Surprise! A Rolling Vacation on Amtrak Is a Bargain.

I got an email yesterday from a follower of this blog who’s planning an extensive train trip an odyssey, really because it’s going to cover a lot of ground and it’ll take him at least a week.

And that raises an interesting point at least it’s interesting to me. It’s been my experience that you can take a week and travel all around the country by Amtrak and it will be no more expensive than a “normal” vacation that typically includes airfare, hotel and meals.

So I roughly compared two itineraries, both taking place during the first week of May.

The first was all by rail: Amtrak from Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief (photo above), connecting with the Coast Starlight from L.A. up to Seattle. One night in a Seattle hotel, then two nights aboard the Empire Builder back to Chicago. I priced the Amtrak fare based on one adult in a sleeping car roomette the whole way.

I compared rough costs for that with flying from Chicago to Washington, spending a week there sightseeing and flying back to Chicago.

I arbitrarily put a price of $200 a night for the hotels which, as anyone who has been to Washington will tell you, is on the low side. I also assigned values to meals: $15 for breakfasts, $20 for lunches and $40 for dinners.

Without boring you with the calculations, I’ll get right to the bottom line: Cost of the rail trip – $1950, including five nights on the train, one night in a Seattle hotel, and all meals, which are included in your rail ticket when you travel in sleeping car accommodations. The cost of the week in Washington – air fare, hotel and meals, which you have to pay for, of course – came to $1974.

But consider this: If you were to bring a significant other with you on the Amtrak journey, the total additional cost would be $488 for that person’s rail fare, plus a breakfast in Seattle. He or she would share your roomette at no additional cost and all those additional meals on the train would be included.

If you took someone with you on the Washington trip, the cost of the round-trip airfare and the meals would double.

And, finally, I didn’t include the cost for six days of sightseeing in Washington. Hardly fair, because all that scenery you would see while traveling more than 5800 miles on the train would be free.

Bottom line: dollar for dollar, you just can’t beat a long-distance train for a great vacation experience.