grace Centola at March 27, 2012 at 12:01pm

Trains are great. They are a lot more sustainable way to travel rather than driving your car everywhere.

Posted by Keith Lentine at March 27, 2012 at 12:21am

Traveling by train is a great alternative. It is more eco-friendly, cost efficient, and it is a different experience than traveling by air. Although, it may take longer, one can embrace the scenery as it passes by.

Posted by Eddie Liao at March 27, 2012 at 12:03am

I was a on a train this weekend in nyc!

Posted by jjpaterw at March 26, 2012 at 11:13pm

I really like this article and agree with the concept. Also, next time I travel I’ll definitely heavily consider taking a train rather than a car or a plane. Not only is it better for the environment, but it seems to be an overall more enjoyable experience. Everything from the landscape/scenery, the relaxed nature of not being in such a rush and ability to meet new people all seem like they would make traveling more enjoyable.

Posted by Nick Repko at March 26, 2012 at 9:14pm

the US needs to invest in more, better, and cheaper forms of public transportation, not just in cities in towns but across the country.

Posted by Becky at March 26, 2012 at 7:49pm

I think traveling by train is a great idea. It is not only sustainable but also affordable. Despite the longer commute, the experiences mentioned by Suzita’s blog makes it all seem worth it.

Posted by Vincent Fu at March 26, 2012 at 6:27pm

This blog reminds me of when I was a kid and loving the train ride I took with my family to Washington DC. I’m sure my parents thought it was rough, but my brother and I had a blast. Not only is the cheaper ticket price enticing, the view of the scenery you pass through is gorgeous. I think taking a train is totally worth it, especially if you save the environment in the process.

Posted by Cori Semple at March 25, 2012 at 11:03pm

I think using trians to travel is one of the best options you can take to get you where you want to go. When I was a little younger, my parents wouls use trains frequently for our trip and what not around Massachusetts and to and from Boston. Traveling by train creates a whole different experience for those who are used to traveling by car or by air. It is a method that is not always thought of but could save a family so much money as opposed to traveling in a different way. It is a great way for families to bond and to try a different kind of traveling experience. In addition, it is very energy efficient for our environment!!

Posted by Bridgette at March 25, 2012 at 10:47pm

I think this article really made me become more open minded towards traveling the train long distance. I have always have the fear of flying and hate every time I have to step on a plane. Seeing the scenery and paying less seems like a much better idea to me!

Posted by Kaleigh Young at March 25, 2012 at 9:02pm

Unfortunately, I live in a very rural setting and don’t have the greatest access to trains. When it is possible to take the train I do so because it is inexpensive and it is a great way to travel. I wish that I had better access to a train station because I would definitely take it more often. This was a great article.

Posted by Lives in Vermont at March 25, 2012 at 8:54pm

I’ve never had the opportunity to ride the Amtrak but this story makes me want to check out various possible destinations to visit this summer. Also helps me out because I have a fear of flying.

Posted by Nick F at March 25, 2012 at 8:41pm

I could relate a lot to this article! For spring break last year I visited Canada and decided to save money by taking a train. It was 8 hours which I was dreading at first but once I traveled on that train I loved it. I met a lot of people my age on the train and also got to travel along the edge of lake champlain which was so beautiful. Who knew that traveling on a train could help the environment and money!

Posted by Kayla Wendling at March 25, 2012 at 8:13pm

Trains are by far the most patriotic way to travel. I wish my campus had a maglev monorail that went around campus and ran on solar energy

Posted by Umasskicksass at March 25, 2012 at 4:34pm

It was interesting to hear the experiences you gain from traveling by train. I love traveling as well.

Posted by KATIE O'BRIEN at March 25, 2012 at 4:24pm

Although I have never traveled through train, I could imagine traveling through states in one and seeing the scenery. Nowadays, people just want the fastest way to get to one place to another, which is taking a plane. However, if you are having a good time on a train looking at scenery and enjoying yourself, time does fly by.

Posted by Daniel Chin at March 25, 2012 at 4:11pm


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