10 Amtrak Train Trips Cheaper Than Driving

Amtrak's Maple Leaf switching crew at Albany Rensselaer station, Rensselaer, New York. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pranavbhatt/5722019070/" target="_blank">Pranav Bhatt/Flickr.com</a>. Pranav Bhatt
By Sascha Segan

With gas prices hovering around $3.50, it's looking cheaper to take Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) than to drive for some trips this fall. Taking the train eliminates the strain from a trip, too. You don't have to worry about tiring hours behind the wheel, and you never have to stop to find a bathroom. You can focus on dramatic scenery, and you can even get some sleep as the train rolls on.

We found more than a dozen Amtrak routes with lower fares than the cost to drive, but here are our 10 favorite routes.

To calculate our driving costs, we used the same equation the American Automobile Association (AAA) uses, altered to reflect the $3.61 average national gas price in early August. (The price comes from www.gasbuddy.com.) At that price per gallon, the AAA says it costs about 21¢ per mile to drive, including gas, tires, and maintenance.

These trips are cheaper than driving if one person is going, but not if you fill your car with friends and family. As more people come along, train fares multiply; driving costs don't. The train is also usually slower than driving in terms of pure travel time, thanks to our country's poor-quality rail infrastructure. So look out the window, pick up a book, or saunter down to the café car for something to eat. You might even make some new friends.

Photo Caption: Amtrak's Maple Leaf switching crew at Albany Rensselaer station, Rensselaer, New York. Photo by Pranav Bhatt/Flickr.com
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Amtrak's Silver Service between Miami and Orlando. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/naxaatlantis/4891221773/" target="_blank">Atlantiquon/Flickr.com</a>. Atlantiquon
233 miles; $48.62 driving; from $38 one-way on Amtrak

Zipping up to Orlando's theme parks and outlets on the morning Silver Meteor train is cheaper than driving, although it takes a bit longer. The Meteor leaves Miami at 8:20am and spends five hours getting up to Orlando, as compared to a drive of a bit over four hours. (You can chop off half an hour by getting off at the Kissimmee station.) The return trip takes 5 hours, 45 minutes.

Amtrak is a good pick for Disney trips if you're staying in the park and don't need a car. Tickets for one adult and one child from New York to Orlando -- a 21-hour, overnight trip -- cost as little as $187.50 total, compared with $225 driving.

The $38 listed fare is Amtrak's lowest regular one-way fare, but you can get another 15% off with a free Orlando Magicard by using the discount code V104 when you buy your ticket.

Photo Caption: Amtrak's Silver Service between Miami and Orlando. Photo by Atlantiquon/Flickr.com
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Amtrak's Heartland Flyer in Norman, Oklahoma. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/39213183@N02/4120546327/" target="_blank">woodyrr/Flickr.com</a>. woodier
201 miles; $41.94 driving; from $26 on Amtrak

The once-daily Heartland Flyer (www.heartlandflyer.com) cruises down through Oklahoma into Texas, dropping Sooners off in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for shopping, dining, and entertainment. The trip takes just over four hours, and it's timed so Oklahomans can get into Fort Worth in the morning and back home in the evening.

Fort Worth has its own attractions, but you can also zip over to Dallas for more fun. The frequent Trinity Railway Express does the Fort Worth-Dallas trip in about an hour, also for less than driving: the ticket costs $5 one-way, while driving the 40 miles would cost around $8.34.

Photo Caption: Amtrak's Heartland Flyer in Norman, Oklahoma. Photo by woodyrr/Flickr.com
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Amtrak's Adirondack train, between New York City and Montreal. Photo: Courtesy Amtrak Courtesy Amtrak
332 miles; $69.28 driving; from $62 on Amtrak

This route could be great if Amtrak got its act together. The cities of New York and Montreal are vibrant, thrilling places with a real affinity for each other; they deserve to be linked closely. The route between them, right up the Hudson and through the Adirondacks, is scenic and stops in many great recreational areas. And airfares between New York and Montreal are always sky-high: You can get four train tickets for the price of one plane ticket.

So what's the downside? CP, which owns the tracks, has never been enthusiastic about passenger trains up to Montreal, and doesn't keep the tracks up to high-speed standards. So Amtrak's Montreal train runs at a poky 30 miles per hour north of Albany, and it takes 11 hours. There's no overnight train, as CP wants to run freight at night. The scenery is amazing, but the train isn't the speediest way to get to Montreal.

South of Albany, the Adirondack zips along at 70 miles per hour. If the whole run went at that speed, New Yorkers could leave Manhattan around breakfast and have lunch in Quebec.

Photo Caption: Amtrak's Adirondack train, between New York City and Montreal. Courtesy Amtrak
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Amtrak's Sunset Limited, which travels between Tuscon and Los Angeles. Pictured here in Palm Springs. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/fboyd/2385566956/" target="_blank">Florian/Flickr.com</a>. Florian
489 miles; $102.05 driving; from $39 on Amtrak

One of the major advantages of taking Amtrak over driving is that you can sleep on the train. The Sunset Limited leaves Tucson at 10:30pm (if it's on time) and arrives in LA at 8:30am. Maybe that's a little slower than driving, but it's a lot less exhausting -- and a lot cheaper. The return train leaves LA at 3pm, arriving back in Tucson after midnight and letting you take a look at the scenery along the way.

This train trip has an unusual amount of educational material that can go with it. At www.amtrak.tamu.edu you'll find a 23-chapter podcast just covering the distance between LA and Tuscon. Long-distance trains like this have domed observation cars and full dining cars, too. It's definitely a step above pulling over at a rest stop, even if it is for an In-N-Out.

Photo Caption: Amtrak's Sunset Limited, which travels between Tucson and Los Angeles. Pictured here in Palm Springs. Photo by Florian/Flickr.com
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Eastbound California Zephyr at Salt Lake City. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/markbb/2232337742/" target="_blank">mark benger/Flickr.com</a>. mark benger
736 miles; $153.60 driving; from $89 on Amtrak

The longest trip in our list is a 17-hour overnight journey. Amtrak's long-distance trains through the West are very heavily subsidized because some politicians don't want distant towns to lose their train service, however infrequent and unprofitable it is.

That offers a great opportunity for bargain hunters who'd rather travel overland than fly. Taking the train from Salt Lake City across the Nevada desert and Sierra Nevada to San Francisco costs half of what it costs to drive, and you sleep through most of the boring part. The return trip has a bit of a tough schedule, though, arriving in Salt Lake at 3:05am. In that case, it might be wise to spring for a one-way flight on JetBlue, Frontier or US Airways, all of which have one-way tickets for $140 or so. That's still cheaper than driving.

Photo Caption: Eastbound California Zephyr at Salt Lake City. Photo by mark benger/Flickr.com
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Amtrak's Maple Leaf crossing the Whirlpool Bridge over the Niagara River, Ontario. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/springfieldhomer/4095608115/" target="_blank">Slideshow Bruce/Flickr.com</a>. Slideshow Bruce
407 miles; $84.94 driving; from $59 on Amtrak

Three trains a day join the two ends of New York State, and one of them continues on to Niagara Falls, ON (and, eventually, Toronto.) It's a lot cheaper to take the train to Niagara Falls than to drive, and it's a lot more comfortable and scenic than taking the bus -- or one of those hideous bus tours. The first three hours of the trip, up the Hudson River, are gorgeous. Try to sit on the left if you're going north.

We advise riding on to Niagara Falls, ON if possible (it costs the same). The view is better, the town is more pleasant, and the train station is right downtown, where you can walk to the tourist attractions.

Photo Caption: Amtrak's Maple Leaf crossing the Whirlpool Bridge over the Niagara River, Ontario. Photo by Slideshow Bruce/Flickr.com
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San Jose CalTrain station. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/thewestend/2762784442/" target="_blank">The West End/Flickr.com</a>. The West End
55 miles; $11.47 driving; $8.75 on Caltrain

Driving cost isn't just about gas and tires. It's also about parking, traffic, and the hassle. Have you seen what it costs to park at a San Francisco hotel? $30.

Caltrain, on the other hand, runs trains up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and Silicon Valley all day, for less than it costs to drive. Once you get to San Francisco you probably won't need your car; San Franciscans rag on MUNI, but it's a good transit system.

There are plenty of other short-distance rides in the country that are cheaper than driving. In New Mexico, zipping from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on the new Rail Runner train costs $7, but about $13 to drive. The Trinity Rail Express between Dallas and Fort Worth costs $5, but it's more than $8 to drive.

Photo Caption: San Jose Caltrain station. Photo by The West End/Flickr.com
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Amtrak's Missouri River Runner in Kansas City. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/sneebly/4083777711/" target="_blank">Sneebly/Flickr.com</a>. Sneebly
248 miles; $51.75 driving; $28 on Amtrak

The state of Missouri is a big Amtrak booster, heavily supporting the two trains a day that cross the state's midsection. That has paid off; according to the Missouri Department of Transportation, ridership has been steadily growing.

There's one downside, though: the Missouri River Runner line takes more than 5½ hours to run down the I-70 corridor, more than an hour longer than the average driving time. As with the New York-Montreal run, Amtrak doesn't own these tracks, and freight trains often take precedence. If the Missouri River Runner actually chugged along at the 79 miles per hour that Amtrak trains are capable of, it would cross the state in under 3½ hours.

Photo Caption: Amtrak's Missouri River Runner in Kansas City. Photo by Sneebly/Flickr.com
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Amtrak Lincoln Service train approaches Joliet Union Station, Illinois. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/vxla/5779547634/" target="_blank">vxla/Flickr.com</a>. vxla
300 miles; $62.61 driving; from $24 on Amtrak

One of the best Amtrak deals in America, the four daily round-trip journeys of the Lincoln Service join Chicago and St. Louis in about 5½ hours. The route is timed so you can head up and back from either city in a day, although that would be a pretty long day trip.

It's easy to do a trip to Chicago without a car, thanks to the famous El line and frequent CTA bus service. St. Louis is a little trickier, but it's possible since the city's MetroLink light rail and buses connect most of the central St. Louis attractions.

Photo Caption: Amtrak Lincoln Service train approaches Joliet Union Station, Illinois. Photo by vxla/Flickr.com
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Amtrak's Cascades Line. Courtesy of Amtrak
174 miles; $36.31 driving; $31 on Amtrak

Yes, this one is almost a tie. Whether it will be cheaper to take Amtrak between these two Northwest metropolises will depend on gas prices and whether Amtrak is running any discounts. For instance, if you pick up a "Chinook Book" coupon book in either Portland or Seattle, you'll find a ticket for 25% off the Cascades train between the two cities.

This route is included because you don't really need a car to be a tourist in either, because it's a relatively fast route at 3½ hours, and because the four trains a day make it flexible. If you haven't ridden Amtrak before, this is a great route to start with.

Photo Caption: Amtrak's Cascades Line
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