Who Has Time for Amtrak?

Train travel in the U.S. is sort of a strange beast.

It often costs as much, if not more, to purchase a train ticket between two points in the U.S. than it does to purchase an airline ticket between the same two points. The trip takes significantly longer by train than it does by air, and Amtrak is well-known for delays, adding even more time to the trip.

With all of that in mind, who in their right mind would select rail travel over air travel in the U.S.?

Well, Amtrak might just be a great way to travel if you are retired and time isn’t of the essence. On the Early-retirement forums, members discuss the pros and cons of U.S. rail travel.

My issue with using trains on a trip like that has been the time and cost, plus trying to connect in Chicago. There’s either a really long layover which seems intolerable, or a short layover that would make me nervous to miss since Amtrak isn’t noted for timeliness. ~RunningBum

All the stopping in every town was tedious. But, it was a very relaxing and fun way to travel too. ~Keim

If the Amtrak runs through much of the Colorado river corridor (you run from Sacramento into Colorado? If you go to Chicago first, never mind). I’d be especially ready to ride the rails. The Colorado river corridor is very scenic and worth seeing by rail. ~Schutzie

My husband and I just rode the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Oceanside, CA to Seattle, Wa in June. … We both brought books to read, but neither one of us even cracked one open since we enjoyed looking out the window so much at the ever-changing scenery. We went from oceans to mountains to lakes to forests and everything in between. We have our sights set on taking the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago at some point in the future. If you’re not in a hurry, do it for the experience! ~debyc54

There is no doubt that Amtrak has on-time problems and that one bad experience with being delayed can really make it hard to accept the positives. ~jjquantz

It doesn’t get more definitive than that – some love it and some hate it 🙂

Read the thread in its entirety: Amtrak: Fun or Boring?

Image: “1017” by Rob Sinclair. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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  1. I agree except for certain routes. The biggest problem Amtrak has is lack of routes and poor schedules. I used to take Amtrak from St. Louis ti Chicago. The trip took about 5 hours on the train although I’ve heard they have improved that recently. It took me about 5 hours to drive it maybe a little less. It’s only like a 1 hour flight with the up and down but you figure you need to be at the airport an hour early so you save about 2 to 3 hours, maybe if your flight isn’t delayed. Plus Amtrak isn’t as effected by weather, even snow.
    It would cost me about $25 to $50 depending on the class of seat. If I flew it would cost me more, at least $100 but more likely more than that. If I drove it was a tank of gas plus wear and tear so figure $50+. Also I can work and relax on the train. The problem was that the first train left at like 7am and the late day train didn’t leave until like 7pm. I also couldn’t easily or directly go to many other cities like Des Moins, Indy, etc. I guess my point is that it works well on some routes but others it’s not worth it. It’s also not worth it on long routes. I’d love to go from KC to LA on the train but it takes a long time (which would be part of the fun) but it also cost like 3x more than flying. Sad.

  2. So for 25,000 Chase points transferred to Amtrak, I can get a FAMILY BEDROOM and take my whole family from DAV to DEN. Can you do that on airline? Have an actual bed, a viewing car to look at the Sierras and Rockies, no TSA worries. Want to take your pocket knife and a bottle of shampoo no problem! I can also do speculative bookings and if I decide not to go, cancel it right before the train leaves the stations and get all my points back no fees. Points bookings are fixed value even at the last minute if available there are no 3-5 tiers of pricing. Which airline can I do that on?

    I can extend it and go California to Chicago for 40,000 points. We rode ATL-NYC, spent a few days then went NYC-BOS and enjoyed it a lot. Next summer we’ll do the long-haul Western trains for sure, my kids LOVED it.

  3. Let me add that those who complain about Amtrak schedules and routes are blaming the wrong entities for that. Schedules are subject to FREIGHT largely. Amtrak doesn’t own the rails, they are just another customer on rails owned by big freight companies and if you have to sit on a siding so a load of oil cars can go by, that’s what you do. And the routes are determined by American priorities and where the freight lines run to. We have a train system the BULGARIANS would be ashamed of, because we prioritize subsidies for highways and air and that’s the way we want.

  4. I would say that Amtrak is great for 2 things:
    – Traveling the NE corridor (Washington to Boston, though preferably for trips that only entail a portion of that entire span) and for shorter trips like San Diego to LA. The fact that you can arrive right before the train leaves, can work en route, and don’t pay fees for every imaginable convenience is great.
    – It’s also perfect for those who have more time and want to make the journey as compelling as the destination. I think sometimes the Frequent Flyer/Miles/Points community forget about the potential for the journey on the ground, due to our habit of focusing on flights, mileage runs, and quick trips to see the destination and return. But for those that have the luxury of more time, train can be a fascinating and enriching way to get from Point A to a your destination at Point Z without ignoring all of the worthwhile Points in between.

  5. I did a big trip last summer. PDX-LAX, LAX-Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon-ORD. We were in either a roomette or full bedroom. I used Chase points which was an excellent value. You definitely have to be flexible. I’m semi-retired so time wasn’t an issue. Surprisingly none of our trains were late. I would NEVER do that in a regular seat. In fact I would probably only do the BR in the future. The food is acceptable. The internet was not usable. For long stretches even our phones didn’t work. I brought a fully loaded kindle and books. It’s really about the journey. It’s not just about getting from A to B. Looking out the window was fascinating. Getting out to stretch at different stops was interesting. You pass places you would never see otherwise. I recommend that everyone try it at least once.

  6. @Vicente – Appreciate the the insights into the points redemption options. Seems to be some real value there with Amtrak.

    @CCORD – Great tips. Definitely have to approach an Amtrak trip differently than a plane trip, but it sounds like you set your expectations appropriately and really got the most out of it.

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