Union Station in Portland, Oregon
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18 Tips for Riding Amtrak Trains with Kids

Amtrak rails between Seattle and Portland

But as with so many other escapades, much of your family’s Amtrak success will come down to preparation. Here are tips on taking the train with kids. I’ll soon offer some information on the family sleeper cars, and best train trips through Washington, Oregon and BC.

Train Price Tips for Amtrak with Kids

1. Save money. Can kids ride free on Amtrak? Well, you can save by taking advantage of Amtrak’s 50% off discount for children’s coach fares. But no, children don’t ride free. Instead, one child ages 2-12 receives a 50% discount on the lowest available adult Amtrak rail fair. But they must be accompanied by an adult.

So, if two adults you travel with three kids, you’ll get two fares at 50%, and pay full freight for the last one. Book 14 days in advance to get a lower adult fare.

Note! These fares aren’t possible on weekday Acela trains (Northeast corridor), or charges associated with sleeper cars, Business Class or First Class. Sometimes, also not available on Thruway buses.

2. Baby benefits. As with planes, one child under age 2 can ride free with each adult. If you’re riding with three babies, first of all, my condolences. But also, the third baby only qualifies for the 50% discount. You might drive.

Those with small children can board earlier than other passengers, giving you time to stow strollers. And parents traveling with toddlers and babies (under age 2) can carry on any stroller or diaper bag without the items counting against your carry-on allowance.

3. Can children travel alone on Amtrak? Kids 12 and under can’t solo by train, and have to be with someone 18+. Children 13, 14 and 15 years old can travel as unaccompanied minors, but you have to call into the phone line (1-800-USA-RAIL or 1-800-872-7245) to make a reservation. Children 16 or 17 can travel unaccompanied. Read about unaccompanied minors on the Amtrak website.

Family Train Seating Tips for Amtrak

4. Snag your seats. Ideally, families can grab some family-style seating, which is four seats facing each other, around a table. If you don’t snag one of these seats, visit the lounge car, which has 10 tables and seating for 30. It’s best to try to grab a seat ASAP, because it’s first-come, first-serve.

5. Go coach with kids. Standard coach seats are reclining, with a fairly substantial seat-back tray, power outlets, reading lights. Think: very comfortable airline seat. Business class provides bigger seats, more legroom, and fewer passengers per car. You’ll also get free wifi (maybe), newspapers, and a coupon for money off any bistro menu item. You’ll board and get off the train first. But business seating doesn’t qualify for the children’s 50% off fares.

In my opinion, the best seats along the I-5 corridor are on the Amtrak train’s western-facing side (which depends on where you’re going north or south), for views of water, bridges, sunsets and sea life.

6. Sleep suite. If you can afford a splurge or want an unusual vacation, take a family suite sleeper car. Meals are included, along with beverages (juice, water, coffee).

On-Board Amtrak Family Activity Tips

7. Walk around. The biggest advantage of train travel is not being buckled into a set for hours. So yeah, go on strolls. You’ll have a mini-James-Bond moment when moving through jostling, adjacent train cars. The train can really bump and sway though, so it’s sort of like gaining your train-legs. Toddlers will need help.

Pack a picnic basket. The Amtrak food is … not dependable. We’ve had great meals and really bad ones. Bring hard cheese, crackers, sausage, chocolate, oranges and other easily transportable foods. Much like you’d do on a plane.

8. Prepare for delays. There are many reasons for train delays that have to do with right-of-way and a poorly funded national passenger rail system, but none of them are the fault of your conductor or attendants, so please be kind to them. Prepare for delays while waiting for your train or en route, anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours. Oh yes, hours. But with enough podcasts/movies/snacks, anything is bearable.

9. You’ll probably have nearby charging plugs. You probably won’t have wifi. Make sure you have a fully stocked electronic device, because despite whatever your particular train says, WiFi tends to be unusable, whether spotty or slow.

10. What is there to do on the train? It depends on which train you’re taking. The Amtrak Cascades is a high(er) speed Acela train that was primarily targeted at business commuters, and is more bare-bones. The slower Superliner is for leisure travelers, and is my favorite for traveling with kids. It leaves once a day from Seattle for destinations such as Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. On the Coast Starlight, the Sightseer Cafe has snacks, treats and hot dogs and the like.

Tip: Buy your kid or teen a new book, or visit the library before departing

Look for Amtrak Trails & Rails volunteers on your trip and learn about our national parks, by reviewing the complete national Trails & Rails calendar.

Logistical Tips for Traveling with Kids on Amtrak

11. Arrive early but not too early. This isn’t the airport. You don’t have to arrive two hours early and go through intensive screening; it’s often enough to get there 30-40 minutes in advance. This advantage is wonderful, along with the fact that most rail stations are beautiful, with two-story high ceilings. An exception: when you’re boarding in Canada to return to the U.S., arrive at least an hour in advance, as it takes a while to go through U.S. customs before boarding the train.

12. Take advantage of the free train carry ons with kids. You can bring two carry-on suitcases for free. I’d suggest making everything fit in the carry-ons and not checking luggage.

13. Check your train’s status on the iPhone or Android Amtrak app. It may not always be up to date, but you’ll get an idea. You can also sign up for text alerts, but I’ve found those to be remarkably inaccurate.

14. Be prepared for diaper changes on the go. The bathroom in each train car may have a changing area, but it also may not or you may not reach it in time. Check once you board the train, in advance. Look for the accessible restrooms, which are more likely to have changing areas. If you can’t locate one easily, ask your coach attendant for help.

15. Stay allergy aware. Amtrak can’t promise a allergen-free trip (including nuts). So bring epinephrine if there’s a life-endangering allergy in the family.

16. Car-free trip Options. Can you turn your Amtrak trip into a car-free vacation? That depends. In larger cities such as Portland, Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles, you should be able to hail a quick taxi or Lyft or catch a bus or lightrail to your hotel, after exiting the station. Because of the station’s location, you could make a (very long) day trip to Portland, Oregon, or Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia. Other stations, such as the one in Olympia, Washington—the station is very, very far from downtown. Make sure you’ve done research in advance.

Sightseeing Car on Amtrak train

17. When taking the train between Vancouver, BC and Seattle (or anywhere Amtrak goes), make extremely sure you didn’t book on a bus. It’s a bus, not a train, which sends most of the cool benefits of train travel right out the trapped-in-your-seat-the-whole-time window. I’ve spend enough time on Greyhound buses to know they’re not for me unless I’m strapped for cash.

Packing List for Amtrak Train Travel with Kids

1. Books

2. Snack kits with goldfish, cheese sticks, other kid-friendly foods

3. Legos and other small-building toys (if you have a sleeper car, otherwise not recommended)

4. Craft kits and supplies but preferably without a lot of small parts unless you’re in your own car.

5. Activity books

6. Card games

7. Wet wipes for easy cleanup, or washcloths

8. Stuffed animals and dolls

9. Crayons, pencils, art supplies

10. Wildlife-spotting books and ID guides. We saw deer, cows, llamas, falcons, dogs and seals, and a lot of cool birds I couldn’t identify.

11. Fully charged tablets/phones with a queue of movies, TV shows and games and earphones, so other passengers don’t have to listen in.

Do you have any travel tips?

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Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.