Amtrak for Long-Distance Travel? Here’s Why.

This scene has played out multiple times over the years. Perhaps it’s a talkative cab driver, often it’s someone sitting next to me on a flight to the mainland.  But it starts when they ask me where I’m headed.

It happened again on a flight to Oakland a month ago. Just to make conversation, my seat mate had asked what was taking me to the mainland and I said I was headed for Boston to see a three-game Red Sox-Texas series.

“But why are you going to Oakland?” he asked. “Hawaiian Airlines is running a non-stop to Boston from Honolulu.“

I told him that whenever I travel on the mainland, I fly to a major city on the West Coast—usually L.A or Oakland or Seattle—and take Amtrak from there.

“But that must add days to your trip,” he said. 

“It’s a two-night ride to Chicago from L.A or the Bay Area or Seattle,” I said, “but tell me: Do you enjoy flying?”

“It’s the pits,” he said. “First of all, I have to take a cab to the airport, and from where I live it’s a fifty dollar fare.” Then he started going through all the reasons he dislikes the flying experience: starting with the hassle of going through security and all the extra charges and fees that often add up to a 25 or 30 percent increase in the advertised cost of the ticket.

“But what about the flight itself? It’s OK, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” he said. “Assuming I get a good seat and assuming I paid an extra hundred bucks for another three inches of leg room.”

That’s when I said, “You’ve just given all the reasons why I take the train!”

“But,” he said, “you lose almost three days of your vacation.”

“No, I don’t,” I said. “because a long-distance train ride is part of my vacation!  Tomorrow I’ll be crossing the Sierra Nevada range looking down into Donner Pass. The next day we’ll cross the Rocky Mountains by following the Colorado River for almost 200 miles through a series of five canyons. And on the last half-day, we’ll cross the Mississippi River.”

My seat mate had turned and was staring at me.

I continued. “I have a private room, a bed to sleep in, and three times a day, I meet and chat with other passengers over meals in the dining car. Put it this way,” I said, “the airplane can take you to where your vacation begins, but an overnight ride on a long-distance train is part of your vacation experience.”

I could see that I had made my point and it was time to shut up. I gave him a card and said if he had any questions he should feel free to email me. Who knows? You can lead a horse to water . . .