Update, August 2023: Prices for flights and trips were updated to reflect what traveling in October 2023 would look like.
Taking a train ride across the country is something that sounds incredibly appealing- until you look at the price. Compared to plane tickets, you aren’t saving much money. In some cases, you’re actually spending a whole lot more! I mean, $150 bucks for a coach seat on an 80-hour ride to Seattle doesn’t exactly sound like a steal. So, why is Amtrak so expensive?
Why is Amtrak So Expensive?
The reason train tickets aren’t any cheaper than flights is that Amtrak is strapped for cash and saddled with major expenses. Amtrak is a federal agency that receives about $1.4B in funding from the federal government each year, which doesn’t make a dent in their budget. On top of that, Amtrak is borrowing the railways from companies that run freight trains, which own the majority of America’s railways and charge rent to passenger rail companies.
The good news is that Amtrak recently secured a bunch more money from the federal government – 66 billion dollars – and a lot of that money will help make ticket prices more reasonable. Trains will be faster, nicer, and more convenient, which makes the cost easier to justify. There’s also a chance that this money will keep prices from rising too quickly over time.
How Much Does it Cost to Travel With Amtrak?
The Northeast Corridor is the cheapest place to travel on Amtrak, especially compared to flying. Destinations are much closer to each other, the train journeys are shorter, and the tickets are very fair. The majority of Amtrak’s routes are in the Northeast Corridor as well, which further helps drive down costs. You can take a Boston-NYC round trip for about $70 bucks, which would be bottom-of-the-barrel for even the cheapest flights.
The cost skyrockets when you take longer trips, especially when you don’t want to ride coach. Since cross-country routes can take more than three days, most people don’t want to be in coach or even business class. Roomettes, the cheapest sleeper car ticket Amtrak has, routinely cost well above $1,000 for a one-way journey. You can fly first class from New York to LAX for much less than $1,000; there really isn’t a comparison.
Amtrak Auto Train Cost 2023
What about the famous Auto Train that runs up and down half the East Coast? Prices for that train are high, too, but not as high as you’d expect. I ran the auto train prices today (August 27, 2023) and, for a trip set 8 weeks out, prices are $95 for coach and $652 for a roomette (one-way). That doesn’t include the prices of vehicle transport on the Auto Train, which are as follows:
- $85 for a standard vehicle (Sedans and some small SUVs/crossovers)
- $325 for a larger vehicle (vans, pickups, large SUVs)
- $155 for a motorcycle
Why Travel by Train if it’s more Expensive?
Train travel in America is best thought of as a luxury or an adventure. It’s not time-effective compared to flying, and it’s rarely cost-effective. The only reason you might want to take a cross-country train in America for anything other than fun is to use Amtrak wifi and cell towers as you go. Amtrak wifi is free, and you’re not forced to put your phone on airplane mode. This makes it a lot easier to work while you travel; for remote workers and digital nomads, this is a fun way to get around and get things done.
Travel Cost Comparison: Amtrak vs Airplane
In this section, we’ll compare the average price of moving between major US travel hubs by plane and by Amtrak. All the prices are estimates, of course- we can’t give any guarantees that the price you see below is the price you’ll pay. Travel costs are affected by the economy and the seasons, not to mention various discounts and sales. With that said, here’s the difference between passenger train and airlines (both coach and first-class/roomette sleepr) for some popular long-distance routes:
Note: All prices are current as of August 27, 2023, and are for a one-way trip taking place roughly 8 weeks from that point.
Denver to Chicago
- Amtrak Coach: $85
- Amtrak Sleeper: $609
- Economy Flight: $99
- First-Class Flight: $279
Verdict: Flying is slightly more expensive in coach, and 45 hours faster.
Chicago to New York
- Amtrak Coach: $112
- Amtrak Sleeper: $654
- Economy Flight: $107
- First-Class Flight: $265
Verdict: Flying is slightly cheaper than Amtrak, and 18 hours faster than passenger trains.
Seattle to Los Angeles
- Amtrak Coach: $101
- Amtrak Sleeper: $846
- Economy Flight: $69
- First-Class Flight: $209
Verdict: Amtrak is more expensive, and takes a lot longer, than flying this route.
Should You Fly or Ride?
Until a high-speed rail system connects major US cities, flying will always be faster no matter what. There are many long-distance trains, though, that carry a similar price as economy flights. Trains get much more expensive when you start to look for tickets in a sleeper car, which is basically a Holiday Inn Express on wheels. And, on a majority of routes, you get Wi-Fi at no additional cost, something you can’t say about airlines. So, the price differences aren’t quite as bad as you might think (if you completely take travel time out of the equation).
Should you fly or take the train? It all depends on how fast you’d like to get there! Hopefully, the rapidly approaching high-speed rail network in the US will change everything, and we’ll be taking (slightly more) environmentally-friendly trains everywhere we go!
Do Amtrak tickets go up in price?
Nothing is immune to inflation, not even a government-backed semi-public semi-private company like Amtrak. Amtrak’s prices do go up over time. I track historical prices for Amtrak’s roomettes, and prices have increased 9.2% from January 2023 to August 2023. That’s not a huge increase, but it does eat away at your travel budget.
You can expect Amtrak ticket prices to increase slowly over time, raising 4-8% per year in most cases. Of course, there is seasonality to factor in – summer prices are almost always higher than winter prices – but slow and steady price increases seem to be the norm for Amtrak.
Amtrak prices don’t fluctuate like flight prices do
I’ve been doing these price comparisons regularly for over a year now, and I’ve noticed something: flight costs vary wildly depending on the time of year, the day of the week, and what’s going on in the world. Some of the flights have changed as much as $350 from one update to the next!
Amtrak routes, on the other hand, don’t flucuate like flights do. Prices go up the closer you are to the trip date, and they go up a little more when tickets are running low. Outside of that, though, Amtrak ticket prices seem relatively stable. There are some times of year when certain routes are more expensive; cross-country routes are always cheaper in January and sky-high from August-October. But, outside of that, Amtrak ticket prices don’t really change much, at least not in the crazy way that airplane tickets do.
The Northeast Corridor: Amtrak’s Cheapest Routes
When you’re in the Northeast United States, it sometimes makes a lot more sense to take the train. The famous Acela trains run here, the closest thing that the US has to a bullet train. Acela trains have a top speed of about 150 MPH, and they’re much more convenient than flying or driving in many situations. Tickets here are the most affordable, with a popular route like DC-New York typically going for $30 on a weekday. Flying on that same journey costs $100 or more! I’ll take inexpensive train trips over JFK any day.
The East Coast is also a great place to get rail passes, which give you a certain amount of rides per year or month. The cost goes way down when you have a rail pass, making railroad trips much more economical over time. Long story short: if you’re on the East Coast, hop on a train. If not, you should fly unless you really just want the adventure of train rides!
Conclusion: The Cost of Train Travel
Taking trains in America is often much more expensive than flying because railways are owned by freight companies and charge Amtrak for their use. In addition, the government hardly subsidizes any part of passenger rail, which drives up prices. If you’re in the Northeast Corridor, though, trains are actually the most affordable way to go from city to city! What has your experience with train vs plane travel been? Let us know in the comments section below!