I Took My Son Across the Country on the Train, and We’ve Never Been Closer

published Sep 13, 2022
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Boy reading book on train
Credit: Amber Guetebier

Traveling long distance by train is like stepping into a previous era an era when train travel was the fastest way to get from point A to point B. There’s something about the places you see rugged, wild, far from the freeway, all set to the constant rhythm of the train barreling down the tracks. It’s both timeless and fleeting, not unlike childhood.  

Most of my previous experience with long distance or overnight train travel was in my early 20s, back when I’d sling my backpack over a cheap seat and get comfortable with the help of some cheap wine. This summer my 11-year-old son and I found ourselves with a rare stretch of unscheduled activities or work obligations following a planned visit to see my parents in California. Why not take the train home instead of flying? we thought. So we did! Here’s how it went.

Credit: Amber Guetebier
Our roomette!

Traveling the California Zephyr Amtrak Route

Heading east from Colfax, California — a Gold Country town about an hour north of Sacramento — to Union Station in the heart of Chicago, we’d be taking the California Zephyr, reputed to be one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes. But taking a three-day, two-night cross country trip in coach seats with a tweenager wasn’t going to cut it, so I decided to book our own private sleeping car. Although Amtrak does offer bedrooms with more space and individual bathrooms on this route, the cost was nearly double for a bedroom vs. a roomette, and since it was just the two of us, the roomette seemed fine. All meals are included (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and children’s fares are reduced.

Fun tip: Amtrak sometimes has bedrooms available and if you have booked a roomette, you may get an email asking if you want to put in a bid to upgrade. There are no guarantees, but it is a way to save a few hundred dollars off the cost of a room if you get lucky!

Once onboard our friendly porter Chris showed us everything we’d need to know about the little roomette we’d call home for the next three days. This included turn-down (and turn-up) service for the beds; where to find bathrooms and showers; how to get a hold of him if we needed anything (there’s a call button); and how to make reservations for meals in the dining car. Keep in mind: It’s a good idea to tip your porter per day, they work really hard! We opted for $20 per day. 

I won’t lie: the roomette was smaller than I’d imagined. It’s not like a Hogwarts Express car (you can upgrade to a bedroom for something more along those lines). Roomettes are not much wider than the two seats that face each other. A tiny table flips down to sit between you and your travel companion. You stash your bag on what will become the steps to the top bunk later. At night, our bag went on the floor in front of the door. The two lower chairs fold into a bed and then a top bunk flips down, all of which your porter organizes for you. My son took the top bunk.

Credit: Amber Guetebier

My Experience Traveling by Train with My Tween

The unexpected benefit of being in a tiny roomette with my tween? To be honest, we couldn’t get enough of each other. 

Turns out, the other magical part of train travel is being present. Yes, I had envisioned having deep heart-to-heart discussions with my son about the changes ahead, about the anxiety of starting middle school, about being true to yourself and always brave. Instead, we played cards and Farkle, we read books together, we dined with strangers and made conversations with our roomette neighbors. We observed the scenery and listened to audio books. We snuggled in the tiny bottom bunk and made videos to send to grandparents.

Meals were surprisingly fun, too. While we slept through breakfast in the morning and opted to get bagels in the lounge car instead, we had both lunch and dinner throughout the trip in the formal dining car. Amtrak seats tables of four so if your party is less than this, you’ll be seated with other random travelers. I was a little unsure about sitting with total strangers, but it turned out to be like those hostels of my youth: groups of people from all walks of life in the same place at the same time. And we all had at least one shared interest: train travel. There were people who hated to fly; couples who were savoring the time together; exchange students who wanted to see the country. Later, back in the roomette, we’d talk about the interesting people we met and conversations we overheard.

The stretch from Utah toward Denver as we climbed through the Rockies was, as promised, one of the most scenic railways in the United States. We passed through the Ruby Canyon and broke through into the Azure Valley two places, our conductor informed us, that are accessible only by train or by white water rafting the river. But even as we pulled into Nebraska where the corn fields waved back familiarly, the train continued to enchant us. We passed through depots that once were glorious, abandoned brick warehouses, farm fields right out of a postcard.

Nearly all Amtrak cars have an observation car, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and chairs that face out along with tables perfect for playing games. Underneath is the lounge car with snacks and drinks for purchase. Some Amtrak routes even offer a special car for movies or kids games: ours did not, but we found plenty to do between the observation car, meals, and our own little roomette. In all honesty, the trip flew by. 

I’ll admit that as we approached the end of our destination, I felt a twinge of sadness seeing the Chicago skyline. The train was delayed by a couple of hours, though, and that last stretch was slow-going, so we were definitely glad to get off and walk around in the fresh air. There was just a sentimental feeling, that of something so precious becoming just a memory — albeit a happy one.

Credit: Amber Guetebier

Top Tips for Traveling by Train

  • Pack light. Roomettes have almost no place for a suitcase so go for a duffle bag like this one and plan to wear the same thing on more than one day. There is a spot to hang a coat and a shirt or two, but honestly try to pack as light as possible. You can check other luggage either into the luggage car if your station has service or leave your bags on racks at the bottom.
  • Use a smallish hanging toiletry case, like this one. There are hooks in the bathrooms that can be used to hang your case, making it much easier than trying to balance a case on the small ledge in the bathroom or shower rooms. Towels are provided. 
  • Shower before it gets too late at night. The train tends to go faster overnight and faster equals more rocking. Taking a shower when you’re swaying side to side is definitely less than fun.
  • Download in advance. On our train Wi-Fi was spotty or non-existent at times, which was just fine (being present and all) but it is nice to have an audiobook or movie to watch at night, so plan ahead and download what you need.
  • Embrace the slow life. It is almost a guarantee you will arrive at least two hours later than what your ticket says, and it may be more. If you need to be somewhere by a certain time, give yourself a buffer. 
  • You can hop off the train when the conductor allows it at certain stops. They make it very clear how much time you have and give you advance warning before you reach the stop. Don’t wander too far, but you can certainly take a brisk walk the length of the train.
  • At the end of the trip, treat yourself to a hotel you know will have plush beds and nice bathrooms. While we were comfortable enough on the train, it felt super luxurious to sleep in a quality bed and take a long hot shower in a nice hotel the end of the trip. We stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel Chicago, which is a great option for kids: the pool is epic and it’s near Navy Pier and the river. 

Go for a hike when you get back. Since you won’t have a ton of walking in except back and forth in the cars, plan a long hike or walk the next day after your travels to offset your inactivity. 

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