Make Tracks: Traveling by Train for Your Next TripCasey Mysliwy
The thought of taking the train to your next travel destination might conjure images of vintage Westerns or classic Alfred Hitchcock films. But trains are anything but modes of transportation from the past.
A 2011 survey of more than 300 European and American travelers by SilverRail Technologies, a rail-booking technology firm in Woburn, Mass., revealed that:
- Ninety percent of respondents would like to see rail options displayed with flights when searching for travel.
- Seventy-nine percent would choose trains over planes if high-speed rail options existed.
- Sixty-one percent would choose rail over air if the cost was the same or better.
Choose your route
Intercity train routes are widely available throughout the U.S., primarily through Amtrak. You easily can find out if there's a train that travels in the direction you're headed by consulting Amtrak's interactive route atlas.
Popular Amtrak routes include:
- The Auto Train, linking Washington, D.C., with Orlando, Fla.
- The Crescent, linking New York with New Orleans
- The California Zephyr, linking Chicago with San Francisco
- The Coast Starlight, linking Seattle with Los Angeles
- The Adirondack, linking New York to Montreal
Benefits of boarding
Taking the train can provide convenience that driving and flying can't. For example, if you're traveling to a metropolitan area, getting there by train can help you avoid traffic if you're driving and expensive taxi fares if you're flying into an outlying airport.
"The train will usually get you right to the heart of the city," says Sarah Schlichter, editor of IndependentTraveler.com. "It also can be more convenient [than driving] if you don't know where you're going."
You'll also encounter more lenient baggage policies when riding the train. Amtrak, for instance, allows each passenger to bring up to two pieces of carry-on baggage aboard for free—and that's in addition to personal items such as purses and briefcases. Each ticketed passenger also can check up to three pieces of luggage at no charge.
"You can really bring your kitchen sink for free, as opposed to the plane, where it's expensive to check bags," says Schlichter. "Trains are so much less hassle than planes—you don't have to worry about [carrying on] liquids or gels, either."
Size and weight limitations do apply to carry-ons and checked baggage, and additional baggage can be checked for a small fee. For the specifics, check Amtrak's baggage policy. Also, be aware that not all trains and stations offer checked baggage services, so confirm before you book.
Passengers also are welcome to bring their own food and beverages aboard the train. And in some cases, you can even bring your bicycle.
Finally, if you've experienced the pressure of trying to book the cheapest flight at precisely the right time, you'll probably like this train-travel perk: Ticket pricing is consistent no matter when you buy.
"With air travel, sometimes you can find a good deal, but the trains are really going to cost the same whether you're walking up and buying a ticket or buying in advance," says Schlichter. "I find it's less stressful because you're not wondering when to pull the trigger to buy."
Most trains feature a variety of onboard services to keep you cozy and content. For long-distance, multiday trips, most Amtrak trains offer sleeping accommodations (you can even take a virtual tour of available sleeping cars) and dining cars. On shorter trips, trains are typically outfitted with dinettes or snack bars.
Some Amtrak trains also are equipped with free Wi-Fi, quiet cars, and onboard entertainment like the Trails and Rails program, which features seasonal presentations and commentary by volunteer rangers from the National Park Service.
Research before you ride
There are plenty of great reasons to travel by rail but, when you're looking into transportation options, the deciding factor usually is price. The distance you're traveling, the number of people traveling with you, and other factors can influence how much it will cost you to take the train.
"You really have to research where you're going, because it varies widely," says Schlichter.
As you compare options, be sure to account for all potential costs. You may hit upon expenses you wouldn't have otherwise taken into account ahead of time.
"If you have a family, it's usually cheapest to take the car," says Schlichter. "However, I would say if you're going to a city, you may not want a car in the city because you probably have to pay to park it."
Schlichter offers another example, citing a recent online search for travel options from Washington, D.C., to New York. Her search returned a round-trip train ticket for $160 and round-trip airfare for $134. "But if you check a bag [on the plane], it's almost the same price," she explains.
You also can find discounts and deals for train travel that significantly lower ticket costs. On Amtrak, children ages 2 through 15 ride half-price every day. Amtrak also offers a 15% discount for seniors and 10% discounts for active-duty U.S. military personnel and AAA members. You can find a complete list of discount fares on Amtrak's website.
Other organizations provide discounts, as well. Members of the National Association of Railroad Passengers receive a 10% discount on most Amtrak fares and a 20% discount on coach fare aboard the Grand Canyon Railway. Membership fees vary; calculate how much you could save on train tickets by purchasing one.
All else aside, there's one other aspect of train travel to keep in mind when deciding whether to climb aboard: the unique experience of the ride itself. "The train is kind of about the journey," says Schlichter. Many train routes reveal breathtaking views and scenic perspectives of parts of the country you may never get a chance to see from a car or plane—and that opportunity can be priceless.