As much as we like to grouse about the expense and inconvenience of air travel, Americans are much less likely to take the train, compared to people in other first-world countries.1
It makes sense: We have a lot of open space, and flying is faster for longer trips. But for shorter routes, taking the train can be the smartest choice. You don’t have to arrive 60 to 90 minutes before departure to go through security, and you don’t have to take off your shoes. The train has other advantages, including more comfortable seats, free Wi-Fi, fewer baggage fees and restrictions, stable fares and greater flexibility if you need to change your travel time at the last minute.2 And for the eco-minded, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that rail travel leaves a smaller carbon footprint than flying.3
Not only that, but the train can get you exactly where you need to go. Train stations tend to be more centrally located, while airports sit on the outskirts of cities. So if you fly, you have to count on the extra minutes and the cost of getting from the airport to the exact destination in the city you’re visiting. Another factor to consider if you need to travel at the last minute: train tickets purchased on just a 24-hour advance tend to cost proportionally less than airline tickets, which are notoriously pricey if purchased right before the flight.4
Here are five routes in the US where the train makes more sense than a plane:
At first glance, this route seems much faster by air travel. One way on Amtrak averages about 4 hours, while a plane takes on average about 1 hour and 13 minutes.5 But when you factor in the extra time it takes to get to and from the airports in New York and Boston along with extra time spent on airport security, the total travel time is about 4 hours and 50 minutes by train and 3 hours and 13 minutes by plane, the Points Guy calculated.5
So then the question is, how much is 1 hour and 37 minutes of your time worth? If you buy a round trip ticket just 24 hours in advance, you’ll pay an average of $246 on Amtrak and $681 with an airline.4 If you book in advance, you’ll get a better deal on the flight. Don’t forget the extra cost of a cab or Uber for the air travel option!
Result: You’ll save money and spend just a little more time if you choose the train from New York to Boston.
This is another route where the virtues of rail travel might not be readily apparent. If you look only at time on the train or plane, it appears that the plane, which takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes compared with 3 hours and change for the train, would be faster.5 But when you factor in total travel time, flying actually takes about 14 minutes longer one way: 3 hours and 38 minutes for the train and 3 hours and 52 minutes for the plane.5 The train also wins when it comes to cost: round trip with a 7-day advance averages $168 on Amtrak and $546 on the airlines.4
Result: You’ll spend the same amount of time and save some money if you choose the train.
As long as you’re not in a hurry, this train excursion, which travels through lush Florida backcountry, would be worthwhile even if it didn’t save you a bundle.6 Amtrak fare runs about $82 dollars round trip while airfare averages about $197 round trip with a 21-day advance purchase.4 Add in cab fare for the rides to and from both airports and the real total for taking the plane is closer to $291. If you don’t mind spending more than three times as much to fly, the plane is faster, even with airline security and transportation to and from the airport: total travel time one way on the train is about 5 hours and 15 minutes compared with only 2 hours and 35 minutes by air.4
Result: It’s faster to fly to Tampa, but the train is much cheaper — and more fun.
Only 120 miles apart, these two cities are separated by some of the worst traffic in the country. That’s one reason why the train is a better option than the plane — you won’t have to deal with airport congestion. Although you’ll spend 2 hours and 50 minutes on the train and only 50 minutes on the plane, when you add in the extra time associated with air travel, the total travel time is 3 hours and 50 minutes for the train and 2 hours and 50 minutes for the plane.5 Cost is dramatically different on this route, with Amtrak coming in at $74 round trip and the airlines averaging $210 round trip with a 21-day advance purchase.4 With less advance notice, air travel is much pricier. Another upside: much of the train route runs along the Pacific coastline, offering a scenic trip that beats the view from the air.
Result: The train to Los Angeles is much cheaper than flying, and only takes an hour longer.
The high-speed Amtrak Cascades train from Seattle to Portland offers Euro-style comfort, including reclining seats, bike racks, wine and microbrews. The trip takes around 4 hours and costs as little as $26. The average cost of a 1-hour flight from Seattle to Portland is around $177, according to FareCompare.7
Result: The train to Portland takes a little longer, but the cost savings are major — and you’ll be riding in style.