Two weeks ago my husband and I took our 6 month old daughter to Sandusky, Ohio to a developer conference my husband was speaking at. The conference is hosted at the Kalahari, an indoor water park, and is family oriented in that they have activities for significant others and children to do while the conference goer is busy. This was our second trip to this conference and last year we also took Amtrak, so we learned a few things to prepare us for this route with an infant which was very good for my sanity.
First, why did we take Amtrak? Why didn’t we just fly or even drive? After all, we live in Iowa and Sandusky is only about 9 hours away from us. Our reasons this year were pretty much the same as last year. If we didn’t want to drive 9 hours without an infant, we definitely didn’t want to drive 9 hours with one. Plus, adding our daughter into the mix guaranteed that it would take longer than 9 hours because we would have to stop more frequently to attend to her needs. Another big factor was weather. We were going in January and we couldn’t be sure of safe weather conditions the entire way there and back. Last year the Midwest experienced a blizzard while we were traveling. We didn’t want to risk that with a baby.
Flying there wasn’t a good option either. It would have taken us at least two flights to get to a major city in Ohio and then we would have had to drive at least an hour still. See the previous paragraph about not wanting to drive. Flying directly to Sandusky was waaaay to expensive and flying from one small airport to another doesn’t provide good flight options. So we decided to go by train. Amtrak has a station in Sandusky and we could take a 10 minute taxi ride to the resort! And pricing couldn’t be beat. Round trip tickets for all of us (infants are free), plus sleeper cars for the ride portions between Chicago and Sandusky came in at the price of one plane ticket. Sign me up!
So how did it go? I would definitely do it again.
It took us 16 hours to get to Sandusky including driving time to and from the train stations. That made for a long day of travel, but we could relax the whole time, as much as one can with an infant, and all of our trains arrived on time or within 30 minutes of the stated time which was fantastic! We also had 3-4 hours to hang out in Chicago both ways, so we took those opportunities to wander the city with our daughter, eat, and visit with friends we have in Chicago. A nice break, and better than hanging out in an airport in my opinion. Since we had a sleeper car both ways, we also had access to the private lounge in the Chicago train station. This was one of the best things for us. It provided a much quieter waiting room than the general waiting area and there was free, secure luggage storage so we weren’t lugging suitcases around Chicago while we explored. A wonderful perk to the sleeper cars in addition to free meals on the train. I especially appreciated having a quieter area for our daughter to nurse and nap while we were in the station.
The ride on the trains was pretty standard in our experience. The cars weren’t very full, so we had plenty of room to move about and keep our daughter entertained. We took her to the lounge car for better views of the scenery speeding by, and had enough room in the coach seats to nurse, use laptops, and play. We even made a few friends thanks to Tabitha, including a little Amish boy and an Indian woman traveling with an eight month old and a three year old.
While the additional perks that came with purchasing a sleeper car room were awesome, having the rooms for our night and early morning rides were worth them alone. We were concerned about keeping Tabitha’s sleep schedule somewhat regular and also not disturbing others if she woke up screaming at some point. The coach seats were fine for her short naps, but the sleeper cars were a must for her longer period of sleep. Our train from Chicago to Sandusky left at 6pm and arrived in Sandusky around midnight. Tabitha usually goes to bed around 7pm, so we were able to simulate her bedtime routine enough that she went to sleep pretty close to her usual time. The problem that we did have was squeezing dinner in while she was trying to go to sleep. Since it was included with our tickets, we could have gone to the dinning car, but that would not work with our sleepy baby’s bedtime, so luckily we were able to order to our room and eat a fairly chaotic meal while one person wrangled the fussy infant. But once we were fed and Tabitha was dozing off, the swaying of the train kept both her and myself snoozing through our trip out. We had to bring along her car seat for the taxi ride, so we put her to bed in it and set it on the bottom bunk where I slept. My husband decided that sleeping wasn’t for him at the time, and took off for the lounge car to work on some development. The accommodations were tight, but adequate and I felt fairly rested when it was time for us to disembark.
As a side note, we had two different sleeper car rooms on our trip. The first (shown to the left), I believe, was meant for up to 3 people, included bunk beds with a single bed above and a wider bed below. It also had a private shower/toilet room, sink area, and a chair. When the beds were put away, there was a tray “table” that could be pulled out. We could cram all of our luggage and people into this room, which isn’t necessary as you’ll see when I describe our other room, but it was very nice since we could easily access Tabitha’s things to get her ready for bed.
Our return room was the smallest available, and functioned just fine, but would have been challenging for our night trip. It was meant for up to 2 people and had bunk beds again, but both were only singles. It did not have a private shower, but did have a seat/toilet that was open to the room and a sink that flipped down when you needed it. We could not fit everything in this room, but instead stored our larger pieces in the luggage area of our train car like one would normally do for coach. My husband and I readied ourselves for the day at the hotel and we just changed Tabitha’s clothes in the train station lounge when we arrived. Our room use was pretty similar for this trip, but my husband decided to go back to sleep until Chicago too.
Something that is probably the same in all of the sleeper rooms, but I noticed during our return trip because we were all in the room and on different bunks, was that the sound is pretty muffled in them. If one of us was trying to talk to the other on different bunks, you really couldn’t hear each other unless you stuck your heads into the open area beside the beds. I can’t confirm this, but I’m assuming that the sound barrier between the rooms is just as nice, which is helpful if you do have a little one screaming their head off.
We ate breakfast in the dining car on our way to Chicago from Sandusky and met two nice ladies who enjoyed Tabitha’s constant attempts to grab anything near her on the table. The train staff was friendly throughout our whole trip and quite helpful which is even more appreciated when you’re traveling with a little one. And if you’re curious about the necessary diaper changes, they were pleasantly uneventful during our trip. The public toilet rooms on the trains were similar to the toilet rooms on planes, but with more room. And each car also had a room that included a changing area which offered double the size of the normal toilet room and had a bench and hooks that came in handy. We also took advantage of the very tidy restrooms in the Chicago station lounge.
To sum up our travel experience, I was very happy with how our trip went, and although I don’t think it’s ever easy traveling with a baby, the train helped make our trip less stressful and more enjoyable than I think other modes would have. At least for this destination, we will continue to take Amtrak any time we visit. It works well for us and it just makes sense. One major benefit that I would like to add is a closer station to Cedar Rapids. Mount Pleasant is about 90 minutes for us, so something, say in Iowa City would be wonderful…
Have any of you traveled with small children and want to weigh in on how it went? Any bad experiences traveling with kids on Amtrak? I’m sure there are lots of opportunities for things to go wrong especially if there are unexpected delays!
And for anyone who is interested or perhaps taking their own little one(s) on a train trip, here are some key things we packed and how we carried it around. We’ll be flying to Florida to visit my grandmother soon, so we’ll see how much this list, and our experience, changes for that trip.
- Boba baby carrier
- infant car seat
- large canvas “diaper” bag with outfit changes, diapers, changing pad, the whole shebang!
- nursing cover/ blanket
- small, child’s backpack for easy access to toys & other necessities
We took 6 pieces of “luggage”:
- Wheeled luggage for Tabitha (her backpack was attached to the outside of this for easy access)
- Wheeled luggage with our stuff
- Large canvas “diaper” bag
- Backpack with my laptop & food
- Backpack with Keith’s laptop & other things
- Car seat/baby carrier