Rail Savings: Why You Should Trade Planes for Trains Next Trip

Amtrak
Amtrak

Airlines want you to pay up. And not just in the form of higher overall fares -- although booking website Kayak.com predicts those will rise 3% this summer -- but also in terms of where you sit.

Choose window or aisle seats, and you'll pay more, even if you're traveling as a family. The Associated Press did the math, and it turns out that giving Junior a view or mom extra legroom amounts to about $25 each way. And that's probably the low end. Premium seats on premium routes could cost far more.

What's a vacationing family to do?

Driving is certainly an option. But anyone who's taken a long driving trip with a family of five can tell you that traveling in a tightly packed van isn't exactly comfortable. There's no room to stretch out. It's also easy to miss the beautiful sights when driving toward a distant destination, a task that requires hours of focus.

However, there's another alternative -- a travel mode you may not have considered.

All aboard!

Taking a train -- while more expensive than gassing up the car -- can be a surprisingly smart option for families who prefer a little more leg room and want someone else to do the driving.

Cross-country trips could run into the thousands quite quickly. But a family of five traveling from Denver to Salt Lake City might enjoy significant savings riding the Amtrak:

Mode

Fare (roundtrip)

Travel Time (total)

Fly

$998

2 hours, 50 minutes

Drive

$106*

17 hours, 24 minutes

Train

$595

30 hours, 8 minutes

Sources: Southwest Airlines, the Department of Energy, AAA, Amtrak, and author's estimates. *Cost of gas.

Granted, Denver to Salt Lake isn't likely to be a common tourist trip. But the booking exercise is instructive in that it shows the savings available when trying alternatives.

How do some popular trips stack up? 107

Flying five people from New York City to Orlando in late June for four days costs $2,171 on Southwest Airlines (LUV). Taking Amtrak -- reserving coach seats for the roughly 24-hour trip -- would cost the same five people just $1,347.50. Driving all 1,079 miles (nonstop except for refueling) would take 18 hours and cost just $207 in gas, making it the cheapest (though most stressful) of the options.

Similarly, a family of five taking the train from Boston to Washington, D.C., during the same time frame would cost $724.50. JetBlue Airways (JBLU) would charge $898 for the same route -- and according to Kayak, that's the lowest published airfare. In each case, Amtrak offers savings.

Of all the choices, trains offer an uncommon mix of comfort and flexibility. The trade-off? It's going to take longer to get to your destination.

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The Luxuries of Riding the Rails

Yet train travel's greatest weakness -- travel time -- can also be its greatest strength. If you plan ahead, those extra hours can be filled with fun and meaningful activities.

Long hours rolling down the tracks are idle time for sightseeing, walking the cars, and meeting other travelers, playing board games, talking, streaming movies, and even working a little for those self-employed white-collar workers who don't officially get "vacation time." Food is available most hours. Entertainment is limited only to what you've packed and your imagination.

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Small children and their parents might find the long hours unbearable, but older kids might enjoy the chance to explore. At the very least, taking a lengthy train trip with the kids might serve as a test run for how they might cope with overseas flights that tend to take 10 hours or more.

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Train travel also affords a level of self-sufficiency not available to those who fly. Travelers can pack coolers of food and drink and bring extra bags with blankets and pillows for "camping out" in reclining coach seats. (Although small staterooms with built-in beds are available to those willing to spend a few hundred dollars extra.)

In our hectic, always-on lives, we tend to forget how to slow down. Taking a train takes us back to those times in life when taking breaks wasn't just OK, but encouraged.

What are your vacation plans this summer? How are you cutting costs? Please weigh in using the comments box below.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Southwest Airlines.


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