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An Unexpected Plan C: Overnight Train Travel in Times of Corona

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When fires and the coronavirus pushed one family to escape to the East Coast for some fresh air and family time, they decided to take the overnight train. Their journey consisted of two kids, 3000 miles, and one massive and unforgettable adventure. 

by Ellie Falaris Ganelin

In the United States, long-distance train travel feels like a romanticized experience of a bygone era. But in the modern day, a coast-to-coast flight is less expensive and light years faster than the equivalent distance by train. Under normal circumstances, taking the train to or from the West sounds like an eccentric bucket list item, or an option reserved for the flying phobic.

But in 2020, we are not in normal circumstances. COVID-19 slashed our plans for a vacation to Greece earlier in the summer, as well as hosting relatives when our son was born. And on top of managing life in a global pandemic, forest fires had been ravaging the West and the air quality around our home in the San Francisco Bay Area plummeted. We found ourselves trapped indoors with a four-year-old and a newborn, waiting for moments of the day when the AQI was safe enough to pop outside for a few hours. 

Missing our families in Maryland and pining for clean air, we started brainstorming how we could manage a trip out East. Navigating life during Covid presents an unending series of mitigated risks, and our familiar modes of transport felt too risky for our taste. Cramming onto a plane with potential Covid carriers seemed out of the question, especially when traveling with a young baby. And a 3,000-mile road-trip seemed too tiring in our sleep-deprived state. 

But then we learned about private sleeper rooms, a feature of Amtrak long-distance routes. Even with a communal shower and bathrooms, we figured that it’s a comparatively safe option since we’d be confined to our sleeper room for most of the trip. Yes, it would take three days each way, and yes, it would cost more money than flying first class. The cabin fever had gone to our heads. BUT, we justified, since we couldn’t go on vacation this year, this would be our big adventure. And reuniting with our family in otherwise impossible circumstances seemed priceless. 

Selling it to our preschooler was a no-brainer—seriously what little kid doesn’t like trains? We had unlocked an unexpected Plan C. 

We booked our trip over the phone and whirled around the house in a frenzy of laundry and packing. Two days later, our family of four—me and my husband, our four-year-old and newborn baby—made it to the Emeryville, CA train platform, our stroller piled high with bags and two suitcases in tow. Our adventure had begun.

 

3,202 Miles in 3 Days

We traveled roundtrip from Emeryville to Rockville, Maryland (a Washington, DC suburb), a three-day journey each way. Our first leg on the California Zephyr took two days, chugging on through the West. We switched trains in Chicago, and did an overnight ride to Rockville on the DC-bound train, the Capitol Limited. Unlike major airports, which are in the outskirts of most cities, train stations are usually right in the center of town. It was so much quicker and easier to roll up to the local station compared to the usual saga that is the airport experience. 

What’s more, transfers happened at Chicago’s Union Station, which meant we had a few hours to explore downtown Chicago, get takeout, and run around a nearby park. This was so much nicer than an airport layover. Since we had sleeper car tickets, we had access to the Amtrak lounge at the station and took advantage of the luggage check and family restroom there.

Train Travel in Times of Corona

During Covid, masks are required onboard. On top of that, very few people are traveling overall—only our leg from Chicago to DC was crowded. Given the circumstances, it’s not a bad way to go right now. We stuck to our room as much as possible and wore masks whenever we walked about the train. Upon boarding, we used disinfecting wipes to do a quick wipedown of all the surfaces of the room, including door handles and tray tables.

Even during the pandemic, passengers can make reservations in the dining car, but capacity has been cut down quite a bit. Since that seemed neither safe nor convenient for us, we were able to place food orders with the sleeper car attendant who brought meals to our room.

What it’s Like Onboard

By far the highlight of the trip was riding through the West, especially the Colorado Rockies. Nothing beats a multicolored sunset over an endless mountain range. Once in a while, we popped over to the glass-ceilinged Sightseer Lounge to soak in the views.

“Fresh air breaks” were an essential part of the journey. The train had a handful of scheduled stops each day where we could get out and stretch our legs. We took advantage of every single one so that our older child could run around and the baby could get some Vitamin D. 

Confining to our own sleeper room afforded us a kind of comfort and ease that an airplane never could. In our cozy private space, we could be more ourselves. I rarely felt nervous about my kids being disruptive to fellow passengers. 

Booking the sleeper car when traveling by overnight train with the family is a great alternative to flying.

Accommodations were okayon par with a motel. The train cars are older, with dusty upholstery. I needed Claritin to keep my allergies under control, though I’m more sensitive than most people. 

We had bathrooms and a shower on our floor. One of the bathrooms had a small changing tableabout the same size as one you’d find in an airplane lavatory. Towels, linens, and bars of soap are provided, as are meals. Breakfast was decent: cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, and breakfast sandwiches. Lunch and dinner options were less exciting: a selection of reheated frozen meals, including some plant-based options. We did a mix of train food and our own snacks. 

The family-sized sleeper rooms, despite being bigger than the typical two-person rooms, are still quite small. We stored the majority of our luggage on shared shelves in the hallway and rotated items as needed. Even if you’ve packed for a longer trip, it’s helpful to keep a few changes of clothes and essentials in a smaller bag or suitcase that you can keep in the room. 

That said, our quarters had an impressive amount of sleeping space. With the seats converted and the bunk beds opened, the room had two beds for adults (a single and a full) and two child-sized beds. Our four-year-old slept on a top bunk and loved having her own loft-like corner of the room. There wasn’t enough floor space for our travel crib, so we laid out its mattress on the lower child bed, which was surrounded on all sides. I would recommend a small travel crib or a small popup tent if traveling with a baby.   

The biggest downside of our travel was being stuck in the Nevada desert FOR FOUR HOURS on our trip back to California. We had to wait for a broken-down freight train ahead of us to get up and running. I was mentally prepared for the possibility, as I’ve had friends warn us of similar experiences. But I’ve also been told that these multi-hour delays are not common. The majority of Amtrak trains have some kind of delay, and my general impression of the crew and passengers is one that’s laid-back and unhurried. While I embraced the relaxed pace, it’s still a bummer to get home late. Good thing we downloaded lots of movies ahead of time. 

Overall Impression

As seasoned travelers, both before and after having kids, the key I’ve found to successful travel is finding a way to feel at home no matter where I am. It might mean bringing comforts from home like a beloved pillow or a favorite snack. And a healthy dose of flexibility goes a long way. 

But more than anything else, it’s all about spending time with your fellow travel companions. My daughter embraced this concept much more than I realized. On the last day of our trip, my husband was looking deflated from the delays, at which point, our four-year-old said “Daddy, you don’t have to be sad. The train is our home and soon we’ll be home and you’ll feel better!” We have so much to learn from our kids. 

Even with the price tag, fairly average amenities, delays, and overall travel time, there’s something I still loved about traveling by train. Maybe we have a huge tolerance for pain, *ahem* adventure. That said, the hassle of schlepping and rounding up kids while traveling is surprisingly easy on a train. Similar to a cruise ship, I really appreciated the convenience of piling onto a train and hanging out in a moving room for a few days. And not having to drive is a huge plus. Having a chance to slow down and take in the breathtaking scenery is what makes long-distance train travel a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s worth doing at least once in your life. 

Beautiful landscapes are bound to be seen when traveling overnight on the train!

What to Bring

Here are some things that I’d suggest you bring with you on a long haul (and maybe even a short haul overnight train trip) beyond what’s in your regular luggage: 

  • Snacks and food — airplane-style meals are included with a sleeper car ticket and snacks are available for purchase. But it’s better to bring your own food if you can.
  • Water  — bottled and tap water are available onboard, but the latter doesn’t taste great
  • Shampoo and conditioner — If you want to shower, you’ll want to bring your own toiletries
  • Hand cream — it can get dry onboard
  • Compact travel bed for babies like this or this
  • Toys and activity books — Disney-themed loose coloring pages were a big hit with our preschooler
  • Downloaded movies and music — there’s no WIFI onboard, so be prepared with as many as you think you’ll need for the time you’re traveling
  • Earplugs and an eye mask for lighter sleepers
  • Disinfecting wipes for the room
  • A vessel on wheels to carry smaller bags and people — either a stroller with a glider attachment or a collapsible wagon

 

Ellie Falaris Ganelin is a classical flutist and the director of the Greek Chamber Music Project, presenting and recording chamber music by Greek composers. She has brought her performances with GCMP to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Library of Congress, as well as cultural centers and universities across the U.S. and Canada. She is committed to making classical music inviting and accessible for all as an ambassador and performer for the Awesöme Orchestra Collective. Ellie has a background in communications and marketing, and has promoted the work of performing arts and health organizations around the U.S. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Ilya and their kids Mia and Minos. 

 

 

 

 

 

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