Taking the train has long been popular in Europe -- it's almost considered a rite of passage for young backpackers. But while trains have been under-appreciated in the U.S., they're gaining popularity here as well. Amtrak ferried 31.6 million passengers around the country in its last fiscal year, an all-time record for the railroad. With the economy still slumping, train travel is looking increasingly attractive to budget-conscious travelers. Plus, a scenic train ride can even be a vacation in itself. Need more reasons to take the train? You've come to the right place.
1. Money SavingsTrains are an increasingly cost-effective alternative to planes, particularly if you're going a relatively short distance or if you're traveling in the busy Northeast Corridor, where train service is fast and frequent.
While some rates are quite competitive ($104 on the train vs. $108 by plane between New York and Boston in a recent search), you'll sometimes see dramatic fare differences. For instance, we found a $134 roundtrip fare on Amtrak between New York and Montreal, as compared to $294 for the cheapest roundtrip airfare. The train ride will be longer than the corresponding flight, but for travelers looking to cut costs, the train often wins out -- and you'll get to see some scenery along the way.
Unlike airlines, Amtrak and other rail operators often give discounts to children, seniors, students, AAA members, military personnel and other key demographics. See our list of train travel deals for more opportunities to save.
2. Stable FaresAnyone who's agonized over when to purchase airfare knows how arcane and frustrating the airlines' pricing structures can be. (We're still waiting for a logical explanation of why a one-way ticket often costs so much more than a round trip. Anyone? Anyone?) Train fares tend to be the same day after day on any particular route, whether it's Monday or Saturday, April or August, two months in advance or two days before departure. While some increases may occur (particularly at peak times or over the holidays) and occasional sales may be available, you can usually count on the stability of train fares, even at the last minute.
3. FlexibilityWhile many long-haul trains require reservations, many short trips don't, so you can simply show up at the station the day of your trip and grab a ticket for the next train -- without paying an exorbitant last-minute fare.
4. More Baggage...These days, nearly all the major airlines charge travelers a fee to check a bag or two -- and a few (Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier) now charge for carry-on bags as well. Compare these stingy policies to Amtrak's baggage allowance: two carry-on items up to 50 pounds each (as well as personal items such as purses, strollers, and diaper bags) and up to four checked bags up to 50 pounds each, the first two of which are free. Third and fourth checked bags cost $20 each.
In short, Amtrak allows you to bring 200 pounds of luggage -- plus personal items -- for free. Try bringing that on a plane!