Trip Report: Chicago to New Orleans with Kids via Amtrak

A few weeks before we left Chicago, we took the train to New Orleans for a long weekend. We were dubious about spending 19 hours in confined quarters – twice! – with an only-just-four-year-old and an 18-month-old, but it was awesome – definitely one of the best family vacations we’ve had.

We booked a family bedroom. There’s only one per sleeping car (most trains only have one or two sleeping cars), so they book up fast. It’s the green room in the floor plan below:

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It spans the width of a carriage and has two kid-size bunks (4’7″ long) and two adult-size bunks. By day, it’s set up as one long sofa with a chair opposite. It’s not huge or fancy, but there was space for the kids to move around and make noise without annoying anyone else, which was awesome. I didn’t manage to get a decent photo of the room set up during the day, but this one gives you an idea. The bench you can see bottom left extends the width of the carriage and becomes an adult bunk at night.

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If you book a sleeping room, you’re essentially first class. All our meals were included (and pretty good, too), and there was a turn down service. We ate dinner right after we left Chicago (around 8pm), and our beds were set up when we got back to the room.

{Family room by night}

The kids slept really well, I think because of the white noise and the rocking motion. Eleanor was used to a crib, but we just wedged her in with pillows and lay with her until she fell asleep and she was fine on the bottom bunk. There are safety straps to avoid falls from the top bunk, and Sebastian loved being high up.

I slept on the top adult bunk. I tend to sleep in a sprinter pose, and the bed was too narrow for that so it wasn’t super comfy. I also woke up every time the train stopped (sometimes for up to 40 minutes) at a station. On the way back, we switched and the bottom bunk was considerably comfier, although the stops woke me again.

Waking up in the morning to breakfast with a view in a totally different part of the country was awesome, though, and the unlimited free coffee countered my sleep-deprived grumpiness.

We spent the next few hours alternating between our room in the sleeper car and the observation car. When the kids got bored of one, we moved to the other. This made the trip, in my opinion. We took a lot of train-related entertainment to keep them busy too: train books, train sticker books, take & play trains (like this one), as well as our usual go-to travel toys: the aquadoodle, magnadoodle, toy cell phones and cars, mini lego construction kit, playdoh, drawing supplies, stuffed animals and the iPad.

{Family room with kids’ bed set up}

After lunch, they both napped, then we went up to the observation car again to watch the bayou pass by. It looks like you’re flying over the swamps, and I’m pretty sure I saw a gator.

{The observation car}

We arrived in New Orleans around 3pm and walked to our hotel in the financial district. It’s not far from the French Quarter (3/4 mile), and it’s much quieter, much cheaper, the room was bigger, and they gave us free booze every evening. The walk was annoying with the little ones, but not terrible. If we did it again, I’d look for somewhere on VRBO or AirBNB but because we booked last minute, we couldn’t find anything that suited us.

We spent three nights and five days in New Orleans. Here’s my recommendation for that amount of time in the city with kids.

Day One: Tour the French Quarter by horse-drawn carriage, let the kids race around Jackson Square and have a look at St Louis Cathedral.

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Day Two: Breakfast beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde, followed by a stroll through the river front Woldenburg Park. Take a look at the city from the river on the free Algiers Ferry then take a break from the heat at Audobon Aquarium of the Americas. (But note that none of the museums are open on a Monday – something we learned the hard way!)

Day Three: Hire a car and visit one of the plantations. We planned to do this, but having booked a car with car seats, we were then told that they didn’t have any. We spent the day at the hotel pool and wandering around the French Quarter again instead.

Day Four: Ride the St Charles street car to the Audobon Park and walk through it to the Audobon Zoo.

{Wild river turtles in Audobon park}
{Spot the gator!}

Day Five: Head to the Louisiana Children’s Museum, then grab lunch and a cocktail at Cochon Butcher. There is a lot of good food in New Orleans, but this was our favorite spot – we visited twice. There’s not much seating, and no high chairs, but the food – and cocktails – were amazing.

If we’d had more time, I also wanted to take a walk around the Garden District and maybe check out more of the museums, like the Insectarium.

The train back left at 1:45pm, and the return journey was just as smooth. We arrived in Chicago after breakfast the following morning, just in time to hop in a taxi and get Sebastian to school.

Tips for the train journey:
– Bring extra blankets (even with long pajamas and two blankets each, we got cold).
– Bring waterproof sheets (even if your kids don’t wet the bed, they’re good for protecting the mattress – ours both spilled water on the beds and Amtrak didn’t have spares).
– We used points from our Chase Sapphire credit card to pay for the train, but if you’re paying cash a return trip with a family bedroom on Amtrak costs from $740, according to their website. There is usually only one family bedroom per train, so they book up well in advance.

More info on the train here. (None of the links used are affiliate links, and this isn’t a sponsored post.)

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1 Comment

  1. April 30, 2014 / 7:39 pm

    What a fun and unique experience! I am totally looking into doing something like this.

    -Veronica