Using Points for Family Travel on Amtrak!

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While I am always happy to share my own traveling stories with my family, there are tons of other great traveling families out there with kids of different ages, different numbers of kids, and who have had different traveling experiences than we have had.  As part of my “Little C’s Traveling Friends series, I am sharing different family’s stories so we can all learn from their traveling “hits” and “misses”.

Mariah and her family of five shared in an earlier post details of how they enjoy traveling to a variety of cities using all types of transportation. One form of transportation that they love to take advantage of is the train.  They have become very proficient at booking tickets, rooms, and learning about so many cities through the different routes they have taken.  In this post, Mariah continues to tell us more about her experience when she took two of her three children (yes, by herself!) and traveled from Omaha to California on Amtrak.

amtrak zone map

I am Mariah and I live in Iowa with my family. In February 2006, I decided to take two of my kids on a trip to visit family in California by myself. At the time, Jeri was 5 and Zac was 3, and this was my first time traveling with the kids without another adult.  We had traveled a bunch as a family, including a driving trip to California.  I do a lot of traveling for work both with and without college students.  On this trip my husband had to stay behind and work, I really wanted to explore train travel, and I wasn’t allowed to go alone.

family travel on amtrak

Jeri and Zac who are now 14 and 11 years old!

Taking Amtrak With Two Kids from Nebraska to California:

I had researched Amtrak for some time, but had decided I didn’t want to train both ways in case I really didn’t like the trip.  So, I decided to drive to Omaha, train out to California, and fly back.  At that time, reasonable one-way flights were not common except with Southwest, and Omaha was our closest Southwest airport.  In 2006, the train was scheduled to leave Omaha at about 10:30 at night, so I drove the 5 hours to Omaha, parked the car at the train station (free parking), and we staggered onto the train with all our baggage and found our bedroom.

family travel on amtrak

The bedroom was chosen because it sleeps a cozy three.  The fact that it includes a private “bathroom” didn’t hurt since my son was still potty training.  Although purchasing the bedroom makes your ticket first class, with all the meals are included, frequent rail riders will remind you to tip for both the food and the train car assistant.  We have taken the train from Iowa to California, and back and I think the California Zephyr has the best timing.  You sleep through the flat parts and climb the mountains during the day.

Amtrak Bedroom Arrangement:

During the day, the bedroom includes a bench couch facing one way and a chair facing the other way.  During the night, the couch is converted to a twin sized bed and a single sized bunk comes down from the top.  Since I had a napper, I would pull the bunk down for napping during the day.  We had no trouble sleeping mom/child on the bottom bunk, but I wouldn’t be able to comfortably share it with another adult.

family travel on amtrak

We didn’t have to stay in our room for the duration of the trip, but it was nice for keeping things contained.  There is a window out one side of the room and the hallway on the other side.  You can take the train without getting a room, but I haven’t done it yet, and would expect I would need to pack a lot more snacks. If you book a room all the meals are included and the kids enjoyed eating train food.

As it was, since I spent some time dealing with potty-training my son, I was glad for the sink and a private place to hang drying underwear and pants.

MariahB_bathroom in amtrak

Sleeper cars have two levels.

 

amtrak-diagram-superliner-sleeper

The upper level has bedrooms like the one we used, and also roomettes, which are two chairs facing each other that convert into bunk beds.  The lower level has more roomettes and two special bedrooms – the family bedroom and the disabled bedroom.  The disabled room can hold someone who requires a wheelchair, and the attendant will bring dinner to you.  The family room has a set of bunk beds like the bedroom, but is the full width of the train car and has two short bunk beds on one end.  Amtrak prefers a maximum of four in the family bedroom.

You can check out the different types of rooms available on all the various Amtrak trains here.  You can also read about how a family of five utilized the family bedroom to take the Auto Train down to Florida.

Enjoying the Nation’s Best Scenery from the Train:

That first morning you wake up near Denver, Colorado.  We preferred not to eat breakfast in Denver, although there is juice in the morning and coffee all the time in the sleeper cars. Since Denver is a longer stop and you can get out and stretch your legs a bit, we wanted to get our day started early.  The morning is spent climbing the mountains and we were eating lunch when we went through the tunnel at the continental divide.  This is the longest tunnel, and they ask you not to walk between cars while you are inside.

MariahB_mom and zac

We had dinner in the Western Rocky foothills and slept through the flat lands of Utah and Nevada.  The kids and I slept soundly with the rocking train, but we woke up pretty early because each sleep means changing another time zone.

The next morning you wake up near Reno, Nevada.  The rest of the morning is spent climbing the next set of mountains with lunch at the summit.

Jeri loved the observation car where she could meet the most interesting people.

family travel on amtrak

She spent a bunch of time talking to a nice family who were traveling out for a wedding, and met a new best friend whom we never saw again.  They had a good time taking pictures with my camera!

The tracks go right over Donner Pass, and if everything is working perfectly, there is a ranger who boards the train to tell you about some of the natural wonders you are seeing out the window.  I now am able to tell the older children about the story of the Donner Party and the history of Donner Pass.

mariahb_tracks nevada over donner pass

Once you get past Sacramento, the view isn’t quite as spectacular, but you are nearly at the end of the journey.  All in all, the train with two children was pretty easy because they were contained, but had room to roam.  Our bags stayed in the same place and we had sufficient power outlets to keep things charged.

Train Transfers, Not so Smooth with a Family:

I had planned on getting off the train in Emeryville (end of the line) and transferring to another train to take me to the San Jose train station to make things easier for Grandma.  This turned out to be a major mistake.

The first problem was that the new train was more of a commuter, and I had to move all our baggage (including two car seats) on and off by myself while keeping track of two excited kids.  There was no place for the bags, and there were no assigned seats.  Unfortunately, once I got us all on the train they announced that due to track work, the train was only going to Oakland (1.5 miles), and then we would be bussed to San Jose.  At this point it is late, the kids are tired, the bags are even more of a hassle, and there is little information on how this will happen.

We end up on a crowded bus with no luggage space and no seats together.  My brave 5-year-old had to sit by herself next to a stranger while I held Zac on my lap.

It was a long, dark walk from the bus drop off in San Jose to the waiting room.  I had to keep Zac, who wanted to be carried, walking in front of me with encouraging words.  Plus, at the San Jose train station, it was very unclear where I would be meeting my mom.  None-the-less, we ultimately met up with Grandma and made sure to visit the beach.

mariahb_visiting beach  mariahb_visiting beach 2

We spent a good couple of days with Grandma and then flew Southwest from San Jose back to Omaha.  It was quite a challenge getting the bags to the check in counter, but once they were gone and I only had to manage the carry on bag and two car seats, we managed pretty well.  After we landed, I took a taxi to the train station and packed everyone back into the car for the 5 hour drive home.  Needless to say, I was the only one awake for most of the drive.

Lessons Learned from Using Amtrak with a Family:

  • Train with two kids is easy, transfers are hard.  Next time, get Grandma to drive the extra hour to pick us up.
  • If your children still take naps, the bedroom, or any sleeper car room, allows you to pull the upper bunk down for naptime.
  • The car seats were difficult to manage on my own.  If I had thought about it, I might have asked Grandma if she could find some loaners.  Mommy Points Tip: If you will visit a relative frequently with small kids, consider buying an inexpensive car seat to leave there such as the Cosco Scenera which can be bought for less than $30. 
  • Never underestimate the number of pairs of pants a toilet-training boy can go through.
  • If you don’t bring a battery charger, you will run out of batteries.  This is less of an issue now that I always travel with re-chargeables, but you will want to take lots of pictures.

MariahB_Jeri in chair

Riding Amtrak with Points:

Amtrak travel redemption is based on Zones and the California Zephyr covers two zones.  For the bedroom, a two zone one-way trip is 40,000 points, and this would cover the cost of all of the people in the room.  I can’t remember what I paid for the trip at the time, but I checked and a similar trip in June would cost $1832, which comes out to 4.58 cents per point in redemption value – a pretty good deal if you ask me.

amtrak zone map

Amtrak Redemption Pricing Examples:

One Zone: coach ticket 5,500 points each, roomette 15,000 points, bedroom 25,000 points.

Two Zones: coach ticket 8,000 points each, roomette 20,000 points, bedroom 40,000 points.

Three Zones: coach ticket 10,500 points each, roomette 35,000 points, bedroom 60,000 points.

Remember that roomettes and bedrooms prices cover all of the people in those rooms, as opposed to coach tickets that are priced per person with children 2 and up requiring their own ticket.  Consider a two-zone trip from say Chicago to California.  A family of four could have their own bedroom with meals included for the duration of the trip for 40,000 total points.  That sounds like a lot, but it is actually less than the 50,000 points your family of four would pay for one-way saver award tickets on many airlines.  Of course, the train trip will take much longer than a flight, but if you enjoy train travel then that just adds to the fun of the vacation.

You can click here to learn more about how to redeem Amtrak points for free travel.  You can also check out this previous post on saving money and earning points on Amtrak.

Below is a table showing examples of partner transfer rates to Amtrak

PartnerTransfer Ratio (Partner to Amtrak)
Chase Ultimate Rewards1000 to 1000
Choice Privileges
32,000 to 5,000
Hertz600 to 500
Hilton10,000 to 1,500
La Quinta6,000 to 1,000
Starwood Preferred Guest5,000 to 5,000
Wyndham6,000 to 1,200
16,000 to 3,200
30,000 to 6,000

In the case of Amtrak, the best value for point transfers will typically be Chase Ultimate Rewards points, though some will find Starwood Preferred Guest points to also be useful.  If you are looking to earn Ultimate Reward points to transfer to Amtrak, currently the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is offering 40,000 points as a sign-up bonus if you can spend $3,000 on the card in the first three months (extra 5,000 points for adding an authorized user who makes a purchase) and the Ink Plus® Business Card is offering 50,000 Ultimate Reward points after spending $5,000 in the first three months.   There is also a Chase Amtrak credit card available, which could be an option if you are going to be a regular train traveler!

Thank you so much to Mariah for sharing her Amtrak adventure and some of her not-so-great moments once the train stopped! We look forward to hearing about more about their traveling adventures!  If you would like to be a part of this series just shoot us an email at info@mommypoints.com

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

Disclaimer: The comments below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Comments

  1. How many fit in a bedroom? I see a reference to “a cozy three,” but at the end it says something about a family of four in a bedroom.

  2. The Superliner cars have lots of roomettes which only sleep 2. I think these are great deal actually for adult and one child. I am planning a trip right now where we just book 2 adjacent roomettes, adult and one child in each. These are the easiest rooms to get. Even the roomettes will have some internal storage areas for carry-on luggage.

    They have a smaller number of deluxe bedrooms which have 2 bunks. The bottom one is wide enough for an adult and a SMALL child, but no more. The top is too narrow for more than one person. We travelled once this way in adjacent bedrooms where they open the partition and it becomes a “suite” with 2 bathrooms. The 2 bathrooms occupy a lot of central space though so it’s not that spacious. We did fit 3 adults and 2 small children in it however and the kids loved it!

    There is one FAMILY bedroom per car, they are typically hard to reserve except months out. This has two adult-length bunks, and two short child-size bunks. There is no bathroom in the cabin with this one. It is a great deal though because it’s the same points cost as a deluxe bedroom. If you are a foursome and can get one grab it!

    Does your house have a bathroom in every bedroom? Probably not. I actually prefer either of the types without a bathroom, as the showers and bathrooms down the hall are roomier.

    I *love* train travel with small children. Get up and take a walk, go the bathroom any time you want with nobody giving you hassle about a seatbelt sign.

  3. The coolest benefits of Amtrak points travel to me? Points redemption is a fixed number regardless of when you book. No airline does this. Obviously you want to book far in advance if you want a suite of family bedroom, but otherwise if it’s just a roomette you might be able to get one the day before if you are doing a “road trip” (sans car) as we were this summer for about a month where we improvised each leg as we went. There is no penalty for cancellation until the train leaves the station! So you can book a speculative trip, and if it doesn’t work out for some reason just cancel and get your points back.

  4. I’m not sure if you’ll know the answer to this or not, but the Amtrak website is not very helpful. We are a family of four and have thought that it might be fun to travel on Amtrak from Austin to Chicago (one way only) to visit family.

    The Family Bedroom on the Texas Eagle does not include a bathroom, but the Superliner Bedroom does. However, the Superliner Bedroom only sleeps two. There is a reference on the room descriptions of the Texas Eagle of the Superliner Bedroom Suite which is essentially two Superliner Bedrooms put together. Do you have any idea if the Suite can be booked as one room or would you have to book two room to get the Suite?

    I enrolled in the Amtrak Guest Rewards to see if I could pull up a dummy reward booking, but I can’t seem to pull up anything except coach seats regardless of the days that I plug in.

    I think it would be a fun adventure to do once with our kids, but I wouldn’t want to pay 50,000 UR points to book two rooms. I don’t think that we would want a room without a private bathroom.

  5. Vicente-

    It sounds like you don’t think that not having a private bathroom is a deal breaker? Do the communal bathrooms get crowded? Who are you typically sharing these with? Is it generally just the private rooms in your area or is it one communal bathroom for several cars? Are they generally kept up or do they get messy/disgusting?

  6. Have done three or four sleeper trips on Amtrak in types of accommodations and with children ranging from one six-month old to three pre-teens. It’s always a blast for us, but probably not recommended for someone who simply wants to get somewhere in the fastest way possible.
    .
    Except for the time we traveled with five people (when we had a family bedroom) we always do it with roomettes which are much easier to book (since there are so many of them) and which allow you to separate the kids when necessary — either by putting them in separate rooms with one parent, or by putting them together in one room (when you’re trying to separate them from you).
    .
    A private toilet is not an advantage in my mind, unless you have a pre-potty-trained toddler. It just takes up room. The toilets (and showers) in the sleeper cars have always been well-maintained in my experience and they are for the use of sleeper car passengers only.
    .
    Those two-zone Chicago to West Coast trips look like a fantastic bargain — your 20K points redemption can get you 50 hours of traveling in conditions superior to business class, including all meals (sometimes Amtrak throws in an extra 10 or 20 hours for free, too!) with a value north of $1000 for 5 cents per point or better value.

  7. Communal shower and bathrooms crowded? On the contrary I never had to wait outside a locked door. If you’ve travelled in Europe in cheaper accomodations you’ll be used to bathrooms being down the hall it’s not a big deal. Shower on the Viewliner (single-level) car we were on was it’s own compartment with a sitting/changing area and a shower stall, it was right across from the car attendant’s cabin and was kept clean.

    If you look around the AMtrak website you’ll find an graphic thing that shows you floorplans.

    The “suite” arrangement requires 2 adjacent bedrooms, and it’s the cost of 2 bedrooms. You have to book it by phone as only a phone agent can assign you to adjacent bedrooms, the amtrak website can’t do it. We needed it because we were 3 adults and 2 children, and it was available. I wouldn’t bother with it unless you NEED it. All train travel here or in Europe is a little like travelling on a submarine, it’s spacious enough for what you need for a day or two. So don’t expect a “suite” to be more spacious just more convenient.

  8. Another comment about the suite, sorry.

    Had I been able to get a family bedroom on that booking, which was only a few days ahead of time I would have done so. Then added a roomette for the 3rd adult. However no family bedrooms were available. And while I was on the phone with the agent looking at availability there were unexpectedly two adjacent bedrooms available so I grabbed it. 50K Chase points to Amtrak for a single-zone overnight trip from ATL to NYP. Can you book a flight for 5 people for that? NOOOPE! Dinner was steak, you getting that in coach on an airline? NOOOPE!

  9. I noticed a picture is wrong.

    The first “bedroom” picture is actually the family bedroom arrangement, and is not what the author describes in the text. Doubtless a stock photo incorrectly selected from the Amtrak photo gallery.

    The second picture is actually the standard bedroom. The bottom bunk in a standard bedroom is narrower than a standard twin. On the other hand it’s constrained on each side, so nobody’s going to roll off in the night. The amtrak website lists all the bed widths, compare them with standard bed widths they are narrow. I slept in a lower bunk with my 2-year old and it was adequate. You could put 2 younger kids together like 5 and 7yo. Certainly not 2 adults of any size.

  10. Thank you Vicente! I haven’t traveled by train in the US since I was in college 20 years ago, so my memories are a bit dusty. I traveled with my college Model UN team traveled from Chicago to Boston a couple of times (coach seats only!). I remember enjoying it very much. Friends and family have told my husband and I that we are crazy for thinking about doing this, but I think it would be a lot of fun for the kids to take a big train trip.

  11. Unrelated but kid travel tip.
    Best stroller – quinny Zapp – small enough to carry on
    Best booster – bubblebum – has seen our kids thru se-Asia

  12. I’m doing this! My husband thinks I’ve lost it but said he’s game if I really want to try it one way. I’m not expecting luxury accommodations but it looks like a neat experience. Denver is on the zone dividing line so should be 1 zone price to CA. Thanks, Mariah!

  13. If it helps I’ve uploaded a video to Youtube of Amtrak Viewliner “suite” configuration during daytime. Mostly I was just trying to have memory of the luggage areas in the room for future reference. Sorry it’s not really a great video, but it’s all I have. Link:

    http://youtu.be/dr2JIEBCeCk

  14. I’m intrigued by these train trips with miles.

    Does anyone know if the sleeping cabin is available with cash, is it also available with points? Or does Amtrak work like the airlines, where they have a very limited number of “seats” or cabins available for points travel?

    Thanks!

  15. Thanks so much for his post! I reserved the family room for next July for our family. If I hadn’t read this post, I would have never learnt about it. We’ll take the train from Minneapolis to San Francisco and fly back.

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