Train travelers

. February 8, 2013.

Noah and Heidi savor the sceneryThe family vacation has a place in American popular culture that transcends images of long car rides and roadside stops to see the longest ball of twine. Moving past that image and reinventing the family vacation is a tough task, but one that our family seems to have accomplished. Taking the convenience of Europe’s best travel mode – the train – and combining it with a trip to the Midwest’s most exciting city –Chicago – redefined the family vacation for us.

After living in Europe for a year we appreciated the great qualities of train travel. But European trains are more ubiquitous, timely and cleaner than Amtrak’s. There are, though, some exceptions to the popular wisdom about Amtrak and one of those happens to be in our own backyard. Amtrak’s Wolverine service, originating in Pontiac three times daily, usually arrives in Ann Arbor within five to ten minutes of its scheduled arrival and pulls into Chicago’s Union Station – right smack dab in downtown – about four and half hours later. It’s also clean and family friendly.

Train travel is novel to most Americans and exciting to kids of all ages. It is also much easier, more comfortable and more affordable than other popular modes of travel. Booking tickets is easily
accomplished at There are three daily departure times from Ann Arbor leaving at 7:48am, 12:29pm and 7:17pm. Having two small children, the best option for us was 12:29. If you are traveling alone or taking a couple’s weekend the late option is the cheapest. For a family of four (one child under two) our one-way destination ticket was $187.50. The best return choice was once again the noon train leaving Chicago at 12:16pm, having that same price tag of $187.50. Using our AAA membership we received a 10 percent reduction on the entire trip making our grand total $337.50.

Exploring the options

A price comparison finds Amtrak comparable to other modes of transportation. The primary option – travel by car – has an estimated cost of $190. Using a base of 250 miles from Ann Arbor and estimating $3.50 per gallon, the average family driving a 20-mile-per-gallon vehicle will spend approximately $90 in gas. Add in $60 for parking for two nights and another $40 for incidentals of tolls and food along the way. Although almost $150 less than the train, this option can be a lot of aggravation and frustration from kids cooped up in a car to city driving that will take a mental toll, even without monetary cost. What would you pay to arrive in Chicago without having driven through the traffic, heard the kids yell from the back “are we there yet,” or having to mediate a fight over what movie should be watched next? That may be worth a lot more than $150.

The ease of train travel

The other viable option is flying. Although there are many discount flights, most of those leave near 7am. Travel with children is hard enough without getting them up early just to get to the airport to stand in line and go through security. The cost range for our family was from a cheap round trip of $291 on to $700 buying directly from Delta, but neither of these offers the amenities
of train travel. On most flights the bag limit is one and may cost extra; the train allows two bags per traveler at no extra cost. There are no security checks when boarding the train and no invasive x-ray machines. Going from the secure free parking lot to the train is an easy walk, and once boarded, the train leaves the station much quicker than any plane leaving a terminal.
One of the greatest advantages to train travel is the free-range aspect. Whether on the plane for a little over an hour or in the car for more than four hours the kids have to be tied down in their seats the entire trip. With the train the kids can stand up in their seat, roam the aisles, or take a walk to the food car with their parent. We did all these on our trip along with sharing some great views of the scenery along the way. These are trip benefits that just can’t be valued or put into a cost category.

Final destination

Once in Chicago we found a waiting cab on the street and spent $7 for the trip to our hotel. We had chosen to stay the weekend at an Embassy Suites with a discount that made it $165 per night (before taxes). A little pricey but with its good location near Michigan Ave., a full menu breakfast, and a pool everyone had something to be happy about.

Arriving without the aggravation of city driving and having kids who were not tied down the whole trip made a happy start to a wonderful weekend getaway; and we hadn’t even started with all the fun we had in the city. We had successfully made a family trip more of an experience that was treasured rather than listed as something to avoid in the future.