Postcards & Passports

Pros and Cons of Train Travel

Most people in the U.S. travel by car or plane. Traveling by train is less common in the States than in Europe, and travelers here are probably less informed about their train options. At least that’s how it was for me. But I recently made a trip by train to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. What I learned about the pros and cons of train travel needs to be shared with others.

Traveling by train offers many amenities and comforts you cannot enjoy in a car or plane. On the other hand, there are a few limitations to train travel. So keep reading for my list of pros and cons so you can decide for yourself if train travel is right for you. Since most train travel in the United States is with Amtrak, I’ll be focusing on Amtrak train travel.

Pros of Train Travel

PRICE

When I booked my train fare to Glenwood Springs, there was a Spring fare sale. My husband and I only paid $34 each way. If we had been children or senior citizens (age 65), it would have been less. Most airlines do not offer any age-related discounts.

With our total cost of $136, I compared the price to travel by car or plane. I calculated the trip by car would have required 25 gallons of gas. At an average of $3.50/gallon, gas would cost $87.50. That doesn’t include wear and tear on your car and tires. If I calculate the cost of flying to the closest major airport (SLC to Aspen), it would be $98 RT per person. (And I’d still need to work out transportation from the Aspen airport and airport parking.)

When determining if a less expensive trip by car is worth it, you do need to consider more than just the dollar amount. Think about whether driving a car gives you a quality travel experience compared to riding on a train.

One more bonus: If you book tickets for a group traveling together, you’ll have access to more discounts. They call it Amtrak Share Fares, and with a group of 8 people, everyone will get 60% off! You must book at least two days in advance to get this discount. Actually, there are discounts for each additional person. You can find more information about this and other discounts on this page.

Booking train fares

Amtrak makes it very easy and convenient to book your fares online, by phone, or with their app. There are flex fares, value fares, and sale fares. Choose the fare prices and rules that best fit your situation. You can also book private roomettes or bedrooms, even family rooms that sleep four. Sleeping rooms include complimentary meals.

  • Make your reservations early to get the best fares.
  • Fares are generally higher during holidays and peak travel periods.
  • Fares can vary based on the day of travel and the time of day.
  • Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance of travel.
BOARDING PROCESS

Boarding a train is SO much easier than going through security and boarding a plane! At an unmanned train station, you literally just stand on the platform and you show your ticket on your app to the attendant at the open door. If you’ve been assigned a seat, the attendant will give you a tag with your seat assignment. You walk onto the train with your luggage, find your seat and sit down. That’s it! You can leave larger luggage items on a luggage rack or take them to your seat and put them in a large overhead area.

At a manned train station, it’s really the same process. You can take a seat in the station, and an announcement will be made when the train is approaching. You walk out to the platform and board the train. (Just show your ticket on your app!) If you prefer, you can “check on” luggage for the station attendant to load for you.

Comfort

Unlike being in a car or airplane seat, a train seat is quite comfortable. First of all, your seat will be wider than on an airplane, even with a coach fare. You have so much leg room you can hardly touch the seat in front of you with your feet. There’s an underleg support and also a footstool. You can recline your seat backwards nearly to the point of lying down. And there are no seatbelts to restrict you. It is easy to fall asleep in your seat without having to do acrobatics to get into a comfortable position!

Being able to get up and walk around also adds to the comfort of train travel. It means you don’t develop leg cramps (or blood clots)! It’s nice to enjoy the variety of views from different cars, or the difference between upstairs and down. It also gives little ones a chance to “get some wiggles out”.

Some seats face each other and have a table in between. This seating arrangement is great for conversing, playing games, or writing/drawing/coloring.

If you book a sleeping room, you’ll have more privacy — and chairs that convert to beds for sleeping.

AMENITIES

A train certainly has more amenities than you could have in an automobile or plane. Every train car has restrooms (no rest area stops!), some much larger than those on airplanes. There is more room for storing your bag, too. Did you know that you can bring two free checked bags PLUS two carry-on bags?

Dining cars are available for nicer sit-down meals. Meals are included if you are paying for an overnight sleeper car and available for purchase when traveling coach. There is also a snack bar where you can pick up a beverage or a light meal or treat. A variety of available items includes sandwiches, salads, muffins, bagels, mac n’ cheese, popcorn, nuts or cookies.

With convenient water-filling stations, you can refill your water bottle. Electrical outlets for your chargers are available at every seat AND many trains have free WiFi. Fold down trays (similar to airplane seat trays) are available to hold food, books, or electronic devices.

Curtains can be closed to block out light for napping or using electronic devices.

SPECTACULAR VIEWS

In my opinion, this may be the best of all the pros and cons of train travel — being able to see spectacular views along the train route. Often you can see things you could never spot from a car on the freeway. For example, while traveling into Colorado from Utah, we rode through Ruby Canyon. Since this canyon is not accessible by car, the only other way to see its splended red and pink hues is by floating down the Colorado River.

The observation car has windows that wrap over the top of the car, so you have views in all directions. Comfortable seats that face outward make for the most comfortable scenery viewing! You can watch the countryside roll by as you make your way to your destination, enjoying views of rural towns, farmland, rivers, forests, mountains and more. The Coast Starlight route on the west coast of the U.S. provides amazing views of beaches and the Pacific Ocean.

Because most trains do not travel as fast as cars on a freeway, you’ll have a better chance of spotting wildlife. On my train ride from Provo, Utah to Glenwood Springs, CO, I saw several eagle nests and an entire herd of mule deer.

Friendly passengers

One thing I noticed right away was how friendly other passengers were. I quickly started up a conversation with another woman while riding in the observation car. She was a much more seasoned train traveler than I and she had lots of great tips and experiences to share.

When my husband and I were waiting at the unmanned station in Provo, we chatted with a family travelling for their first time. They had a few children who were super excited about the adventure ahead!

There’s a special camaraderie amongst train travellers. You rarely experience this when flying and you really don’t get to meet other travellers while on a road trip. It’s just another added benefit to travelling by train.

Cons of Train Travel

SLOWER Speed of travel

Traveling by train is not the fastest way to travel from point A to point B. In my example of taking the train from Utah to Colorado, my train ride was 7 hours long. I could have driven the distance in 5 1/2 hours. You’ll have to decide what is more important to you — saving time or relaxing and enjoying the scenery.

Trains make several stops along the route. While most stops are only a few minutes, they do add to the length of your ride. But they can also add variety and the opportunity to hop off the train to grab a bite or to see a historic train station.

A slower speed of travel could actually be seen as a benefit as it allows you to see and enjoy more of your ride.

No car when you arrive

What do you do when you arrive at your train destination and you don’t have a car with you? It’s true that you arrive sans car! That could be a disavantage if you need to get around with a bunch of gear, or if you’re heading out to explore away from your destination.

When we went to Glenwood Springs, we found it easy to get around on foot. We packed light for a two-day getaway and were able to see and do everything we wanted to. If we had needed transportation, we could have rented a car once there. Other options include using local bus transportation or ride share services like Uber.

Also, Amtrak actually has a route between Washington DC and Orlando, FL that utilizes an auto-train where you can pay to bring your car on the train with you!

SCHEDULEs

Trains schedules are somewhat less reliable than flight schedules. Trains are more vulnerable to some weather conditions and can be affected by obstructions on the tracks. Obviously, there’s rarely an option to re-route around something! Using the app for your train travels will keep you notified of any delays or early arrivals so you can plan accordingly. A train will never leave earlier than its scheduled departure, however.

Train departure and arrival times can be less desirable, depending on where you are boarding or getting off. My train ride from Provo, Utah was scheduled for 4:18 am, but my arrival time in Glenwood Springs, CO was perfect — just in time for lunch!

ROUTES

Certainly, the most important of the pros and cons of train travel may be the limitations on routes available. You literally cannot take a train anywhere you may want to go in the US. Most routes run east and west with the largest hub in Chicago, Illinois. Hubs with fewer routes can be found in Washington DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Amtrak does help alleviate this by adding bus connections in some cities, and some train stations are near airports, so that you can combine travel modes. Bottom line: you are limited to travelling where trains actually go! Here’s the link to Amtrak’s route map so you can see what your destination options are.

Cleanliness

I’m not saying trains are dirty. But you don’t have attendants going through the car collecting your trash like you do on an airplane. You can walk your trash to a trash bin near the water filling station or in one of the restrooms. On that note, I don’t think restrooms are cleaned as often either. You might want to bring along some clorox wipes if you’re concerned about that. I get the feeling train passengers need to take a little more responsibility for keeping things around them clean.

Dining options not guaranteed

Earlier I shared information about the dining car and snack bar options on Amtrak trains. However, even Amtrak warns you there is no guarantee there will be dining service on every leg of your trip. We had service on our way to Glenwood Springs, but on the way home the AC went out in the dining car and kitchen. It was over 100 degrees F. in the kitchen so all meal preparation was suspended. Amtrak actually ordered pizza and sandwiches to be picked up at the next stop. This fulfilled their responsibility to provide meals for those who purchased sleeper fares. Coach riders were on their own. In our case, we were able to hop off the train and buy snacks in the train station at that stop.

Tips for the Best Train Travel Experiences

  • Download the train app for easier access to tickets and route or account information
  • Manned vs unmanned train stations = just what it sounds like. An unmanned station has no personnel, kiosks for purchasing tickets, restrooms, or luggage check-in. The train stops there and you get on, showing your ticket to the attendant at the door of the train. A manned station does have a place to buy tickets, ask questions, use a restroom, etc. If you’re wondering how a train knows to stop for you at an unmanned station, it’s your pre-purchased ticket that lets them know!
  • Bring snacks and a water bottle if you want to be sure to have what you need when you want it. (Try this peanut butter protein ball recipe!)
  • If you’re hoping to sleep, a lightweight blanket and travel pillow will come in handy. Bring a sweater or jacket for layering if it’s cool.
  • There are no movies provided on a train. You are responsible for keeping yourself and your children entertained. Bring DVD players and headphones, coloring books, games, books, music, journal or playing cards. In my case, all I need is a camera to take photos of the beautiful vistas outside my window!
  • Fun Amtrak’s route map for children from Amtrak
  • When you board the train, an attendant will leave a tag over your assigned seat with symbols representing your end destination. Leave it there! It helps them be sure of who is getting off where so they can remind you.
  • Open seating vs assigned seating: when you book your tickets with Amtrak, you may end up with open seating (where you get on the train and choose an empty seat). You might also be assigned your seats – either when booking or most likely, as you are boarding.
  • Many of the train stations across the US are historic. You might really enjoy visiting as many stations as you can to get a feel for the nostalgia of train travel.

Overview of Pros and Cons of Train Travel

It’s a shame that train travel often gets overlooked, especially in the United States. It’s worth planning a trip around current route options, especially when there are sale prices available. You can enjoy a fantastic trip that is affordable and more relaxing with gorgeous scenery — and offers many benefits you can’t get with other modes of travel. Train travel offers more spontaneity and opportunities to gather with friends and family easier than in a car or on a plane. Travelling by train is the best way to see this beautiful country and appreciate rural and urban alike.

I believe the benefits far outweigh any negatives of travelling by train. But you can decide how you feel about the pros and cons of train travel. I hope our paths cross someday as we navigate the United States by train.

If you’re interested in my take on travelling by car vs plane, see Should You Fly or Drive?

pros and cons of train travel

pros and cons of train travel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Train Travel

  1. Kathy

    Great article. Well researched. Been thinking about taking a train to Seattle (or Tacoma because I think it is closer to where my family lives). What do you think of this idea? Iss it too long? Get a sleeper room? Thank you!

    1. Tami Post author

      I think if you’re a woman traveling alone, you may appreciate the privacy of a sleeper. Not that I think it’s dangerous, but you just may feel more comfortable with that. I once traveled from SLC to Seattle by train. It took 24 hours but I went coach and just dozed when I was tired.

Make my day and leave a comment!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.