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

AmtrakAirlines 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:

Fare (roundtrip)
Travel Time (total)
2 hours, 50 minutes
17 hours, 24 minutes
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.

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.

The truth about travel portals
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Rail Savings: Why You Should Trade Planes for Trains Next Trip

Let's go over a few of the things that Priceline, Travelocity, Expedia (EXPE), and Orbitz Worldwide (OWW) would probably prefer that you don't know.

1. No portal offers every available option. Southwest Airlines (LUV) prides itself on its low fares. And since it's one of the few major carriers that won't hit you with fees on your first two pieces of checked baggage, a great rate can get even better compared to legacy airlines charging as much as $120 for two bags.

However, you won't find Southwest in the list of vetted flight results through most portals. Southwest's low-overhead approach and desire to have passengers deal directly with the airline make it a surprising omission.

You'll never see the portals spell out which carriers are outside of their search scope. It would only encourage visitors to crack open a new browser window and check those rates directly.

Things get even more limiting when it comes to lodging. Most of the major chains are refreshingly represented, but what about small inns, cozy bed-and-breakfast establishments, and the growing number of vacation properties that are showing up on HomeAway (AWAY) or Airbnb?

2. Traditional travel sites will never tell you to wait. Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing has an interesting treat for those kicking the tires of its travel portal. Bing Travel offers what it calls Price Predictor on flight searches. It offers a five-point system that lets travelers know if rates are likely to head higher, lower, or stay the same.

Bing claims that Price Predictor will save customers over $50 on a typical round trip. A third-party audit of its predictive technology claims that the gauge is accurate about 75% of the time. Analyzing weekly pricing patterns, industry moves, and availability make it a reasonable call to make.

Why aren't all of the portals following the lead of Bing's comparison-shopping engine? Well, think about it. Portals pride themselves on what they initially called a "bookers to lookers" ratio. They want to seal the deal, before you change your mind and head off to other websites or have a change of heart with your travel plans. They would lose plenty of sales by telling travelers to wait a few days, even if they would earn gobs of trust in return.

3. Booking directly still has its advantages. Travel portals are as popular as ever. Priceline reported blowout quarterly results this week. Revenue climbed nearly 36% in its latest quarter, and earnings soared 58% higher. Through its several global websites, Priceline arranged $21.7 billion in gross bookings last year. If you think that's a lot, consider that market leader Expedia scored $29.2 billion in global gross bookings in 2011.

Both companies are growing at brisk double-digit percentage clips, so obviously it's not as if their shortcomings are scaring consumers away. Priceline's "name your own price" option offers knowledgeable travelers the ability to take a stab at a low rate. For those with a little less sense of adventure, but still open to a little mystery in exchange for a deal, Expedia's Hotwire may be just the ticket.

However, few lodging deals may be as sweet as calling up the actual hotel you wish to stay at and trying to negotiate a daily rate directly.

4. Travel portals need to up-sell you. A few years ago, smart travelers would scour the travel portals -- and comparison-shopping sites such as Kayak that may throw out wider nets -- and then head off to the actual websites to complete the transaction. Traditional portals were charging $5 to $10 in airline booking fees to offset carriers that were slashing commissions.

We're in fairer times now. Most portals have done away with booking fees. They make it easy to add frequent flier membership numbers and select seats. However, this doesn't mean that the playing fields are finally level.

Websites still have bills to pay. Start checking out after finding the perfect flight through Priceline and you'll be asked if you want to buy travel protection insurance. No? How about a place to stay? No? Will you need a car while you're away? No?
Even Kayak and Bing Travel can get in your face with third-party ads. They do link directly to travel sites, so that's a plus, but it pays to be a disciplined online travel shopper.

Bon voyage.


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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