How to ride Amtrak with kids: Free tickets, Red Caps and more
How to ride Amtrak with kids: Free tickets, Red Caps and more

When my husband and I drove back to DC in March after a long weekend in New York, we dreamed of a different kind of trip: no bathroom stops, no need for gas, no screaming from kids fed up with their car seats, no traffic jams.

We agreed that it would be a shame to take the train from DC to NYC as a family of four. But wait. Would that be it?

We started to consider the cost of gas and tolls—and the cost of meltdowns, frequent bathroom breaks for a preschooler, and stop-and-go traffic. Then we discovered Amtrak’s half-price tickets for passengers ages 2 to 12, and a free ride (on an adult’s lap) for a child under 2. We ended up booking three round-trip tickets for a total of $255—just a little more than I paid for a trip just for myself.

Throw in the generous luggage allowance, the invaluable help at the station, the nearby restrooms, and the opportunity to have little adventures along the way (snack cart, anyone?), and my husband and I agreed: It felt like we were on vacation as soon as we got on the train. The fact that we got there faster than it would take to drive—less than three and a half hours to New York and a bit longer on the way back—was another perk.

Some Amtrak regulars might not like the idea of ​​sharing a train with a three-year-old and a nine-month-old, so I’ll just say this: We avoided the quiet car.

Here’s what we learned about traveling by train with small passengers.

Use the Red Cap service

I read that families with children were allowed to board early, but I wasn’t sure how that would work. In all my previous Amtrak experiences, I had to wait for the gate to appear on a screen and then make a beeline for the train, jostling for the best spot with hundreds of fellow passengers.

But using the Red Cap service was undoubtedly the best advice we received.

The staff are described as “dedicated Amtrak personnel you can count on to handle your baggage for free.” They also help passengers with disabilities, elderly travelers, large groups – and, yes, families with young children. Amtrak says customers can tip if they want; let me tell you, this service is priceless for a family and you should definitely tip.

We arrived at Union Station in Washington about 30 minutes before departure and looked for red. Near the gates, we spotted a sign and someone wearing the eponymous red hat (plus polo shirt) and asked for help boarding. He rolled our Pack ‘n Play onto his cart and took us and another group with a small child right to the track and then helped both groups find seats designated for groups of three or more. We were on board at 9:19 a.m., more than 15 minutes before departure.

For the first time, the train was completely empty when we boarded.

On our way back to DC, we asked the police at Penn Station for directions to Red Cap Station. When we got there, someone checked our ticket and let us on the train a few minutes before everyone else. Both times we were able to find our way without getting in anyone’s way.

Those wanting to use the Red Cap service should arrive 45 minutes early, an Amtrak representative later told me. The service is only available at major stations, including Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, Wilmington, Delaware, New Haven, Connecticut and Boston’s South Station on the East Coast. Otherwise, it is available in Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon and Seattle.

According to Amtrak, priority boarding is available for families with small children at some stations; travelers should contact the customer service representative at the station to inquire.

Book early for deals, but read the fine print

I often take Amtrak to New York, so I knew from experience that you could get great prices by looking well in advance, being flexible with dates, and looking for less convenient times. By booking six weeks in advance for a Thursday-Saturday, we found times and prices that were doable with kids. (I’ve since been tempted by round-trip family tickets for $175.)

Our fare was in the “Value” category, which doesn’t offer much flexibility: changes aren’t allowed and there’s a 25 percent cancellation fee. The restrictions are clear when booking, but I must have ignored them because I was surprised when I tried to change our return flight time and couldn’t.

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said the 50 percent discount for children ages 2 to 12 is “an everyday discount we offer to encourage families to get on board and experience a better way to travel.”

Children must be accompanied by at least one adult. The discount does not apply to Business Class on non-Acela trains, First Class or private compartments. One child under 2 years old can travel free of charge when accompanied by an adult and sitting on the lap.

You are allowed to take more baggage with you than on the plane

My packing strategy for family trips is usually “better safe than sorry” – which leaves us with a pile of luggage. That probably would have been OK under Amtrak’s baggage policy for this route. Each passenger is allowed two carry-on bags and one personal item at no additional charge. For those traveling with a child under 2, one additional infant item, such as a stroller or diaper bag, is allowed at no charge.

I knew that on the crowded streets of New York, on public transit, and on the “big train” as we called Amtrak, we would have to manage every item. With a stroller, travel crib, diaper bag, purse, small overnight bag, tiny cooler, and two backpacks containing clothes for the four of us, we felt unwieldy – but we still stayed within the luggage limits.

I thought I could check a bag at the station, but found out at the same moment that only hand luggage was allowed on the train. That turned out to be OK, but it was difficult to find out in advance if we could check a bag.

The cafeteria cart is your friend

Our seats on both legs of the journey were conveniently located near the toilet and well away from the dining car – a good arrangement for urgent toilet breaks and time-consuming stops to sample the food on offer.

Amtrak’s website said there were diaper changing facilities in the bathrooms of “most” cars, but we didn’t find any. A spokesperson later clarified that there were diaper changing areas on the Acela and some long-distance trains.

Being able to walk around was crucial. My daughter loved tapping the button to open the doors between carriages. The seats were spacious and the views were interesting enough to keep both children entertained for a time.

“Mommy, look, we’re going fast!” my daughter said as we sped up. We drove over a sparkling body of water and she excitedly pointed to “the sea!” We’re going to work on geography.

The dining car menu offered plenty to satisfy a preschooler’s palate, although some dishes like a chewy, barely warm grilled cheese weren’t a hit. A glazed lemon cake was a hit, as were pretzels and a tropical fruit salad that was as delicious as it was messy.

But it’s still a tight space, so pack entertainment

If you’re a parent, you know that children get bored and restless when they do something for more than three hours, especially in a small space.

To pass the time, we packed toys for both kids and a tablet with headphones for our preschooler. She painted with an art app and watched some of her favorite movies and shows on Disney Plus in between walks, bathroom trips, and food cart visits.

The baby drank, squealed when he knocked on the window, and cried a little at nap time until we rocked him to sleep. Thankfully the tears were short-lived – and unfortunately so were the nap times.

My husband and I couldn’t help but overhear another’s tantrum: a loud, angry businessman who cursed during a video conference, prompting an Amtrak employee to suggest that he should go to the bathroom if that was how he wanted to express himself.

Unlike my solo train journeys, I didn’t spend my time napping, reading and surfing social media. But I did enjoy riding with them and giving them a new travel experience.

Amtrak was a refreshing alternative to driving for us and we will continue to choose it in the future. But we were also lucky in many ways: The trains were not late, which is not always a given. Our station had the Red Cap service. We could choose a seat when we got on. There were no diaper emergencies.

If we had boarded somewhere without the extra help or the train was already full, it could have been more difficult. And since there was no changing station, it could have resulted in yoga maneuvers in the bathroom (next time I’ll bring oversized changing pads). It was crucial that we brought our own snacks and entertainment.

For us, the best part of the trip was that we were able to avoid the drudgery of a car ride and turn the time into an adventure where both parents could be present and engage with our children. We watched the skylines roll by until New York came into view and marveled at how much less stressful the train ride was than four or more hours on I-95.

“I love the train,” my husband once said.

“Me too,” repeated the three-year-old.