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Train Vs. Plane: 5 U.S. Routes Where the Train Beats the Plane

Train Vs. Plane
Allianz - Train Vs. Plane

Flight delays and cancellations. Scheduling cutbacks. Airline staff shortages. Unruly passengers.

It’s not your imagination: Air travel has gotten a lot more chaotic recently, and the turbulence isn’t expected to end anytime soon.1 The next time you’re in a crowded airport, waiting for the latest update on your delayed flight, you might find yourself dreaming about taking the train instead.

The pros of train travel are many:

  • You don’t have to arrive two hours before departure to go through security. And yes, two hours is the current recommendation for domestic flights.2
  • You’re more comfortable. More legroom and no middle seat!
  • The Wi-Fi is free (if spotty).
  • The tickets are typically cheaper.
  • It’s better for the Earth: Rail travel has the lowest emissions per passenger mile of any way to travel.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.

Of course, there are drawbacks to train travel too. Delays are common: The percentage of Amtrak trains that are on time has been hovering around 75%.4 And in the U.S., not every destination is served by rail.

Wondering which is best for your next trip? We’ve picked five routes in the United States where taking the train can be better than flying. For airfare, we used AirTreks’ Trip Planner, which gives a price range for round-trip economy-class fare between destinations. And for train ticket pricing, we looked at both the cheapest Amtrak coach ticket—the nonrefundable Saver—and the mid-range Value, which offers some refund options and no change fees. Do your own price comparison before you book!

And remember: Travel insurance is always essential, no matter which way you go. A travel protection plan can reimburse your lost trip costs following a covered trip cancellation; reimburse you for certain losses and expenses during a covered delay; help you when your baggage goes astray; and so much more. Get a quote for your next trip!

1. Train vs. plane: New York to Boston

At first glance, this route seems much faster by air travel. One way on Amtrak averages about 4 hours (3:37 if you take the Acela) while a plane takes on average about 1 hour and 15 minutes. But when you factor in the extra time it takes to get to and from the airports in New York and Boston, along with airport security, the total travel time can get a lot longer.

Four staffers from The Points Guy organized a fun challenge to see who could get from Faneuil Hall in Boston to Rockefeller Center in New York the fastest. Each traveled a different way — by Acela train, JetBlue, Delta and United (arriving in Newark). While the JetBlue passenger won (total travel time including ground transportation: 3 hours, 12 minutes), the United passenger clocked 4 hours, 51 minutes — just two minutes under the Acela travel time.

The price range for roundtrip airfare from New York to Boston is $161 to $211. Meanwhile, the Amtrak ticket can cost as little as $40 (Saver) or $230 (Value). You can also save around $50 by avoiding Uber/Lyft fares. In The Points Guy’s challenge, the train was the cheapest way to travel.

Result: You probably won’t save time by taking the train from New York to Boston (or vice versa), but you can save a lot of money.

2. Train vs. plane: Washington, D.C. to New York

Flying from D.C. to New York takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes, compared with 3 hours and change for the train. But then, factor in total travel time: two hours in your departure airport, plus another hour to deplane, get outside, and take a cab or train to Manhattan. That’s when rail can be swifter. The train also wins when it comes to cost: as little as $40 (Saver) or $230 (Value) on Amtrak vs. $363 to $476 on the airlines.

Result: Taking the train from DC to NY is a win-win: cheaper and faster.

3. Train vs. plane: Miami to Tampa

This train excursion through lush Florida backcountry can be worthwhile if you’re not in a hurry. The Amtrak fare runs about $76 to $94 round trip, while airfare averages about $216-$282. If you don’t mind spending more 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 and a half hours, compared with just over an hour by air.

Result: The train is cheaper—and more fun—even though it’s much faster to fly to Tampa.

4. Train vs. plane: Los Angeles to San Diego

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. You’ll spend about 3 hours on the train and one hour on the plane (plus two in the departure airport).

Cost also varies greatly on this route, with Amtrak coming in at $72 round trip and the airlines averaging $279 to $365. 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 the total travel time is about the same.

5. Train vs. plane: Seattle to Portland

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 3 and a half hours and costs around $84 round-trip. The average cost of a 1-hour flight from Seattle to Portland is a bit heftier than you might expect considering the relative distance between the cities: $262 to $343.

Result: The train to Portland takes a little longer, but the cost savings are major—and you’ll be riding in style.

The takeaway? Before you default to booking your next short domestic trip on the airlines, give the train a shot. It may not always win out on time savings at first glance, but the price is right and convenience comes included. As soon as you make your travel arrangements, protect your trip with insurance. Then you can just relax and enjoy the view.

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