Plane trips dominate long distance travel, at least in the US. But the headache of flight delays (and the nightmare of cancellations), as well as security hassles and limited amenities may spur longtime air travelers to search for alternatives. Passenger trains are often slow, and the routes they take can be less than convenient. However, many appreciate the comfort, scenery, and relaxed atmosphere of train travel. Whether traveling by plane or train is ideal for you depends on your reasons for travel, time constraints, budget, and preferred ambiance, among other factors.
In the past, train travel was much more affordable than air fare, but budget airlines are now well established, as a result of a combination of deregulation and widespread demand for cheap flights. If other factors aren’t an issue, it’s a good idea to check into both options, as one may be cheaper than other depending on a trip’s timing and destination. Amtrak, for example, offers bi-weekly and “flash” sales on select trips. For travelers booking a trip with multiple destinations, taking the train is usually less expensive. Other perks from Amtrak include two free bag checks, and the ability to purchase rail passes, which authorize a certain number of trips over a designated time period.
Train travel isn’t exactly renowned for blazing speeds, but the difference in overall time is much less dramatic for short distance trips, as total travel time by plane doesn’t just include the flight itself, but transport to and from the airport, as well as the time it takes to get through security and wait for luggage. Accounting for these factors, a flight from New York to Boston takes a total of 3 hours and 13 minutes; only an hour and 37 minutes less than a one-way Amtrak, which takes 4 hours and 50 minutes. On the other hand, flying from Indianapolis to Denver is dramatically faster–at around four and a half hours–than the same trip by rail, which clocks in at 25 hours and 15 minutes.
Security is in place for railroads, but (in most cases) it’s not quite as intrusive as what you’ll encounter before a flight. Generally, train passengers will walk through a metal detector and have their carry ons screened. Check ins are quick as well, requiring little more than the presentation of valid ID. Alternatively, airport security is notorious for hyper-strict regulations; expect to remove your shoes and all metal accessories, and don’t be surprised if you’re tagged for a full body scan or physical pat down. Restrictions for what can be taken in a carry on apply as well, such as limiting liquids to 3.4 ounce containers.
While both options offer a range of service classes, train carriages are designed to prioritize comfort, as voyages by train last much longer on average. Even coach-class seats in trains recline, allowing for comfortable sleep. Dining cars and observation decks are common features on trains. Train passengers are welcome to stand up and walk, while those traveling by air are generally urged to remain seated. Socialization between train passengers is a regular occurrence, enabled by common areas such as cafes and lounge cars. In addition, overnight trains usually provide the option of sleeper cabins outfitted with beds and other amenities.
White-dusted peaks jutting above a swath of lush greenery, miles of rolling meadows, sprawling creeks, and a thousand other variants of nature’s most fabulous backdrops: such are the sights available to passengers of these first-class train trips. Some carriages are outfitted with luxury interiors that mirror the majesty of a bygone age; others cut a path high above mountaintops, through rainforests, or past the remnants of ancient cities. All of these rail routes, however, offer one common draw: a truly unforgettable experience.
Cuzco to Machu Picchu: Belmond Hiram Bingham
Panels of polished wood and fine-crafted brass accentuate a 1920s motif within Belmond’s luxury cars. Peruvian mountains have never looked better than when viewed from the Hiram Bingham’s bar room, while sipping on a pisco sour. The train adopts the name–and the legacy–of the iconic explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu. Belmond’s trip across the South American skyline seeks to reproduce in riders the adventurous ecstasy Bingham must have felt when he first laid eyes upon Machu Picchu.
This may be the ultimate indulgence in that part of the world, but the non-luxury experience is also a joy. There are also inexpensive trains that follow the same 3 1/2 hour route, from near Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the village just down the hill from Machu Picchu. The train route is so steep that the trains have to zig-zag up the mountain, alternating between going forward and backward along each section of the zig-zag track. This is a truly unique adventure.
Toronto to Vancouver: The Canadian
This four-night ride carries patrons through the full range of Canadian landscapes; from gently sloping prairie country to the jagged Rockies. Beyond the sights, travelers can enjoy sleeper cabins equipped with deluxe amenities including double beds, which no other regularly scheduled passenger train in North America provides. Meals onboard have a reputation for freshness, and for featuring regional specialties, such as smoked salmon and maple syrup themed treats.
The Deccan Odyssey
Choosing from any one of six Deccan Odysseys will send you gliding across an Indian countryside rich with architecture. Passengers ride in the “blue train,” a regional fixture known for its unmatched luxury. Along the way, riders can explore world heritage sites like the buddhist-monument filled Ajanta Caves, take a stroll through Hyderabad’s timeless bazaars, or breach the walls of Golkonda, the medieval fortress city.
Chamonix to Mer De Glace: Montenvers Railway
Built well over a century ago in the early 1900s, Montenvers Railway carries passengers deep into the heart of the Alps. There waits Mer de Glace, France’s largest glacier, the peak of which plays host to Restaurant du Refuge du Montenvers. Patrons of Du Refuge have their taste buds graced with the signature fondues of Boujon, a master cheesemaker. Nothing accentuates the French Alps’ crystalline skies and ivory peaks quite like a stomach full of delicacies, and you’ll get plenty of both on a Montenvers Railway trip.
Napa Valley Wine Train
If cruising through a 36-mile network of vineyards–and stopping off to sample their wares–while feasting on a four-course banquet sounds like a great time, the Napa Valley Wine Train is your perfect trip. On the Quattro Vino Tour, you’ll travel to St. Helena and back in a renovated 1915 Pullman train car decked with plush armchairs, mahogany millwork and etched glass paneling. You’ll gain insider access to wineries “not found on the map,” savor exquisite meals, and soak in the California countryside.
If vacations allowed the granting of impossible wishes, our trips would allow us to postpone each and every one of our worldly cares without consequence. But this is reality, so unfortunately, leaving home doesn’t stop our actions from having an effect on the environment. Travelers looking to keep their footprint to a minimum while globetrotting may well enjoy these five locations, not just for their picturesque beauty, but for the hosts’ efforts to provide a sustainability experience. These are not meant to be advertisements for particular commercial destinations, but they are a few examples of what thoughtful and well-meaning travelers can find around the world.
Kyrenia, North Cyprus
For three months each year, the island of Cyprus plays hosts to a visitors like no others. Alagadi Beach on North Cyprus is where endangered green and loggerhead sea turtles come to hatch their young. Only about 400 Green and 2,000 loggerhead females breed every year across the Mediterranean. People interested in spending their vacation helping save a species might want to volunteer with the Society for the Protection of Turtles. Be aware, however: volunteering can mean up to a three month commitment, and international volunteers must cover their own expenses.
Blue Lagoon, Iceland
The temperature of the mineral-rich waters at the Blue Lagoon’s outdoor spa is 40 degrees Celsius, and perfect for a dip. Bathing there is advertised as providing relief from psoriasis, and providing a host of other dermatological benefits. To heat its waters and power its facilities, Blue Lagoon draws 100% clean geothermal energy from 2,000 meter deep wells. Both the spa and resort are designed to blend seamlessly with nature, and the entire structure is surrounded by beautifully patterned lava rock.
Rancho La Puerta, México
Since 1940, Rancho La Puerta has taken pride in its status as a green destination. The resort boasts a massive compost garden that grows vegetables fresh picked and prepared in dishes served by the resort’s kitchen. Rancho La Puerta also doubles as a nature sanctuary where flocks of migrating birds gather among over 200 plant species. The resort’s eco-friendly initiatives benefit the community as well; for example, every year after Christmas, community members can drop off their Christmas trees to be turned into mulch for the property.
Sundance Resort, Utah
Sundance Resort is ideal for skiers seeking to hone their connection with nature. Its accommodations are inspired by a deep-forest aesthetic, and resemble a blend of wood cabin and Native American wigwam. Amenities are sourced organically; in addition, the resort assists with natural conservation by laying down erosion control blankets and restoring plant life. Glassblowers residing at Sundance also pitch in by turning old glass products into furnishings for the resort.
The Canadian Arctic
Those who dream of venturing into the wild may well enjoy a trip into the far reaches of the arctic, perhaps with a Nunavut based company called Arctic Kingdom, which does devote a portion of its income to local philanthropy. Its voyages consist of small caravans of 4 to 12 people guided by an expert, often a native Inuit, experienced in observing Arctic wildlife without intrusion, and connecting travelers with sights of a magnificence that few would ever otherwise see in person. One tour, for example, involves watching newborn polar bear cubs leave their dens for the first time. When night falls, guests who stay during the winter season, also have a good chance of experiencing the magical glow of the Northern Lights.
About Peter Jutro
Peter Jutro has a passion for travel and exploration, as well as cartography and the history of maps. Having traveled extensively over the past 50 years, Peter has had the opportunity to learn a great deal about people and the world as a whole. He is a firm believer in his wife Ellen’s adage that “the more you travel, the bigger the world gets.”
Whether traveling for business or pleasure, Peter Jutro is always excited about the opportunities that a new place and culture have to offer. Some of his fondest memories include his honeymoon in Switzerland, a country that has felt like a second home to his family, as well as a research trip to Central Siberia where he had the exciting opportunity to work with the Russians on environmental issues.
An intently curious individual, Peter Jutro is continually looking to explore what exists around the world. While he may be learning about a culture’s history, studying its environmental concerns, or he and his wife might be hiking and scuba diving in one of a number of countries for pleasure, Peter always appreciates how travel serves as a catalyst for education, personal growth, and developing friendships.
Biodiversity In The Florida Keys
Peter Jutro is currently in the process of writing a book about Lignumvitae Key, an island in the Florida Keys. He has been involved in research and in the preservation of this area since the early 1970’s. Dr. Jutro finds it an incredibly fascinating place for historical, political, and biological reasons. The Lignumvitae Key Aquatic Preserve encompasses 7,000 acres of seagrass meadows, deep water channels, hard bottom communities, and mangrove wetlands. The island itself includes the last pristine lowland tropical forest remaining in the United States.
Berlin: A Family Connection
Of German-Jewish descent, Peter Jutro has an extremely personal connection to Berlin, the city from which his family emigrated to the United States. Just prior to World War II, his late father spent several months as a concentration camp prisoner in a Berlin suburb. Recently, Peter was excited to find a journal among his family’s historical documents; This journal had been written in by his father in 1939, and detailed life in the concentration camp. This inside look at the concentration camp, as well as the close personal connection with the author, makes this find a unique historical document. Peter is currently in the process of transcribing and translating the manuscript into English so that his father’s experiences can be broadly shared.
Peter Jutro dedicated more than 35 years to Federal service, serving in a variety of positions involved with Environmental Policy and National Security. Most recently, Dr. Jutro was Acting Associate EPA Administrator for Homeland Security. Before that, he was Deputy Director for Science and Policy and Director of the Washington office of EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center. This group is responsible for the research needed to provide the science and technology behind the EPA’s disaster mandates, which fall primarily in the areas of decontamination, water protection, risk assessment, and resilience. His earlier work in academia, on Congressional Staff, and with Federal Agencies, dealt largely with risk assessment, global climate change and biological diversity.