All-aboard The Crazy Train
February 21, 2012 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Two adults and a 7-year-old on an 9-hour Amtrak ride from Philly to Fayetteville, NC. Tell us how how to survive and not kill each other.

I've done short hops on Amtrak before from Philly up to DC or NY, but this is the first time I've done an extended train ride, much less with my 7-year-old niece bouncing up and down in the seat next to me. So a couple of questions:

Onboard Wifi? How well does it work? Is it free?

We don't have assigned seats (we bought tickets separately). I assume if we get to 30th Street Station early enough, we can pick up the tickets, then board and therefore sit together?

What's the seating like? i.e. two seats side by side? four seats facing each other with a table in-between?

Is the food on board decent? Or are we better off packing a little cooler and bringing it with us? The train departs 30th Street quite early in the morning, so a lot of the good cafes in the station probably won't be open.

What's the cafe and lounge cars like? Is there anything kid-friendly on board that we should know?

Best places to sit?

Anything else we should consider? My niece has been on cross-country flights before, so she is pretty good about traveling, but she's very excited for this particular adventure.
posted by HeyAllie to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
portable videogame system... or tranquilizers
posted by 3mendo at 9:47 AM on February 21, 2012

There is usually a cafe car in the center of the train, but I thought the food was awful. Definitely pack what you can.

The seats are mostly 2- wide on each side of the aisle. Very roomy. They underbook so there should be plenty of extra seating. (my "sold out" ride had empty double seats).

IIRC the ends of the cars have 2 sets of seats facing each other. Alternately the cafe car had seats like that with a table in between (iirc - someone should verify this) which would be good for kids activities on board.

I'd also recommend sanitary wipes or antibacterial hand gel - I slept on the train and broke out the next day where my face had touched the seat. Gross.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:49 AM on February 21, 2012

I'd recommend bringing some board games and cards that you can play in the cafe car and some type of portable video player. And, definitely bring some food. Seven hours of train food will be a bit too much. I once saw a family having a tea party in the cafe cart complete with little biscuits, which seemed like a great way to waste some time. I'm pretty sure that the cafe cart can supply you with hot water.

For seating, I'd recommend making sure your seat faces the way the train is moving in case any of you get sick. Finding seats together shouldn't be a problem.

When I rode your route, wifi was spotty at best.

Have a great trip!
posted by JuliaKM at 9:53 AM on February 21, 2012

Trains vary in their amenities. On longer-distance trains there can be sit-down dining cars with ok food, viewing cars where you can get snacks and hang out, and some trains have cars with video games and board games. Other trains may only have a snack car with limited seating. Your seats will probably all face the same way. Some trains (Cascades and Acela are two) have fast free wifi, but most trains don't. There will be lots of kids. I'd pack sandwiches, drawing materials and playing cards. Maybe a laptop and dvd. But looking out the window will be fun too.

If you go to the amtrak website you can probably find out the details of your particular train...
posted by feets at 9:54 AM on February 21, 2012

There's a cap on the onboard (free) wifi, so you can't use it to stream movies or music. Moderate web surfing is ok.
posted by Lucinda at 9:55 AM on February 21, 2012

I've never taken the line that goes to Fayetteville, but I've taken train from DC to NC a bunch of times, I'm guessing they're very similar.

Onboard Wifi? How well does it work? Is it free?

It is free. It works well at some times, but not others. There were definitely parts of the trip where it didn't work for me at all.

What's the seating like? i.e. two seats side by side? four seats facing each other with a table in-between?

There's two seats side by side or four across from each other, but not tables (I think). There are tables in the cafe car. If I had a kid, I would probably spend a lot of time in the cafe car. There's a little more room, a table to play board games or cards. Also, video games, books, music, you need a bit of everything to make seven hours work. Get everything you can for her (and you) to do.

I think the food on board is getting worse, not better, because they're trying to make it "fancier." My last trip, I had an Italian Baguette sub thing and a microwavable cheeseburger. The cheeseburger was not good, but it was fine; the sub was pretty awful. I'd pack what food you can, especially since you can make a better sandwich than Amtrak can.

For the return trip, I recommend getting an absurd amount of barbeque and eating it non-stop until you start getting funny stares; that was the best train trip I've ever taken.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:55 AM on February 21, 2012

1. Yes, you will be able to take whichever seats you want. Your seats are "Reserved" which means you have a guaranteed seat, but there are no seat assignments. The trains start in NYC, so some spaces will be taken already, but you should be able to get seats with or near each other and rearrange as people leave the train at intermediary stops.

2. SOME trains have WiFi. I just did a search for PHL > FAY for tomorrow and it looks like there are two trains. The early one (the one you're on?) has the WiFi indicator. The second indicated a dining car. Both have café cars. And, even if the train has WiFi, connections can be good or spotty. When it works, it's great; when it doesn't, it's maddening. Don't count on it, and if you get it, hey, bonus!

3. Seats are side-by-side with four-seat clusters as DoubleLune said.

4. Pack your food for the day. Sandwiches and snacks and drinks, and some napkins and sanitizer. It's always better to be overprepared and not need some stuff rather than be wishing you could wipe your hands without going to the bathroom or needing some soda and not having any.

5. Give your niece the window seat!
posted by The Michael The at 9:56 AM on February 21, 2012

*pulls up chair and sits down*

Okay - some of the answers to your questions are conditional depending on the kind of ticket you got.

* I'm not clear whether OnBoard Wifi is available on every train, in every class; the last time I tried using it on the regular regional service, it wasn't available; but that was a year ago. I know it's available on Acela, and I vaguely remember something about it being rolled out on the regular regional service; I'd check with Amtrak about whehter it's available for your class.

If it IS available: it is indeed free. There will be a little card at your seat telling you what channel to use - when you log on to that channel, you'll be first brought to a web page asking you to accept the Amtrak terms of service (I think it's just a boilerplate thing; the biggest thing you need to know is that some types of activity on Social Media sites are blocked). Once you accept that, then you're good to go. You don't need a password, I believe.

* Yes, the seating is unassigned. Getting to the station early is one way to get on, although sometimes they don't announce the track you need until right before you board -- so you may be stuck clear across the station when they announce the track and end up at the end of the line anyway. Watch for that (or find someone who's taken the train before; sometimes the train uses the same platform over and over, and if someone tips you off in advance you may be able to sneak over to that gate early.)

* Most seats are two-on-one-side, two-on-the-other, all facing the same way. There are SOME cars on the regional service line where you'll find seats arranged in groups-of-four on each side of the aisle, with two seats facing two seats. Those go fast.

However, if you're on the Acela, or in business class, you can find more groups-of-four-with-a-table seats like that. You can also find tables-with-chairs in the cafe car on both regional and acela; you MAY not be able to sit there the whole way though (partly because they're taken, and sometimes you may get a grumpy conductor who insists the tables in the cafe car are for temporary use only).

* The food is....well, it depends what you get. The "meal" food (pizza, sandwiches, etc.) is usually something prepackaged and thrown into a microwave for you right when you order. Snacks are the standard packets of chips/candy/nuts that you can get anywhere; kind of hard to screw that up. The "cappucino" is one of those bottled things you can get in supermarkets; coffee and tea are made on the premises. They also have little bottles of alcohol, if you wish.

* The cafe car is always crowded - there are two rows of tables-with-chairs lining either side, and the cafe proper is in the middle. Because it's usually the only cafe car, there is usually a very long line the length of the car full of people who've come from all other cars to get their food.

* Not so much kid-specific entertainment. Let her sit near the window and play I-Spy, or bring card games or something. (Although: one important thing to know with kids is "Where's the bathroom." There usually is one at either end of the car.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:58 AM on February 21, 2012

And one more question.... what about plugs to charge an iPad? Available in coach seating or in the lounge cars?
posted by HeyAllie at 10:16 AM on February 21, 2012

We went cross country with a 7 year old and a 2 year old. Bring a cool card game (we brought Fluxx, Lord of the Fries and Race for the Galaxy), set up in the lounge car at a table, and pretty soon every other 7-12 year old kid on board will find you. In a few hours it was a rolling tween gaming convention. Years later, my son still talks about this as being one of the greatest vacations ever, and he still corresponds (and games online) with kids he met on that train. Have fun!
posted by apparently at 10:25 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are electric outlets at each seat.

I have a question for you: you keep asking about "the lounge cars." I don't recall there BEING "lounge cars" at all, unless you're using the term in some way I'm not clear about. What is it you are referring to?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:29 AM on February 21, 2012

It sounds like your route will be the Silver Service/Palmetto, which has a dining car and lounge/snack bar. I haven't taken that train, but on other Amtrak routes the dining car food was decent but expensive, while the snack bar food was notably worse but still overpriced. Bring your own, but your niece may enjoy going to the snack car for a soda or something as a treat.

The lounge/snack bar cars on long-haul routes have tables where people can hang out and play cards or whatever in between meal crunch-times. Most of the socializing occurs here and Amtrak passengers tend to be friendly. A cute little kid might make lots of new friends who will keep her out of auntie's hair for a while. (Be in the car with her, but if the vibe seems OK you probably won't need to hang over her shoulder every minute. Bring a book and stay within earshot.)

WiFi, at least on the Coast Starlight route I took recently, was being installed as cars went in for heavy maintenance, so it's a kind of a crapshoot whether your train will have it. Mine didn't, so I can't comment on how it works.

There are electric outlets in lounge cars so they can run the vacuum cleaners, but they may be awkwardly located or hard to find. Usually somebody else has found them first and hogs them for hours.

Trains are good for kids because they can burn off a lot of steam bouncing up and down the aisles for hours. Explore the other cars which are accessible (you won't be able to go into the sleeper cars without a sleeper ticket), look out the windows for horses or birds, bring games and crayons to the lounge car, and I think your niece will be adequately entertained.

Just wanted to recount an experience from the Coast Starlight: a kid managed to escape his parents en route and there were several announcements over the PA asking everybody to keep an eye open for the missing boy, who was spotted and returned to his parents about 20 minutes after he went AWOL. The conductors made several sweeps through the cars, and passengers also helped search. So yes, it's possible to lose track of a kid on a train, but Amtrak takes lost kids very seriously. Just be sure you know where your niece is when the train is at a station, and the rest of the time she's got to be on the train someplace and she'll be fine. Enjoy your trip!
posted by Quietgal at 10:30 AM on February 21, 2012

(Oh, and I'm a regular on amtrak's Northeast Corridor; I take it between NYC and Boston three or four times a year, and have taken both regular and Acela.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:30 AM on February 21, 2012

Bring your food - my experience in the past with Amtrak's onboard service has not been good. My brother recently traveled to NJ from Florida on Amtrak and said the choices were pretty abysmal.

Trains are great. Apparently has the right idea - bring some games!
posted by pianoboy at 10:32 AM on February 21, 2012

Some of these answers are overly optimistic. You should assume there will be no amenities at all.

Make a list of everything you'll want on the train, and bring all of it on your own. Don't expect Amtrak to provide any of it for you.

I've taken many Amtrak trains with a laptop, and I always tried to get the wifi to work. It never, ever worked.

Many of the trains don't have any food or beverage service. You can check online whether yours will have it. This isn't something we can answer for you. But if you don't know, assume there will be no food or beverage service.
posted by John Cohen at 10:40 AM on February 21, 2012

There is free WiFi on a number of Amtrak trains. It depends which route/service the train you are taking is part of.

From an Amtrak press release:
This phase of Wi-Fi expansion includes Northeast Regional trains, the most popular Amtrak service, which operates daily between Virginia and Boston, and the heavily traveled Empire Service (New York – Albany –Buffalo) and Keystone Service (New York – Philadelphia – Harrisburg, Pa.)

Other routes now with Wi-Fi include: Carolinian (New York – Charlotte), Downeaster (Boston – Portland), Ethan Allen Express (New York – Rutland, Vt.), the New Haven – Springfield Shuttle and Vermonter (Washington – St. Albans, Vt.)

Wi-Fi also is installed on four other routes as part of this expansion, but only in select cars marked with hotspot window stickers because these trains are made up of different types of equipment: Adirondack (New York – Montreal), Maple Leaf (New York – Toronto), Palmetto (New York – Savannah, Ga.), and Pennsylvanian (New York – Philadelphia – Pittsburgh.)
So it seems like, depending on which train you're taking, you may have WiFi for all or part of the trip.

However, fair warning: the free wifi service is very slow. Basically you are sharing a single 3G connection with either everyone on the train or at least everyone in your car. It's brutal unless the train is basically empty, in my experience. Most business users don't even mess around with it and go directly to aircards, because it's not very reliable. But it might be worth giving it a shot anyway ... but be sure to have some DVDs or something as backup.

You can bring your own food, which I'd recommend. The best options from the cafe car IMO are the light snacks (trail mix, M&Ms, etc.); the hot food isn't as bad as airplane food but it's also not great compared to what you can get in a station. If your train has an actual dining car, different from a snack car, that's entirely different. Dining cars are on trains with sleeper cabins, although you can eat in them even if you are in coach; ask the conductor to make a reservation when you get on. I had dinner on the Silver Meteor a few years ago and it was quite nice, although not cheap.

A word on alcohol: you are technically not allowed to BYOB on Amtrak but if you are not a total d-bag about it you'll probably be fine. Train staff on Amtrak have a lot more discretion and tend to exercise it a lot more than, say, flight crews on most airlines. So while it won't do anything for the kids, you can at least avoid paying $7/ea for a beer or two if you want one. If you want to be really safe, just bring something that they stock in the cafe car -- Sam Adams Lager and Dogfish Head 60M IPA are both sold on the NEC cafe cars so they won't raise eyebrows.

They underbook so there should be plenty of extra seating. (my "sold out" ride had empty double seats).

This is not always true. On holiday weekends they really do book the entire train absolutely full to capacity and then some. (It's better now than it used to be, but there are lots of stories of people standing in the vestibules between cars on peak travel days.) Some regional trains can sell out completely between particular stops; e.g. a train might be "sold out" on part of the route but empty on others -- a regional running from NHV to WAS might be only 30% full on the end-to-end but 100% full from NYP to PHL. So just because a train is empty when you get on doesn't mean that it'll stay that way.

N.B.: If a train is full and you or someone in your family are taking up more than one seat, by sleeping across two of them or keeping your luggage on the adjacent seat, you may get yelled at by the conductors. Sometimes they are polite about this, sometimes (if they've already made three or four announcements on the PA) they aren't. If you want to stretch out, it's worth asking the conductor whether the train is going to fill up in the near future. They have a manifest which will show how full the train is, percentage-wise, at each stop along the way.

The best times to travel if you want a lot of room to spread out is mid-day and mid-week; anything towards the beginning or end of the week or the beginning/end of the day can be a bit more crowded. At least that's my experience on the NEC, not sure about the trains south of WAS.

Also ... when I was a kid, I always enjoyed walking to the very end of the train and looking out the back window. If there isn't a second locomotive coupled to the back of the train, this could be fun. If you ask nicely, you might even be able to go into the vestibule at the very end of the last car to get a better view. (Again discretionary on the part of the train crew, YMMV, be nice to them and they can do all sorts of stuff for you.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:51 AM on February 21, 2012

I'm not sure if the route to Fayetteville is covered by this program, but North Carolina has volunteer train hosts who board the train at the first stop within NC and chat with passengers, give tourism advice, etc. A lot of the hosts are railroad retirees and have all sorts of cool stories about trains that your niece might be interested in.

Also, once you get south of Washington, DC, Amtrak has to share the rails with freight lines, and freight gets priority. So don't be surprised if you have to stop somewhere random in Virginia. One more reason to have extra snacks and extra entertainment.
posted by bbq_ribs at 11:24 AM on February 21, 2012

If you want to get on the train early, go to the red cap service and ask for help (given you're traveling with a kid). You'll get priority boarding. We have a 4 year old and always do that and are happy to tip well.
posted by gaspode at 11:25 AM on February 21, 2012

Trains aren't like planes, where standing up is discouraged. Trains aren't like busses, where standing up is inconvenient/swaying/uncomfortable - at least, only mildly so. Especially with a kid, take frequent walks. Go from one end of the train to the other. Bring your own food (both simple at-seat food, and fussy food-for-entertainment picnics) but go to the cafe car to get a little something to go with (some hot water for tea, or whatever).

To remember: You are a party of three. You presumably have electronics in your carry-ons. Trains aren't full of wicked wicked thieves, but they're not "safe" either. Either one of the adults needs to stay with the bags while the other walks, or you need to cultivate a friendship with the people across the aisle (hey, watch our stuff, okay?), or you each have locks for your stuff, or you need to have a joint "valuables-purse" that holds all the wallets, ipods, phones, etc, so that the only thing you leave at your seats is uninteresting stuff. Lots of options, but plan ahead.
posted by aimedwander at 11:30 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do eat once in the dining car, if you can. It might be a little pricey, but it really is nice, and a lot of fun. And the food is actually pretty good.

There might also be a viewing car with swivel seats and floor-to-ceiling windows--not sure if the train you're on will have it. Often, there are family-friendly movies shown in the lounge car (on the trains I've been on, the cafe is on the lower floor and the lounge is on the upper).

Bring e-readers, etc. Some seats--but not all--have power outlets, so check and make sure yours does if you're planning to charge things. And bring a pack of cards--you can while away a couple hours playing Hearts and Go Fish.

Do be prepared for delays. Some lines are worse than others--on a 20-hour ride, I've gotten in five hours late on a number of occasions because of flooding or heavy use by freight trains--a seven-hour ride probably won't be that bad, but you never know. If you get on expecting delays, you won't be so exasperated by them when they happen.

All said and done, however, I love Amtrak and wish I could ride it more often. And I have never seen a bored, unhappy kid on the train. Your niece is going to have the time of her life!
posted by tully_monster at 12:20 PM on February 21, 2012

For what it's worth there's a Subway restaurant attatched to the train station on the Fayetteville end.

If you have any Fayetteville questions let me know-this is my neck of the woods.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:42 PM on February 21, 2012

The Palmetto, which you appear to be taking, has WiFi but no dining car, and no sleeper accommodations.
posted by wnissen at 1:48 PM on February 21, 2012

I took the Silver Star from Philadelphia to Florida, although not in the last year.
It was full, although that may have been because of the time of day.
There was no Wi-Fi then, except if you happened to ride past a hotspot.
AC outlets were every other seat.
I agree with the consensus about both the dining car (good but expensive) and the club car (visit but don't buy your 'food' there). I always pack everything I'm planning on eating.
Very few 4-seats-facing spaces.
Bring books, cards, games.
A 7-year-old should love it, especially in the daytime. Walking the length of the train [allowed] is fun- just going from car to car is scary/exciting.
Can't say about the adults. If you're taking the nighttime one don't plan on sleeping too much.
posted by MtDewd at 2:43 PM on February 21, 2012

Silver service (Star/Meteor) doesn't have WiFi as far as I know. The diner car food is extremely expensive, but on the other hand, if you can justify sleeper accomodations, it's included and can be part of the justification for sleeper accomodations. Probably not what you want on a 9 hour trip, though.

AC outlets are available nearly everywhere in my experience - which is, for Silver service, only maybe every year or so.

A daytime trip is going to be more enjoyable; if you've got one, bring along a GPS nav unit and be watching for things coming up. Certain features that you might enjoy observing can fly by when you're moving along at 80MPH, before you have a chance to spot them.

Buy a soda and occupy a table in the cafe car for a few hours, and find a few games to play. Highly recommended. Cannot stress that highly enough - because it can provide an opportunity for others to approach you. Many of the people who show up in the cafe car are interested in socializing, so there are great opportunities to make friends and meet new people.

To the person who noted "Very few 4-seats-facing spaces" - check with your car's attendant to see if they would mind you reversing a seat. You might get a "Ah, NO!" because they can be a bit stuffy about that, but on some of the regional trains around here, they don't care. If you've paid for the seats, they're less likely to care...
posted by jgreco at 4:04 PM on February 21, 2012

Think about the time of day you are travelling and plan to get seats on the non-sunny side of the train to avoid the glare.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:45 PM on February 21, 2012

"Bring your own food, bring your own food," they all say.


I'm sure you CAN make a better sandwich than Amtrak. But unless your niece is some kind of budding foodie, she won't care. She'll want microwaved pizza from the cafe car. When I was her age, my mom ALWAYS packed lunch, and I hated that.... I wanted the weird train food! Much more interesting!

(OK, OK, bring some snacks, and maybe stuff the adults will want to eat. Also alcohol, as recommended above. But please, just give your niece $10 and send her to the cafe car, all by herself.)
posted by kestrel251 at 9:51 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

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