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On a recent cross-country road trip from New York to New Mexico, I overheard a couple laughing as they filled up their SUV. Their laughter faded as gas began climbing above the $100 mark. It was the first time they’d ever hit three digits when filling up their family’s vehicle.
Across the United States, road trippers are feeling the pain at the pump, and experts predict that prices will continue to soar. For Americans looking to plan their summer travels, that raises the question of whether road tripping is really the best way to see the country right now. Could train travel emerge as the alternative? It might just make financial sense.
Perks of Train Travel
From cruising EuroRail across the European continent to lusting after trips aboard Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, international travel travel seems to grab all the attention.
Domestic train travel can be just as fun. Boasting the world’s largest railway infrastructure, Amtrak takes riders to more than 500 destinations across the United States, traversing iconic landscapes like the Great Plains or Louisiana’s Bayou. It seems that Americans are taking note – in 2022, ridership continued its steady increase, an Amtrak spokesperson confirmed to Travel + Leisure.
“I love the fact that you can truly sit back and relax on train rides. I feel comfortable reading, writing, working and sleeping in ways that seem a bit more difficult on other forms of transportation,” travel influencer Ciara Johnson, who ranks trains as one of her most enjoyable ways to travel the world, told T+L. “I’m able to see more of a country’s landscape as the train passes through different towns and the views always leave me feeling inspired.”
One of Johnson’s pro-train travel tips? Pack light and opt for a backpack rather than a suitcase as most train stations feature flights of stairs and offer less overhead baggage room than an airline.
While some are opting for trains thanks to the environmental benefits – Amtrak trains are 53 percent more efficient than traveling by car, according to the rail company – others are keen on the opportunity for sightseeing by rail. Here are a few of the most popular Amtrak routes with a cost analysis against car travel amid soaring gas prices.
Coast Starlight: Seattle, Washington to Los Angeles, California
Train cost: $101 or $765 (overnight)
Train time: 30 to 35 hours
Snaking more than 1,0000 miles from Seattle, Washington, to Los Angeles, California, the popular Coast Starlight Amtrak route takes passengers down the West Coast, making stops along the way in Portland, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, and Santa Barbara. It’s considered one of the most beautiful train rides in the U.S.
For a direct, 35-hour trip, coach tickets are $101, or rooms are $765. (This is based on travel dates from June 11, 2022 to June 21, 2022.) The journey takes more than a day – leaving at 9:50 a.m. on Saturday, arriving at 9:11 p.m. on Sunday, for a total of 35 travel hours.
Drive cost: $217 (just fuel) to $317 (fuel plus one night’s stay)
Drive time: 18 hours (1,136 miles)
Based on the March 2022 cost of fuel — $5.97 per gallon in California — that same West Coast road trip would cost about $217 just for fuel, if you’re using a vehicle that drives about 30 miles per gallon. Since the route is about 18 hours in total, it would take most road trippers (at least) two days of driving. Adding in the cost for a night of lodging at a tent site ($30) or a standard highway hotel ($100), you’re looking at anywhere from $257 to $317 for the same journey.
Sunset Limited: New Orleans, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California
Train cost: $142 or $964
Time: 46 hours
Departing three days a week, the iconic Sunset Limited train line takes passengers from New Orleans through Louisiana’s bayou all the way to Western desert landscapes like Palm Springs, finally landing in Southern California. Leaving at 9:00 a.m., customers can book the 45-hour journey coach for $142. Rooms start at $964. It is possible to book one train for the whole journey.
Drive cost: $312 (fuel) to $512 (fuel plus two night’s stay)
Drive time: 29 hours (1,894 miles)
Cruising through oil-rich Texas and Louisiana to California will mean wildly different gas prices for a summer road trip. Using the price of $3.87 per gallon for the first portion of driving, and $5.97 per gallon for the latter part of the trip, this road trip costs around $312 for fuel alone. Given that this is about two or three full days of driving, we factored in two nights of lodging ($200 for highway hotel; $60 for tent sites), making this trip anywhere from $376 to $512.
How to Plan a Train Trip Instead of a Road Trip
Check out train routes throughout the country and even plan a trip with this interactive Amtrak map. Train travel works best if you follow certain lines through hubs. Some of Amtrak’s most popular routes include the Coast Starlight, the California Zephyr, and the Empire Builder.
Many major stations offer complimentary luggage assistance, which can be helpful for passengers. Download the Amtrak app where customers can book tickets, check their train’s status, and access their ticket information. Dogs and cats under 20 pounds can travel with passengers for an extra $26. There are no restrictions on service animals.
If there is flexibility with the trip itinerary and location, check out Amtrak’s website for deals. Often different regions will offer discounts, like $50 off Pacific Surfliner tickets for a midweek getaway or a 50 percent savings if you book a Northeast Regional train more than 21 days in advance.
The saying “the early bird gets the worm” also applies to train travel; customers can save 20 percent on any coach fare if they book their ticket at least seven days in advance. Additionally, veterans save 10 percent on train travel throughout the country.
Photographer and travel influencer Preethi Chandrasekhar doubled down on road trips early on in the pandemic. But now, faced with rising gas prices, as well as an interest in reducing her carbon footprint, California resident Chandrasekhar is planning a summer “near-cation” in her state using both rail and car travel, based primarily on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner route down the California coast.
An avid hiker, Chandrasekhar said that train travel can sometimes involve extra transportation logistics, especially if she’s heading to more remote destinations like state or national parks. However, she loves that she can work en route on a train and is planning to pack her laptop for her upcoming 14-hour journey.
“The pandemic has taught me to re-examine how my travels impact the ecosystems around me,” Chandrasekhar said. “[Opting for] train travel where possible to offset driving a car is a good start.”