How should you decide between taking a train and taking a road trip?

By: Christopher Lampton
A family sits at a folding table eating a meal outside their station wagon and trailer, circa 1963.
A family sits at a folding table eating a meal outside their station wagon and trailer, circa 1963.
Lambert/Getty Images

You need to get out of town. There's a Thanksgiving bash at your grandmother's house or you want to see a hit show on Broadway. Maybe you're just sick of looking at the same old scenery day after day and you want to go someplace you've never been before. So you pack your suitcase, hop in your car and…

…stop to think. Do you really want to take the car again? It's been ages since you last took a trip by train. Maybe you'd enjoy that more. Maybe it would be just be cheaper. Decisions, decisions!


In modern America, people like to go places by car, at least if the place they're going is too nearby to consider traveling to by plane. But the railroad has been around for 200 years and it's a pretty nice way to travel, too. How do you decide whether to make your trip by car or by train?

There are advantages to both modes of transportation. The car gives you control, allows you to select your own times and route, and gives you a familiar environment to spend time in while on the way to your destination. But the train has lots of advantages too. On a train, you can relax and read, catch up on work, even watch a movie on your laptop or tablet computer. You don't have to worry about maps, getting lost, finding rest stops or getting into a fender bender with another car. (Trains have accidents, but they're quite rare.)

Of course, the train may not go where you want to go. All large cities in the United States are served by Amtrak, but some small towns are many miles away from the nearest railway station And there may not be a direct train route to your destination, requiring you to take a circuitous journey via some other city, while there are roads that go between almost any two towns in North America. And in a car you can take side trips and stop at scenic overlooks or tourist attractions.

Trains can go faster than cars. The Acela express between Washington, DC, and New York, NY, takes less than three hours to cover a route that takes four hours or more to drive. But for the most part, the two modes of transportation go at about the same speed (though with a train you can sleep overnight in your seat while in a car you'll need to spend the night at a motel, which will slow you down).

Most likely, though, the major variable that will decide whether you take car or train is cost. Is it cheaper to go by car or train? On the next page, we'll discuss how to decide which mode of transportation is more cost effective.


Figuring Out if it's Cheaper to Drive or Take a Train

Train engineers stand at the front of a Baltimore & Ohio locomotive adjacent to the Baltimore & Ohio Transportation Museum located at the Mount Clare Station in Baltimore, Md.
Train engineers stand at the front of a Baltimore & Ohio locomotive adjacent to the Baltimore & Ohio Transportation Museum located at the Mount Clare Station in Baltimore, Md.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Finding out how much it will cost to take the train between any two locations is simple. Just go to the Amtrak Web site and ask. On their trip planner, plug in the station you plan to leave from, the station you want to arrive at and the date when you want to travel. Click "Go!" and you'll be shown the range of fares for your trip. At this writing, fare for one adult from Union Station in Washington, DC, to Penn Station in New York, NY, on Sept. 17, 2011, is $49 for one adult on the regular train, $139 on the Acela express.

Of course, the fare won't be the only expense associated with your train trip. Since you aren't taking your car, you may need transportation once you arrive at your destination, so you might have to factor in the cost of a rental car or using public transportation Check with the rental car agency of your choice to find out the cost of a car rental for your entire stay.


Calculating how much it will cost you to make the trip by car is a bit more complicated. Some recent model automobiles can calculate your mileage for you and even predict how far you'll be able to drive on your current tank of gas. If you don't have a car that's quite so intelligent, you'll need to calculate the mileage yourself. You probably know the drill: Wait until your tank is close to empty, fill it up, note the number of gallons you bought and see how many miles you add to your odometer by the time your tank is almost empty again. Finally, divide the number of miles you've added to your odometer by the number of gallons you bought and you'll have a rough estimate of your miles per gallon (mpg).

Now go to Google Maps or a similar service and find the miles that you'd have to drive to get to your destination. For a trip from Washington, DC, to New York, NY, this is roughly 240 miles (386.2 kilometers). Divide this by the mpg you calculated above and multiply it by the current cost of a gallon of gas. That's the gas cost for your trip. To keep things simple, we'll assume that your car gets an average of 30 miles to the gallon (12.75 kilometers per liter), and that the gas you use currently costs $4 a gallon. Divide 240 by 30 and you get 8. Multiply 8 by $4 and you get $32 for the total gas cost. Even for one adult, that's cheaper than the train fare between those two cities, so it looks like the car wins out on gas price, at least in that example. Your results may vary. But bear in mind that, depending on your destination, you may have to pay for a place to park your car once you're there. (This is especially true in large cities like New York.) By the time you've made the round trip, you'll probably be ready for an oil change and there may be additional wear and tear expenses on the car. And for longer car trips you'll need to pay to spend the night in a motel along the way. This can actually make the car trip more expensive than the train trip.

Of course, we've been assuming that this is a trip for one. The moment you start adding additional passengers, the train trip becomes substantially more expensive but the car trip doesn't. If price is the deciding factor, the car trip will usually be the cheaper one for anything more than a single passenger or a single passenger with infant child in tow. (Kids under two generally ride the train free.) In the end, though, your choice of train or car may come down less to price than to whether you're in the mood to drive or would rather kick back for a few hours and read a good book.


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