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.