Cross-country travel: testing the rail route

Do you want to travel across America this summer? There is another option besides flying or taking a road trip – but it may not be around for much longer.

Amtrak runs a network of cross-country passenger trains, many of which may be discontinued if federal funding is not forthcoming.

To get an idea of what train travel is like today, a photographer and I boarded Amtrak's Sunset Limited on April 23, for a four-day, three-night journey from Orlando to Los Angeles.

While boarding, there is no stampede to secure overhead compartment space – a common scene at most airports. Our standard cabin is snug, with fold-down beds. The shower and the bathroom compartments have the same Lilliputian charm.

But the train does not feel cramped like an airplane, because of the freedom to climb staircases, traverse corridors, and open doors to other cars. The dining and observation cars transform the train from mere transportation into a vacation experience.

While traveling this way, I relax more deeply than I usually do when on vacation. No fussing with maps, or scouting around for food and lodging. Occasional tips for porters and waiters are the only reasons to open my wallet.

Besides the passing scenery and the relaxation, community is a big draw for train riders. "You get to meet a lot of people from different parts of the country," says Bill Bates, a passenger from Carmel, Calif. "On a plane, you are stuck in one seat and you are talking to the person next to you or maybe across the aisle. On a train, you can move around quite a bit."

Indeed, the Sunset Limited begins to feel like a college dorm – except for all the gray hair. The sleeper train mainly attracts retired folk. One woman jokes that her children will eventually put her on Amtrak instead of in a nursing home.

Younger people on board generally ride coach class. Some are foreigners taking advantage of a special $295, 15-day pass. Others say they found it to be the cheapest travel option. On our trip, the one-way fare was $169 each. The standard sleeper cabin costs an extra $507. (A deluxe cabin costs $979 extra.) Meals, however, are included in the cost of the sleeper cabins.

To find out how train fares stack up against other methods of travel, we compared round-trip fares between 40 pairs of cities, departing June 1 and returning June 15. In mid-April, we took the lowest airfare we could find on the industry's site, Orbitz.com, and compared that with the lowest rates on Amtrak and Greyhound.

We also determined the cost of driving by using AAA's latest calculation of vehicle operating costs: 11.8 cents per mile, including gas and oil, maintenance, and tires.

While this is a simplified sampling, some basic conclusions can be drawn.

For trips less than 500 miles, train fares generally beat airfares and are competitive with cars and buses. A trip between St. Louis and Kansas City costs $51 on Amtrak, $53.50 on Greyhound, $58.76 by car, and $110 by plane.

For trips of more than 500 miles, planes are both cheaper and quicker than other options. A roundtrip coach flight between Orlando and Los Angeles was $198. The trip cost $370 by bus, $410 on Amtrak (coach), and $598.50 by car.

For those with the time and inclination to see the country, riding a train in coach is competitively priced against driving a car, especially when you factor in the additional cost of lodging on the road. By all accounts, sleeping is not difficult in Amtrak's coach section – vastly more spacious and civilized than a bus. While a standard sleeper for two costs about double the price of driving cross country, bunking on the train may still be cheaper, depending on how much you spend on roadside lodging and meals.

But book far in advance for sleepers, especially during the summer. And, oddly, ask for a AAA discount. For more cost comparisons and a special report on the future of Amtrak, go to www.csmonitor.com/amtrak.

• Additional reporting by Stuart S. Cox Jr.

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