Planes, Trains, & Automobiles: Consider Riding the Rails to Your Next Destination
You sit down to plan a trip. You pick out your destination by process of elimination or some other tried-and-true method. You make a list: these are the things I want to do, these are the restaurants I want to try, these are the sights we need to see. What’s next? Well, if you’re like me, next comes a decision on your mode of transportation. Generally, the question boils down to, “Are we driving or are we flying?” But why be so binary about it? Why limit yourself to two options? Why not consider a third — traveling by train?
Maybe it’s just me, but these days it seems that taking a passenger train is one of the last things we think of when considering how we’ll make our way to whatever vacation destination may await. Why is this? I know in some cases, such as with overseas travel, it simply, physically isn’t an option. In other cases, flying is the preferred alternative due to time constraints. These things are understandable, sure, but when it’s feasible to travel by rail and it’s relatively as quick as getting somewhere by car — not to mention it cuts out the work of actually driving — why not go that route?
I’ll admit that I have only traveled by train twice in my life — round trips from Holland, Michigan, to Chicago in 2012 and from Beijing to Xi’an in 2015 — but it’s been on my mind more lately, especially as I’ve come across articles promoting luxury tours across Canada and the best scenic train rides in the U.S. As the author of the latter article states, you don’t take a train to get somewhere “as ruthlessly fast as possible.” Rather, you ride the rails when the journey is just as much of a focus as the destination, if not more so.
While there are a few downsides to traveling by train, such as little flexibility with schedules and sometimes-uncomfortable accommodations when attempting to travel on the cheap, there are definitely a number of reasons to give it a try, if only every once in a while. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of taking a train, as opposed to driving, is that you can use your time while in transit to do something productive, such as read a book, work on your latest creative project, or, if you’re so inclined, just catch up on some sleep.
If you’re looking for an advantage that trains hold over planes, look no further than price (seriously, don’t look any further). Especially when you’re talking about shorter trips, such as Detroit to Chicago or Washington, D.C. to New York City, roundtrip train tickets will often leave more cash in your wallet. Across the pond, high-speed trains in Europe and beyond are becoming more and more comparable in price and competitive in terms of time spent in transit, at least up to 1,000 kilometers (or 621 miles), according to a report from Bloomberg published in January.
Safety, relative to other forms of transportation; lower carbon emissions; and more flexibility with luggage are some of the other advantages of train travel, but the most attractive thing about traveling by train, in my opinion, is definitely the sightseeing. On long trips, especially, such as the 17-hour train ride between Beijing and Xi’an, the ever-changing landscape outside the window usually has the power to keep you entranced for hours. For creative types, in particular, the views witnessed during a ride through the countryside or the mountains can easily set the imaginative wheels in motion.
As trains were the predominant form of long-distance travel in the late 19th century, there also always exists that alluring connection to the past. It’s not quite jumping into a horse and buggy, I realize, but there is this old-fashioned feeling you get when boarding a train, knowing you’re choosing to use a mode of transportation with origins dating all the way back the 1700’s, beginning with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine (what a guy, am I right?). I’m sure you’d also love to know that the first-ever railway journey took place in South Wales in 1804 and the U.S. officially got into the game with the creation of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827 — but we won’t bore you with boring facts like that.
Instead, let’s bring this thing back around town and into the present once again with some titillating information about train travel deals that are out there today. With routes traversing the entire U.S., Amtrak is one of the largest and most well-known commercial rail lines in existence today, and they typically aren’t short on deals. One need not look too deep into Amtrak’s deals and promotions page to find something appealing. Looking for more inspiration? Why not check out “America’s best train journeys, ranked,” a 2016 list compiled by USA Today?
Finally, here are some other useful ditties:
12 Tips for Travelling by Train in the USA (Rough Guides)
Complete Guide to Train Travel in Europe (The Savvy Backpacker)
16 Tips for Travelling on Night Buses and Trains in Asia (Travel and Destinations Blog)