About a year ago, when we heard my dear cousin would be getting married on Labor Day weekend in Chicago, I was thrilled and excited. Then we realized that after previously planned vacations occurred along with increased summer expenses, the $335 for a round trip ticket multiplied by 4 for my family would be a little steep. So we started to consider driving. But after determining it would need to be a 2 day drive in each direction, and that school would already be in session, we weren’t sure how we’d get to the Windy City for the grand celebration.
That was, until my brother Greg suggested taking the train. “The what?” I remembered thinking. “A train? Who takes trains? Are they even still around?” I laughed with the thought entering my mind of romantic goodbyes at train stations from the movies while a few of my favorite tunes with train themes played in my head. Trains were for dramatic movie scenes and for hauling coal, not my family of four, right? After my brother looked into the details and shocked me with the news of a $417 round trip price tag for ALL FOUR OF US, I was sold. A deal. An adventure. Our family would soon be taking the MIDNIGHT TRAIN going anywhere! Well, Chicago to be more specific.
In sharing the details of our trip with friends, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my amazement that people choose trains when planning vacations or with the many questions I pondered in terms of logistics of travel via rail. Google failed me in my various searches with words like “train travel with kids.” So, I decided to include some details in our blog this week, in case someone out there wondered the same “Mom questions” when planning a train trip with small travelers.
A SHORT COMMUTE
We boarded the train at the station located a quick 5 minutes from our home in the Eastern Panhandle of WV. Typically, when flying we spend an hour driving to Washington DC or Baltimore, use a long term parking service, a shuttle, security, bag check etc. On this trip, the distance from our car to the train station dock was shorter than my usual walk into Target. No one works at the station, so we purchased a parking pass for $2 from City Hall and left our car for the long weekend. When the train came, we handed our tickets to an attendant on the train and boarded. It took about 90 seconds and was not much different than getting on a ride at an amusement park. We “roughed it” for coach seats (sleepers were available but not at our bargain price).
A WORD ON BAGGAGE
After leaving our bags on a rack downstairs, we climbed the steps of our double decker train and were escorted to seats. We were careful about making sure our bags left downstairs were locked and that our valuables stayed with us close by. We found the baggage allowance generous – 2 “checked bags” per person and 2 personal items per person. Booster sears, blankets and pillows, and food and drink (all of which we brought) are allowed and don’t count toward that number.
ROOM TO STRETCH
I was shocked by the size of the seats and the legroom. The seats tilt-back similarly to an airline seat, but the leg rest comes up like a recliner (just not as deep as a LAZY BOY!) and seats are much wider. The view from the top large windows (which have curtains to close if desired) was great and our kids loved seeing farms, rivers, boats, cargo trains carrying all sorts of interesting things, city skylines, and steel mills. Another plus is that there are two electrical outlets along the window bay, which was nice for plugging in phones and computers. The kids really loved the fold down trays for playing cards or coloring!
WHERE TO DINE
On our way to Chicago, we left after school and were short on time, so we decided to enjoy meals on the train. We were the 4th stop on the West bound line and the dining car was filled for reservations for the night. The dining car takes reservations on a first come first serve basis once passengers board the train and has a wide variety of foods including steak and salmon! Plan B included dinner in the observation/longue car. We ordered from a “snack bar” and while reasonable ($7-10 a person), pretty much everything ordered (pizza, hot dogs, burgers) was placed in a microwave except for my humus and pretzel crisps and cheese. Note to the traveling parent: wine is sold by the glass or half bottle, along with beer and other drinks. We enjoyed sitting in the observation car for a meal and a drink and I personally enjoyed the bright open environment of this car. A few of us did have breakfast in the dining car, which was exciting for the kids and a bit better. We got a laugh about my daughter’s juice spontaneously flying through the car! At the end of the day, we felt the food was sub par and decided to hit a grocery store for a more fresh option on the way back home.
THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION: DID ANYONE SLEEP??
After visiting the lounge restroom, which is basically a 2 basin sink area with a pleather couch attached to a toilet area to brush our teeth and wash our faces (we chose bottled water), we settled in for the night. We chose yoga pants/jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies as someone shared the train got cool at night (she was right) as our traveling/sleeping attire. We snuggled in with blankets and pillows and the kids slept like babies. My husband describes our experience best by saying we took several long naps! Every 60-90 minutes. I was awoken by a numb extremity or someone boarding or exiting the train. Optimistic me thought the train would not stop between maybe midnight and 5 am, but I was WRONG! The train does stop but the passengers and staff were great and keeping noise to a minimum and the lights do go out at 10 pm and cell phones and other noisy electronics are not allowed in regular cars.
DOWN BY THE STATION…
Union Station in Chicago is big. The walk to the rental car pick up is long and there are lots of trains going in multiple directions. The rental car drop off is not clearly marked and the process of finding your train, track, and gate is a bit confusing at first. We experienced lines – although not terrible ones- in Chicago. The kids were troopers and we made it off the train and back on the right one a few days later, but it was probably the most foreign part of our journey. As far as schedules go, we arrived to Chicago 10 minutes late, but arrived home 2.5 hours late after a derailment the previous day still had trains delayed.
BUT…WOULD YOU DO IT AGAIN?
At the end of a particularly wonderful weekend that completely exhausted us all, I’d still choose the train as our mode of travel again if I had the option. My children and my niece and nephew were fascinated by the whole process. They were able to spread out, play, and rest and we were able to enjoy visiting with each other and save more than a few bucks. Children can learn so much by visiting a new place in a new way. My parents were certainly not oozing with extra money to spend on lavish journeys during my childhood days, but my mother always did her research and sought out a deal that allowed my brother and I to see many places in this beautiful world, which I am very thankful for. So if choosing a train helps your family get somewhere new sometime soon, I would not be afraid of going for it! Board your own midnight train without fear! Where will it take you? I’d love to know! And I hope our experience helps with your planning.