A Relaxing Ride to Chicago on the Southwest Chief
This spring, my 6 year-old son and I planned a trip “sans Mom” to Chicago on the Southwest Chief. The route originates in Los Angeles and runs through stops like Albuquerque, NM and Dodge City, KS; in all it takes a little over 40 hours total to amble northward. We would join on the back end of the route, just 5 hours from Chicago’s Union Station terminus.
Having traveled by train throughout Europe, I knew the excitement and comfort the trip promised and wanted my son to have that experience. While I’d used train service in various American cities, I’d never done a long-distance trip in the States. I’m a process guy, so I was very interested in how our experience would fare.
The Amtrak website made quick work of searching our schedule and station choices, and placing the ticket reservation was just as easy as shopping on an airline site. When we had to make changes to our return trip, the customer service rep on the phone was kind and accommodating, explaining options succinctly and following up with email confirmations.
I downloaded the Amtrak app and signed up for text alerts. On the day of our departure, just before we left for the station, I got a message that the train was delayed. I can’t overemphasize how important the app or alerts are for keeping track of your train. As we found out later, there aren’t multiple lanes for your train to take and riding a train is much like air travel. Delays happen; staying informed alleviates a lot of that concern. Throughout the afternoon, I received updates to our train’s arrival and, once at the station, the staff worked to make our time there comfortable and inviting.
Let Someone Else Do the Driving
Once on board, I realized my absolute favorite part of train travel is not being in the driver’s seat. Instead of focusing on the road, my son had my undivided attention. We talked, played games, explored the various cars and ate snacks non-stop. He loved that he didn’t have to buckle up and stay locked in a booster seat. Having the option for warm food from the Café Car, as well as digging through our own bag of goodies, was great. The coach seating on the rails is comparable to business class in the air; nearly flat reclining seats, leg room for miles, decent seatback tray space and 120v plugs make this experience worth the wait and every penny.
Some of the folks in our car had been traveling for many hours and I was pleasantly surprised by the myriad of demographics, from Amish families, to senior citizens, students and other single parents with kids of all ages. Perhaps it was the pleasant pitch and roll of the cars as we cruised north, but never once did I see harried chaos I’ve experienced in many air terminals. The crew continually updated us on our progress and hosted meetings in the vista car with the assistant conductor to “air grievances” and make connection arrangements for those continuing on from Chicago. I didn’t get the impression that anyone had to fight to feel like their needs would be met. I can’t tell you how pleasant the Amtrak team on our train was, even at the end of what must have been a very long work week.
By the time we reached Chicago, our 5-hour journey was just about enough for my little guy’s attention span. Take note that traveling with kiddos isn’t all graham crackers and juice boxes–just like on car trips, there’s only so much seat-time that little bottoms and minds can take. I would plan activities to keep them focused and take advantage of the open aisles to schedule a supervised walkabout periodically. Although we were delayed getting into the city, I would certainly recommend the Amtrak experience to anyone who wants to put themselves in neutral for an easy, relaxing ride to share with family or friends.
About the Author: Scott McGarvey is from central Missouri. He usually has a plot afoot to get his passport, along with those of his wife and son, stamped on some far-flung adventure. You can follow him on Instagram.