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See the Country by Train and Save Big

The Deal Detective is SmarterTravel’s resident bargain hunter, Kate Hamman. She’s always on the lookout for new travel deals and invites you, dear reader, to submit your own questions.

Able Mom writes, “I am in the middle of a divorce, and would love to take my 10 -and three-year-old children on a vacation, as well as [bring] my 16-year-old sister and my mom who uses a powered-wheelchair). Beaches are out because of the wheelchair. I would like to stay under $2,000. If by plane we would use Seattle. I am not opposed to using the train. What are your suggestions?”

You took the words right out of my mouth. I too was thinking train travel would be an ideal fit for you and your family. Plane tickets for five people could devour your budget and leave you with barely enough money for a place to stay—depending on where you decide to go, of course—but riding the rails can be a more affordable, and a lot more relaxing, way to travel.

Plus, Amtrak does a fine job of accommodating those with special needs and in wheelchairs. Just be sure your wheelchair meets the required weight and dimensions before booking.

Seattle is a great starting point for a train trip, especially since two major routes—the Coast Starlight (Seattle to Los Angeles) and the Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago)—depart from there. You just have to decide if you would prefer watching the ocean crash along the shore or seeing the wildlife roaming free among the mountains.

If you choose the coastal route, it will cost about $196 per adult and $98 per child, or $784 total (with taxes and fees), to ride the Coast Starlight round-trip from Seattle to Los Angeles in November. The trip takes about 35 hours, and this price is without the added comfort of a sleeper car, which can run you quite a bit more money, since you would need to purchase two rooms. The most a family bedroom can sleep is two adults and two children, and one family room would cost an extra $722.

The same would apply for your trip across the upper Midwest, which would cost about $300 per adult and $150 per child (with taxes and fees), or about $1,200, for round-trip travel aboard the Empire Builder in November. The trip takes 45 hours, so you would really want to consider paying extra for a room, which may reach beyond your budget if you have to rent two.

There are, however, other ways around this. You can either treat this as merely a means of transportation to get you to your final destination, such as Chicago or Los Angeles, for instance. This means that you will sleep in your seats and save the rest of your budget to rent hotel rooms when you stop.

Or, you can turn the entire trip into a vacation by buying a rail pass, which can be used for a different number of segments to anywhere in the country over a specified period of time. For example, the passes start at $389 per adult and $195 per child, or $1,557 total (with taxes and fees), for eight segments over a 15-day period. My math isn’t the greatest, but I know that this is the most expensive option thus far. However, the pass will allow you complete freedom in where you get off the train, which means that you can break up the route to fit your needs. A segment would count as a scheduled route, like trains traveling directly from Seattle to Los Angeles. This could be one segment, but you can book individual segments, such as riding from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, for one night before taking the train to San Francisco.

You would have about $450 left for hotel rooms if you decided to go this route, and you can find affordable rooms through providers like and

Don’t forget you can also save on train tickets if you are a child, student, senior, or member of the military. People with AAA or NARP can also save 10 percent off rail fare.

These are only a few of the ways you can plan your train trip within your budget. I leave it up to you to decide in which direction you want to take it. I wish you all the best in your travels with your family.

To all my other readers: Have you ridden the rails recently and have a tip for Able Mom? Is there a better place to send her and her family than on a train trip? Please share your suggestions and ideas below.

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