Let’s face it: long road trips are not always what they are cut out to be. Sure, you have the flexibility to leave as you please, navigate backroads, or simply change direction on a whim. On the other hand, if you are set to travel to a certain destination where perhaps thousands of other people are headed, a traffic nightmare is almost always guaranteed.
Is there an alternative that does not involve flying? Yes, the train. Specifically, AMTRAK. We will examine this travel option, particularly the pros and cons of America’s national passenger train service.
What is AMTRAK?
AMTRAK is based on two words – American and track. The company is also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Formed in 1971, Amtrak is derived from 20 privately owned intercity passenger services that existed at that time. The company is tasked with managing passenger rail service across the United States, although it immediately trimmed routes when it started. Since then, the train service has made numerous modifications to routes, services, and its business structure.
The majority of Americans have never used Amtrak as the service is most popular in highly dense regions, such as the northeast and California. The train does not connect with every city and taking this service for long distances requires making connections. Further, some find the train no faster than traveling by car and much slower than a plane. Even so, traveling from a city’s center to another city center is possible with train travel, a desirable feature the airlines typically cannot match.
The Pros and Cons of Amtrak
We will explore the major pros and cons of taking Amtrak, particularly for your summer vacation, holiday excursion, or some other multi-day trip. Again, Amtrak is quite popular in population centers. But you can take Amtrak through 46 of the 48 contiguous states, taking in sites that may be missed while driving.
Which two states have no service? That would be South Dakota and Wyoming.
Pro: Leave the driving to them
Long automobile trips can be a hassle! The time spent in a car can prove tiresome, especially for families with fidgeting little ones or brooding teenagers. Trying to find places to stop for food as well as clean bathrooms does not always work well. One child may need to “go” while the others are fine. But that can quickly change once you have returned to the road.
When traveling by train, everyone has a seat with plenty of space to spread out. Bring your food or visit the food car. Use the bathroom while the train is zipping down the track. But a word of caution regarding the bathrooms: cleanliness can deteriorate along the route. We recommend bringing sanitizer, particularly cleaning wipes, when entering the toilet compartment. Sharing a toilet with strangers is not anyone’s preference. Oh, and please toss those wipes in the trash instead of risking clogging the toilet.
For the usual driver, the responsibility of “getting there” is left to the conductor. Likewise, several lines include Internet service with a Wi-Fi connection and USB ports on individual seats. As with any travel, though, spotty connectivity outages are likely. Especially in remote areas and when passing through tunnels.
Con: Train travel can stress the family budget
Let’s face it: train travel may be affordable for one or two individuals, but for families, the price can become quite expensive. Notably, you will pay for each family member. This means if your family has six or more members, your cost will increase accordingly. Therefore, for some folk train travel may seem like an unaffordable option even when fuel prices are high.
Yet, Amtrak does provide discounts, especially for customers already registered on the company’s website. Discounting offers are often seasonal, therefore the deals do change.
That said, we have seen specials where children aged 2-12 ride for 50 percent off with each full fare-paying adult. This means if you have two children (with two adults), then you will receive the equivalent of one free fare. Also, if you have a child under two, your infant rides for free. Are you interested in bringing your cat or dog with you? For a modest fee, pets weighing up to 20 pounds are allowed onboard, provided that they stay in an approved carrier.
Another way families can save is to travel as a small group. For instance, if your family of six registers as a small group, discounts up to 45 percent apply. Run the numbers and compare your cost with driving and taking the train may prove the most attractive and affordable option.
For further tips about saving with Amtrak, we reached out to Bill Fink, the Senior Travel Writer for The Points Guy. Fink is all about saving consumers money through member and credit card rewards programs, including pointing out special deals as he finds them.
Regarding Amtrak Fink noted, “If you sign up for the Amtrak Guest Rewards program, you can get on their mailing list to be alerted for new deals as soon as they are announced.” For those planning more extensive travel, Amtrak’s rail passes supply “…great deals, both for commuter travel as well as long-distance trips across the U.S., with a national and a California-specific product. Amtrak vacation packages with hotel and rental car partners.” Those are strong reasons for registering immediately.
Pro: Bring your vehicle with you
What if you could bring your car with you when riding Amtrak? Would you? Well, an option to do just that is available on one line, which is known as the Amtrak Auto Train. It is an east coast-only line that begins near Washington, DC with a terminus near Orlando, Florida. The daily Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida (and back) car train supplies people who simply want to avoid the I-95 headaches with a different way to reach their destination and have their vehicle waiting for them.
The Amtrak Auto Train only serves these two destinations, therefore if you jump on board at any stop in between, you will not be able to load your vehicle. For those who do start in Lorton or Sanford, a separate fee is charged to carry passenger vehicles in enclosed car carriers. Not all vehicle sizes fit, but most generally do. Because of the late departure time for the train, passengers will also book a roomette for sleeping on the way to their destination.
Side note: the Amtrak Auto Train is the longest passenger-carrying train in the world. It boasts up to 18 cars for passengers, 33 for cars, and two locomotives. Typically, it carries over 650 passengers and 330 vehicles. That is an amazing feat, but unfortunately, the service is not available elsewhere.
Con: The food service is average
When driving, you have a near unlimited number of places to stop for food. That is if you stick to the interstates and are near population centers. Even then, coming across a decent family-style restaurant usually is not difficult as locals like to eat out too.
When taking Amtrak, the majority of the trains have at least an informal café service. The café car is open most daytime hours, but it does shut down briefly as well. Lots of snacks and cold drinks are available as pre-wrapped sandwiches and salads. The food quality though is average, and the prices are high.
On some trains, there is sit-down onboard dining available. With this choice, you will find more formal options with full food and drink menus available. Appetizers, drinks, chef-prepared three-course dinners, and desserts with linen, silverware, and glass service is offered. In-cabin dining is available. Reservations are required. This food choice far exceeds the café options, but you will also pay handsomely for this service. Still, when traveling for several days, the dining car is indispensable.
Families should keep in mind that bringing their food is an option. No, you cannot cook on board, but you can bring sandwiches and the fixings for a meal with you. This means a cooler is allowed, so bring your disposable plates, cups, and cutlery with you to eat at your seat. Oh, if you plan on bringing alcoholic beverages onboard, you can. However, you can only drink them in the privacy of your roomette.
Finally, when it comes time to dispose of your trash, there are several receptacles in each car. These are typically emptied once they are full, with the trash removed at select stations.
Pro: You can bring more luggage
When driving, you can determine how much luggage you want to bring with you up to your vehicle’s payload limit. You set the terms and pack your vehicle accordingly. With flying, you are restricted on the amount of luggage you can carry. Typically, you are allowed two onboard items, then you will need to check and probably pay for the rest.
On the other hand, Amtrak is more liberal with its luggage policies. Two personal items and two carry-on bags per person are allowable (weight and size restrictions apply). You can also check baggage, with the first two bags free. No, you may not be able to carry as much as you would in a car, but you can take much more and at a lower cost than flying.
Lastly, you can bring your bicycle with you on nearly all routes. A nominal fee is assessed. Consider this option if you routinely navigate urban areas on a two-wheeler.
Con: Don’t be in a hurry
We touched on the “getting there” component of train travel earlier. And now we will break everything down.
If you are in hurry to travel to your destination, train travel can be a poor choice. Then again, the airlines are notorious for delays, canceling flights, and changing reservations. These challenges explain why driving remains a top choice for countless travelers.
Amtrak trains are routinely late, especially on long-haul trips. If you pick up a train in the middle of a long route, chances are it will arrive at your station at least 30 minutes, even an hour or more past its scheduled time. This can be disconcerting, especially for time-sensitive travelers. Late arrivals are also costly for Amtrak as the company says delays cost it $41.9 million annually. That hurts profitability, requiring taxpayer subsidies to keep the business going. This also contributes to higher fares.
Amtrak does, however, attempt to compensate for lost time on its long-haul routes. By experience, we have found that the company will either pick up speed or hasten to stops to shave a few minutes here and there. This does not mean your train will not arrive late, but at least it should reach its destination within a reasonable timeframe. Moreover, Amtrak is far less likely to cancel a trip due to the weather. Trains typically can run (except in high winds, including hurricanes), while airlines are often bogged down by inclement weather.
Pro: Explore America from the comfort of your seat
With Amtrak, you are likely to witness the seedy underbelly of America’s cities. Some of the worst squalor is visible while riding trains. Homeless encampments are near the tracks, people tend to dump trash everywhere, and fading cityscapes are in prime view. Taking the train can quickly show the extent of some people’s misery.
But there is a delightful flip side to Amtrak travel that should be embraced: breathtaking views on several of its regional and cross-country excursions. Indeed, depending on your objective and the time of the year, you will pass through fall foliage, enjoy majestic mountain scenes, cross over wide bodies of water, and have close encounters of the wildlife kind.
Writing for “Lonely Planet,” Natalia Lusinski explained that she has taken the train across America dozens of times. In her story, Lusinski outlined 11 trips of note that are as varied as the next with amazing sites along the way.
Making her case for rail travel she advises, “…no matter what time of year you take an Amtrak trip, as you take in the scenery from your seat or the observation car – complete with floor-to-ceiling windows ideal for sightseeing – you’ll quickly see how the journey truly is the destination.” That is the kind of trip only matched by car travel, but without the weariness long road trips often supply.
Amtrak, a Changing Dynamic
At DrivenAutos.com, we will always value and advance the pleasure of driving. But that satisfaction has its limits as flying and rail are sometimes better choices. We think the future of passenger rail is quite promising, especially with federal support arriving to provide for new trains, expanded lines, and improved services. Register on Amtrak’s website to find trips, compare fares, shop for discounts, and to book your trip. Once booked, your boarding pass appears on the company’s downloadable app, just like the airlines do.
All in all, taking Amtrak should be considered an option where car, plane, and bus are also possible. One weak link, though, is car rental at the train’s destination. This “link” does not exist at some smaller locations, and it is not especially strong even at Amtrak’s busiest stations. However, local bus and taxi services (including Uber and Lyft), can transport people to pick up their car rentals and continue with their journey.
Rapier, G. (2019, October 18). Nearly one-third of all Amtrak trains are late and it could be costing the railroad $42 million every year. Business Insider.
McCoy, W. (n.d.). Can You Take Liquids on Amtrak?. USA Today.
Lusinski, Natalia. (2020, June 29). 11 Amtrak routes with the most breathtaking views. Lonely Planet.
Lazo, L. (2021, November 9). The infrastructure package puts $66 billion into rail. It could power the biggest expansion in Amtrak’s 50-year history. The Washington Post.
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