Are Trains Better Than Planes: My Train Travel Adventures

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I LOVE to travel and see new places, taste new foods, and explore new things. But even I will admit that sometimes the time spent actually getting from one destination to another, especially flying, is a total drag. There’s a reason why you hear more and more people raising questions about whether airlines should start offering child free zones on planes and get more strict about requiring very large individuals to purchase tickets for two seats.

With the way airlines cram us into coach seats on fully booked flights, a lot of the time air travel simply sucks!  At least 80% of the time I fly there is a screaming toddler 1-2 rows away or a kid kicking my seat, and about 25% of the time the person next to me is spilling over the arm rest into my precious space because they are just simply too big for the seat.

Are Trains Better Than Planes?

This got me to thinking, what if I ditched planes for a change and started getting around by train travel?  We all know traveling by trains in Europe is cool, easy, and fun, but what about in the US?  Since I’ve been traveling a ton for work recently, and have had more than my fair share of rental cars and crappy flights this year, I decided to mix things up and go on some trips by train.

Overall my adventures by rail turned out really positive.  If you’ve never taken a train on a trip before I encourage you to check it out sometime!  Amtrak has routes all over the country and most major cities also have decent commuter rails that span 1-2 hours of driving distance from one end to the other.  Besides using these routes to get to work, these rail lines can be a great way to get around to see friends and explore a new area.

Out here in California they’re trying to build a high speed rail from SF to LA that would only take about 2.5 hours of travel time, but the project is having trouble getting off the ground because it’s so frickin’ expensive and the state is broke.  Sure I’d love to take that train down to LA if they ever build it, but I’m not going to willingly hand over any of my money for the project right now because I already pay too much in taxes!

My Train Travel Adventures

Here is a small sampling of the train travel itineraries I’ve taken domestically

Amtrak
Emeryville to Sacramento
Washington D.C. to Philadelphia
Philadelphia to New York City

Caltrain (Commuter Rail)
San Francisco to San Mateo
Palo Alto to Millbrae
San Jose to San Francisco

BART (Commuter Rail)
San Francisco to Berkeley
SFO International Airport to San Francisco
Oakland to Walnut Creek

Trains versus Planes: The Results in Pros and Cons

I was pleasantly surprised that I haven’t had any bad experiences in my train travel adventures so far.  But I’ve had tons of bad experiences flying!  Here are some of the pros and cons I’ve gathered from my untemplate train travel adventures.

PROS

Quieter: Passengers on trains are lot quieter overall and many long distance routes even have “Quiet Cars” for people who want to sleep or study. People who get chatty are usually booted out too.  Score!

Easier for kids: Every train I went on I saw multiple people traveling with kids and not one of them cried. No lie!  That’s unheard of on planes. Trains don’t have air pressure like on planes which sometimes causes pain for children and can make them fussy. There’s also more room for kids to play with their toys on trains and no electronic device restrictions during take off and landing to worry about. The worst is when you’re stuck on a plane waiting to takeoff while little Johnny is screaming for his iPad game and you have to wait 20-30 minutes before you can drown him out with your noise cancelling headphones.  And yes, this exact scenario has happened to me!

More legroom: After flying like a sardine in coach, the seats on trains feel like plush arm chairs.  And all the Amtrak trains I went on had footrests and I could stretch my legs out. Plus, even when I had window seats there was still plenty of room for me to get up and go to the bathroom without disturbing the person next to me in the aisle seat. Aaaa space!

No middle seat: Traveling alone and getting stuck with a middle seat on a plane SUCKS, especially when the people on either side don’t give you both armrests. And the awesome thing about trains is there is no middle seat!!

Big Windows & Scenic views: Airplane windows aren’t that bad but train windows are huge!! For a photo addict like me, it’s so much fun being able to take pictures and pass the time by simply staring out the window and enjoying the scenery.

Electrical outlets: With the way our laptops, tablets, and smart phones devourer battery life, having electrical outlets on trains rocks!  I can’t count the number of times I have been using my laptop to do work or watch a movie on a plane ride and run out of juice half way into the flight.

No security checkpoints: Although this can also be a negative, it certainly saves a lot of time getting on trains compared to planes.  Plus you can carry on all the shampoo, hair gel, and bottled drinks that you want without that 3 ounce limit! Not having to unpack and repack a laptop, or deal with taking coats and shoes off and putting them back on is nice and makes boarding much less stressful.

Walks between cars: If the extra legroom on trains isn’t enough for you, there are tons of cars you can walk up and down to stretch your legs out and get your circulation flowing again.  Flight attendants usually don’t like people doing this on planes, and with the way airplane aisles are so narrow, it’s often not possible to walk straight without bumping people.

Cheaper: Compared to airfare, train tickets are cheap!  This is a lovely perk for personal finance fans and anyone looking to save some money.  For example, right now it costs less than $100 by train to get from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia, but close to $400 by air!  But other itineraries have a much narrower spread in price, like Washington D.C. to New York City for $160 by train or about $175 by air.  Train ticket prices don’t fluctuate as often as airfare and gas prices do, which makes buying train tickets less stressful, and Amtrak and most commuter trains also offer rail passes, which is another great way to save money on tickets.

Cell signal: More planes are starting to offer wifi but it costs money and doesn’t always work. Trains on the other hand travel slow enough that your devices arent bouncing from tower to tower every second so you can surf the web and make calls using your carrier’s signal. There will still be some blackout spots in tunnels and in some rural areas, but to me some signal is way better than none!

Hop On, Hop Off: If you purchase rail passes, you have the flexibility to hop on and hop off trains which is great if you’re on vacation or living a mobile lifestyle and want to explore more than one area.  It’s easy to look up train schedules too so you can plan out how long you want to visit at various stops.

CONS

Slow: If you have to travel from LA to NY it’s impractical to take a train if you’re going for work or limited on time. I find trains are ideal for shorter trips, usually between what normally takes 1-6 hours driving time, and you’re best off if you can avoid transferring lines.

Tardiness: I found Amtrak to be hit or miss with arriving exactly on time.  The delays ranged from a couple of minutes to about half an hour,  so if you’re traveling for a business meeting make sure to leave yourself a good buffer just in case.  The commuter rails I took were a lot more reliable in keeping to their schedules though.  Planes have their fair share of delays too though, so there’s not a huge difference between the two.

Food smells: Unfortunately the food on trains isn’t any better than what’s on planes.  While I’ve never seen food for sale on commuter rails, Amtrak usually has a food car where you can purchase meals.  I found the food quality on Amtrak to be worse than on flights, and the smells really lingered when people carried meals out of the food car back to the passenger cars.  The advantage on planes is they have really good air circulation and filtration which helps clear away smells and germs better than trains do.

Safety risks: As mentioned earlier, the lack of check points and bag checks raises the security risk on trains, but I didn’t have any issues on my train travels. We face risks everyday just walking down the street or going to the mall, so I don’t think this is a big enough reason not to try trains. If it gives you any peace of mind, train conductors pass through the cars regularly to check on passengers, punch tickets, and inform travelers of upcoming station arrivals.

Untemplaters, what do you think?  Are trains better than planes?  Next time you have a trip, will you be up for some train travel adventures?

If you liked this post you may also enjoy:
How to Pack Smart For Your Next Trip
Istanbul Top 10 Must See Sights: My Travel And Photo Adventure
Why I Quit A Job I Loved – And Traveled The World For Two Years

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

John @ Married (with Debt) April 9, 2012 at 7:36 am

I’m currently debating whether to get a Eurail pass for our European trip. I’ve always wanted to do Europe by train, but it is basically the same price as flying but takes longer. Not sure if the train is enough of an “experience” to justify the lost travel time (though I hate airports and flying with a passion).

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Sydney April 10, 2012 at 12:06 am

I’ve taken the Eurostar from London to Paris and I enjoyed it. The ride was smooth and the train was really clean. It was also easy to figure out and departed right on schedule. If you’re going to multiple cities and/or countries I think a train pass is a good idea. Train stations are so much easier than airports! And I think being able to gaze out the windows on trains and observe and chat with locals on board is a lot of fun.

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Daisy @ Add Vodka April 9, 2012 at 8:19 am

I’ve never been on a travel train but I live near the Amtrak and had planned on taking a trip on it soon. It’s something new, in any case.

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Sydney April 10, 2012 at 12:11 am

That’s nice you live near a station. Some cities that don’t have a train station have buses operated by Amtrak that shuttle people to the next closest one. San Francisco for example doesn’t have an Amtrak train station but they have an office on the Embarcadero where you can buy tickets and get on the buses that drop off at the Emeryville station. Let me know how it goes if you take Amtrak on your next trip!

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MoneyCone April 9, 2012 at 8:38 am

Your mention of BART brought back memories! I love train travel. Pity there aren’t much incentives to travel by train.

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Sydney April 10, 2012 at 12:14 am

BART certainly isn’t my favorite but it’s a good way to get around. I think Caltrain is a much better transit system and their trains are generally a lot cleaner. I also love how Caltrain leaves the SF station right on the dot. I learned quickly not to be late getting to the station!

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Financial Samurai April 9, 2012 at 9:33 am

I love trains. There is a rustic peacefulness to it as you hear the intermittent click-clack.

I haven’t gone eurorailing yet, but I want to. Too bad it’s so expensive, even more so than flying!

Feels safer to travel via train, and the ease of getting on and off is so much easier.

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Sydney April 10, 2012 at 12:18 am

I like the sound of trains too. I found out my white noise app actually has a train noise setting lol. Yeah eurorailing can get a bit pricey. Amtrak is a lot cheaper in comparison.

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JAMES April 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Trips on trains that are under 5 hours are awesome. The scenery is oftentimes breathtaking. I wouldn’t choose a train over a short flight all the time, but if the price is the same and you haven’t done it, then I highly recommend it. My last trip was from Boston to D.C. and I loved it.

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