When most Americans think of taking a trip, Amtrak never enters their conversation. Train travel is for Europeans and businessmen in the Northeast Corridor. But rail travel deserves a chance. What trains lack in speed, they make up for in convenience, flexibility, and relaxation.
Most trains move at highway speeds and stop to transfer passengers along the way, so it is difficult to imagine one could arrive at the destination any sooner than by car or plane. But the biggest credit in trains' favor is that they don’t suffer from the same transportation bottlenecks.
Because central train stations were built in city centers a century and a half ago, travelers can walk the final few blocks to their hotel or office. This saves hours spent in rush hour traffic jams or searching for parking. Planes may be much faster than either a car or train – but only in the air. Most airports are located miles from the city and flights are affected by weather (and plenty of other factors). And airlines aren't even trying to compete on convenience. United Airlines sells tickets to the 30th Street Station in downtown Philadelphia (search for "ZFV" instead of "PHL"). Passengers connect at its Newark hub to Amtrak trains that run adjacent to the airport. This is often faster than flying to Philadelphia’s airport, which generally requires taking a connecting flight.
The Prices Are More Stable
On high-demand or high-speed routes like those served by Amtrak's Acela Express, prices may be comparable the cost of air travel, but trains make more sense for last-minute travel. Airlines are notorious for jacking up fares close to departure. Train fares fluctuate less as long as space remains available; advanced booking is rarely necessary.
Even better deals can be had through Amtrak's loyalty program, Guest Rewards. (Readers with a Chase credit card that earns Ultimate Rewards points can transfer them instantly to Guest Rewards.) Business class on the Acela Express is only 8,000 points – cheaper than using 12,500 miles for an economy class award flight. Many regional trains are only 1,500 points in coach.
There's a Better View
One of the best reasons to travel by train is for a better experience. Passengers enjoy significantly more room on board, enabling them to be more productive even when travel time is longer. A cheap second class ticket on a train can provide as much space as a first class ticket in the air, and there may be large tables for spreading out in the dining car or separate compartments for chatty groups.
There are also particularly beautiful trips. The view from the Amtrak Cascades, which runs between Portland and Seattle, is remarkable. As are the panoramas of the Nevada desert offered by the viewing compartments of the California Zephyr. The run down to Miami on the Palmetto is also memorable and the trip length makes an overnight journey perfect for anyone from the Mid-Atlantic states.
Americans who journey abroad will often return with stories about the amazing rail systems in countries that have invested in links between major cities. But even in the United States, where passengers may need to reconcile with Amtrak's occasional deficiencies, trains can be remarkably convenient. At the very least, the food is better.