Is Traveling By Amtrak Train More Affordable Than Flying?

The short answer is yes, in most cases, but there's more to it. Let's take a step back for a moment to put these travel systems into perspective. Those of us who visit Europe from the United States often find ourselves amazed, and more than a little jealous, of the ease and affordability of train travel. You can get almost anywhere in Europe via a train. Even charming off-the-beaten-path towns are often survived by the intricate railway system. You can easily navigate between major cities, and thanks to the European Union's Schengen Agreement, international travel is a breeze on the impressive railway system. Even though short flights are relatively inexpensive in Europe, the majority of travelers still choose to take the train on many popular routes. 

In the United States, that simply isn't the case. The most popular form of transportation in the United States is automobile, and overwhelmingly so. While some cities in the United States have made leaps and bounds in implementing public transportation systems, around 73% still prefer cars via public transportation, according to Statista. When it comes to long-distance travel across the expansive nation, flying is the favored way to get where we're going. Many seasoned travelers from the United States question why we can't have passenger trains like Europe, considering how much more comfortable and sustainable they can be for long-distance travel. The truth is, we actually do — and in some cases, taking the train is even cheaper than flying on major airlines.

Choosing the train may save you money

Many Americans choose to fly or drive over taking the train because they believe it is cheaper and saves time, but that isn't always the case. Train travel in the United States may not be as convenient and accessible as it is in Europe, but with domestic flight prices on the rise, you should check to see if an Amtrak train is running before purchasing airfare. Sometimes, flying will be the cheaper and more convenient option. It's hard to beat the extremely low costs of budget airlines like Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant. Still, low-cost carriers tend to have tons of hidden fees, so ensure you factor in the total cost with carry-on luggage or checked bags when making comparisons.

Let's compare the cost of one-way tickets on an Amtrak train vs. a plane from Boston to New York City. Driving this route would take about five hours. The direct train from Boston to New York takes between 3.5 and 4.5 hours. The flight time is only about 1.5 hours. Considering you'll need to arrive 1 to 2 hours early to check in, the time saved is minimal. At the time of publishing, the cheapest available flight was on Spirit, which commands $39. If you bring a carry-on, it costs another $40, bringing the grand total to $79 one way. The cheapest Amtrak ticket in Coach is $21, and it includes two carry-on bags and a personal item, according to Amtrak's baggage policy.

The perks of train travel on Amtrak

In the 19th century, the United States had an expansive railway network that served as the main mode of transportation across the country. Automobiles and then airlines changed all of that during the 20th century. Now, trains are poised to make a comeback. Amtrak, the nation's major long-distance passenger railway company, has announced some incredible train travel updates. Over the next several years, the company will invest $50 billion into modern trains, new stations, and infrastructure.

Some popular routes are known for their beauty and are worth booking just for the experience. The Sunset Limited route, for example, runs from New Orleans all the way to Los Angeles and takes 48 hours. You'll pass through some of the nation's picturesque small towns and stunning natural scenery. Along the way, you can hop off at popular national parks like Big Bend and Saguaro.

The cheapest seats on Amtrak are more comfortable than most first-class flights. There are usually no middle seats and plenty of legroom, even in Coach. Complimentary WiFi is available on most trains, and each seat has a power outlet. If you're willing to splurge, you can even book a suite with beds and private bathrooms for your journey, which includes complimentary meals. Small cats and dogs are welcome to accompany you for an affordable fee, and service animals are always permitted on Amtrak at no extra cost. You can even bring your bicycle along to explore your destination once you arrive.