Yes, you read that right. We purposefully signed ourselves up for a 3+day train trip from Emeryville, CA to Boston, MA with our 10-month old daughter. Not only did we live to tell the tale, the trip was actually pretty great. In this post, I share more about why we chose the train, purpose of trip, the route, rooms, stopover, Covid precautions, naps & sleep, luggage and why the Pack n Play was a lifesaver.
Why we chose the train
A cross-country train trip has been on my to-do since we moved to CA. With Covid, now felt like the right time to take the train as our way to cross the country. Although I’ve read the reports that the risks of contracting Covid during a masked 2-hour flight are very low, flying with my 10-month old, who couldn’t wear a mask on a 5.5 hour flight was a different story. Hanging out in an airport and waiting in a bunch of lines during the pandemic, also didn’t excite me.
We vetted out a RV trip but there was too much brain power that went into that trip. It involved planning the campsites, driving a very large vehicle, changing gray water, having to stop every 3-hours to feed/change, the fear of our daughter crying half the time and the price. RV quotes for a CA > MA trip all came back around $5,500. The train, which was less than $2,000, seemed like the obvious winner and ultimately the not thinking aspect convinced us. After we booked everything we just had to get on and get off. We couldn’t get lost, we could always tend to my daughter and food was delivered to our room. Sign us up!
Purpose of trip
So before diving in on all the details, you may be asking why did we take this trip? We took this trip when we decided to temporarily move from Oakland to Boston, to have family support until the pandemic was in a better a spot. We lived in Oakland for almost 6 years and were incredibly sad to leave, especially with not knowing when we’d return. However, Covid + wildfires + not having any family in the Bay Area convinced us it was time to head home to New England. Since a cross-country train-trip was on the to-do list, we made this a bit of a vacation as well, with a few nights spent in CO.
The CA Zephyr goes from Emeryville > Chicago. It’s named the most beautiful train route in the country and for good reason, it goes through the Sierras and the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, we had a lot of smoke in CA. The forest fires and smoke were a big reason why we had to get out of CA. However, the Sierras were still beautiful to travel through.
Since the CA Zephyr terminates in Chicago, we had a really lovely 5.5 hour layover (which I share more about below) and then boarded the Lake Shore Limited, which goes from Chicago > Boston, with the NYC train splitting in Albany, NY.
Rooms We Booked
We booked the Family Room from Emeryville > Grand Junction, CO and the Full Bedroom from Denver > Chicago > Boston. There’s only one Family Room per train car. For the A-F Family Bedroom options, we had D & B. You’ll want to know the room options when you’re booking your tickets. We learned from our attendant on the Emeryville> Grand Junction leg that “A stands for awful.” The Family Bedroom A, at least on the CA Zephyr, is 6 inches shorter than the rest, and when you’re only working with 49 sq feet, and trying to fit a travel crib in this space, 6 inches matters.
For all the room details see Amtrak Family Room & Full Bedroom Pros and Cons.
We took the train to Grand Junction, CO and then spent a few days in CO before picking the train back up in Denver. I’ll share more about what we did in CO soon.
A few things we considered when picking our stopover location:
- How long could we make it on the train without getting out? For us, we thought one day was a good amount of time. Emeryville > Grand Junction was 25 hours. Yes, 25 hours still seems like a long ass time. For us, it was helpful to think, hope and pray that our daughter would most likely be sleeping about 15 of these 25 hours. (I share all the nap/sleep details below)
- How does the arrival time intersect with our daughter’s nap time? She normally slept 8:30-9:15am and we arrived in Grand Junction at 10:00am, shortly after she woke up, (thankfully) happy to explore CO.
- How far is the rental car location from the train station? We wanted to find a car rental spot that was walking distance from train. The Grand Junction car rental is .3 miles from the train station, so my husband walked there while my daughter and I stayed at the station. Another similar question could be, “How far is the hotel from the train,” if you don’t need to rent a car and want to stay in town. The Marriott we stayed in is on Main St, also under a half mile from the train station. If we weren’t driving to Denver via Buena Vista, we could have easily just made Grand Junction its own stopover.
- What’s there to see, do and eat at the stopover? Grand Junction, CO is full of great hikes and an adorable downtown, which helped in making our decision to stop here. I’ll be writing about our CO trip soon! Feel free to tell me what you want me to cover about our stopover in Grand Junction and trip to Denver via Buena Vista.
As mentioned, since the CA Zephyr terminates in Chicago, we had a layover and boarded a different train in Chicago. We had 5.5 hours in Chicago which was fantastic, in large part because we didn’t have to worry about our luggage. I’ll share what we did in Chicago soon.
Layover & Luggage
Learning what’s allowed for luggage aboard Amtrak is unfortunately way more complicated than it needs to be. We wanted to check our bags in Denver and then pick them up in Boston. You’d think checking bags would work like a plane, meaning you wouldn’t need to do anything with your luggage during your layover. Unfortunately, that’s not the case when you take the Lake Shore Limited since the train itself doesn’t allow for any checked bags. Since the website and the Amtrak 1-800 line said there was no secure bag storage in Chicago, we were nervous and annoyed that we’d have to either carry all our bags around the city or rent a car. I ended up renting a car for 5 hours on Getaround (peer-to-peer car rental), but luckily the luggage experience in Chicago was fantastic, and the car wasn’t needed. Again, this is another example of why I wanted to write this post, so you don’t have to rent a car for 5 hours in fear that you’d have nowhere to put your bags! Also hello Amtrak, please update your website and 1-800 number 🙂
As soon as we got off the train in Chicago, the Red Cap Baggage Assistance was waiting with their vehicle, and offered to take our bags to the Metropolitan Lounge. We excitingly said, “yes!” They also drive people who need assistance to the station. They helped us load our bags back onto the Lake Shore Limited and brought our bags to my brother-in-law’s car once we got to Boston. They are amazing – especially when traveling with kids! The Red Cap Baggage Assistance is free for all Amtrak Business Class and Sleeper Car passengers and we tipped $5 at each leg of the trip.
Lastly, our luggage experience was different than it would have been in normal times since Amtrak has only been booking about 50% occupancy during Covid. We were able to put our bags in a Roomette nearby on the Lake Shore Limited, which wouldn’t have been feasible if they were full or close to full. One last thing to know is that they only allow 50lb max bags. You don’t have the option to pay more if your bag exceeds the 50lb weight maximum. You have to unpack your bag and put your items in a box. Read that last sentence again and make sure you keep your bags under 50lbs!
Chicago Union Station Metropolitan Lounge
Our layover in Chicago was a positive experience in part to the Metropolitan Lounge, which is for business class and Sleeper Car passengers. Reasons why the Metropolitan Lounge is fantastic:
- Secure baggage storage – you check in upon arrival and get your tickets for your next train. Your tickets are your entry into the lounge, and only people with tickets can store their bags in the room behind the Metropolitan Lounge attendant. This made our 5.5 hour layover in Chicago so easy.
- There’s a kid room, which would clearly be more helpful during non-Covid times.
- Free food and drinks (non-alcoholic) during non-Covid times.
- Comfy couches with many charging options for your devices.
- Plenty of space – enough that I took out my yoga mat and did yoga, a good 30 feet from the next person.
- Clean Bathroom & Showers – I didn’t use the shower but having the option for a full size, clean shower while traveling is a great feature.
5 Covid Related Train Precautions:
1 Booked our own private room.
2 Kept our daughter in the room the whole time
3 Used Hepa/UV Filter (Yes, a little extreme, but with the air quality from fires, it proved very worthwhile.)
4 Used hand sanitizer & wipes
5 Had food delivered
Read about the details of the 5 Covid Train Precautions.
Due to the fact that a Pack n’ Play fits in Amtrak’s sleeper cars, it’s possible for babies and toddlers to sleep peacefully in Amtrak’s Sleeper Cars. However, before we left for our trip, I couldn’t find out the dimensions of the Sleeper Car’s floor space, or if a Pack n Play fit in the rooms anywhere online. Writing this post was in large part to get this key piece of information out to parents. Our trip would have been a completely different experience if we couldn’t fit a Pack n Play in our rooms. We love our Pack n Play!
As I edit this post to get it out to the world, my daughter is 15-months old and we are way more relaxed about nap times. However, when she was 10-months old, we were quite obsessed with keeping a strict schedule, and I know many parents can relate. This is why I want to share all the nap details below for all the baby parents out there.
During the train trip, we kept our daughter on her regular nap times and always used the local time depending on where we were on our journey, give or take 30 minutes. Minus the first nap, she slept really well and I was even able to nap alongside her for a couple of the naps.
Luckily, the CA Zephyr leaves Emeryville everyday (at least until late September 2020, when they cut service due to Covid :/) at 9:10 am. Our daughter naps around 8:30am so we put her down as soon as we got in our car, which was around 8:50. It took her a bit longer to fall asleep than usual, which made us think, shit, is she not going to sleep well on this trip? However, our fears were quickly diminished when she passed out for 2 hours during her first nap, instead of her normal 45 mins. That gentle rocking the train probably helped her stay asleep.
As mentioned, we kept her Pack n Play up the entire trip. She napped in it, played in it and I fed her in there a few times. She went down for the rest of her naps easily and that gentle train sway is similar to the effects of the $1000 Snoo.
So much of a baby’s nap time is individual to the child. I think one key aspect to our daughter napping well on the train is that she was used to the Pack n Play. She slept in the Pack n Play outside of our home at her nanny share, which definitely helped her comfort level of sleeping in it on the train. If your little one has never used a Pack n Play it may be smart to test out a few naps in it before you depart on your trip.
Since there was only one other person on our floor, my husband and I were able to read in the Roomette next door while my daughter slept. Added benefits of traveling during Covid when they’re only booking to 50% capacity!
Baby Train Sleep Saviors:
- Pack n Play (or your favorite travel bassinets/crib, but nothing bigger than Pack n Play)
- Big blanket to hang up to divide the Pack n Play with the rest of the room. Amtrak does provides blankets but they’re much thinner and more transparent than the one we brought.
- Clips or tape to hang up the blanket. However if you forget, your room attendant should have tape. (Room attendants are the best.)
- White noise maker, air filter that seconds as white noise, or white noise phone app (although there wasn’t wifi on the Zephyr and very spotty wifi on the Lake Shore).
While I’d grade our naptime experience on the train an A, I’d give our combined 3 nights of overnight sleep a B-. She went down to sleep okay but woke up a few different times. When you’re all together in under 50 square feet, crying is felt a lot deeper than when you hear it a room away.
I slept on the couch pullout and the space was plenty big for me. I didn’t have any trouble with the comfort of the bed, my sleep issue was more about my daughter crying a few times throughout the night, as well as processing the big move we just made. My husband slept on the top bunk. He described the bed as “many kids camps having better bunk beds.” Ha. While he liked the rocking of train, and felt like the bed was long enough for him (he’s 5’11), the first night sleep wasn’t a great night sleep for any of us by any means.
However, when we had the Full Bedrooms on the second leg of the CA Zephyr and the Lake Shore Limited, everyone slept better than the first night. The Lake Shore Limited has a much higher ceiling so my husband actually loved that bunk and had no more kid camp comments.
Have you taken a train trip with your baby or toddler? Do you have other things you’d like me to cover about this trip? Please share your experience and let me know what else you’d like to hear about below.
One response to “Cross-Country Train Trip with a 10-Month Old Baby”
[…] We chose to take the train instead of flying during Covid, because we could book a Sleeper Car train and be completely separated from other travelers. I share the 5 precautions we took to feel confident from a Covid safety perspective aboard Amtrak from Emeryville, CA to Boston, MA. If you want to read all about your trip, check out Cross-Country Train Trip with a 10-Month Old Baby […]