Sunday, May 15, 2016

Across the County on Amtrak's Southwest Chief

There are some exciting things happening in our family. As a consequence, we needed to get a little bit creative with our family vacation this year.

So we decided to take a train across the country!

Not long ago, we took a short ride up to Santa Barbara from Orange County and had a fantastic time.  Our boys loved the train and compared to driving, it was a fun way to enjoy the trip with two entergetic toddlers.  I had a slightly more difficult time convincing my husband that a two and a half day trip would be equally enjoyable...

I'll answer a few of the questions everyone asks first, and then go into more detail about our trip.

Is it cost effective compared to flying?

It depends on how you look at it.  Our trip for a family of four, in a family room, from Fullerton, CA to Chicago, IL was $1600.  Our flight from Chicago back to Orange County was $600.  I didn't spend much effort finding the absolute lowest price on either, although I did shift our dates to midweek.  So flying is cleary much cheaper per mile.  However we spent 2 full nights and 6 meals on the train, all included in the fair.  I think it's reasonable to assume about 200 dollars per night for a hotel and $20, $30, and $40 dollars respectively for three meals a day for 4 people.  Even then, at 1180, the train is slightly more.  Sure, I could include gas (2000 miles, 25 miles a gallon, maybe 250 dollars in gas?) and wear and tear and eventually make the argument that it is cheaper than driving, but it's still probably close.  The bottom line is if cost is the deciding factor, the train isn't probably your best bet, unless you are willing to sit in coach.  

Are you crazy?

Possibly.  I love the idea of sharing fun adventures with my family.  When our first was less than a year old, we moved into a dorm for a short amount of time so my husband could finish his degree.  I like exploring different ways of living and traveling.  I like exposing my kids to different people, places and experiences.  For us, the cross country train fit perfeclty with those goals. That said, there were several times we looked at each other over heads or our rambunctious children and thought "What were we thinking?" but in fairness, we do that on a regular basis at home as well.

Would you do it again?

Absolutely, but not right now.  18 months to 2.5 is one of my favorite ages for many things, but not for travel.  At this age, sitting still is not a skill he's mastered.   I'm glad it didn't stop us from taking the trip,but I'll wait until they're older to do it again.  

Our Trip

We decided to leave from Fullerton Station instead of LAX.  The drive was easier, and the area familiar.  We convinced a friend to drop us off.  We arrived early in anticipation of traffic and because we didn't fully understand the check in/security process.  When we arrived, we checked most of our bags.  They let us keep our stroller and check it just before boarding.  Since we had arrived early, we had plenty of time for a quick dinner at the Spaghetti Factory.  

We were still at the station in plenty of time and watched some of the Metrolink trains arrive and depart.  Train stations have some interesting people.  While one of my goals was to get my family out of the familiarity of our South Orange County Bubble, there were a few uncomfortable exchanges while we waiting for our train.

Despite my anxiety, there was plenty of time to get on board when the train stopped.  I was slightly concerned, as the Surfliner had stopped for less than 2 minutes when we took our trip to Santa Barbara, but we had plenty of time.  In fact, we intially boarded the wrong car (there were two sleeper cars) and had to deboard and board again on the correct car. (It turns out your ticket says the car number, but it's not very obvious)


On board, I was pleasantly surprised at the size of our room.  I had read every reivew I could find of Amtrak sleeper cars and had read a wide array of comments.  While certainly smaller than a hotel room, it was not cramped.  There was a luggage rack outside and we left our larger bag there.  It would have fit in the room fine, and a slighly smaller bag would have fit under the seat.  

Our room consisted of a bench love seat and 2 single seats that faced each other.  There were pillows everywhere when we boarded.  Our steward came in and introduced herself and offered us dinner reservations (we boarded at 6:45).  We didn't see much of her on the trip.

Food on the Train

With a sleeper accomodation, all food in the dining car is included.  The food was not bad.  It was certainly better than standard airline food and equivalant to some of the fancier dinners I've had on international buisiness flights.  

The dining car was located adjacent to our car and featured 4 person tables.  Because our family is four people, we didn't share, but if you have less (or more) you are assigned to share a table with other passangers. I'm glad, for their sake, that no one else needed to eat with our children.

 The worst meal was the salisbury steak.  I'm not entirly sure what possessed my husband to order it.  Luckily for him, my steak was very good, but I wasn't in the mood for meat and he ate it.  The children's menu is hot dogs or mac and cheese.  My kids happily ate a lot of mac and cheese for almost every meal.  There were also some good vegetarian options including bean enchiladas and veggie burgers. They also had several good dessert options.  By the end of the trip, many menu items were not available.

In addition to the dining car, there is a snack bar under the observation portion of the next train car.  Since we had 3 very large meals a day, we visited only once as something to do and bought the kids a treat.  It was fairly expensive and stocked with chips, cookies, microwavable food, and drinks.  

We packed WAY too many snacks.  I wasn't sure about the food and nothing is worse than hungry kids when traveling, so I had an entire suitcase of unecessary juice boxes, chips, fruit, nuts, and everything else I thought could survvie the train trip.  We did feed them a few snacks, but my snack bag was way overkill.


We chose a family room.  Our room was the width of the train and designed for a family of four.  The family of four it is designed for has children who are slighly older than ours and who don't fall off of things when sleeping, however.

Our attendent weirdly chose only to set up the beds on the left of the picture, but we were able to get the others set up on our own.  It is remarkably difficult to get photos in such a small space!

The ladder to the top bunk was a HUGE hit and made me super uncomfortable.  Still, we let them climb it (with help) several times.
Yep mom, I could totally fall off of this in the middle of the night on a moving train!

Night Sleep

Nap 'sleep'

In the end, we all slept on the bottom two bunks.  My husband and I serving as bed rails for the toddlers.  It was not nearly as uncomfortable as it sounds.  The biggest problem is that the side beds, (shown in the bottom photo) are only about 4 feet long.  As a result, we slept cuddled on both beds, but there was a 3.5 inch gap between the beds.  Luckily I brought our own bedding (I was nervous...) so we had plenty of blankets and pillows to shove in the gap.

Sleeping with kids can be rough, but it wasn't worse than expected and the first night I actually slept pretty well once we got them to sleep.  Putting the kids to bed and doing anything was out of the quesiton, but we've decided that generally it's not even worth it to try in most cases when on vacation and we just enjoy the extra hours of sleep instead. I did listen to an audiobook when I couldn't sleep. 

They also have an uncharacteristically modern blue night light in the room.  


Our biggest entertainment was probably eating.  It felt like everytime we started getting bored, it was time to eat again...  

Reading: Although I bet when you travel without kids you get to read A LOT more.

Tablets: (Make sure you preload media, not much internet along the train route

And snacking.

The diner card also had paper table cloths which we made use of at each meal.

And of course, gazing out the windows.  There was a variety of interesting and different scenery along the route.  It was a bit hard to follow the map, but when I had internet access, I used Google Maps to see where we were.  

Overall, we had a fantastic adventure.  A train trip isn't for everyone, but I'm glad we did it.  And I would absolutely do it again, but we've had enough trains for at least a few years.