Unsolicited advice: spending 24 hours on an Amtrak train with a kid

So, we’re back!  We had a great holiday and a great trip on Amtrak! I was worried that the train travel would be crazy-making, but really, it was easier (but longer) than plane travel. The only nerve-wracking part, for us, was getting from Amtrak to commuter trains (and the reverse).  While I’m not about to turn in my frequent flier cards for a fake conductor’s hat,if I ever again have a situation where train travel is substantially cheaper than air travel, I’d take it.  There’s something about just being on the train, and not having anywhere to go or anything to do, or any hurry-up and wait that  just felt good. Selam did not complain once!  I only got sick of it during the last 15 minutes of our ride when I became aware that I couldn’t last much longer without washing my hair or losing my mind.  It was fun meeting new people, and spending time with folks we would not ordinarily interact with (like the large Amish families on our return train, or the woman and service-dog on the way to Chicago.) There were a number of hard-core train enthusiasts on board, and that was fun, too.  You are more or less forced to sit with strangers in the cafe car, and I think that was a good thing.  We had some great conversations!

That said, we’d do a few things differently next time. Here’s what we did right and what I’d change for a redo. (Now, if this were a fancy pants mommy blog, I’d get like a free trip to Disney and get to have a drawing for free Amtrak tickets, but it isn’t, so all you get is unsolicited advice…..)

1. Bring lots of stuff to do. We did a great job of this, and did an especially good job of bringing both things that she could chat and do (crafts) and silent activities (books, movies, magazines).  Our neighbors on the train were super friendly and chatty on the way there, and very silent on the way back, so having a variety was key.  I was also armed with several alphabet games and things like that, which were helpful on the commuter rail when I didn’t want to open up the backpack of fun.  In desperation on a commuter rail, I let her send texts to her cousins, which consisted primarily of emoji. It was also helpful to bring some group games. On the way to chicago, we were able to engage other kids in a few rounds of spot it while in the cafe car. 

2. Bring a few surprises for the trip.  I had 3 and only used 2.  I’m saving the third for another time that I need it! 

3. bring a blanket and pillow. These don’t count toward baggage and are great for sleeping overnight.  Next time around, I think I’ll bring smaller blankets, though. I brought two fleece blankets, knowing they were washable and squishy.  They also took up too much room.  Next time, it’ll be smaller afghans. I brought a small travel pillow. Selam opted for a gigantic stuffed elephant that she used as a pillow and playmate.  Next time, I’ll also bring a small inflatable pillow, as I found myself wanting a pillow for my back and head (the way the seats recline didn’t work so great for me). 

4. Bring your own food.  We get about a C on this.  I brought lunch for the first day ,and bunches of treats and snacks.  If I were to do it over, I’d bring a wider variety of food but less of any one kind. Part of the allure of the snack car is the variety to choose from.  I’d also bring more healthy food, and a couple of cans of soda ($2.25 for a canned drink. Seriously?) Beyond that, though, I just gave in to the reality of over-priced food, and forked over the 7 bucks for 5 nuggets when I had to. 

5. Bring a water bottle.  The water fountain in each car is very cold and good. The little pointy paper cups they provide are ridiculous. I was so glad we had our water bottles.  I think next time I might bring along some of those little powder packets to make lemonaid, too. 

6. Dress in layers. Bring clothes to change into.  i really, really wish we had worn short sleeve shirts as our bottom layer, as the train to Chicago got SO HOT, especially at night.  On the way to Chicago, I brought 2 full clothing changes for each of us, thinking we’d change into sweats to sleep and then into clean clothes for the next day. That was a waste of space.  For the return, I just brought clean shirts, socks and undies for one day each.  We wore our snow boots on the train and packed light shoes in our carry-ons.

7. Bring a small CVS of OTC meds, etc.  I brought OTC meds for colds, fevers, and tummy-aches. I also brought bandaids, some of those instant heating pads, a thermometer, gloves, and an ace bandage.  While we were lucky not to need anything from the list, we did loan things to many people on the trip, and I just felt better knowing that if either of us got sick, I could at least manage comfort for 24 hours.  If I were to do it over, I think I’d just bring less of everything. Except children’s tylenol. Because there’s nothing worse than a feverish kid. 

8. This is our big fail.  So, Amtrak is unspeakably generous with luggage allotments. Two bags each on the train and two bags each in the luggage compartment.  And the bags can be 27″.  They don’t count purses, coolers, blankets, pillows, or bags containing medication.  I just checked our one 27″ bag and then carried on our 20″ roll-aboard (for the way there, because we over-packed) and the way back because we had some more delicate Christmas gifts), two blankets, two pillows, a cooler, and two backpacks.  Okay, consider what the average 7 year old is willing to carry, and you can now picture me trying to wrangle all these bags (and more on the way home) on and off the train. Big fail. Next time, I’ll bring two 27″ bags. One will go in luggage and the other will hold EVERYTHING else–cooler, blankets, toys, the works.  Two biggish bags and a small purse or backpack would be MUCH easier to maneuver than all those small bags (some of which didn’t even have handles.) It is not hard at all to get to one’s luggage on the train, so for train travel–bigger is better. 


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