In the next few weeks, I’ll be traveling to Colorado. My plan is to get a sense of the rental property business there and visit with family members. In the four years we’ve lived in Sedona, I have made this 1,400-mile round trip using a few different approaches—various combinations of driving a car, taking a shuttle van, riding Amtrak, traveling on a bus, and flying.
This next trip I will be using Amtrak, catching an early morning train out of Flagstaff, Arizona and arriving at Raton, New Mexico later that day. In Raton, Amtrak will have a charter bus waiting at the station, which transports passengers as far as Denver. I will arrive at my final Colorado destination a short ninety minutes later, with one of my daughters picking me up at the bus station.
Amtrak slows the travel experience down so that we can be in the moment
I have traveled on aircraft throughout my life, beginning in my early childhood when my parents and I visited family in Germany. My mother became a naturalized citizen after marrying my dad and moving to the US. We traveled to Germany every three years until I was 18 years old. I have a lot of great memories of riding trains in Germany and Western Europe.
A model train in my office that reminds me of my visits to Germany
In my professional career, I traveled for work over the course of several decades. During a particular 10-to-15 year period, I became one of those frequent flying road warriors, logging over 100,000 miles each year. The experience for me was enjoyable for the most part—not counting the delays, cancelations, weather issues, and other assorted challenges that come with business travel.
The time involved in business travel gave me a lot of time to reflect, as I was whisked away to one destination after another. Here is the flying process broken down to the fundamental elements: you are herded like cattle from one line to another, asked to wait, prodded, searched, allowed to board only when called, and then told to sit in your assigned seat. You jet off to your next location, being transported from one culture (even in the same country, there are many cultures) to another. The significant differences in climate, scenery and people remind you that you are a long way from home.
Flying is a great way to travel a vast distance quickly!
I have found that when traveling by Amtrak, the entire travel experience is slowed down tremendously. Granted, the train hits tops speeds of only about 75 miles per hour for my route, so it is bound to be slower than some other types of travel.
The Amtrak travel experience is exhilarating: you feel the movement of the train on the tracks, you see and hear the rain on the windows, and notice the subtle changes in scenery on the trip. You also have an elevated view of the landscape, with the chance to gaze at remote areas of cities and countryside that most will never see from a vehicle or airplane.
Riding Amtrak is a casual and relaxed experience
It would not surprise me to learn that many readers and individuals from the PF community have flown on numerous occasions, either for work or on personal vacations. We can all agree that the entire air travel process has changed since 9/11, beginning with ticketing and following all the way through to your final destination. Traveling with Amtrak in the Southwest is another experience entirely. Here are some significant differences:
- No security check. That’s right, no security check. I believe that somewhere in the ticketing process an Amtrak employee asks you not to carry on dangerous items, but at no time do you wait in line for a TSA employee to ask you questions or give you the “once over” routine. The train arrives, the door opens, you get on the train and the steward decides where you will sit.
- The seating. I have done my share of flying in first class. Amtrak’s seats are more comfortable and the food and service is much better than on flights. I have to tell you, short of international flights, the seats are considerably better on Amtrak, as compared to 90% of aircraft first class seats on domestic flights. How about this as a bonus: no seat belts!
- Walking while in motion. Do you feel like getting up and walking around? Feel free to walk around anytime you want. There are no “fasten seat belt” signs or stewards telling you to return to your seat. Also, there is no turbulence that requires you to stay put in your assigned seat. Get up and stretch.
- Using the bathrooms. There is no need to wait for the non-existent seat belt sign to go off. Go to one of the six spacious bathrooms in each coach car anytime you feel like it. Well, I guess only when they aren’t all occupied, which has never been the case so far for me.
- The view from your seat. Gaze out the large picture windows enjoying the view on your journey. I have seen wild turkey, deer, buffalo, eagles, hawks, ravens, fox, and hundreds of antelopes on my dozen or so trips during the last four years. The windows are huge, roughly 20 times larger than an airplane seat provides.
- The dining and lounge car. A dining car and observation car offer good food, drinks, and souvenirs that are all reasonably priced. The dining car requires reservations while the observation car is on a first come, first served basis. This is a great way to meet and talk with people, hearing about their unique lives and reasons for the travel. Most observation cars also have an excellent happy hour!
- Working while traveling. I have been able to travel during the week, putting in hours during my normal work schedule. There is only about an hour along my typical 12-hour route during which I do not have cell and Internet service. It is much easier to work on the train than on a plane!
How does the cost of Amtrak compare with the cost of flying?
I have found that the cost of travel with Amtrak is anywhere from 30% to 60% less than flying. There is a good chance I will travel to Colorado again in January 2016, so let’s compare those costs to flying based on ticket prices this week.
The Amtrak ticket will cost $171 after a discount. This includes the shuttle bus ride in both directions.
Flying would require a 2½ hour trip each way on a shuttle van to the Phoenix airport from our home. I would have to select the shuttle that gets to the airport 90 minutes before the flight departs. Those shuttles leave every two hours, so potentially I could have a wait of nearly three hours at the airport.
Considering all expenses, I can save 45.4% ($219.10) by taking the train. A couple of disclaimers: the driving and pickup/drop off are with family members shuttling me from the stations using $.55 per mile for a personal car. I also get a 10% discount on all travel with Amtrak through our AAA membership. We are members of the Amtrak rewards program and I purchase tickets with its affinity credit card to earn additional points and perks.
Amtrak: one of my favorite ways to travel
Over time, I will write several more articles about my experiences with Amtrak. This is a great way for me to combine work, play, and travel all in one nice package!
The cost of Amtrak is less than flying when you consider all of the aspects it takes to get from my point A to point B. I save about three hours versus when I fly, based on the flight and airport shuttle schedules. However, one important note with Amtrak: the train runs only once a day, so there are no other options in terms of scheduling.
Taking the train, I have found that I am much more relaxed arriving at my destination than if I would had driven or flown. Driving can wear me out after spending 10 ½ hours in a car, taking only a couple of short breaks during the trip. With flying, all the waiting in lines, plus the cramped seats zap my energy in a completely different way. Taking the train slows the travel process down and allows me to meet and talk with interesting people along the way. I highly recommend you try it sometime!