Train Travel: a Family Vacation Adventure

By: Mischelle Weedman Davis

This past Christmas my husband and I took our kids on a ski vacation. But rather than drive through the snow and ice to someplace close or brave the airport to go someplace farther away, we chose to take book an overnight train trip on Amtrak's Empire Builder from Seattle, WA to Whitefish, MT. The skiing was great but I think that the train trip to and from Whitefish was the best part for the kids.

The ticketing and baggage check-in experience for Amtrak is unbelievably simple and easy. No lines, no security hassles, no problems. You could literally arrive minutes before your train leaves the station.

While on board we experienced some of the country's most exciting and colorful sights: the Cascade Mountains. It didn't take us long to get into the mountains were we could enjoy beautiful snow-capped vistas. And we didn't have to drive in the snow or strap chains on the tires.

We banned portable DVD players, Nintendo DS, and iPods from the trip and instead favored the scenic views from the train, books, card games, board games, and good old fashioned conversation. And our ten year old had so much fun that she didn't suffer any technology withdrawal symptoms. And our two and a half year old was so excited to be on a real train (like Thomas the Tank Engine) he was practically beside himself. Movies, games, etc. were in available in the Lounge Car but we chose to quietly relax on our own.

The kids loved the train tunnels! A mile-long tunnel under downtown Seattle leads out from King Street Station. And later on during the trip you pass through the 7.79 mile Cascade Tunnel, bored under Stevens Pass.

The trip from Seattle to Whitefish is a little more than 13 hours. And because departure is in the late afternoon or evening much of the trip is spent sleeping. We reserved a family-sized (sleeps four) room on the Sleeping Car. A friendly, traditionally dressed conductor came by to smile and punch our tickets. The kids thought he looked like the Tom Hanks character for The Polar Express. And a few minutes later the attendant arrived with champagne for the adults and sparkling cider for the kids.

Seating on the train is unbelievably comfortable as compared to airline seating. There is lots of leg room, room for your carry-on baggage, you can reserve a room with your own lavatory, and you can move around as much as you like.

After relaxing for several hours we proceeded to the dining car (dinner included in the fare for sleeper car customers) where we sat in a large, comfortable booth with a white table cloth and candles. The food is not world-class; but, the meal was much better than your typical reheated airline dinner.

Later when we arrived back at our room on the sleeping car the seats had already been converted into bunk beds for us by the attendant. The kids LOVED sleeping on the train. And of course, they loved that the room had bunk beds. I have to say that I didn't sleep as well as I would have in my own bed or in a hotel room but there is something strangely soothing about the rocking motion of the train.

Wake-up calls are available and the attendant will bring the morning paper. The following morning we awoke just in time for a hot breakfast in the dining car before rolling into Whitefish.

The kids loved the trip so much that we have been scouring the map looking for other vacation spots that we can reach by train.

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