AH Part III: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Amtrak Hacks with Nathan Agin

Welcome to the THIRD in a series of posts on legally hacking train travel. Part I covered how to immediately save 76%, and Part II covered a first-class trip for FREE!  

These posts are also a way to share how I, not being wealthy, travel as much as I do – this is something available to just about everyone. 


We have lots of choices how to get from Point A to B these days, and there are many factors to take in: cost, convenience, comfort, time, and experience, to name a few.

We’ve seen the $30 one-way ticket and the cross-country, first-class trip for free – what’s left?



Why would you hop on a mode of travel invented two centuries ago (!) when you can arrive in a quarter of the time by plane, or enjoy the luxury and freedom offered by car?

I hope to share some reasons why I think Trains BEAT Planes and Automobiles.

And yes, hat tip to .


Amtrak vs. Airplanes

What’s the big difference here? TIME.

Yes, flight time is a small fraction of what a train would take, but there are other considerations…

Here’s what AMTRAK offers:

  • Simple boarding procedure: no putting everything in bins, no walking through detectors barefoot, no having to throw anything away
  • Proper time to say goodbye: hang out with your peeps right until departure time, instead of quickly saying you’re goodbyes and grabbing your bags
  • Flexible check-in: show up 10 minutes before the train departs, and you’ll still be on!
  • Great baggage policies (no crazy packing needed): you can even bring your bicycle as-is!
  • Liquids allowed (more than 3 oz.): bring as many giant containers of water (or toothpaste) as you want!
  • Get up and move around: instead of just narrowly walking to and from the bathroom, there’s space to stretch and stand!
  • Fresh air: while you have absolutely NO chance of breathing outside air on the plane (unless you can get your window open!), there are many chances while on the train
  • PLUS – the train is a much more conducive place to meet people, whether you’re walking around or hanging out in the lounge!


Amtrak vs. Automobiles

What’s the big difference here? CONVENIENCE.

Yes, having your own vehicle allows you be on your own schedule, stop when you want, and take the route you want, but likewise, there are other reasons to consider the rails.


Here’s what AMTRAK offers:

  • Avoid traffic, gas stations and rest stops: it is one continuous, smooth ride, where you can walk around or get something to eat whenever you like
  • Know when you’ll be there: just like flying (only cheaper), your arrival time is printed in right on your ticket – and it’s usually around the same amount of time as driving
  • Experience the ride: on the train, you can actually see where you’re going (a win over flying as well)
  • Get work done: in roughly the same amount of time as driving, you could be working on your latest project, reading a book, or even watching a movie! You arrive feeling productive! :-)


But wait – there’s more!

Get food and drinks when you want – no waiting required!


If you’re flying, you know you’ll have to wait until they decide it’s time to serve the snacks.

If you’re driving, you’re at the mercy of whatever might be available at your next rest stop.

On the train, there’s always a lounge car available (and on longer trips – dining cars!). It’s a pretty extensive menu, and you get to choose exactly what and when you eat!



What about Cost?

Trains vs. Planes: on almost all trips, Trains win. If you decide to go across the country, unless you want to sit in a chair for the 4-day trip, then a plane fare would be cheaper, but wouldn’t you be taking the train for the sights and experience?


Trains vs. Automobiles: for most trips, it’s about even, or trains are a little bit better deal, depending on the fuel economy of your vehicle. If you’re going across country, driving is cheaper (just for gas), but when you factor in other costs (like food, lodging, car maintenance), the train can be a great deal.


Cost Comparison

Portland, OR to Seattle, WA is about 175 driving miles.

If we use an average fuel economy of 25 mpg, and an average gas price between the two states of $3.79/gallon, that’s $26.53 for fuel.

You can take that same trip on Amtrak for $27.50 (only $.97 more!), without all the common car hassles – and both cities offer excellent public transportation.

**(Gas prices provided by AAA Daily Fuel Gauge)



Environmental Impact?

Let’s look at our carbon footprint with all of this.

With any mode of transportation we take, there are going to be fuel costs per passenger. So, to be uber-eco-friendly, it’s about moving as many people as possible on the same amount of fuel.

We see that everyday with carpooling, buses, and subways,  though airplanes and trains are huge examples of this.


from an article at Independent Traveler:

“Let’s start with this stat: planes are roughly comparable to cars in fuel consumption per passenger mile, at least with respect to carbon dioxide output. It makes for an easy comparison; a 60-hour cross-country car trip burns up about the same amount of fuel per passenger, and has the same ‘carbon footprint,’ as a five-hour cross-country flight.”

This article also states that if you drive 10,000-15,000 miles per year, a couple of cross-country flights do as much damage (or more) as your entire year of driving.

So we can see that flying leaves a HUGE imprint on the environment; and this only refers to carbon emission (there are lots of other gases burned).

So how do vehicles fare against one another?

Check out this chart from the US Department of Energy:



You can see that Amtrak is almost 20% more efficient than domestic airline travel and 30% more efficient than auto travel on a per-passenger-mile basis

Amtrak states:

“On average, there are nearly twice as many passengers on an Amtrak train than there are on a domestic airline flight.” — reducing the per passenger fuel cost even more!


ALSO: Amtrak is a charter member of the growing Chicago Climate Exchange, the world’s first legally-binding integrated greenhouse gas reduction and trading system. (source)

AND: Unlike commercial aviation, which mostly uses highly refined jet fuel, Amtrak uses diesel fuel produced at a higher volume per barrel of crude oil and electricity produced in the Northeast from a variety of fuels. (source)

Read more at Travel Green: Amtrak and the Environment


Carbon Footprint Calculations

(all from Terrapass’ Carbon Footprint Calculator)


New York to Boston


Los Angeles to Santa Barbara


Boston to Portland, OR (cross-country)


“A cross-country train trip would generate about half the greenhouse-gas emissions of driving a car.” (Earth Talk at About.com)



  • from City Renewed, (“Living Green in the DC Metro Area”) there’s cost, hours, and carbon breakdowns with various modes of travel between Boston and Washington, DC.
  • Rail Passenger Efficiency at Wikipedia
  • BTU per passenger mile at Wikipedia


So what will YOU take on your next trip?


I’d love to hear your answer along with any other comments you have below. Hope to see you on the train!

Until next time,


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