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Meet Me In St. Louis

A family vacation on the tracks less traveled

After being stuck in our homes for far too long, our family was ready to get out and hit the open road for adventure this summer. And why not? If nothing else, the pandemic showed us that life is unexpected; the time to be with our families is now.

When it came time to plan our vacation, we knew flying wasn’t high on our list as a mode of travel. I could just picture myself and my husband, our son flung over his shoulder, sweating and sprinting through the crowded airport terminal screaming, “Hold the plane, we’re coming!”

Hard pass, thanks.

As an alternate, driving was even less than appealing. Any worthwhile destination was five to ten hours away by car. That meant tedious windshield time, miles on the car, Doritos dust stuck in every crevice of the upholstery, and no less than 13 bathroom breaks – mostly because of me (Look, I’m a mom, and that’s my reality now).

Instead, we decided to try door number three: the train.

Chances are you’ve been to Kansas City’s Union Station for Science City, or maybe to see the fabulous Christmas decorations in December. But if you stop and really pay attention, you’ll see the actual Amtrak passenger train picking up and dropping off travelers to and from destinations all over the USA. This summer, we were those passengers, departing Kansas City early on a Friday morning and bound for the middle of the Midwest — St. Louis, Missouri.

We planned our trip relatively easily via the magic of the internet: a hotel right across from Busch Stadium, advance purchased tickets to a ball game, City Museum, and the aquarium at Union Station St. Louis.

We knew it was a lot, but when you’ve been cooped up for a year, you do all the things.

Of course, vacations are never as seamless as one would hope, so I’m here to share with you some tips and tricks we learned the hard way to make your trip even better than ours was.

All aboard!

Amtrak is a truly magical experience. For a cost that fits into almost every budget, the entire family can travel relaxed and comfortable, enjoying the scenery and making lasting memories. Kids and adults are often both stunned at the long, glistening silver tube that looks much larger in person than from the highway. The Amtrak staff is friendly and accommodating, and the gentle sway of the train as it careens over the tracks might just lull you to sleep - until your kid asks for a snack.

Prepare: 

Preparation is paramount to ensure an enjoyable ride on the train. While Amtrak is currently equipped with internet, it isn’t terribly reliable. Plan to have entertainment for all of your various types of passengers. For adults, a calm, quiet ride against the backdrop of passing clouds and tall grasses is heaven, but kids and teens get bored in a hurry. Load up their iPads and devices with movies, games, and books before you board the train. Be sure to bring your headphones, as Amtrak does require them for any device that has audio. The train comes equipped with outlets to charge up your devices and earbuds, and you’ll have plenty of room to spread out if the train isn’t full. Oh, and if you plan to sleep, bring a pillow! Find your seats, settle in, and relax.

Food and drink:

One of my favorite aspects of this mode of travel is the flexibility to pack exactly what my family needs. Unlike the airport, you can bring food and beverages with you onto the train — and it’s advisable that you do so. While Amtrak does offer sustenance, the menu is very limited. Consider loading up on snacks in advance. For adults, the good news is you can purchase a beer, cocktail, or wine in the dining cart and take it back to your seat to enjoy. You can’t do that if you’re driving!

Health protocols:

Alas, we are still in pandemic times, so not everything on the train is back to normal. At the current time, masks are a requirement for the entire journey, similar to air travel. I was pleasantly surprised at how diligent Amtrak employees were at kindly asking passengers to put their masks on, or to pull them up over their noses if they had slipped down. Additionally, you cannot currently eat in the dining car or enjoy the larger observation cars. Of course, protocols are subject to change.

Privacy, please:

If you and your family want a more fanciful experience, Amtrak has it! You can book a private car, complete with sleeping quarters and additional amenities if you’re traveling overnight.

As our train pulled into St. Louis Union Station, I was shocked at how truly relaxed I felt after the journey. My husband – who usually bears the brunt of the driving on a long trip – was able to kick back and enjoy his ride, too, which enabled him to be refreshed when we arrived. (Maybe the beer we each drank helped, too.)

Because we booked our hotel so close to Union Station and the ballpark, our family was able to walk almost everywhere for the entire weekend. If we decided to venture outside the downtown area for a restaurant or shopping, we simply utilized Uber.

While there are pros and cons to traveling on a train, as a mom with high anxiety around missing flights and not making it to a bathroom in time, I highly recommend Amtrak as a unique way to experience the USA this summer. After all, Amtrak creates an opportunity to truly focus on your family, and not worry about the rules of the road or the runway.

Tips for a downtown St. Louis vacation:

City Museum: A 600,000 square foot, 10-story playground! Wear sneakers and devise a buddy system upfront before you arrive. Plan to stay for most of the day.

Gateway Arch: Walk around this beautiful structure to really feel the scale  Find a security guard; they’ll show you a cool trick to get the best photo with your family!

Union Station Aquarium: If you take the train, the aquarium is right there! Tour it right before your train leaves to head home. It’s the perfect end to vacation!

Cardinals Game: A St. Louis staple. No tickets? Fear not! The Ballpark Village features dining and entertainment outside the stadium, including enormous televisions to watch the action!

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