There’s something magical about trains. Maybe it’s the sense of a simpler way of life and a more leisurely way to travel. Kids sense it, too; boys and girls alike love steering wooden trains on pieced-together tracks. So why not tap into your child’s sense of wonder by booking a trip on a real train?
Michigan offers a variety of train experiences – from large, modern locomotives to historic heavyweights. Most excursions are close to home and offer an unforgettable vacation at an affordable rate.
Riding the train
“When you travel on an airplane or in the car, the vacation really doesn’t start until you get to where you’re going,” explains Amy Graff, a travel and leisure expert. “Everything is very high stress. But when you’re on the train, it’s so much more relaxing.” Graff wondered at first if her kids would be bored traveling by Amtrak train in California. Instead, they beg to go again.
“Train travel is unique,” says Graff. The assistant train conductor greeted her kids with a smile and a handshake. Other passengers talked to Graff’s children. Her daughter, Paris, commented, “People are so nice on the train.” Graff agrees. “When you get on an airplane no one wants to sit by kids, but on the train people don’t mind.”
What to expect
In the end, the prep may be easier than going by car. While each seat on Amtrak trains has electronic plugs for portable DVD players or video games, Graff says the ongoing scenery really does entertain the kids. “It’s not the typical sites kids might see on the highway. My kids were just immersed.”
Your kids will have plenty of room to stretch their legs and move around. Depending on the train you’re taking, there may be an entertainment or dining car. You can bring your own snacks on board, too.
There’s no assigned seating, though there is regular coach passenger cars and business cars. Your conductor can help families find seats together. You’re more likely to find your choice if you begin your travels at one of the train’s main stations at the route’s starting point, instead of one of the smaller town stations farther along.
Keep in mind some trains are regular commutes for business travelers. For deeper discounts, book your travel at less-busy times and less-crowded days. “Fares are lower on Tuesdays or Wednesdays than on Thursdays and weekends,” says Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari, whose company also offers online weekly specials.
Reservations are easy online. Or you can buy your tickets at the station, as long as there’s staff available to sell tickets. Some train stops pick up passengers but don’t have ticket-buying services available. Large hubs, however, like Dearborn, Detroit and Ann Arbor offer a full range of service. Magliari notes the Dearborn station offers plenty of parking.
Chicago, one popular weekend-away destination for southeast Michiganders, takes about five-and-a-half hours and drops families off in the heart of the downtown area.
Closer to home
Here are a few neat historic train rides in the southeast Michigan area.
- Tauber Family Railroad, Detroit Zoo. Journey from the Chrysler Main Station near the zoo’s entrance to the farthest corner at the zoo’s Africa Station. The train is open during regular zoo hours throughout the summer.
- Greenfield Village, Dearborn. Historic Greenfield Village offers families a chance to ride the Weiser Railraod on one of two trains – a steam locomotive or a diesel-powered engine. Both engines escort passengers along a 3-mile loop of the village. Several stops along the way allow passengers to get on and off. An all-day pass also lets you hop on other historic rides, like the vintage Model T. Once you’re done riding the train outside, head inside to the adjacent Henry Ford Museum to look through dozens of retired engines. Don’t miss the 600-ton Allegheny Locomotive, located among several other trains on display.
- Coopersville & Marne Railway Company. Take an hour-long trek through small towns and farmland while enjoying old-time tunes and a laidback atmosphere. Families are welcome on this railroad, located 15 miles west of Grand Rapids. The train departs every Saturday and Wednesday at two afternoon times during the summer months. Besides regular rides, families can book trips on themed excursions.
This post was originally published in 2010 and has been updated for 2016.