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

Train Vs. Plane
Allianz - Train Vs. Plane

As much as we like to complain 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

We have put together five routes in the United States where the train makes more sense than a plane. But first, a quick note at how we arrived at our numbers.

Methodology

For airfare, we used the expertise of the folks at FareCompare.com, who generated an average airfare based on multiple providers and flight times departing a week or less than the time of booking. Note that these airfares are for nonstop round-trip tickets.5 And for train ticket pricing, we selected the mid-grade Amtrak ticket — the Flexible Fare — which allows passengers to modify reservations or even cancel tickets for a full refund. These rates remained the same for each route no matter how far they were booked in advance, whether it was one week or several months.6

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, while a plane takes on average about 1 hour and 13 minutes.7 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 — assuming everything arrives and departs on time — the Points Guy calculated.7

So then the question is, how much is 1 hour and 37 minutes of your time worth? If you buy a round trip, nonstop airline ticket within a week of your trip, you’ll pay an average of $290. 5 Meanwhile, the Amtrak ticket will cost $162. 6

Result: Can you put a price on 97 minutes? If that price is less than $128 — that’s before factoring in airport and train station transfers — the train makes more sense from NY to Boston.

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

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. 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.7 The train also wins when it comes to cost: $188 on Amtrak6 and $291 on the airlines.5
Result: Taking the train from NY to DC is a win-win: cheaper and faster!

3. Train vs. plane: Miami to Tampa

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.8 The Amtrak fare runs about $1006 dollars round trip while airfare averages about $374. 5 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.

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. 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.7 Cost also varies greatly on this route, with Amtrak coming in at $54 round trip6 and the airlines averaging $259. 5 (Please note that because this route doesn’t offer a Flexible Fare, we went with the Value fare, which offers cancellation and refunds with some restrictions). 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.

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 4 hours and costs as little as $63. 6 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 at $436. 5

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.

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Jul 17, 2019