Category: Travel Tips
Author: Michael DeFranceschi • Published

Amtrak Vs Driving: Which of the Two Is Better?

You might want to think twice about taking that roadtrip...
Side view of an Amtrak train at an Amtrak station.

Post

Considering the enormous success of my first Amtrak topic article, when I compared taking the train versus flying, it was time to write another related article.

Overall, riding Amtrak is better than flying Delta, but how does taking the train compare to renting a car/driving your own car and embarking on a road trip?

Amtrak has the advantage on cost, comfort, rewards programs, safety and lack of delays. Driving only has a clear advantage when it comes to views. It's fuzzy if driving is better regarding travel time.

Let's explore further how Amtrak overall is the best pick of the two in the battle of Amtrak Vs Driving...

IN THIS ARTICLE...
PEOPLE ALSO ASK...

Amtrak vs Driving

Cost

Whether you rent a car or drive your own, Amtrak is the winner on cost.

When comparing the cost of an Amtrak ticket versus the cost of renting a car or driving your own car, more variables have to be considered.

For driving, the variables to take into account are: 1) how many days you rent the car for. 2) if you return the car to the same spot you rented it, 3) how many people you have with you, and 4) if the renters are under 25.

To start, let's keep things simple and assume you are over 25 years old and driving alone. Also, whenever I bring up renting a car, I will be using Enterprise as the rental company.

Let's look at the cost of a roundtrip from Detroit to Chicago on the Amtrak app using the dates of February 2-4, 2024. A weekend trip!

Amtrak vs driving. An Amtrak train ride for the route Detroit to Chicago.
Cost of an Amtrak ticket from Detroit to Chicago.

Now, here is the cost of renting a vehicle from Enterprise on their app at DTW without purchasing insurance and returning it to the same spot.

Amtrak vs driving. A rental car price for Enterprise with pickup and dropoff in Detroit.
Cost of an Enterprise rental car with pickup and dropoff in Detroit.

Here is the cost of renting a vehicle from Enterprise at DTW without purchasing insurance and returning it to ORD.

Amtrak vs driving. A rental car price for Enterprise with pickup in Detroit and dropoff in Chicago.
Cost of an Enterprise rental car with pickup in Detroit and dropoff in Chicago.

A roundtrip coach seat on Amtrak is over a hundred dollars less expensive than renting a car. And remember, this is without purchasing insurance (which is something I suggest you always do), omitting the variable cost of gas, and potentially omitting parking costs.

For the option where you rent and return the car to DTW, let's assume rental car insurance is $50, total cost of gas is $100, and you spend $50 in parking. This would bring the cost up to $375.56. Even if you split this evenly with six people, taking the train by yourself is still the cheaper option.

What if you don't rent a car and use your own? The assumed costs of gas and parking would then be only $100 by yourself. If you split these costs evenly with three people, it would be $33.33, with one person paying $33.34. That's about $20 cheaper than taking Amtrak.

Now, what if all the renters are under 25? With Enterprise, the minimum age to rent a car is 21, unless you reside in Michigan or New York, in which case, the minimum age is 18.

Every renter age 21-24 is charged a "young driver fee" of about $25 per day. If in Michigan and you are ages 18-20, then the "young driver fee" is $36.50 a day. If in New York and you are ages 18-20, the "young driver fee" is $64.75 a day.

Let's repeat the same experiment with the only change from the length of the trip. So instead, we will do Detroit to Charlotte. Here's the cost of Amtrak.

Amtrak vs driving. An Amtrak train ride for the route Detroit to Charlotte.
Cost of an Amtrak ticket from Detroit to Charlotte.

Obviously, the price of an Enterprise rental car picking up and dropping off in Detroit wouldn't change the price. However, the price if we picked up in Detroit and dropped off in Charlotte would be...

Amtrak vs driving. A rental car price for Enterprise with pickup in Detroit and dropoff in Charlotte.
Cost of an Enterprise rental car with pickup in Detroit and dropoff in Charlotte.

Again, with the rental car, you'll have to factor in the cost of insurance, gas, and parking. Let's assume the insurance is $50, gas is $200 (since driving from Detroit to Charlotte is roughly 10 hours each way) and parking is $50.

Amtrak costs $210 whereas the rental car costs $519. A difference of $309. You would need to evenly split with three people in order for your individual cost to be lower than Amtrak.

If you drive your own car, then the estimated cost would $300. A difference of $90. Splitting with one other person would make your individual cost lower than Amtrak.

Depending on the number of people you are willing to do a road trip with, assuming the costs are evenly split, and the age of the renters, then driving could be cheaper. Otherwise, when you're paying all the costs yourself, Amtrak is clearly the winner on cost.

If you're below age 25, Amtrak is even more clearly the cheaper option, since Amtrak will not charge you more because of your young age.

Finally, on a personal note, there is no way I would do a road trip with six people! Three, tops.

Travel time

If you look at just the numbers, it seems driving would be the quicker option.

From Detroit to Chicago, Amtrak takes 5 hours and 6 minutes. Driving from Detroit to Chicago, on its fastest route according to Google Maps, takes 4 hours and 20 minutes.

But then, from Detroit to Charlotte, Amtrak's quickest option is 29 hours, due to making stops and switching trains. Driving from Detroit to Charlotte, on its fastest route according to Google Maps, takes 9 hours and 54 minutes.

However, the times calculated through Google Maps assume no stopping. That means no breaks to stretch your legs, no stops to get food, no sudden detours, and minimal traffic.

For longer trips, driving still could be faster, but it's fuzzy to say driving has a clear advantage when it comes to travel time.

Comfort

Regarding comfort, riding Amtrak is more comfortable than being behind the wheel of a car.

Even if you divide the driving between multiple people and you get a chance to lay down in the back seat, Amtrak still comes out on top.

Amtrak seats have more legroom. You can recline your seat and not have to drive. At any point along the train ride, you can get up and walk around, and not lose time!

Amtrak even offers rooms with beds! Though, of course, these will be more expensive than a coach seat. Unlike driving, where'd you likely have to stop somewhere to sleep, you can lay down on a bed on the train and not lose time.

The only scenario where Amtrak takes a hit on comfort is when the train makes stops in either really hot or really cold weather. You may temporarily feel a blast of cold or hot air when the train door opens. But then again, if you're driving and pull over to stretch your legs, the weather could be an issue too.

Views

Views is the one and only dimension where I'd argue that driving has the advantage.

Yes-- you can get mesmerizing views from looking outside the window on Amtrak, no doubt about that. However, you can't stop a train to gaze more about the scenery. Whereas, if you're driving, you have total autonomy. You can pull over, take pictures, and stare at the scenery as long as you wish.

Additionally, when you drive, you can make detours to other scenic spots that a train would not see on its route.

Rewards programs

Rewards programs obviously don't apply if you're driving your own vehicle. As to whether Amtrak or Enterprise has the better rewards program, Amtrak has the better rewards program.

Amtrak gives you 2 points per 1 dollar spent. Enterprise gives you 1 point per 1 dollar spent.

Remember the trip we looked at earlier from Detroit to Chicago for the dates of February 2-4, 2024? Here is that same trip, but with points...

Points for a roundtrip Amtrak ride from Detroit to Chicago
The cost of an Amtrak ride from Detroit to Chicago in points.

Then, here is that same rental, but with points...

Points for an Enterprise rental with the pickup and dropoff location in Detroit.
The cost of an Enterprise rental with the pickup and dropoff location in Detroit, but in points.

Amtrak would cost 2,025 points whereas Enterprise would cost 1,400 points. Notice that for Enterprise, the cost is 1,400 points per day, meaning this rental would actually cost you 2,800 points.

And since Amtrak gives you two points for every dollar spent as opposed to Enterprise's one point, Amtrak has the superior rewards program.

If you then include the fact you can get a travel rewards credit card through Amtrak and not Enterprise, Amtrak's rewards program outshines Enterprise's even further!

Amtrak offers a credit card named the Amtrak Guest Rewards Preferred Mastercard. If you spend just $1,000 within the first three "billing cycles" (basically, the first three months), you will earn an additional 20,000 points!

Some dining options will earn you two points per dollar spent. Otherwise, you will earn one point per dollar spent.

So you can acquire Amtrak points without having to ride Amtrak whereas you can't earn Enterprise points other than by renting more cars.

Delays

As to whether the potential for delays is less with Amtrak or driving, it's honestly tough to say. It really depends.

Let's first consider severe weather. Thunderstorms and snow storms are not likely to delay a train. As to whether it would delay you, the driver, that really depends on your confidence and skill as a driver.

How about delays due to freight trains and traffic?

According to a 2021 report card (most recent I could find) for Amtrak, Amtrak is supposed to have priority over freight trains by law and have no less than 80% of its trains be on time. However, this doesn't happen as often as it should, and most Amtrak routes fall below the 80% threshold.

Traffic driving on an expressway is difficult to account for, as there can be several reasons traffic can occur. Issues like slow drivers (the worst!), accidents, congestion due to merging, and construction can cause considerable delays when you drive.

I'm slightly leaning to giving this one to Amtrak, since there are less reasons a train would be delayed than driving yourself.

Safety

Statistically, you are much more safe taking Amtrak than driving yourself.

Per every 1000 miles driven, your odds of being in a car crash are 1 in 366.

For dying in a train accident, your odds are 1 in 19.3 million.

Is travelling by train better than car?

When considering the metrics of cost, comfort, safety, potential for delays, and rewards programs, Amtrak is better than driving a car.

Is it cheaper to take a train or drive?

It is cheaper to take a train than to drive. This answer is accurate whether it is a short trip or a long trip. However, the travel time with taking a train could be lengthier than driving. Trains have to make multiple stops whereas a driver would not have to make as many stops.

Is Amtrak slower than driving?

When looking at only speed, the average speed of an Amtrak train ranges from 110 to 145 miles per hour. Given speed limits of cars, Amtrak is legally allowed to move faster. As a result, Amtrak is not slower than driving when looking only at speed.

However, since Amtrak routes include multiple stops, driving could, in some cases, be faster than taking the train for longer trips.

Is it faster to drive or take a train?

Even though a train's speed is higher than a car, it may be faster to drive than take a train. The reason it may be faster to drive than taking a train is because a train has to make multiple stops. A driver, assuming no stops for food or other reasons, can arrive at a destination quicker.

Conclusion

Just like when being compared to flying, Amtrak again is shown to be the better option when we're talking about driving/renting a car.

Amtrak truly bests driving when it comes to cost and comfort. Amtrak is better than Enterprise when it comes to rewards programs.

The one metric that driving beats out Amtrak is the views. Given the total freedom you have when you drive, you can stop and look at the scenery as long as you'd like and even make additional stops to see things an Amtrak route wouldn't see.

So, does this mean you should skip road trips altogether?

Not exactly. One variable I didn't consider in the article is your own personal enjoyment of driving. Some people really like driving and going on a roadtrip with friends can still be a really enjoyable experience.

Since taking the train is less popular of an option in the U.S than it was several decades ago, the point of the article was to reveal that the train should be taken more often, as it has some impressive advantages both over driving and flying!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article on Amtrak Vs Driving! Feel free to email me and let me know if my article inspired you to take the train and how nice that experience was!


Thank you for reading! Like... seriously. So many people just skim sh*t and don't read anything past the headline. You're one of the good ones!

One teeny favor to ask: please subscribe to the email list so you can be alerted immediately when new articles come out!