Tiny House blogger Jenna Spesard makes the case for traveling by train in America—so long as it’s cheaper and more convenient than a road trip.
As a budget travel advocate, I often use trains as my main method of transportation while overseas. It wasn’t until recently that I started using trains here at home. On my last Amtrak trip, I began to ponder this paradox. Why isn’t long distance train travel more popular in the USA? Why don’t people consider taking the train when planning a road trip?
One reason is our society is obsessed with car culture. In fact, there is almost one car for every person in the USA, putting us near the top of every list for vehicles per capita. Statistics aside, our lives revolve around motor vehicles. Getting your driver’s license is a rite of passage; commuting to work in your own car is normal and expected. Fast food restaurants, gas stations, and billboards line our highways because road tripping is one of America’s favorite pastimes. There’s no denying it: We love cars!
That said, is driving always the most practical choice for long distance travel? Can trains be a worthy alternative? I decided to test it out with a train trip from Seattle to Portland (Oregon).
Car vs. Train: Comparing Two Options for Budget Travel
I love a good road trip. If gas prices are reasonable, driving my own car is a very enjoyable and economical means of transport. For example, my Amtrak ticket from Seattle to Portland was $26. The same trip would have cost less had I driven my own car—approximately $12. If I were able to drive with a passenger in my car and split the costs, the savings over train travel would have been spectacular.
However, the financial responsibility of car ownership is something to consider when comparing train and car travel. I didn’t factor costs such as car maintenance and insurance into this scenario. On longer car trips, you may also need to stop at a hotel for the night, while on Amtrak you can sleep in your seat.
Alternatively, renting a car on the Seattle to Portland trip would have been more expensive than traveling by train. I would have paid approximately $30 a day for the car rental, $12 for gas, and an additional fee for dropping the car off at a different location. For this situation, traveling by train was the economical choice.
Every journey requires a few calculations before you can conclude the most affordable transit option. But price isn’t the only thing to consider—there’s also your time.
Traveling by train has its perks. As I sat in my comfortable train seat, I was able to recline, gaze out the window, and enjoy my lunch without worrying about bad weather, directions, or making good time. I could sleep, work on my laptop, explore the dining or observation car, and use the restroom at any time. The trip was relaxing, but also stimulating. Before I knew it, I had arrived at my destination.
Unlike car travel, there’s no need to stop to rest while traveling by train. On multi-day trips, you can sleep in the reclining seats on a train or pay extra for a sleeper car. This convenience could save you hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms and get you to your destination quicker.
Are there any inconveniences to taking the train? Of course. First, you’re at the mercy of the train schedule and station locations. With car travel, you can make your own schedule, drive directly to your final destination, and improvise on a whim. I also found the food on board my train to be limited, low quality, and rather expensive. (In the future, I’ll pack a lunch.) Finally, the biggest inconvenience of train travel is that it’s not always fast.
“Don’t expect to get to your destination any faster than driving,” says blogger Meg Stephens, who recently took a train from Utah to California during the Thanksgiving holiday. “The only difference is you can sleep on the train while it moves you along.”
Meg’s total travel time was 13 hours and 18 minutes. Driving time (without bad weather and traffic) would have been only 8 hours and 34 minutes. It was comfort that swayed Meg and her husband to choose the train over driving. They avoided a nasty winter storm that would have been difficult and treacherous to navigate. Instead, they relaxed and watched the world fly by their window on a comfortable train.
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