Family of Five Shares Tips for Traveling by Plane, Train, and Automobile!

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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 experiences than me.  As part of my “Little C’s Traveling Friends” series, I am sharing different family’s stories so we can all learn from their experiences.  If you would like to be a part of this series just shoot us an email at

I am happy to introduce Mariah and her family.  Two of her three kids are already filling their passports with stamps and the third is sure to do the same in the future.  They will share a little bit about the way their family travels (sometimes with a single parent strategy in mind), and then in part two of their series Mariah will share their Amtrak family adventures! mariahkidsfountain
Tell me a little bit about your family?

My husband and I are math professors at a small, liberal arts college in the Midwest.  I travel a lot for work, both domestically and internationally. We have three children: Jeri is 14, Zac is 11, and Carrie is 6. Carrie is the only one whose passport has yet to be used.  Recently we have picked up the Geocaching habit which has affected our travel because we now want to go explore more out-of-the-way locations. mariahkidssleeping 

How has your traveling pattern changed (or not changed) since you have had kids?

Before we had kids, we were still graduate students, and didn’t have very much money to spend on traveling.  Now that we have kids the biggest change is that I do very little traveling actually with my husband.  One of us travels and the other typically stays home with children.  My husband is a real believer in having home-field advantage when he is “single-parenting”!


I think what has changed most is the amount of stuff we carry has been reduced the more children we have.  When I was traveling with the oldest as an infant, I packed an entire nursery.  When I flew to California with the youngest at one month old, I just stuffed her extra supplies in a corner of my carry-on.

Where all have you traveled with your children, and what have been some memorable experiences on some of those trips?

When my son was 6 months old, he accompanied us on a week-long Lutheran study tour of Germany run through our college.  I was nursing and didn’t want to leave him at that age.  He was an absolute trooper, and we did pretty well too.  He slept with me in the bed and I nursed him through jet lag.  The only time we had trouble is when a colleague offered to take him for us for an evening so we could go to a show and he screamed the whole time.  Lessons learned on that trip for us were to forget strollers and hiking packs.  Instead, just find a way to comfortably tie the baby to your body and go for it.

When I had two kids (2 and 4 1/2), I took them on the train to California. We drove to Omaha to pick up the train and then flew back on Southwest Airlines.  It is nearly two days from Nebraska to the coast and I had paid the money to upgrade to a “bedroom”.  The trip is scheduled beautifully so that you travel through the flat parts of the country during the night and the mountains during the day.

Upgrading gives you a first-class ticket including coffee and juice in the morning, all meals in the dining car, showers, etc.  The bedroom also includes an all-in-one shower/toilet compartment and sleeps three small adults on a double bed and twin bunk beds.  We had an awesome time, but I didn’t pack with my son’s toilet training phase in mind, and ended up washing out pants and underwear in the sink hoping they would dry by morning.  Lessons learned: if you are only taking the train one way, then fly out and train back.  The train is part of your vacation, and is not nearly as stressful as negotiating the airport with two small children and all your bags.  Also, never underestimate the impact of a toilet-training toddler can have on vacation logistics.

Mommy Points Tip: Use pull-ups for toilet training toddlers on trips even if you are passed that point while still at home. 

We have also taken train trips across the country as a family of four and five as it is one of our favorite ways to end a vacation.  The family room on Amtrak claims to sleep four, but sometimes you can convince them to allow five.  We have taken the California Zephyr (Oakland to Chicago), the Southwest Chief (Los Angeles to Chicago), and the Texas Eagle (Los Angeles to Chicago via San Antonio).



You can learn more about how they like to take the train in part two of this report next weekend.

Last May, I taught a course on the history of math and physics in the British Isles.  I took 10 college students, plus my oldest daughter, to the islands for three and half weeks.  Since she wasn’t quite 12, her train pass was free, and she slept in the room with me.  This meant her only expenses were plane tickets and food.

She loves to read and has been devouring the Rick Riordan series.  She went crazy in the Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum and kept up better than some of the college students.  She spent a good portion of her free time checking out popular British young adult fiction.  Lessons learned: the eBook component of your local library is wonderful for keeping a pre-teen entertained when she needs to be independent.  Whenever we had free WiFi she could download books to replace the ones she had read, and only had to carry one device with her. mariahkideurope
What are some tips for traveling with kids that you have learned along the way?

  • The less gear you bring, the easier the trip will be.  You can usually buy what you need at the destination in a pinch.  By the time I was traveling with three kids, my “diaper bag” consisted of a couple of diapers in a zip-lock bag in my purse.
  • If you are willing to sleep in a bed with your child, hotel rooms are easy, but most chain hotels have pack-and-plays or cribs available as well.
  • If breakfast is not included, choose a different hotel.
  • The car seat is required to go in the window seat on the plane, and you might as well bring it for the rental car while you are still in the car seat ages.
  • It seems expensive to purchase the sleeper part of the train on Amtrak, but keep in mind that it includes meals and the equivalent of hotel accommodations.  It also gives you a quiet place for napping, and the cost is per room, not per passenger.
  • Fly out and train back home.  The train trip is part of the vacation, so just let go and relax.

Mommy Points Tip: Remember you can transfer Ultimate Reward points to Amtrak 1:1 in order to book roomettes starting at 15,000 points and bedrooms starting at 25,000 points with the price varying depending on the number of zones transited


How do points and miles figure into your family travels?

I am a bit of a hoarder, hoping to steal my husband away for an incredible European trip at some point, but I have started taking advantage of the IHG Point Breaks deals, especially since learning about purchasing 5,000 points for just $35.  We picked up a Field Museum membership last year, and have been using hotel points to travel to regional science museums.   On the other hand, during a recent Las Vegas trip to visit family, I sort of booked the family into four different hotels for the four nights we were there. Amazingly, we didn’t lose anything.


What future trips are on your horizon?

Over the summer I am planning a huge family trip. The kids and I are taking the California Zephyr to Oakland from Iowa in two roomettes.  My husband will follow in the car, Geocaching his way across the country.  This will probably take him an extra three or four days, but we know he will be having fun.  We will visit family in California, camp in Yosemite, and then drive to Utah where I have a three week mathematics institute.


What would you say to other families that are nervous about the logistics of hitting the sky (or road) with the little ones?

You know your own children, and it really is no harder to travel across the country than across town.  Once you have passed into having school-aged children, you forget how your life used to revolve around nap time.  Therefore, if you are visiting friends or family on your travels who are passed the “nap stage”, make sure your they know what your schedule will look like in advance.

For us, camping with three children is much harder than staying in hotel rooms, so I would save that for later.  I recommend packing a meal for the plane ride if at all possible.  Lunchable-type packaged meals can work well since they pack easily and aren’t messy to eat.  This way you can avoid stressing out when your kid eats two bites of the $8 meal you bought from the flight attendant on-board.

Thank you so much to Mariah for sharing her story, and we look forward to hearing about more about their Amtrak adventure in their next post!

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  1. I have (mostly) fond memories of traveling on Amtrak when I was a kid. We rode the train a few times from Denver to Salt Lake City, from Denver to San Francisco, and from Denver to the East Coast. I need to convince my husband that train travel would be a fun adventure!

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