Category: Travel tips
Author: Michael DeFranceschi • Updated

Amtrak Vs Flying: The Ultimate Guide From An Experienced Traveler

The plane vs the train! Who wins? The train... and here's why!
An Amtrak train going through Denver, Colorado.

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As much as I love flying, it is astounding how much nicer train travel can be than flying on an airplane.

In the duel of Amtrak vs Flying, Amtrak wins in several factors, such as more legroom, more comfortable seats, more food & beverage options, less opportunities for delays, and even offering guests private rooms!

Train travel is much simpler than air travel, as there is no TSA PreCheck® or CLEAR equivalent for Amtrak.

Does this mean you should seize air travel altogether and stick exclusively with taking the train? Well, not necessarily-- as there are still some instances where flying beats traveling by train, such as travel time, safety, and the higher number of airports compared to train stations.

In this article, I'll compare Amtrak trains to flying on 14 metrics. This is the most thorough guide you'll get from any travel blogger on this topic. Let's get started, shall we?

IN THIS ARTICLE...
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Amtrak vs Flying

Cost

In general, train tickets will be less expensive than airline tickets.

But, how much less expensive?"

For price and every factor going forward, I will select Delta Airlines when comparing flying to Amtrak. When critiquing the price, the route and dates selected for Delta and Amtrak will, of course, be the same. To illustrate my points, I will use screenshots from the Delta and Amtrak mobile apps.

Let's start our price comparison with a shorter trip. What is the price comparison when traveling from Detroit to Chicago roundtrip?

Amtrak vs flying. A Delta Airlines flight for the route Detroit to Chicago.
A flight for Detroit to Chicago, on Delta Airlines.

The lowest price, for a "main" seat-- which is equal to a "coach" seat on Amtrak, is $308 roundtrip. What about a train ticket?

Amtrak vs flying. An Amtrak ride for the route Detroit to Chicago.
Round trip on Amtrak from Detroit to Chicago.

We see the lowest price on Amtrak is just $40-- a $268 difference from flying on Delta.

Let's do a trip that's a little longer. Instead of going to Chicago, we'll go to Philadelphia. First up, let's see what the price is on Delta...

Amtrak vs flying. A Delta flight for the route Detroit to Philadelphia.
Round trip on Delta Airlines from Detroit to Philadelphia.

On Delta, the cheapest price is $418 for a roundtrip. Now, for Amtrak...

Amtrak vs flying. An Amtrak ride for the route Detroit to Philadelphia.
Round trip on Amtrak from Detroit to Philadelphia.

We see $308 for the cheapest on Amtrak. Thus, Amtrak is cheaper by $110 for this route.

Last, let's do a longer route. We'll do Detroit to Miami. For Delta...

A Delta flight for the route Detroit to Miami.
Round trip on Delta from Detroit to Miami.

The lowest price roundtrip for Delta from Detroit to Miami is $468. Now, for Amtrak...

An Amtrak ride for the route Detroit to Miami.
Round trip on Amtrak from Detroit to Miami.

On Amtrak, the lowest price is $523 roundtrip from Detroit to Miami. Delta is cheaper by $55.

For longer trips, a plane ticket will likely be cheaper than a train ticket. And even if the save in money isn't what you would consider "much", the duration of your train journey versus your flight will be hugely different. We'll analyze travel time further in a later section.

Comfort

For the average passenger, I have to say that train rides are noticeably more comfortable.

Legroom is more spacious on Amtrak trains. The distance between the seats in each row is wider so you don't feel as if you're sitting too close to the passenger next to you. The leather seats are a little more comfortable. Reclining your seat on the train isn't disruptive.

Here's a big one: on Amtrak, you can get up from your seat and walk around. You can even walk into different train cars!

Two more variables that can determine comfort are noise level and how much you can feel the vehicle move. Amtrak is definitely quieter than being on a plane. If you sit on the upper level of Amtrak, there will be a little more sway when the train is in motion, which could make more sensitive passengers woozy.

However, one scenario where a plane wins on comfort is exposure to the weather. A train route has multiple stops to make and when it stops, the doors open. If you're traveling to Minneapolis in January or Phoenix in July, you may suddenly get hit with a blast of really cold or hot air.

What about the difference in comfort for the luxury classes on a flight and on an Amtrak train?

Here is where Amtrak starts to lose its advantage in comfort. The difference in comfort between a regular class seat vs business class or first class is hardly noticeable. In fact, I'd argue on comfort alone that a business class seat and first class seat is hardly even worth it.

Now, if you're flying on Delta and you decide to upgrade from an economy seat to a first class seat, the difference in comfort is actually apparent. Flying first class on Delta Airlines grants you a lot of leg room, a little more space between the seat next to you, and a larger seat with better back support.

But wait!! Amtrak has a little trick up their sleeve! Ready for it??

You can actually rent a room with a bed on Amtrak. Seriously! I did not know this was even an option until I started riding Amtrak. Can't do that on Delta! This surely makes up for the business class/first class letdown.

If you place high emphasis on comfortability during your travels, then Amtrak-- regardless of class-- is the superior choice.

Travel Time

Your train journey may be quite comfy, but for further destinations, it will also a long train ride... compared to flying.

The average speed of a commercial plane ranges from 547-575 miles per hour. The average speed of an Amtrak train ranges from 110 to 145 miles per hour.

Delta offers a lot of nonstop flights. For longer trips, an Amtrak train route has layovers. Take a look again at the screenshot for Detroit to Philadelphia on Amtrak...

Screenshot of an Amtrak ride from Detroit to Philadelphia detailing travel time.
An Amtrak passenger has two layovers when riding from Detroit to Philadelphia.

The train ride is 20 hours and 24 minutes. Flying on Delta would only take one hour and thirty-six minutes.

When it comes to travel time, Delta has a tremendous advantage over Amtrak.

Potential for delays

It is tougher to assess whether Amtrak or Delta has the advantage when discussing potential for delays. It depends on the type of the delay.

The most common reason for both flight and trains delays is bad weather. If we are only looking at weather delays, then Amtrak has the advantage here. Thunderstorms and snowstorms are less likely to delay a train.

However, when we direct our attention over to whether Amtrak or Delta has more on-time arrivals, then Delta boasts the advantage.

From the Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the Department of Transportation, 82.1% of Delta's domestic flights arrived on time.

With Amtrak and on-time arrivals, the issue gets a little more complicated. On their website, Amtrak provides its customers a report card for the year 2021. You can view it here.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration "Metrics and Standards" rule, 80% of Amtrak customers must arrive "on-time". I intentionally put quotes around the phrase 'on-time' because, according to the Bureau of Transportation, Amtrak considers a train on-time if it arrives within a range of minutes after the scheduled endtime.

For instance, if your trip is 250 miles or less, Amtrak will consider the train to have arrived on-time if it shows up no later than 10 minutes after the scheduled endtime. So if you're scheduled to arrive somewhere at 2:36 p.m, you arriving at 2:45 p.m. is considered "on-time" according to Amtrak.

Going back to the report card, even though a law dictates that 80% of Amtrak's train must be timely, most routes fall below the 80% threshold.

The most common reason for Amtrak delays are waiting for freight trains. Even though, by law, Amtrak is supposed to have preference, many freight trains ignore the law.

Amtrak is less likely to be delayed by severe weather but Delta is far more punctual on arrival time.

Luggage Storage

Regarding the amount of bags you can check for free, Amtrak allows you to check two bags for free whereas Delta lets you check only one for free.

Amtrak allows you two carry on items whereas Delta only allows one.

The fees for excess baggage on Amtrak are lower than on Delta. A $20 fee is charged to each of the additional two bags on Amtrak. Delta's fee for the second checked bag is $40. The third? $150. Fourth and higher? $200.

Amtrak limits each passenger to four checked bags. Delta allows up to 10 (in most cases). However, if I hear you are bringing this much luggage on a plane, I will be very inclined to say that, unless you're moving, you are packing wayyyyy too much!

Finally, what about baggage size and weight?

Size matters (haha). On Delta, your baggage cannot exceed 62 inches (five feet and two inches) when you add together the bag's length, width, and height. (find personal item)

On Amtrak, your carry-on luggage cannot exceed 64 inches (five feet and four inches) when you add together the bag's length, width, and height.

Weight restrictions on carry-on luggage are the same for both Delta and Amtrak: the maximum weight allowed is 50 lbs.

Amtrak wins on luggage storage, but not by much.

Rewards Programs

Only the smart travelers are reading this section!

The rewards program through Amtrak wins by a small margin compared to Delta. Here is why...

Upon first glance, it looks as if Delta's rewards program is better. After all, you earn more points per $1 spent on Delta than you do on Amtrak. Delta gives you 5 points whereas Amtrak gives 2 points. So, how is Amtrak better if it gives you less points?

The reason why is due to what I am calling the "multiplier". You can use your points sooner on Amtrak than on Delta because the multiplier on Amtrak is smaller. Let me illustrate further.

On the Amtrak website, let's book a trip from Detroit to Pittsburgh. Below, we'll display the cost of the trip if you don't use points (aka, just pay normally).

The cost of an Amtrak ride from Detroit to Pittsburgh.
The cost of a roundtrip on Amtrak from Detroit to Pittsburgh.

The price of a coach seat is $137. Now, here is the cost of that same trip with the same dates, but with points.

The cost of an Amtrak ride from Detroit to Pittsburgh using points.
The cost of a roundtrip on Amtrak from Detroit to Pittsburgh using points.

We see that the cost with points is 4,864. If we divide 4,864 by 137, it gives us roughly "35". This means that whenever you book a trip on Amtrak, you multiply the price you see in dollars by approximately 35 and that will be how much that trip will cost in points.

Of course, you do not need to get out the calculator for every trip you view on Amtrak, as the app easily does the arithmetic for you by simply toggling "points" on/off. I just wanted you to prove to you how the app makes this calculation!

For Delta, let's do the same trip.

The cost of a Delta flight from Detroit to Pittsburgh.
The cost of a roundtrip on Delta from Detroit to Pittsburgh.

We see the price for a "main" seat is $398. Now, with points...

The cost of a Delta flight from Detroit to Pittsburgh using points.
The cost of a roundtrip on Delta from Detroit to Pittsburgh, with points.

Okay, this above screenshot may not be the best because the Delta app applied a special discount for me because of a credit card I carry but look at the price with the gray line through it. It was 32,000.

If we divide 32,000 by 398, we get approximately 80.

Since Amtrak has a smaller "multiplier", this means you can redeem your points faster on Amtrak than with Delta.

The discount you saw on the previous screenshot was actually serendipitous, as it's a perfect segue into travel credit cards. To accelerate the amount of points you earn, you should absolutely get a travel credit card through Delta and/or Amtrak.

When you get the Amtrak Guest Rewards Preferred Mastercard, you will get 20,000 bonus points if you spend only $1000 within the first three "billing cycles". The duration of a billing cycle is usually a month.

You can also two points per $1 spent on select dining. You'll receive 1 point per $1 spent for all other purchases. For instance, paying your monthly Netlix subscription with this card would give you points toward Amtrak!

Delta has a similar offer with their Delta Skymiles® American Express credit card. At the time of this writing, you can earn 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 within the first six months.

Dining at most restaurants and shopping at the supermarket will earn two miles per $1 spent; everything else will earn you one mile per $1 spent.

To wrap up this longer section, you'll be able to redeem your points sooner on Amtrak than with Delta but Delta's credit card is slightly better.

Food & drink served onboard

Regarding the refreshments served on Amtrak versus Delta, the food & drink served on Amtrak is better than on Delta.

Except for only a few routes, all Amtrak customers are provided a fair variety of breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, alcohol, and non-alcoholic options through Amtrak's Café service. If there is any drawback, you do have to pay for these refreshments.

On Delta, you are served very small portions of snacks and hardly any options. Perhaps nuts, cookies, maybe potato chips. Drink sizes are also quite small. However, unlike the Café service on Amtrak, the refreshments on Delta are free.

Wifi onboard

I have found both modes of transportation to have rather spotty wifi.

That being said, the wifi was slightly more reliable on Amtrak than Delta.

Number of train stations vs. number of airports

The number of airports in the US is a little over 5,000 whereas Amtrak has about 500 train stations. However, of those 5,000 airports, only 150 of them are international airports.

I personally only use international airports so, given my preference, there are more train stations by Amtrak available than there are airports.

Looks like Amtrak wins here with the higher number of stations.

Security & Boarding

If you are not enrolled in a trusted traveler program like TSA PreCheck®, then Amtrak wins by a long stretch.

Unlike the TSA security checkpoints you see at airports, most Amtrak stations do not even have a security checkpoint. You can show up to the boarding station mere minutes before the train arrives and hop right on!

If you choose to fly, this is why I am so enthusiastic telling travelers to either enroll in CLEAR and/or TSA PreCheck. I typically get through airport security in 1-2 minutes.

Since airports are, of course, larger, I do have to arrive a little sooner than I would at an Amtrak station. Otherwise, because I have both CLEAR and TSA PreCheck, I'd say the experience between flying and taking the train when it comes to security is hardly any different.

Views from the window

Especially if you take the train through routes on the west coast or through the mountain states like Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, the views from the window on Amtrak far surpass the aerial views from an airplane window.

As mentioned earlier too, you aren't limited to just seeing the views from your seat. You can stand up and admire the incredible scenery as you pass by. On an airplane, you wouldn't be able to enjoy the views from the sky unless you pick a window seat.

Ease-in-booking

I think both the Delta and Amtrak apps function well. I don't think either has an advantage in this case.

Safety

This will be the shortest section. I feel both train travel and air travel are very safe. With any airline, customers have to pass going through a security checkpoint first which does provide a layer of safety.

For safety, I'll give this one to Delta... and air travel, in general.

Environmental impact

In 2021, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report on the greenhouse gases emitted in the transportation sector. Airlines contributed to only 8% of the greenhouse gases emitted and rail was even less-- at 2%.

If concern to the impact of environment while traveling is important to you, then Amtrak is slightly preferable in that it emits less greenhouse gases than an airplane.

Why is Amtrak better than flying?

Of the whopping 14 dimensions we compared and contrasted Amtrak to Delta, Amtrak clearly came out on top when we evaluated comfort, luggage storage, food & drink served onboard, window views, boarding, and environmental impact.

For shorter trips, it is definitely cheaper to take Amtrak than it is to fly. There is also a much smaller chance your Amtrak trip will be negatively impacted by bad weather. Last, you'll be able to redeem your Amtrak points as opposed to your Delta Skymiles sooner.

Is it cheaper to fly or use Amtrak?

For shorter trips, train travel will very likely be the much cheaper option. As the length of the trip gets longer, the difference in the price of an Amtrak ticket versus a plane ticket shrinks-- and in some instances, taking the trip will not only be more expensive, but will take you far, far longer to arrive at your destination.

Is Amtrak more comfortable than flying?

Of the 13 dimensions we compared Amtrak to flying, comfort may be the one where train travel truly dominates. Even riders in a coach seat on an Amtrak train will experience a level of comfort that even first class fliers on a plane don't receive!

The seats are more comfortable, legroom is more spacious, and you can get up and walk around. If you want to splurge, you can rent a room on an Amtrak that includes a bedroom and a shower.

Why is Amtrak as expensive as flying?

As stated a few times in this article, train travel is not as expensive as flying when the trip is short. However, if the trip is considerably longer, Amtrak may be pricier.

The reason why is that Amtrak only owns about 3% of the railroads it operates on. The vast majority are owned by freight companies who charge Amtrak to use their railroads. In addition, the government rarely subsidizes passenger rail, which forces Amtrak to charge more for longer routes.

Conclusion

It may have surprised you, as it surely did me, how many advantages train travel has over air travel.

So, that being said, is train travel superior to air travel?

For shorter trips, I feel confident in saying that, yes, train travel is better than air travel. And coming from me, a guy who loves air travel, that means something!

Longer trips? Air travel has a tremendous advantage since you'll arrive at your destination far sooner.

I am greatly appreciative for you reading my article on Amtrak vs flying. I hope you'll take the train sometime during your travels!


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