Fed up with airlines charging you for everything from checked bags to a pack of pretzels? Reconsidering your road trip due to skyrocketing prices at the pump? Vexed vacationers, take heart — and consider taking the train.
Long an under-appreciated part of the U.S. travel scene, train travel is making a comeback. Amtrak reports that its national ridership is up 11 percent since October 2007, and the company expects to see a record number of passengers in 2008. With both airfares and gas prices on the rise, train travel is looking increasingly attractive to budget-conscious travelers, particularly over shorter trips. Over longer distances, a train ride can even be a vacation in itself.
If you're not sure riding the rails is right for you, read on — we've put together 10 compelling reasons to take a train on your next trip.
1. Money savings
If you're watching your wallet, trains are an increasingly cost-effective alternative to planes, particularly if you're going a relatively short distance or if you're traveling in the busy Northeast Corridor, where train service is fast and frequent.
In a recent search, we found a low airfare of $259 roundtrip for an October flight from Philadelphia to Boston; on the train, the price was just $160 roundtrip. We saw an even more dramatic price differential on a trip from New York to Montreal: $632 roundtrip by air versus just $124 on the train. In both instances the train ride was longer than the corresponding flight, but for travelers looking to cut costs, the train wins out — and you'll get to see some scenery along the way.
Amtrak and other rail operators usually give discounts to children, seniors, students, AAA members, military personnel and other key demographics. See our list of rail travel deals for more opportunities to save.
2. Stable fares
Anyone who's agonized over when to purchase airfare knows how arcane and frustrating the airlines' pricing structures can be. (We're still waiting for a logical explanation of why a one-way ticket costs so much more than a round trip. Anyone? Anyone?) Train fares tend to be the same day after day on any particular route, whether it's Monday or Saturday, April or August, two months in advance or two days before departure. While some increases may occur (particularly at peak times or over the holidays) and occasional sales may be available, you can usually count on train fares being relatively stable, even at the last minute.
Except on long-haul or infrequently traveled routes, trains tend to offer travelers a great deal of flexibility. Missed the 10 a.m. train? Just catch the 10:30 or 11 a.m. train instead. Most short trips do not require prior reservations, and you can simply show up at the station the day of your trip and grab a ticket for the next train — without paying an exorbitant last-minute fare.
4. More baggage ...
These days, nearly all the major airlines charge domestic travelers a fee to check two bags — and many of them will charge you to check just one. Compare these stingy policies to Amtrak's baggage allowance:
“Each passenger may bring aboard no more than two pieces of carry-on baggage. Not included in this limit are personal items such as briefcases, purses, laptops, and infant paraphernalia such as strollers, diaper bags and car seats. ... Each carry-on bag may weigh no more than 50 lbs.”
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“Each ticketed passenger may check up to three pieces of luggage at no charge. ... Each checked bag may weigh no more than 50 lbs.”
In total, Amtrak allows you to bring 250 pounds of luggage — plus personal items — for free. Try bringing that on an airline!
5. ... Less hassle
Imagine taking a trip and not having to arrive two hours early, wait in a long security line, take off your shoes for inspection, or ration out your liquids and gels. Welcome to the world of train travel. In most cases you can arrive 30 minutes ahead of time and walk straight to your platform — with no security and no lines.
6. Door-to-door convenience
Unlike airports, most major train stations are located right downtown in the heart of the cities they serve. Instead of taking an expensive airport cab ride from miles outside of town, you can step off your train and be just moments from your hotel.
Trains are more energy-efficient per passenger mile than planes or cars, making them one of the most eco-friendly transportation options around (short of walking or riding your bike!). Carbon emissions from trains are less damaging to the environment than those of airplanes because those emissions are not released directly into the upper atmosphere. As a bonus, the relative energy-efficiency of trains means that the industry is less vulnerable to increases in fuel prices — making train fares more stable in an unstable economy.
8. Comfort and relaxation
Rather than cramming yourself into an ever-shrinking airplane seat or squinting at road signs trying to figure out where to make your next turn, why not relax on a train? It's one of the least stressful forms of transportation out there: someone else does the driving, you'll have more legroom than you would on an airplane, and you'll be able to move around at will — not just when the captain turns the seatbelt sign off.
9. Old-fashioned charm
There's something refreshingly traditional about taking a train, particularly if you're traveling over a long, multi-night route. The days of silverware and fine china in coach class may be long gone in the airline industry, but on overnight trains you'll still find dining cars with full-service meals and uniformed wait staff. During the day, many train travelers choose to read books, play cards or simply enjoy the scenery rushing by. (High-tech travelers, don't worry — iPods and laptops are more than welcome aboard trains too.)
10. Beyond just transportation
Unlike airplanes, which whisk you from point A to point B with barely a glimpse of what's in between, a train ride can be a destination in and of itself. Take the California Zephyr — a dramatic route that wends its way through the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains from Chicago to San Francisco. A ride on this popular Amtrak route offers spectacular scenery. During fall foliage season, try a ride on the Ethan Allen Express from New York to Vermont and enjoy the autumn colors.
For more route ideas, see U.S. Train Travel.
Train Travel Resources from IndependentTraveler.com
Information about train travel in North America and Europe, including rail passes
Train travel across the U.S.
VIA Rail Canada
Train travel across Canada
Everything you need to know about European rail travel, including schedules, ticket prices, rail passes, scenic train rides and tips
The most comprehensive site we've found for worldwide train information