Taking the train has long been popular in Europe -- it's almost considered a rite of passage for young backpackers. But while trains have been under-appreciated in the U.S., they're gaining popularity here as well. Amtrak ferried 31.6 million passengers around the country in its last fiscal year, an all-time record for the railroad. With the economy still slumping, train travel is looking increasingly attractive to budget-conscious travelers. Plus, a scenic train ride can even be a vacation in itself. Need more reasons to take the train? You've come to the right place.
Trains are an increasingly cost-effective alternative to planes, particularly if you're going a relatively short distance or if you're traveling in the busy Northeast Corridor, where train service is fast and frequent.
While some rates are quite competitive ($104 on the train vs. $108 by plane between New York and Boston in a recent search), you'll sometimes see dramatic fare differences. For instance, we found a $134 roundtrip fare on Amtrak between New York and Montreal, as compared to $294 for the cheapest roundtrip airfare. The train ride will be longer than the corresponding flight, but for travelers looking to cut costs, the train often wins out -- and you'll get to see some scenery along the way.
Unlike airlines, Amtrak and other rail operators often give discounts to children, seniors, students, AAA members, military personnel and other key demographics. See our list of train travel deals for more opportunities to save.
Anyone who's agonized over when to purchase airfare knows how arcane and frustrating the airlines' pricing structures can be. (We're still waiting for a logical explanation of why a one-way ticket often costs so much more than a round trip. Anyone? Anyone?) Train fares tend to be the same day after day on any particular route, whether it's Monday or Saturday, April or August, two months in advance or two days before departure. While some increases may occur (particularly at peak times or over the holidays) and occasional sales may be available, you can usually count on the stability of train fares, even at the last minute.Europe -- By Plane or By Train?
While many long-haul trains require reservations, many short trips don't, so you can simply show up at the station the day of your trip and grab a ticket for the next train -- without paying an exorbitant last-minute fare.
These days, nearly all the major airlines charge travelers a fee to check a bag or two -- and a few (Spirit, Alligiant, Frontier) now charge for carry-on bags as well. Compare these stingy policies to Amtrak's baggage allowance: two carry-on items up to 50 pounds each (as well as personal items such as purses, strollers and diaper bags) and up to four checked bags up to 50 pounds each, the first two of which are free. Third and fourth checked bags cost $20 each.
In short, Amtrak allows you to bring 200 pounds of luggage -- plus personal items -- for free. Try bringing that on a plane!
Imagine taking a trip and not having to arrive two hours early, wait in a long security line, take off your shoes for inspection, or ration out your liquids and gels. Welcome to the world of train travel. In most cases you can arrive 30 minutes ahead of time and walk straight to your platform.
Unlike airports, most major train stations are located right downtown in the heart of the cities they serve. Instead of taking an expensive airport cab ride from miles outside of town, you can step off your train and be just moments from your hotel.
Trains are more energy-efficient per passenger mile than planes or cars, making them one of the most eco-friendly transportation options around (short of walking or riding your bike!). Carbon emissions from trains are less damaging to the environment than those of airplanes because train emissions are not released directly into the upper atmosphere. As a bonus, the relative energy-efficiency of trains means that the industry is less vulnerable to increases in fuel prices -- making train fares more stable in an unstable economy.
There's something refreshingly traditional about taking a train, particularly if you're traveling over a long, multi-night route. The days of silverware and fine china in coach class may be long gone in the airline industry, but on overnight trains you'll still find dining cars with full-service meals and uniformed wait staff. During the day, many train travelers choose to read books, play cards or simply enjoy the scenery rushing by.
Rather than cramming yourself into an ever-shrinking airplane seat or squinting at road signs trying to figure out where to make your next turn, why not relax on a train? It's one of the least stressful forms of transportation out there: someone else does the driving, you'll have more legroom than you would on an airplane and you'll be able to move around at will -- not just when the captain turns the seatbelt sign off.
Unlike airplanes, which whisk you from point A to point B with barely a glimpse of what's in between, a train ride can be a destination in and of itself. Consider the California Zephyr, a dramatic route that wends its way through the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains from Chicago to San Francisco. A ride on this popular Amtrak service offers spectacular scenery. During fall foliage season, try a ride on the Ethan Allen Express from New York to Vermont and enjoy the autumn colors.
For more route ideas, see U.S. Train Travel.
Amtrak.com: Train travel across the U.S.
ViaRail.ca: Train travel across Canada
RailEurope.com: Everything you need to know about European rail travel, including schedules, ticket prices, rail passes, scenic train rides and tips
TrainTraveling.com: The most comprehensive site we've found for worldwide train information
--written by Sarah Schlichter