Amtrak vs Commercial Flights vs Driving
Updated: Apr 9
In this article, I wanted to share a chart to go over some of the pros and cons of train travel in the US vs alternatives of commercial flights & driving, highlighting the winners in each category considered in blue if there's a clear winner, & in tan when a clear winner is listed but it really depends on the situation.
4 Category Winners
8 Category Winners (6 if you lump bag categories into 1)
3 Category Winners
Popularity for Long-Distance Trips
The longer the distance, especially on direct itineraries, the greater the time savings typically. Across short distances, especially multi-leg flying itineraries can be more time flying vs driving or direct routes on Amtrak.
Often takes longer than flying or driving, especially on long itineraries vs flights and when train routes can't get you somewhere directly. Less time needed before departure to be at the station than planes typically & less time going from the train station to the middle of a city typically vs going from the airport to the middle of a city.
Often takes less time than Amtrak, but more time than planes. In heavy traffic especially, driving can take longer on certain itineraries.
Checked bags with no status
Unless flying on Southwest, using a credit card perk, or status, you'll typically need to pay for any checked bags.
Depends on vehicle & passengers #. If it's just you, you'll often get plenty of room for bags, but if every seat in the vehicle is full, it may be a different story, though roof cargo carriers can help. The heavier the cargo, the lower your MPG.
Carry on bags
2 carry on bags free up to 50 lbs each
Most US airlines offer 1 personal item freely, including most discount carriers & on basic economy.
2 personal items free up to 25 lbs each
Leisure/Productivity During Transit
Typically when you fly there will be a period at the beginning and end of the flight when you won't be allowed to use a laptop or similar device. You also need to turn your phone to airplane mode or off, but wifi-calling can help for phone calls.
If your Amtrak has consistent wifi and you have a full fledged table as is the case with certain business class seat configurations, your productivity levels can be potentially higher than they would be while flying or driving, especially if you use a multi-screen setup like I do. If you're in sleeper class, your ability to sleep will likely be superior to anything in economy class in the sky, though some business/1st class airlines have lie flat options.
In your own vehicle, you can have integrated features like built-in wifi, Android Auto or iOS CarPlay. That said, if you'll be the one driving, it would be illegal for you to do a number of work-related or leisure activities, such as watching something on your computer or typing up a paper. Voice to text on Android Auto or similar only goes so far. State laws vary also.
"Most first class and business class cabins will have power outlets and/or USBs for each seat... As for economy, it is much less common for economy passengers to have their own power outlets and USB ports. If there are power outlets, you may have to share them with other passengers.
Also, sometimes the power outlets are only found in the first few rows of economy (in something like economy plus)."
Dual Outlets for Every Seat
Depends on vehicle; some vehicles have wall outlets, and most have typical car outlets. I use a car outlet to wall outlet converter in my vehicle. It's big & noisy, but it has multiple outlets and is rated for higher power consumption than most car to wall converters.
Mobile hotspots or integrated wifi with your own vehicle are options, but if you're the one driving, your usage is severely limited legally.
Legroom, width, & comfort
wider, farther apart, much more legroom at 40" in coach, better recline than US airlines
Factors depend on vehicle, but if you're driving, don't recline too much since going to sleep would be bad...
It depends on the plane configuration, but it's not uncommon for there to be middle seats, especially in economy class
No middle seats
Often middle seats, but typically not used
3x more dangerous than flying
40x more risky than flying
Higher negative impact than a gas powered car typically with 3 people in it
Best for environment
Highest Negative Impact if 1-2 people in it
Cost (depends highly on the route & the deal you're getting, but is likely the top reason why personal vehicles are most popular)
Typically higher cost than Amtrak, but it depends on the route, so if you'd consider Amtrak as well, it's good to do a price and time comparison, but keep in mind factoring in all costs like baggage fees
While Amtrak trains are typically lower cost than commercial planes in the same class of seating, that really depends. Sometimes, you can get from VA to FL for under a $20 flight. It's unlikely you'll ever get a deal like that on Amtrak. That said, a $20 flight would likely incur hefty fees if you wanted to take the 2 checked bags that would be free on Amtrak. With Amtrak, it's ideal for short routes or those who can maximize their time during the journey (i.e. writing, study, work etc.) because a commonly neglected cost factor is the value of time.
If you're driving a 20-year-old vehicle getting relatively high miles per gallon, and want to leave tomorrow for somewhere that you could drive in 3 hours with 5 people, your own vehicle might be the way to go. If you just bought a new gas guzzler for $50k or more and want to go to the same place solo, the cost of gas, maintenance, and depreciation drastically changes things. You can often reduce costs by using cruise control & going 55 MPH in 70 MPH zones, but most won't want to deal with the extra time involved.
Options on points
many points options available
Amtrak points available in US, but highest values possible are under 3 cents per point on points that are relatively difficult to earn compared to airline miles.
some rental car points options available
Mass Transit/Rental Car/Parking in destination
Ideal for a relatively distant location with high parking fees & plenty of mass transit. With some exceptions, often airports are outside of the city or on the outskirts of the city.
Ideal for relatively close location with high parking fees & plenty of mass transit. Often Amtrak stations are within the city.
Ideal for locations without good mass transit that isn't too far away since no rental car needed. In high population density areas, some hotels can charge over $60/night in places like DC for parking (& over $120/night in NYC), and then finding parking in those places if going from 1 place to another within city can be difficult.
Between airline carriers there can be a big difference, and sometimes there is a division between 1st class bathrooms and economy etc. on planes.
Unless you're getting a room on Amtrak to yourself or are traveling on an Acela train (where there is no economy class), the Amtrak bathrooms are generally not going to be as clean as a comparable flight, even if you're in business class. That said, it really depends.
If you're stopping at a rest stop or place to eat or drink while driving, some places are much cleaner than others.
Best: Many lounges in many medium to large sized airports (notably none in SE VA) with easy access via credit cards including some with no net annual fee
Some lounges, but typically they won't be as nice as those within airports
No free lounges, but you can still stop at rest stops and restaurants
Best view at the beginning and end of the journey, but the clouds view during the majority of the journey isn't typically ideal unless at sunset or sunrise.
More interesting view that you get to enjoy more than many driving routes, and a view throughout the journey, unlike most plane routes.
View throughout journey, but if you're the one driving, you can only enjoy it so much and can't take pictures readily legally