Amtrak FTW?

My grandmother has been agitating for us to come back out and visit again this year. As you well know, flying has become out of the question, so I spent a bit of time crunching the numbers on both driving and taking Amtrak. Surprisingly, Amtrak is a fairly competitive way to travel.

For comparison’s sake, let’s toss in the cost of airfare. Since Liam is way past the “infant in arms” stage (in terms of age, size, and general squirminess), we’d have to buy three plane tickets. Delta sells round-trip tickets at $441 a pop for a total of around $1325 for all three of us. We’d also have to pay to park our car for $7/day for around 10 days and buy food for at least 4 meals. The total cost of flying with all of the particulars ends up in the $1475 range, but you’re only spending a total of 7-8 hours each way.

Google estimates the drive at around 1840 miles. That puts us at around 71 gallons each way which at a cost of $3.30/gal (estimating high) comes in at around $235 for gas. Factoring in three hotel stays and food, a round trip should be in the $1900 area and take around 3 days each way, though a die-hard road warrior may be able to do it in 2.

So how does Amtrak compare? The tickets themselves are pretty cheap ($780!), but that’s just seats. If we’re going to be on a train for a few days, you can bet your sweet bippy we’d be getting a room. That jumps up to a staggering $2400+ and three solid days of travel. That sounds terrible until you start factoring in a few particulars. For one, meals are included, so there’s no extra cost there. There’s also 4-5 hours between trains in both Chicago and Washington DC, so those are some fun excursions to take along the way. In addition to this, I can telecommute by tethering with my phone, so I’m actually earning around 40% of the total cost of the trip. Once you factor all of these in, Amtrak becomes about the same cost as flying, just with no TSA agents manhandling my bits and some extra stops in cities I wouldn’t mind visiting for a few hours.

Granted, not everyone can telecommute. You might drive faster, get better mileage, accept cheaper hotels and food, and not care about the extra stops. That said, I think Amtrak is actually making a pretty good case. They’ve also got some stellar deals for folks who want to tour the country. If you want to travel and don’t want to fly, consider taking the train.

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7 Responses

  1. Charles D says:

    You’d better take this advice soon. The Amtrak subsidy is on the chopping block of Republicans in the House and if they succeed that will spell the end of train service in the US, at least outside the Boston-Washington corridor.

  2. Davis Didjeridu says:

    I took Amtrak’s California Zephyr from SLC to Chicago in August 2009, and I would do it again, with a couple caveats that will hopefully help you.
    First, you probably are good to get a room with your kid; I rode coach and was ok, but it was tough a couple times when some babies/young kids were loud. Hopefully you get a room with power outlet. Food was actually pretty good, but be sure to get out and eat when you the train stops for a while, like Denver. I would also have brought a cooler because the snack bar closes sometimes and the restaurant isn’t always good food.
    However, don’t plan on 100% cell phone coverage through the Great Plains, as I lost mine intermittently through Wyoming (they had a detour north through Green River to Denver, instead of the normal route through Central Utah), Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa. Things got better in Illinois, and are probably ok the further east you go. Sometimes your phone can’t keep up with the towers changing, though.

  3. Davis Didjeridu says:

    Also, be ready for delays; most often it’s freight train traffic, because Amtrak doesn’t own the rails.
    Otherwise it is a really good experience and very relaxing because all you can do it look outside all day and enjoy the journey.

  4. Greta says:

    Where does the Amtrak end up? Atlanta? You can definitely get someone (your mom, one of your aunts) to pick you up.

    Also, don’t forget about hitting up the grandmas to help pay! I bet you could.

  5. Jesse says:

    Yeah, Atlanta. You can take it to Birmingham, but the drive is about the same from Dadeville and it costs more to keep on going.

  6. My parents took the train from CA to TX. They had a room and enjoyed it quite a bit.

    There were a few legs of the trip that were by bus, however. Apparently that wasn’t disclosed to them prior to them booking the trip so they were very surprised to be deboarded and stuffed into a smelly Greyhouse for a couple of hours.

  1. January 20, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by cleancartalk, Jesse Harris. Jesse Harris said: Just Posted: Amtrak FTW? […]

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