How do LD Trains Compare Cost-Wise to Driving?

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Eric in East County

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In a different discussion thread, the question was asked why LD trains can’t compete with the airlines. What we’d like to know is how do LD trains compare cost wise to driving?

We’ve just returned from a trip back to Ohio, during which we traveled from San Diego to Toledo via Amtrak. (We used travel points for the round trip passages between San Diego and Los Angeles and Chicago and Toledo.) It took us a little over three days to get there. Had we driven from San Diego to Toledo in a straight shot, it would probably have taken us 5 or more days, during which time we would have had the expense of gas, plus meals & hotel accomodations for two people. Double this expense for the return trip and we come up with a figure that may or may not be greater than the cost of our bedrooms for the round trip passages between LA and Chicago. We’d like to think that the cost of our taking the train was about equal to or perhaps less than the cost we would have incurred had we driven. Actually, we’re no longer up to that much long-distance driving, but we are curious as to how LD trains compare cost wise to driving.

Your comments and opinions, please.

Eric & Pat
 
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Bob Dylan

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In a different discussion thread, the question was asked why LD trains can’t compete with the airlines. What we’d like to know is how do LD trains compare cost wise to driving?

We’ve just returned from a trip back to Ohio, during which we traveled from San Diego to Toledo via Amtrak. (We used travel points for the round trip passages between San Diego and Los Angeles and Chicago and Toledo.) It took us a little over three days to get there. Had we driven from San Diego to Toledo in a straight shot, it would probably have taken us 5 or more days, during which time we would have had the expense of gas, plus meals & hotel accomodations for two people. Double this expense for the return trip and we come up with a figure that may or may not be greater than the cost of our bedrooms for the round trip passages between LA and Chicago. We’d like to think that the cost of our taking the train was about equal to or perhaps less than the cost we would have incurred had we driven. Actually, we’re no longer up to that much long-distance driving, but we are curious as to how LD trains compare cost wise to driving.

Your comments and opinions, please.

Eric & Pat
Unless you really like driving through today's Traffic, and can drive long stretches without pit stops, with proper planning,taking the Train( or Flying) on Long Trips is the way to roll.

" Breaking even" gives the advantage to LD Trains (and Flying) since you won't arrive at your destinations tired and stressed.
 

Qapla

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since you won't arrive at your destinations tired and stressed.
Well, this part might not always be the case - depending on how things went before and during the trip. I know if I flew I would be extremely tense since I can't take heights and don't fly.

If you have a bad experience at the airport/train station or onboard either - the stress may still be there.

As for being tired ... some of us stay tired
 
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Bob Dylan

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Well, this part might not always be the case - depending on how things went before and during the trip. I know if I flew I would be extremely tense since I can't take heights and don't fly.

If you have a bad experience at the airport/train station or onboard either - the stress may still be there.

As for being tired ... some of us stay tired
True, but flights only last a few hours, and on the Train, even if in Coach, you can "Relax and leave the Driving to Us!" ,the Old Greyhound Slogan.

Now days, driving is not a way to relax, it's even more stressful on LD Trips than the Airport hassle!
 

dlagrua

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The cost of driving is about 57 cents per mile so a cost of a 1000 mile road trip would be $570 + lodging and food. On a typical trip that comes to about $700 one way and 1 1/2-2 days on the road. The Amtrak bedroom fare would be considerably higher.
 

Wolverine72

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Another factor to be considered is transportation once you get off the train or plane. Particularly considering the odd arrival times of so many trains. If time or cost are close I’d just as soon drive and have my own vehicle at destination. Driving is still my favorite mode of LD travel. Air travel is my last choice. Train travel is just to enjoy a train ride once in a while. And then only where I find arrival and departure times at reasonable hours.
 
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Cal

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Currently in DC on a road trip, we have an RV and which we took from LA to DC. It took us 5 days to get here, camping overnight at KOAs. Left on Friday and got here Tuesday. There are 7 people in total traveling in the RV

We haven’t calculated costs, we’ve just been going with it. I’d estimate about 500-600 dollars per person. So for this it was cheaper.
 
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Bob Dylan

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I love road trips and generally find them enjoyable and relaxing. They are #2 on my preferred list of travel modes.
If you pick the right places and the right roads, I agree, but on LD Road trips, you are going to run into Traffic and the Cost is going up for everything fast!( Food,Motels,Gas,Tolls,Insurance etc)
 

Qapla

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Since I don't fly I won't even try to calculate the cost of flying ...

For me to go from JAX to NYC would cost me $135 to $187 each way by coach on Amtrak. I won't count a sleeper since I cannot afford one and if I drove I would most likely drive straight through

Driving would cost me about $80 each way and whatever I spent on food - although traveling on the train would also cost me for food.

Now, as to when I got there. If I drove, yes, I would have my car - but then I would have to pay the tolls to get around, still buy gas and pay the outrageous parking fees that NYC has.

If I rode the train I would have the option to use the subway system instead of incurring the cost of a car rental.

So, I guess the cost of driving compared to taking a train might depend on just where you are leaving from and going to.
 

pennyk

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Since I do not fly and do not like to drive, Amtrak appears to be the best option for me. I traveled by car cross country in 1970 with a college friend. There was a gas shortage and there were concerns about getting gas and we hit an unexpected snow storm while visiting the Grand Canyon. (I saw my first snow at the Grand Canyon and was thrilled). An advantage of having a car was that we could stop where we wanted to stop. A disadvantage of the car was inexperienced drivers driving in ice and snow. I am guessing that (remembering the kind of places we stayed) that driving was less expensive or about the same as coach would have been back then. Our routes from Gainesville, FL to LA (through Las Vegas) were partially near the Sunset Limited and SWC routes.

Since I like to travel alone, driving is not viable for me now for long distance trips.
 

zephyr17

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If you pick the right places and the right roads, I agree, but on LD Road trips, you are going to run into Traffic and the Cost is going up for everything fast!( Food,Motels,Gas,Tolls,Insurance etc)
Well, cost doesn't enter into my enjoyment of it. If cost was the driving factor, I would just fly and neither take the train nor drive.

As to traffic, well, I commuted for 12 years in LA and for 30 years in Seattle. Traffic is traffic and it doesn't cross my eyes
 

Bob Dylan

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Well, cost doesn't enter into my enjoyment of it. If cost was the driving factor, I would just fly and neither take the train nor drive.

As to traffic, well, I commuted for 12 years in LA and for 30 years in Seattle. Traffic is traffic and it doesn't cross my eyes
Commuting is different than Leisure Driving, but I get your point!
 
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danasgoodstuff

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Depends, the recent $299 for 10 segments pass sale was no doubt cheaper than driving for almost anything you might use it for, even if you figure more for food on the train/ Coach can generally be cost competitive if you figure it saves you 1 or 2 night's hotel at $110+ per night, which is what you'd spend for anywhere you'd want to stay nowadays, even in the sticks (and a lot more in most cities). Sleepers are generally going to cost more, unless there are some mitigating circumstances like using points or bidding up to get an exceptional deal, or you can't really drive for long stretches anymore and that adds nights and cost to your trip. And if you want to get into fancy accounting, you should figure wear and tear on your car for long trips, especially if it involves pushing hard through mountains in triple digit weather, etc. For example, I can do PDX to CHI and back for $300 coach or 1010 in a roomette. But do I just figure 150 gallons of gas @ 30+ mph X $3.XX/gallon = $500+ for gas, plus $500 for 2 hotels out and 2 back, plus food? Actually, that's getting to be more than a low bucket roomette and it's assuming good mileage, gas no more than it is now in many places, pushing hard (3 nights to Chicago is much more realistic - I've done Great Falls MT to PDX in a day, but it's hard and there were two drivers). And there are other factors that make an apples to apples comparison difficult. And if the vagaries of Amtrak make you go out of your way, that tilts things back. Add multiple people, health or mobility issues, etc. It gets complicated. I'm thinking that the trip I'm planning PDX to Chicago to NYC to Fla and back maybe could be done cheaper than low bucket roomettes the whole way, but doing all that driving myself would not be fun and Amtrak issues can be a pain, but not as much as breaking down a thousand miles from home.
 
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zephyr17

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Commuting is different than Leisure Driving, but I get your point!
Yeah, I try to avoid major cities at rush hour on road trips which is not that hard to do, but if I can't or hit traffic anyway, it is what it is.

Many of my road trips are for skiing in the winter and I often hit challenging winter driving conditions. I'll take traffic over bad winter conditions any day.
 

flitcraft

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I won't drive long distances in either of our cars--they are both commuter-mobiles that would be extremely uncomfortable to drive long distances in. So, for my purposes, I'd have to figure in the cost of a rental vehicle, the meals and lodging on the road, and the extra time it would take to drive--my days of driving 10 hour days are long in my rear view mirror.

I can't imagine driving cross country at my age in my car--the romance of the open road is vastly over-estimated in my opinion. For me, long distance travel will be either by plane or train. YMMV, literally, of course.
 

Eric in East County

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Our takeaway from the comments that have been posted so far is that the cost of a long-distance auto trip of 5 days or so, including gas, meals, hotel expenses, etc. for two people, is equal to or perhaps more than the cost of a roomette or bedroom ticket on a long-distance Amtrak train. And if the train can cover the same distance in 3 days rather than in five, that will be even greater savings since time equals money.

E & P
 

Rambling Robert

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The trip to Toledo by car is 2 to 4 days, not 5. If you’re bringing a pet - the car is best. I only know LD Amtrak in coach and I think it’s a great way to travel - even if you’re stuck part of the way in an aisle seat! There are pretty cheap airline seats out there too.

I think everyone by say age 25 should have a month or so sabbatical traveling the United States and visit it’s treasures. My trip was 11,000 miles by car and is very very memorable. I hope to do it again by train and rental.
 

VentureForth

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With regards to coach travel only: If you're by yourself, the train can cost less. If there are two of you, it can be a wash. Three or more, and your own vehicle is probably the most economical way to travel. Don't forget to take into consideration the costs for the "last mile" or ten... That can really up your costs, particularly if you have to pay per seat vs pay per car. Obviously, this doesn't take into consideration the time involved, and I intentionally left out air travel because there is significant value associated to speed which varies by each individual's requirements.

When you consider the cost of today's sleepers and the lack of value they afford, I don't think anything can make it worthwhile unless you are unable to drive yourself.

Obviously, there can be exceptions to each of these. Depends on a lot of factors.
 

jiml

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There are a lot of variables in the cost of driving, which makes it harder to compare than flying. Retired people have more time, so there's no advantage to rushing a drive that in our younger days could have been completed in 2 days with one hotel night. We drive to Florida every year (pre-pandemic of course) - a distance of 1307 miles or 2103 kilometres over 4 days with 3 hotel nights. The cost of driving itself doesn't increase by taking longer, but the secondary costs of hotels and meals does. One also has to consider the possibility of hitting inclement weather in the northern US - not usually a factor on a train. Using .57/mile, actual driving cost estimates at $750 each way. We budget approximately $150/day for hotels and meals enroute. Sometimes (like next January's plan) it's possible to find good hotels for as little as $75 a night, allowing some flexibility for dining. On the other hand, some hotels include at least breakfast and others (e.g. Drury Inns) a light dinner, making $150 a fair balance. That works out to about $4200 round-trip, although we've never spent close to that. The closest Amtrak service to my destination would be from BUF (Depew) on the LSL to Chicago, then the CONO to New Orleans with a short drive to NW Florida, where we spend the winter. I priced a few random dates and taking the train with sleeper accommodation would indeed be cheaper. However I would not have the benefit of my own vehicle and, even in a typical year, 1-2 months of car rental would add significantly to the overall cost. (This year of course is ridiculous.) Comparing driving to LD trains is harder than it seems.
 
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Qapla

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With regards to coach travel only ... Three or more, and your own vehicle is probably the most economical way to travel
There is more to consider than just the "seat cost". Besides the "actual cost" of the gas during the trip, the long-term cost of "wear-and-tear" on the car should also be included. Also, while it is true that the cost of traveling by car may not increase substantially with each additional passenger (the added weight can have some effect) the comfort level drops considerably while the comfort level of the train seat remains constant. In many cars when you increase the number of people to 4, 5 or more the comfort level of taking the family car drops exponentially as does the amount of luggage space. The solution of for many requires renting a larger vehicle and then the cost savings are no longer there.
 

Exvalley

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Besides the "actual cost" of the gas during the trip, the long-term cost of "wear-and-tear" on the car should also be included.
There are times when I have taken a car on a long distance trip because I want some more wear and tear on the car. Specifically, when I have leased a car and I am under the mileage allowance. I paid for those miles, so why not use them.

As for the original question, it is so fact specific that a universal answer is impossible.

Done somewhat frugally, one can drive long distance for roughly the price of an Amtrak bedroom or cheaper. As others have mentioned, the factor that can really tip the scale in favor of driving is what is needed at the destination. Rental cars are not cheap, and Ubers can add up quickly.

Pros of driving:
1) You set your own schedule.
2) You set your own budget.
3) You get top stop at places in between your point of origin and destination and experience more regions of the country.
4) Better ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
5) No need to worry about transportation once you get to your destination.

Pros of the train:
1) Less stressful.
2) The train is still traveling while you are sleeping.
3) More space.
4) A toilet is always there when you want it.
5) It's the train. We like trains!
 
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Wolverine72

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Nothing more uniquely American than the great road trip across country. Our company employed mainy interns from around the world. All were impressed with our highway systems, how far you can drive without showing papers, the wide open midwest plains and mostly the freedom to go anywhere at anytime.
Trains allow the same scenery but not the same freedom.
Flying just sucks. Since retirement I’ve not been near an airport.
 

Deni

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I definitely prefer trains whenever it's an option - that's not saying anything unique on this board :) - no matter the cost difference. I definitely get the earlier comments about stress of driving (i.e. traffic) but I do find that I can really enjoy a good road trip. It's probably because I don't do the daily grind in a car like most Americans. I've been an urbanite my entire adult life (Seattle, Boston, NYC, Chicago) and haven't owned a car since 1992. I get around by bicycle and transit so I don't have the daily fight with traffic and the other stress that goes with car commuting. I haven't had any sort of daily car commute since summer jobs during college. I maybe spend 5-10 hours in a car in a whole year unless I go on a trip in one (like last year and this year because of COVID) So when on road trips even traffic doesn't really get to me. I do my best to make it a leisurely trip. Later this week we leave on a trip to a cabin in Maine from Chicago. Taking two days to get there so we don't have to rush. Can get off the freeways for much of it and take the old highways instead. Will take a southern route through New York - probably the Southern Tier Expressway - to avoid the more populated areas along the New York Thruway.

For someone like me who doesn't own a car the calculation is different to compare costs since it would also factor in the price of the car rental. These days that's pretty stiff.
 
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