Monday, November 29, 2010

We Love Trains

Here's the truth about traveling by train with small children: it is so incredibly convenient and pleasant, that if you try it, you may never, ever want to get on a plane or strap yourself into a car again.  Honestly.

How can it be so convenient to travel by train with children, even here in the car-centric western US?  Let me count the ways:

1) Amtrak has less invasive security procedures, at least in our experience.  There is no need to wait in long lines at security checkpoints.  You may have your luggage or personal effects examined, but you're not likely to be asked to remove your shoes or go through a naked body scanner.  If you have your ticket in your hand and only carry-on baggage, you can simply wait for the train to arrive, and then hop on.  It's basically as simple as getting on a city bus or light rail car.

One particularly pleasant aspect of these security policies is that you may wait to board the train with friends and family who are seeing you off at the station.  I've traveled to California on Amtrak with Little and Bigger twice in the last year, both times without my husband. (He had to work while we traveled, and wasn't home in time to wait with us at the depot.)  Both times, Grandma M was able to wait with us by the track, and then help us get our luggage to our train car when it was time to board.  If you have squirrely little children or awkward luggage (and I usually have both), an extra pair of eyes and hands is lovely.  Plus, if your train is late (as mine was on my most recent trip), there is another adult to split a burger and a beer with while you wait for the train.  (If you're in Eugene, I recommend the bar menu at Marche as a late-train cure-all.  They are also always gracious about seating children for an early dinner.)

2) Train stations are centrally located in many west-coast cities, while airports are often on the outskirts of a city.  I assume that this is because train stations often predate airports, and require comparatively little space.  You don't need to schlep to the edge of town to make your departure when you go by train.  When you arrive at your destination, you are often in the middle of the city, at the hub of its public transportation services.   We are close enough to the center of the city that we have walked to or from the train station many times.

3) You can bring your bike on the train.  This is particularly convenient between Eugene and Seattle, where the Amtrak Cascades has simple bike racks right on board.  On some trains, you are required to pack your bike in a box provided by Amtrak before travel.  

4) You can move about a train freely, anytime.  I have traveled with my sons on Amtrak from the time they were infants on.  If you travel by car or plane with your children, everyone has to be seated (in rather cramped conditions) for most of the trip.  There are car seats and seat belts involved, and when someone needs to use the bathroom, you must either find a rest stop (if going by car) or check to ensure that the path is not blocked by a food cart (on planes).  If you want to stretch your legs or get something to eat, you may have to wait.  Not so on the train.  When Bigger was a year old, he spent most train trips walking up and down the aisles with me, smiling at all the people, getting something to eat in the snack car, and befriending all the kids and grandparents on board.  He had a blast, and when he was tired, we could sit down in our seats and nurse (also not possible in a moving car). 

5) Finally, we love to take the train because it is fun.  There are huge windows by each seat, plenty of room to relax, and no one has to drive.  We can read, knit, talk, or doze with plenty of elbow room. We can visit the snack car for cookies and milk.  There are viewing cars (and sometimes nature guides) and dining cars on longer trips.  You or your children can even watch on-board movies or hang out in the video game parlor if that's your bag.

Have any of you out there had positive (or not so positive) experiences on the train?

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