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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): First Trip on the Amtrak Train with the Kids

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

First Trip on the Amtrak Train with the Kids













This past week, I had the opportunity to ride Amtrak for the first time. I've ridden trains in Europe and before we left on our Amtrak trip, everyone I told about my upcoming trip said "it's not anything like the trains in Europe". I didn't know whether that was a positive or a negative comment...and I was afraid to ask anyway, so I let it go.

We decided to drive a bit and go out of Orlando, because it was cheaper. Our final destination was Washington DC's Union Station. For myself and two kids, the cost was just $165 (the military rate)...it also makes a difference, which day you travel, so if you are flexible, try different dates. I purchased the tickets online at Amtrak.com.

So, there we were driving towards the station...the area was starting to get more and more rundown..and we pull up to this 100 year old structure...the train station....I couldn't believe that this was the first impression Orlando wanted visitors to have of Orlando! It was rundown and dirty...but, we went ahead and gathered our things and went on inside. Too late to turn back now!

The Amtrak folks were pleasant enough and after an hour or so, the bums and drunks were replaced by nicely dressed folks who looked like they were going to ride the train. Right before the train approached the station, announcements were made and the Amtrak personnel grouped people together according to destination. This train ran the Miami-NYC route with a lot of stops in between.

Boarding was easy and plenty of room for luggage. The traincars were configured like airplane seats and a similar overhead baggage area but everything was much roomier than on a plane. The seats even reclined way back, they had leg and feet rests and plenty of leg and maneuver room. There were two seats on each side.

Before the next stop, a conductor came around and punched our tickets and a steward took our reservation time for dinner.

We proceeded on...on-time at this point, and stopped in a few more towns before heading into Georgia. About that point, the kids and I decided to visit the dining car for dinner, as our designated time was coming up. We were told it was near the front, so off we went. Be sure to take your valuables with you. We went through a few more cars like ours...then got to a car with a bunch of tables...after realizing this was not the dining car, we went into another car where train personnel were hanging out and then finally into a car that looked like a 1950s diner with stools and tables in the back. A crisply dressed waiter took us to our seats at a table.

We quickly ordered...they had a bit of everything..in fact, Amtrak does have sample menus on their website. I had roast chicken and the kids had pizza and hamburgers. The food looks like it was reheated, but it did have good flavor. The meals also came with salads and warm rolls. I can honestly say it was nice sitting there eating and looking at all the sleepy little towns we passed by. I swear at some point, we thought we had gone back in time as we passed little shack houses and old trailers with not a paved road in sight...just the dusty red clay backroads of Georgia.

As we went back to our seats, the sun was setting and we thought we'd settle down and read and do some Gameboy before trying to catch some shut-eye. We continued to stop at mostly small towns throughout the night and then ran into our first bit of trouble. The train slowly came to a stop...no announcements were made and we were in the middle of nowhere..no roads, no stations in sight...just darkness. Most folks were asleep...but some of us started peering out the window wondering what was going on. After about 30 minutes, I snagged a steward and asked why we were stopped so long. She said they were having engine trouble and that it won't be much longer....finally, after an hour, we were on our way again...I wondered what the back-up plan is when they CAN'T fix the engine...

Off we were again...but late...the kids had no trouble sleeping. They were rolled up in their blankets and were blissfully unaware of our delay. I, on the other hand, had trouble sleeping. The seats are more comfortable than airline seats but if you are tall, it is hard getting it just right.

The next morning, we realized we were going to be at least three hours late. Apparently, passenger trains have to give right of way to freight trains, and because our schedule was now officially screwed up, we had a lot of stopping and waiting that had to be done to let those trains pass. At this point too, the bathrooms were starting to run out of water and the stewards were closing them up one by one. If you had to go, you wasted a lot of time going from car to car looking for an open bathroom. Since we were only going to DC, I wondered if they'd run out of bathrooms before NYC...I didn't want to know that either.

We finally arrived...yep, three hours late...so our already long 17 hour journey had turned into a 20 hour trip! Would I do it again? Probably, on another route, just to see the scenery....AND if I had a lot of time to burn. I found life was slower on the train and the people suprisingly friendly and talkative, unlike being on a plane...maybe this is what draws folks to train travel? The kids enjoyed the trip and said they'd do it again too.

I'll leave you with some tips, especially if you are traveling with children:

  • Bring a small soft-sided cooler full of water, Capri-Suns and sandwiches (we also had fruit snacks, nuts, goldfish, Pringles and some other compact snacks in another bag)
  • Bring a lightweight but warm blanket (Amtrak does not provide these free although they do provide a free pillow)
  • Bring a pair of sweatpants and socks (the traincars are freezing and you need to be comfortable for the night)
  • Bring plenty to read; games to play; also electronic games - anything that will keep you busy; I saw many portable DVD players on the train
  • Don't check your luggage (you can bring two pieces with each of you as carry-on and they must be no larger than 28x22x14); we had one roll-on bag each, plus a backpack each and our cooler
  • We didn't smoke but we noticed that train personnel made announcements as to which stops you can get off the train to smoke (and yes, people do get left behind if they get off when they shouldn't)
  • Do not let your kids move around the train when you are in a station (I was too afraid someone would whisk them off); don't let them go into another car without you either
If you've been on a train recently, I would love to hear your comments! If you have any specific questions or are considering a trip, please drop me a line!

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