Should You Travel by Plane or Train? The Value of Time vs. Money

Lamy, United States - September 8, 2015: The eastbound Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train departing Lamy, New Mexico, USA.
Leadinglights / Getty Images

On your next getaway, you’ll make tradeoffs in time, cost, convenience and experience, depending on whether you fly or take a train. With speed comes added stress and expense, but relaxing, pleasant rides are not for travelers in a hurry.

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“When it comes to the pros and cons of traveling by plane vs. by train, it really depends on the individual traveler’s needs and preferences,” said Chris Watson of My Adventure Diaries. “Generally speaking, traveling by plane is faster and more convenient, but can be more expensive and stressful. On the other hand, traveling by train is usually cheaper and more comfortable, but can take much longer.”

There’s Nothing Like Watching the World Pass By From a Train Window

In terms of on-board experience, there is simply no comparison between the cramped confines of an aluminum tube in the sky and the tranquil chill of a train ride.

“Trains offer a unique, more scenic view of the country, allowing you to enjoy the changing landscapes, from city skylines to rural pastures,” said Anna Hamilton, travel blogger and founder of Spain Inspired. “Chugging along the tracks, watching the world whiz by from the window — it’s the journey, not the destination, that brings the thrill when you’re on a train.”

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It’s not just scenery. Train travel provides a more relaxed and less anxious journey overall.

“Unless traveling a long distance that needs to be covered in a hurry, a train is almost always going to be a more pleasant experience,” said Tim Leffel, publisher of Al Centro Media, which specializes in travel content sites. “When traveling by train, the security and boarding are much faster and simpler, the luggage limitations go away, and there’s easily twice as much leg room on a train even in the lowest class. You don’t have to worry about the size of your liquids or whether your bag fits a certain dimension to carry it on.”

Planes Are Fast — But Getting To, From and Through Airports Is Not

If getting from A to B were the only consideration, a plane is faster every time — but air travel logistics can quickly turn a two-hour flight into an eight-hour ordeal.

“Train stations are usually located in the heart of the city, which makes travel much simpler,” said Harry Johns White, who frequently travels by both plane and train for his job as a marketing manager for NBA Blast. “I do not have to worry about taking a taxi or a shuttle from the outskirts of the city to its center, as the moment I step off the train, I’m already there.”

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Also, you can arrive at your train 15 minutes before it departs. At the airport, you could easily spend twice as long just checking your bags.

“Unlike airports, you don’t need to arrive hours early,” Hamilton said. “There are no long security lines and you can usually bring more luggage without exorbitant fees — plus, you can keep your shoes on.”

For Short Jaunts, at Least, Train Travel Is Usually Cheaper

Many factors influence the cost of both train tickets and airfare, but trips of a few hundred miles generally are cheaper by train.

“For example, a ticket for a high-speed train may cost $40 per person and incur no luggage fees,” said Mikkel Woodruff, travel writer and co-owner of Sometimes Home, “while a flight between the same locations would cost over $100 per person, not including luggage, which is an additional fee. What’s more, if we want to reserve a first-class ticket on a train, it’s often an upcharge of only $10 to $20 per ticket, a nominal fee for more room.”

But Over Long Distance, Airfare Is More Economical

Generally, short trips cost less by train, but it’s more economical to fly for long journeys.

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“A round-trip train ticket between St. Louis and Chicago can run as little as $50, much less than a plane ticket,” said Mark Stoneman, founder of Hello Door County. “However, a round-trip ticket for a sleeper room for a train between Seattle and Chicago can cost upwards of $1,000, double the cost of a higher-priced plane fare.”

Trains Put the ‘Long’ in Long-Haul Journey

Trains can be as fast or faster over short distances because you only have to get on and off. But for long hauls, an airplane’s incredible speed negates the time wasted getting to and through the airport.

“While the journey may be enjoyable, it’s undeniable that trains take a lot longer than planes to reach the same destination, especially if the place you’re heading to is far away,” Hamilton said. “If you’re strapped for time, this could be a major downside.”

According to Wanderu, it takes 70 or 80 hours to get from New York to L.A. by train, compared to about five by air.

U.S. Rail Infrastructure Lags Behind Much of the World

Riding the rails abroad can be far more pleasant and efficient than traveling by train in the U.S., where the rail infrastructure is more likely to be aging and neglected.

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“The USA has a long way to go to match the experiences in Europe and Asia,” Leffel said. “In many parts of Europe, there’s not even much of a time advantage when flying, especially since trains run to the city center. In countries such as France and Spain, the trains are fast, they aren’t hindered by freight priority, and the stations are pleasant places to wait in between boardings.”

Train Travel Gets Tough Beyond Heavily Populated Coastal Areas

While train travel in Europe can be affordable, pleasant and practical, similar outcomes in the U.S. are limited mostly to shorter trips between big cities near oceans.

“I’ve traveled by train between Boston and New York, New York and D.C., and Virginia to Florida and been very happy I didn’t fly, especially during holiday periods,” Leffel said. “You can also travel within large states like Florida and New York by train and reach a lot of different destinations. It is often less than $40 to go all the way from Tampa directly to the airport in Miami on Amtrak.”

But that’s rarely the experience when coordinating a rail journey farther inland.

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“Unfortunately, outside the East Coast, the connections are highly limited and the railway network is extremely thin, making it almost impossible to travel comfortably,” White said. “So then the convenience of flying has the advantage.”

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