Like many kids, my children love train travel. From their perspective, it’s easy to see why. When they were younger, they were stuffed into safety seats in the car; on airplanes travel was worse. There, they were limited in what they (or my husband and I) can carry on, they had to sit still for long stretches, again with a seat belt, and lose an armrest war to a complete stranger.
But trains were great. Even a crowded subway had more room at their level, they could stand, they sit, twirl if space allowed.
When my older girls were 4 and 6 (and I was pregnant with the third) we traveled around Europe with them by train They were in hog heaven. Big comfortable seats, plenty of space to roam. My middle daughter learned to read on European trains, reading aloud to French women looking to improve their English.
We had a few tricks for ensuring extra space on trains. Long after my kids were toilet trained, we carried a decoy diaper and changing pad. There’s no better way to secure an extra empty seat than to slap an oversized diaper next to you and announce “changing time.” We also underfeed our kids before boarding, to be sure they were whiny and a bit rabid-looking.
But, sadly, Amtrak offers little of the romance of train travel. I recently took my niece to Philadelphia by amtrak. Our first mistake was using the bathroom at Penn Station in NYC. If you’ve ever wondered about the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when the boy falls into a latrine, just use the women’s restroom in Penn Station. My skin crawls just thinking about it.
Rather than announce the track number in advance, Amtrak waits until a mob forms, then posts the track number. Everyone rushes to the one staircase and kids pulling their own suitcases are collateral damage.
Amtrak offers ‘reserved seats’ which merely guarantee a seat, not specific seats together. By the time we fought our way down the stairs, every two seater had at least one person in it, with his bag occupying the seat next to him. We found one four seater, where a guy had stretched out over all four seats and pushed our way in (the NYC subway is now cracking down on seat hoggers. He instantly started grumbling about his long legs, but my niece flashed her 1000-watt smile and we settled in for the ride.