Rethinking the 'Rode Trip': Taking the Auto Train with Kids

Amtrak runs through 46 U.S. states
Oct 1, 2020

Editor's Note: The above video and below story were based on a trip taken by influencer @Lauren.Stewart_DC in February 2020 with her family. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amtrak has enacted several cleaning, contact-free and convenience measures, including new capacity guidelines to allow for better distancing on trains. We've included details about those changes in the accompanying video and story.

While the mythology of the Great American Road Trip holds a sacred place in the family vacation pantheon and has been the trip du jour during the COVID-19 pandemic, here's the reality: If you're a parent packing up the littles for a multi-day drive to "all the way over there" (trace your finger across a map as you say that), the time in the car doesn't especially feel like vacation.

Even if you are willing to spring for airfare and to brave the COVID-19 era flying experience, there are the hours spent wedging all the stuffed animals, pool toys, TSA-compliant sunscreen and extra diapers into a few suitcases—and the joys of dragging that haul through garages, security and airplane aisles while keeping everyone's face covered and hands sanitized. Then there's the thinly veiled contempt of the kid-dreading passengers on your flight—all clearly unmoved by the fact that you're lugging a Paw Patrol backpack, an iPad you think you charged before you left the house and a small, wriggly human or two.

Still, if you're a parent who believes that travel expands your kids' horizons, you're going to get out there eventually, as long as it's safe. And, if—in the process—you can find a way to lessen your carbon footprint on the planet they're inheriting, so much the better.

Enter the Auto Train, a unique Amtrak service that takes you and your car nearly 900 miles between Virginia and Florida without a single traffic jam, back seat turf war or potty emergency (just as you drive by the rest stop). 

Yes, the same offering that Florida-bound snowbirds flock to each winter turns out to be an ideal way for families to reinvent the road trip year-round—as travel influencer and YouTube mama @Lauren.Stewart_DC discovered during a February trip with her family of five (kids ages 8, 5 and 1). Read on for her takeaways and tips.

Photo taken in February 2020. Face coverings are now required in station and during boarding.

"It's like traveling in a hotel."

For a long family trip, there are often two choices: Cram everything (including kids) into any available space in the car and settle in for the long haul while one parent white-knuckles the steering wheel and the other attempts to keep the peace over playlists, tablets, power cords and personal space. Or, corral the clan onto an airplane and try to survive overhead bin jams, popping ears, shrinking seats and shifting facemasks, while your neighbors silently judge your parenting ability for several hours.

Bottom line: Getting there generally doesn't feel like part of the vacation.

So for Lauren and her family, the Auto Train provided a welcome contrast: "We got on the train, our rooms were easy to find, we got cozy and everyone put on pajamas," she says. "It's like we got to our hotel and woke up at our destination. The kids didn't even realize we were traveling for 18 hours."

Least of all, her one-year-old, Dawson: "He's a happy kid, but he's always been a difficult traveler—he hates his car seat, he hates airplanes and he can cry for five hours straight. But he was such a happy traveler on the train, it was a miracle."

The hotel-like space he was traveling in was probably to thank. The family had booked a Superliner Bedroom Suite—a combination of two Superliner Bedrooms and one of several room types available on the Auto Train (all of which come with comfy bedding and towels, turndown service and complimentary dining with wine).

After an early dinner, she put Dawson down and closed the partition between the two rooms so that Dad and the other kids could continue hanging out.

"Even when Dawson got up at 2 a.m. ready to party, it didn't wake up the other kids." 

The hotel-on-rails experience also eliminated some of the other difficulties of long trips—powering devices, finding a Wi-Fi signal, stretching legs and catching naps in comfortable positions, for starters.

But arguably the most conspicuous absence was the bathroom emergency.

"I can't tell you how many times we've had to stop on a road trip for one kid to go to the bathroom as soon as another one finally fell asleep after crying for 45 minutes," says Lauren in praise of Amtrak's en suite facilities. (Superliner Bedrooms come with a bathroom, shower and sink, while the Family Room and Roomettes have access to the full bathroom on each Superliner car.)  

Equally impressed by her digs' overall roominess, she noted that she'd even take a mini Pack 'n Play next time.

Choosing a private room can prove cost-effective for a traveling family. Most rooms accommodate two to four travelers—you can combine two rooms for larger parties. The ticket price includes much of what is extra on planes—no baggage fees, Wi-Fi charges or food costs—and because your car is traveling with you, no long-term parking costs at your home airport or rental car expenses in your destination. Additionally, for each paying adult a child ages 2-12 can travel for 50% off the fare.

Another bonus—you can safely remove your mask while you are in your private room. As a result, the bedroom options on long-distance trains have proven very popular on Amtrak's long-distance trains in recent months, as more travelers want to get into their own space, close the door and relax. (Click here for more on Amtrak's enhanced cleaning protocols.)

"It was an adventure."

For Lauren's kids, the ride became entertainment in its own right—so much so that they willingly parted with their screens (gasp!) in favor of going on mini-adventures. 

"Just moving between the cars felt so adventurous for them," she says, noting that if they were traveling right now, they would likely stay in their room for most of the trip. 

And unlike on planes, where kids in the aisle often prompt eye rolls or tunnel-visioned stares, Lauren's kids—especially super-social five-year-old Lilah—made friends during each excursion in February. 

The frequent ice-breaker? Car talk.

"The kids were so blown away by the fact that our car was also on the train," she says, "they started asking other passengers what car they 'got to' bring with them."

By the end of the trip, "each kid had a new set of grandparents that had adopted them."

Travelers are currently required to wear a face covering while outside their private room or while sitting in coach seats. Amtrak has enacted contact-free ticketing (just download the app) and capacity limits to allow for even more distancing on the train.

"One of the only things that didn't turn into an adventure was the food, to our relief."

With picky eaters (i.e., at least half of all kids), every meal out involves a roll of the dice and silent incantations. The dining car turned out to be a serious crowd pleaser (dinner and continental breakfast come with any sleeper accommodation fare), with the mac 'n' cheese earning particularly rave reviews. And that from "a mac 'n' cheese connoisseur," Lauren adds.

The kids also loved putting all the toppings on their cheesecake desserts—chocolate syrup, whipped cream, even fruit. But most important, says Lauren, is that "the menu has good options for picky eaters." (Lauren also suggests bringing a bag of snacks to help with grazing during the trip.)

The dining car is still available on the Auto Train for sleeper car guests, with distancing guidelines in place. You can make a dining reservation when you check-in, or guests can also choose to have the food delivered to their private room. 

"Skipping the drive can do a world of good."

In an average year, the Auto Train takes 117,000 cars off of I-95—a savings of 95 million miles (almost four trips around the planet) for drivers, and 8.5 million pounds of CO2e for the earth. The Auto Train accepts most standard vehicle types, including SUVs and minivans.

With neither parent behind the wheel, both Lauren and her husband could be in the moment with their kids—whether that was reading a bedtime story, playing a game or looking out the window to try to find alligators as the train passed alongside the St. John's River in Florida.

And between friends, Lauren says there was a bonus benefit: She traveled nearly 900 miles without the motion sickness brought on by her husband's driving.

And once they arrived, Lauren's car was already packed and ready to go as they continued their vacation in Florida. "I love having my own car with me on vacation," she says. "Within an hour of arriving in Florida, we were on our way."

"This was the way to go for us."

"I didn't even realize this was a 'thing'," Lauren told us after getting back from her vacation. "We'd taken Amtrak (from D.C.) to New York, but never even considered taking Amtrak longer distances."

The trip was an adventure for Lauren's social followers as well, who asked tons of questions on her DMs as she posted to her Instagram story on the trip. "The most-asked question was how long the trip is," she says, "and honestly, it doesn't feel like an 18-hour trip at all."

Which leads to the inevitable question seven months later, would she do it now?

"I would hands-down take a train over an airplane right now," she says now. "Being able to get my kids in our own room while we travel is so key. And it's so much easier than a long road trip.

"We'd definitely do this again."

Ready to plan your own "rode trip" with Amtrak? Check out more information on the Auto Train or Amtrak's other long distance routes. Learn more about Amtrak's enhanced safety and cleaning measures.

Lauren's tips for taking the train with your kids

While on her trip in February, Lauren received tons of DMs with questions from her followers. Below are some of her tips, from one "professional mother" to other parents considering the same trip.

1. Pack cozy clothes.
You will be right at home in the private rooms. We changed in about .5 seconds. Traveling in PJs for the win!

2. Snacks. Bring. Lots. Of. Snacks.
My kids' kids love to eat and read, or eat and talk, or eat and basically do anything. Food makes everything better. You can also go to the dining car or have food delivered to your room as well.

3. Bring a small "kid bag" for each child.
Pack a few of their favorite books, puzzles, games and juice boxes to help keep everyone smiling.

4. Pack smart.
The less you carry on the less you have to carry off! Leave bulky suitcases you won’t need in the car. Have a great trip!

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