You don’t have to get to the airport early. Or at all.
It’s no secret that you and I subsidize Amtrak, to the tune of about $3 apiece annually. But as long as we’re paying for it, why not use it? Most Americans, especially those outside the Boston/Washington corridor, wouldn’t know a passenger train if it ran over them. Aren’t trains relics from some other century?
Hardly. Amtrak continues to serve 29 of the 30 largest metro areas in the country, Las Vegas being the outlier. Trains usually run daily. The Wright Brothers and their speedy progeny notwithstanding, taking the train can make sense if you’re trying to stretch a dollar.
Last month your helpful blogger traveled from Phoenix to San Antonio for $222. It took 21 hours. Granted, the train station is a few miles from downtown Phoenix, but so is the airport. Meanwhile the train station in San Antonio is right downtown, while the airport, somewhat obviously, isn’t.
The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t suggest that you arrive at the train station 2 hours before departure, either. Parking is free, and requires neither a shuttle nor even an elevator. Theoretically, you can arrive at the train station mere minutes before the conductor gives the signal. And the next time a train remains stationary without giving the passengers an explanation, locks them in for 9 hours, refuses to serve them food and restricts them from using the bathroom will be the first.
The $222 gets you a reasonably roomy sleeper car, with a lockable door and a curtain. That price includes meals in the dining car, which are several orders of magnitude fresher and tastier than standard airplane food (and served on real tables with real silverware.) In case you’re wondering – as I was – there are showers. With hot water and comfortable head pressure.
There’s no illuminated seat belt sign on a train: heck, there aren’t even seat belts. Add the comfort of a communal lounge car with big windows, and you might begin wondering why you ever bothered to fly. For a well-fed American male, the ability to get up and stretch a 6-2, 200-pound frame at your leisure is incentive enough to avoid flying whenever possible. I didn’t have to walk through multiple security gates, no one patted me down, and I removed my shoes only when I got to my sleeper.
Contrast a $222 Amtrak fare from Phoenix to San Antonio with a $213 fare United currently offers. The train costs $9 more and yes, takes 17 hours longer. However:
- United charges $25 for your first bag, $35 for your second. Amtrak charges nothing.
- Amtrak serves as a de facto hotel for one night, saving you $100 or so.
- Whether you fly or take the train, you’re still going to need to eat. The three daily meals included when you sleep on Amtrak would cost about $50 if you ordered them off the menu like the coach passengers do – or bought them in restaurants, in whichever unfamiliar city you happened to be flying to.
- You can get work done on a train without buying a spare laptop battery. Whether electric or diesel, the train has power outlets everywhere. Try to find a place to insert a three-prong plug on a 737.
- If you’re travelling from Washington to Orlando, you can take your car. Or your motorcycle. Even your boat. Seriously.
Trains aren’t always the right answer. Unless you’re retired, or otherwise have unusual amounts of time on your hands, you’re probably not going to want to take 62 hours to get from Los Angeles to New York when a plane can do it in six. (Although $456 for a ticket plus half a 2-person sleeper plus 9 meals could sound tempting.)
If you live on one of the red lines on Amtrak’s route map, and never considered a train to be anything more than a noisy interloper, try it. The service is excellent, the scenery continuous, and not only is the price competitive with flying, you can’t get any lower.