Using Points for Family Travel on Amtrak!

Nov 2, 2014

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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 Friendsseries, 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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Sleeper cars have two levels.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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@thepointsguy.com

 

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