Don’t let our love of airplanes - it’s true we watch them on the runway from our living room - lead you to think we don’t have a soft spot for trains. I’ve probably taken the train between Washington, DC and New York City over 100 times. It’s a great ride as I sit here in the cafe car of the Amtrak Northeast Regional, and begs the question when any of us travel: Plane or Train?
First, for the uninitiated, a little about America’s rail system at which Europeans and Asians scoff for its neglect. A leading rail power the United States is not, but in general, trains can be thought of as national, regional, and municipal. Municipal (think subways like Boston or light rail like Denver) and regional (think commuter rail such as Metro North in New York or Cal Train in San Francisco) don’t cover distances large enough to even begin thinking about flying, so in practice in we’re comparing the value of national passenger rail Amtrak to hopping a plane. We’re also setting aside discussion about Amtrak’s bizarre status as a quasi-governmental quasi-corporation, for that is another debate for another time.
Amtrak operates on a network of rail lines and stations throughout the country, making it actually possible to train from one coast to the other, though in practice that is a days-long proposition that leaves us with a decidedly “fly” recommendation. In general, unless you’re explicitly seeking the long-haul train experience, Amtrak is most useful in getting from one city to another "near" city, i.e. any combination of cities between Washington and New York, any similar combination of cities between New York and Boston, and other combinations such as St. Louis and Kansas City (a ride that I love!). We recommend you make your decision for individual trips based on a combination of total cost, total travel time, convenience, and the rather intangible "experience" factor.
When considering Plane vs Train on price, remember to look at the total cost of the trip. For example, train stations tend to be located near the city center, whereas most airports are not. Therefor, factor the cost of a cab or (if you're lucky) getting on a train for the "last mile" between the airport and the downtown destination. Conversely, if plans involve a rental car, remember that many train stations don't have rentals on site, so factor into the train ticket the cost of getting to the car once you arrive. Also, the train's policies for carrying your own baggage are far more relaxed than what you'll find at the airport, so subtract checked baggage from the cost of a train ride. A good rule of thumb for comparing price is to think Ticket$ + Baggage$ + Last Mile$. This will generally give Amtrak the edge when going from city center to city center, and airports the edge when rental cars are needed or city centers are not in your plans. If I book early enough on Amtrak, I can get from DC to NYC for $54, far less than what I'll normally pay to fly, and I don't have to pay for a cab from the airport when I arrive. In addition, Amtrak has a great mobile app that let's you book and change tickets on the fly, requiring you to pay just the difference between old fare and new with no change fee. Try that on any airline not named Southwest! Just like air travel, though, longer haul train tickets can get expensive in a hurry... which leads us to our next factor.
Total Travel Time
As with price, it's important to go all in when considering total travel time. Flying from coast to coast in an afternoon is clearly quicker than the multiple days it will take you to train the same distance, but it gets murkier when we're going between near cities. Train stations don't inflict the same level of boarding security as airports, so you need only to show up 15-30 minutes before departure (novice travelers should lean conservative on this). In the St. Louis to Kansas City example mentioned earlier, the train is going to run you about four and a half hours travel time, 30 minutes at the station on the front end, and less than five minutes to grab your bag and make tracks to the street. Flying that same route will run you an hour checking in at the airport, an hour to fly across the state, 30 minutes to fetch your bag and exit the airport, and then nearly 30 minutes to get downtown by car. The true comparison for this particular trip ends up being five hours by train vs three hours by plane, rather than the four and a half hours by train vs one hour by plane that the times on the ticket would imply. For what it's worth, the train ticket in this case runs about $39.
We've already discussed proximity to city center as a big convenience factor. Trains make a lot of sense if you live in the city. Planes might make more sense if you live in the suburbs closer to the airport. There's more. Relative to trains, a lot of time in the flying experience is lost to the boarding rigmarole, maddening restrictions on when certain electronic devices can and cannot be used, baggage management, security screening, and other logistics. Unless the distance traveled is long enough to clearly make flying more convenient, the notion of showing up at the train station 30 minutes before departure, strolling leisurely to the gate, picking out a table in the cafe car and setting up my laptop for continual use from before the time the wheels start turning right up until 10 seconds before I step off to my destination... there's value there.
Now we're getting a little intangible, because I love flying! Airports generally beat train stations on amenities such as restaurant choices, airline lounges, and (realizing that many people don't care) big windows to watch planes on the ground. Train stations often offer exactly zero views of trains, no club lounges, and few if any restaurants in all but the largest stations. Waiting for the train outside on a platform is part of the experience at many smaller stations (not great when it's cold or raining). Many of the old historic train stations have been torn down and replaced by horrendous mid-century architecture, though there are still some absolutely stunning classic train stations that will put even the most beautiful airports to absolute shame. Onboard you'll find that Amtrak seats are bigger and more comfortable (even in "coach"), that train passengers are free to get up and roam about the train accessing the horrendously unhealthy yet often just-what-you-need cafe car, and that the scenery for much of your train ride is rather more engaging than staring down at the tops of clouds (though we do love staring hundreds of miles beyond when the sky is clear). Long haul train rides possess their own charming experience, particularly if you pony up the dollars for the sleeper car where a tiny private room and "bed" await. Finally, because we can't escape this without discussing the wine situation, remember that airports restrict movement of liquid through security. While a few Amtrak conductors have given us grief in the past, we've had no trouble bringing a bottle of wine and a few cups with us on the train. I guarantee BYOB means better wine for less money than what you can buy en route.
Bottom line is that trains offer a compelling alternative to planes in some cases. Savvy travelers will factor in total cost and true final destination before making a decision based on preferences. I've been on 35 planes and three trains in the last five months... but I loved every minute of those trains.