The weather is already hot here in Southern BC and it feels like summer is just around the corner. Here at our house we feel like we’re dragging ourselves through the last few weeks of the school year and counting the days until we can get started on our summer of travelling. Like most years, I started off with fairly modest plans, just a couple of weeks off, maybe one big trip or a couple of smaller ones, but as summer approached I started booking a little bit here and a little bit there, and next thing I knew we were once again going to be away for more of the summer than we’ll be home!
One of the first places I booked was a week at the end of July in one of my favourite places; San Francisco and the nearby Napa Valley. The trip actually started with my five year old son reading a book about train travel at the library and asking if we could sleep on a train someday. Of course I answered, “sure, why not” like any normal, travel loving parent would answer and immediately started to research how bring it all about.
As a backpacker in Europe in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s I spent quite a few nights on trains and I always loved this form of travel. There’s nothing quite like falling asleep to the gentle rocking and rhythmic clicking of the train only to wake up in a completely different place. I usually slept in second class couchette cabins with six berths stacked in a triple bunk and I found them to be quite comfortable. I quickly learned that the top berth was my favourite since you could stash your bag in the little attic space above the walkway and have everything close at hand instead of stuffed under the bottom bunk. Since I am quite short I also found that the top bunk had more than enough space for me to sit and read or just hang out if I was the first one to wake up.
I also found that overnight train travel was very cost efficient for a young backpacker, especially one carrying a Eurail pass. A berth in a couchette usually averaged $25-30, or about the same as a hostel bed and night trains were very common and easy to book. Unfortunately, North America is a different story.
In Canada, long distance travel is considered a luxury trip, at least if you want a horizontal place to sleep. Via Rail offers packages with sleeper cars and fine dining included at a cost that’s about the equivalent of a five star hotel. We could sleep on a train in Canada in fine style, but at a cost of several thousand dollars per night.
Instead I turned to Amtrak, the American equivalent. They run a network of routes covering most of the continental United States including options running east and south from Seattle Washington. I quickly focused on the southern route and found that the trains run daily traveling from Seattle to Los Angeles or vice versa in about 36 hours. That seemed like a little too much time on the train so I decided to book just the Seattle to Oakland portion, which includes a free bus transfer from the Oakland station to downtown San Francisco.
Overall, the cost is quite reasonable. I booked a four berth family cabin with meals included for about $900 US one way, which is approximately twice the price of the two hour flight home. Obviously this is neither the cheapest or most efficient way to get to California, especially since we’ll have to overnight in Seattle to catch the 8am train, but this is one trip that is definitely more about the journey than the destination.
Overall, the trip is scheduled to take about 24 hours, arriving in Oakland at about 8am. At first this amount of time in transit does seem a bit daunting, but I know from experience that time spent on a train does tend to be much less tedious than the equivalent amount of time spent on a plane or bus. There’s just something about being able to get up whenever you want and wander around that makes it much easier to take. And a good portion of that time will be spent sleeping anyway. So the hope is that we’ll be able to settle into our little cabin with our books and games and Lego and enjoy a nice day of family time with lots of opportunities to go out wandering, getting snacks and enjoying the scenery followed by a restful night tucked up in our cozy berths. And at the end of it all we’ll just grab our bags and walk off into the city; no luggage carousels or airport transfers needed.
And so that’s how we ended up booking the slow train to California this summer. There’s a good chance I’ll re-read this post on about hour 15 of the trip and wonder what the heck I was thinking, but I’ve never let that stop me before! If anyone else has experience with long distance train travel in North America with kids I’d love to hear about it.