We Took the Amtrak Train from Chicago to San Diego and Loved Every Minute of It.

by Blagica Bottigliero


I’m one of those people who does things others may respond with:

‘Why would you go through all that drama?’

or

‘That seems like too much chaos with kids.’

then there is my favorite

‘Good luck with that.’

Here’s the thing – you only live once. That’s why I decided to spend two weeks in France with my husband and then three year old and eight month old.  I went so far as booking the airfare while my son was in my belly. If you’d like more details around how we planned and executed that trip, the post is here.

Now, on to the train trip.

I love trains. Going through Europe on trains or even taking the Chicago Transit Authority around Chicago was and always will be a treat for me. Sitting back and letting someone else do the driving while I write, daydream and check out the various landscapes of a place centers me in a way that I will never be able to articulate. I remember the train through Switzerland – Zurich, then Luzern and then Geneva. Gorgeous. I also did solo train riding up the California coast. Magic.

Before I met my husband or knew if I would have any kids, I promised myself that train travel would be a part of my life and my family’s life – with no choice but for them to accept their commuting fate.

Spring Break of this past year felt like the right time to try a cross-country journey. I looked into Amtrak routes and was impressed by how many arteries spread across the country.  Knowing we wanted somewhat of a guarantee with pleasant weather, my eyes fell on to San Diego and I began backtracking the route from Chicago.  Amtrak has a direct train from Chicago to Los Angeles, dubbed the Southwest Chief line, with a connecting train to San Diego. Done.  Kids were half price and I decided to re-up my AAA membership to save more cash off the trip. 

Oh, did I mention this would be two nights sleeping on the train? Yep. Keep reading.

For overnight trips, you can enjoy something called a Roommette or go for the Family Bedroom. We went for the Family Bedroom- and it was worth every penny. Every. Single. Penny. My second pick would be Roomettes. Amtrak has a handy diagram breaking down each train type and the sleeping arrangements on those liners. 

I mentioned our route was the Southwest Chief. You’ll discover that each main route has its own train name. Each route also has different bells and whistles. For example, our train route didn’t have built in WiFi, but the route from Los Angeles to San Diego (the Pacific Surfliner) did. In Chicago’s Union Station, sleeper accommodations gives you the perk to wait for your train in the first class area, The Metropolitan Lounge. The Metropolitan Lounge is full of free snacks, coffee, tea and a more relaxed place to wait. Once it’s time to board, you are escorted to the train. Note: Chicago is about to unleash it’s NEW first class lounge area. I can’t wait for this to open.

The Family Bedroom on the Southwest Chief

Our room didn’t include our own toilet or shower, but those were easy to access down the hall. Towels, blankets and pillows were included. My daughter quickly learned what it was like to shower in a tight space and put her undies on and off with wet feet and flip flops. Life lessons, people. Life lessons:)!

As I mentioned up top, we are a family of four. If we put the suitcases in that room with us, it would have been one tight squeeze. Instead, I had a smaller bag that carried the kids’ PJs, clothes for the next few days and basic toiletries. We also had the kids’ backpacks stocked with their Fire tablets, toys and books.

That particular Amtrak family bedroom had outlet so you may want to split time with charging electronics there, along with charging in the observation car and/or keeping a backup charger handy. I believe our Superliner only had two of these family bedroom sorts of rooms. When I spoke with Amtrak to confirm various parts of the trip, I was told the family bedrooms on the Chicago – to Washington DC and Chicago to Florida trips were popular and book up fast.

Each car is assigned an attendant – who you will quickly get to know. Your attendant or one of their colleagues will be around to get your preferred lunch and dinner seating times. We always went for the early route. Breakfast was open seating.

Let’s be real here, it’s a train.  Sleeping on the train wasn’t ‘ideal’ because stops were made along the way, during all hours of the night. I also had a problem with our room’s ventilation and couldn’t seem to turn the air down.  The first night was rough, moreso because the kids were so excited to be ON the train. Tip: bring a lightweight fleece blanket OR pack a nice sleep shirt/sweatshirt for extra warmth.

I loved the way the room became a huge lounge space during the day. We used it for naps or place for one adult or an adult and a kid to take a break from the Observation Car.

The Amtrak Observation Car

We spent the majority of our time here. The Observation car is one large car with windows on each side and strewn with tables. After breakfast, we’d take our books, tablets, journals and toys and popped a squat at a table. This served as Mission Control for the day. There was usually someone at the table at all times, but it was never a problem to find another table if we had to move.  In addition to the table, there are swivel chairs that face out to the windows. Each Observation Car table has plugs. Bonus.

I packed some snacks in advance, but there was always the Snack Car as backup. 

The Snack Car on this trip seemed to have more options than typical Amtrak routes. I remember a stop before Los Angeles where the snack car was almost out of stuff. More wine choices, too.

Dining on Amtrak

I was pleasantly surprised by the menu options. Look it’s a train, not the Ritz, but there was plenty of salad and grown-up meal options to complement the kid-friendly hot dogs and grilled cheese options. I don’t have much to report here aside from I was fed and was full. The desserts were pretty yummy as well. 

Transferring from Los Angeles to San Diego

If your travels ever take you to San Diego, transferring trains in Los Angeles is a cinch. On the LA to San Diego route, I splurged and paid a bit extra per person to get Business class seating. Again- worth every penny. Business class seating guaranteed a table for the four of us. The kids had a place to play games and draw and we had a little perk of coffee and snacks as well. The ride down to San Diego is beautiful as there is a specific part of the ride that is nothing but the Pacific Ocean on one side. Make sure you ask the conductor which side is which so you get a good view on the way down.

Once in San Diego we hailed an Uber car and took it to our five-day rental in Mission Beach.  We flew home on a non-stop flight.

My Takeaways

I would absolutely do this again.  I am convinced that traveling by train is doable and seeing the country in this way is such a unique experience. My kids still have memories of that trip and are looking forward to our next trip (which will end up being Chicago to St. Louis) very soon.  As any family trip would go – plan in advance.  We opted for the ‘pricier’ version of the trip, but at the end of the day, what is the price of convenience and space?  Amtrak Vacations has deals and specials all the time. I find myself checking those specials, for both regional and long-distance travel, as often as I do my favorite boutiques.

Happy travels. Feel free to email me with any other questions!