Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

Train or Plane? U.S. Routes Where Amtrak Beats Flying

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Unlike European trains, which are known for comfort and punctuality, Amtrak doesn’t have the same allure as air travel. Still, there are some domestic routes where the train competes (or even comes out ahead) in terms of time and cost. TPG Contributor Nick Ewen took a deeper look at these routes to see when the train is the better option. Read on to see what he found.

Award travel enthusiasts tend to focus on airline miles and hotel points, but as many of you know, there are other aspects of the points and miles game that deserve your attention. A few weeks ago I wrote a detailed review of the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard from Chase, and it got me thinking: are there routes in the U.S. where taking the train makes more sense than flying? After crunching some numbers I found that the answer is a resounding yes. In this post I’ll look at these routes from the perspective of both paid and award tickets, and explain why I think each one is better by rail than by wing.

Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner pulls into Santa Barbara's train station
There are several U.S. routes where taking Amtrak makes more sense than flying.

Redemption Options Let’s begin by reviewing Amtrak Guest Rewards redemption options for some context. Jason Steele wrote a detailed post about the program back in 2012 that you should read, but to summarize, Amtrak has a zone-based award chart that requires more points for longer trips. Since travel times for longer trips make taking the train impractical, shorter routes are the only ones on which the train can be considered a true substitute for flying. The city pairs I mention below generally fit into two different categories:

  1. Northeast Zones: 4,000 points for a one-way ticket
  2. Special Routes: 1,500 points for a one-way ticket

One of the greatest benefits of Amtrak Guest Rewards points is that you can use them on any open train (though there are blackout dates). As a result, expensive last-minute tickets can be a great way to maximize your value on these redemptions. This is in sharp contrast to traditional airline frequent flyer programs like United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles, which have different award tiers based on unpredictable availability. In addition, all domestic routes are typically treated the same: a cross-country flight will set you back the same number of miles as a 200-mile journey. Even revenue-based programs (like JetBlue and Southwest) vary the cost of awards depending on how expensive the ticket is. With Amtrak, pricing is more straightforward: if there’s a seat for sale (on a non-blackout date), you can redeem the standard number of points for it. There are a number of ways to accrue Amtrak Guest Rewards points (besides traveling with Amtrak, of course). For starters, the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so you can transfer points from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus/Ink Bold into your Guest Rewards account. If you wanted to travel on the routes below, you would only need 1,500 – 4,000 Ultimate Rewards points. If you wanted to book that same trip on United using MileagePlus miles (also an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner), it would set you back 12,500 points, or 3-8x the number required for Amtrak! You can also earn points through the Guest Rewards MasterCard, which currently offers 12,000 points after spending $500 in the first 3 months. Finally, there are many other partners that allow you to accrue Guest Rewards points; you can see a full list here. Paid Options A lot of the same logic can be applied to paid tickets in reality, it’s hard to completely separate the earning and redemption schemes of any frequent traveler program. In my analysis I tried to capture both. To make this an apples-to-apples comparison, I picked some random dates in the future in order to cover a variety of scenarios (last minute vs. advanced purchase, weekday vs. weekend, etc.). Here are the specific dates and times I chose:

  • Sunday October 5, 2014 from 2 pm – 8 pm (relatively last-minute weekend booking)
  • Monday October 6, 2014 from 6 am – 10 am (relatively last-minute weekday booking during the morning)
  • Wednesday November 5, 2014 from 10 am – 3 pm (more than a month out, “off-peak” travel time)
  • January 30, 2015 from 2 pm to 8 pm (four month advanced purchase on a Friday afternoon)

I then looked at the average cost of a ticket for all trains & flights on the selected routes during the times above. I also considered the average length of time for all trips. Finally, I evaluated the points/miles earned for each trip (with no status accounted for on either option) and how close that would get you to a free ticket. In each case, I looked only at one-way trips, since adding a return trip increased the complexity enormously without adding much useful data.

Higher TSA fees won't translate into shorter lines at the airport for years - if ever
One of the biggest benefits of taking Amtrak is avoiding airport security. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

To try and make the comparison objective, I included on-time performance for Amtrak (using their online tool) as well as the given airline routes (using flightstats.com). I also tried to factor in the time cost of traveling to the airport, checking in, security, and boarding, so each chart below has a row for these estimates. You may live in an area where the airport is more convenient than the central train station, but for the sake of consistency, I assumed that each trip (regardless of the mode of transportation) was taken to the downtown portion of the city rather than a surrounding suburb or specific neighborhood. I recognize that this analysis is limited, but I think the results shed light on specific U.S. routes where taking the train is more convenient than flying.

Boston will be Emirates' 8th US destination.
Your trip from New York to Boston could be much more pleasant on Amtrak.

New York to Boston The first route I considered is from New York to Boston. While Boston’s Logan International Airport is very close to downtown, all of the three major airports in New York (LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark) are a good ways from downtown Manhattan, and depending on traffic, you could be looking at an hour or more just to get to each one! Here’s the data I found over the above time frames:

 

Train

Flight

Average Cost

$113.23

$206.08

Points Miles for One-Way Coach Award

4,000 points

12,500 miles

Average Duration

4 hours

1 hour 13 minutes

Extra time for check-in/security/boarding

30 minutes

1 hour

Extra Travel Time

20 minutes

1 hour

TOTAL TRAVEL TIME

4 hours 50 minutes

3 hours 13 minutes

On-Time Performance

73.55%

76.7%

Average Points/Miles Earned

226 points*

500 miles

Number of one-way trips for a free one-way ticket

17.7

25

As you can see, the train has many advantages. The first is cost, as the average one-way ticket costs just 55% of a one-way flight, and the typical redemption costs less than one third of a one-way flight. In addition, with all three major metropolitan airports being a long way from Manhattan, the train is more convenient. Finally, based on the average points or miles you would earn, your Amtrak trip gives you a free one-way after less than 18 paid trips (roughly a 5.5% return), while flying only offer a 4% return. This route is also one with complimentary Wi-Fi, meaning that the added time in transit = more productivity.

Your trip from Washington begins from Union Station, right in the heart of the District of Columbia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Your trip from Washington begins from Union Station, right in the heart of the District of Columbia. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Washington to New York Another heavily traveled route in the Northeast is between Washington and New York City. With numerous airports and airlines with hubs in one (or both) cities, there are a multitude of options. Here’s what I found:

 

Train

Flight

Average Cost

$150.33

$217.75

Points Miles for One-Way Coach Award

4,000 points

12,500 miles

Average Duration

3 hours 8 minutes

1 hour 22 minutes

Extra time for check-in/security/boarding

30 minutes

1 hour

Extra Travel Time

20 minutes

1 hour 30 minutes (30 minutes for DC as an average between DCA and IAD, 1 hour for NYC)

TOTAL TRAVEL TIME

3 hours 38 minutes

3 hours 52 minutes

On-Time Performance

73.55%

68.3%

Average Points/Miles Earned

351 points

500 miles

Number of one-way trips for a free ticket

11.4

25

Again, Amtrak is a clear winner here in almost all of the categories. Both the Acela and Northeast Regional trains offer free wi-fi, helping you get work done on the trip without paying for it in the air. The paid ticket price is actually closer than for the NY-Boston route, but that’s mostly due to the exorbitant prices charged on the Acela trains running on this route. Many of the trains in the specified time periods actually cost $259 for a one-way ticket! If you only consider regional trains, the average price drops by over a third (to $99.83). While this does increase the average total travel time to 3 hours 53 minutes and the number of one-ways needed for a free ticket to 20, it still pays to use Amtrak on this route. The difference in redemption levels is the same as in the previous example.

Amtrak's Hiawatha line connects Chicago and Milwaukee with multiple trains per day.
Amtrak’s Hiawatha line connects Chicago and Milwaukee with multiple trains daily.

Chicago to Milwaukee These two Midwestern cities are less than 100 miles apart, so there are plenty of options for traveling between them. While United and American operate multiple flights a day, Amtrak runs its Hiawatha line every few hours. Unfortunately, O’Hare is significantly outside the city center, though Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport is just 10 miles from downtown. Here’s what I found:

  Train Flight
Average Cost $24.00 $323.67
Points Miles for One-Way Coach Award 1,500 points 12,500 miles
Average Duration 1 hour 30 minutes 45 minutes
Extra time for check-in/security/boarding 30 minutes 1 hour
Extra Travel Time 20 minutes 45 minutes
TOTAL TRAVEL TIME 2 hours 20 minutes 2 hours 30 minutes
On-Time Performance 86.7% 59%
Average Points/Miles Earned 100 points 500 miles
Number of one-way trips for a free ticket 15 25

As one of Amtrak’s special routes, the Hiawatha line costs only 1,500 Guest Rewards points for a one-way ticket. Since paid tickets are generally so inexpensive, the return on a paid ticket is low, but the overall price difference is substantial, especially for last-minute tickets. While prices on the Hiawatha route were always $24 for “Value” coach and $25 for “Flexible” coach, some one-way flights were almost $600 apiece! Considering the comparable travel times (I may have even been generous by only adding 30 minutes of airport travel time), the downright abysmal on-time performance of flights from O’Hare to Milwaukee, and free Wi-Fi on all Hiawatha trains, Amtrak is the obvious choice between Chicago and Milwaukee.

A short trip on the Pacific Surfliner can whisk you from LA to San Diego.
A short trip on the Pacific Surfliner can whisk you from LA to San Diego.

Los Angeles to San Diego Like Milwaukee and Chicago, these two cities are close (~120 miles apart). American, United, and Delta all fly this route numerous times daily, while Amtrak runs their Pacific Surfliner train every 1-2 hours. Here’s the data for my selected dates/times:

 

Train

Flight

Average Cost

$37.00

$278.71

Points Miles for One-Way Coach Award

1,500 points

12,500 miles

Average Duration

2 hours 50 minutes

50 minutes

Extra time for check-in/security/boarding

30 minutes

1 hour

Extra Travel Time

30 minutes

1 hour

TOTAL TRAVEL TIME

3 hours 50 minutes

2 hours 50 minutes

On-Time Performance

78.7%

83%

Average Points/Miles Earned

100 points

500 miles

Number of one-way trips for a free ticket

15

25

This comparison is much closer than the previous ones, but given Southern California’s penchant for brutal traffic, I’d again give the nod here to Amtrak. Like the Chicago-Milwaukee route, the prices are very consistent regardless of the booking window, and again you have free Wi-Fi en route. While the length of the trip leaves a bit to be desired, it’s still a great option to avoid travel to the airport, and at just 1,500 points for a one-way award, you’re getting more than 8 free train tickets for the cost of one flight. Another perk? A good section of the trip hugs the Pacific Coastline, giving you a scenic trip that wouldn’t be possible from the air.

With free Wi-Fi and beautiful Pacific Northwest scenery, the Amtrak Cascades route can be a great way to avoid the hassle of flying.
With free Wi-Fi and beautiful Pacific Northwest scenery, the Amtrak Cascades route can be a great way to avoid the hassle of flying.

Portland to Seattle to Vancouver The Pacific Northwest is another great option for Amtrak. While the following data focuses on just the Portland to Seattle leg of Amtrak’s Cascades route, the line actually goes as far south as Eugene, OR and north to Vancouver, BC. Here’s what I found:

 

Train

Flight

Average Cost

$31.86

$110.79

Points Miles for One-Way Coach Award

1,500 points

12,500 miles

Average Duration

3 hours 47 minutes

48 minutes

Extra time for check-in/security/boarding

30 minutes

1 hour

Extra Travel Time

20 minutes

1 hour

TOTAL TRAVEL TIME

4 hours 37 minutes

2 hours 48 minutes

On-Time Performance

72.1%

88%

Average Points/Miles Earned

100 points

500 miles

Number of one-way trips for a free ticket

15

25

This one isn’t necessarily a slam dunk, but hear me out. For starters, the average difference in cost is significant, but it’s more noticeable for tickets within 2-3 weeks of departure. Since Alaska flies this route at least once an hour (sometimes every 30 minutes) and Delta recently added several daily flights, prices drop to $72.10 if you can plan ahead. However, last minute prices approach $200, while Amtrak tickets don’t jump nearly that high. Secondly, this is another very scenic route, and being able to relax on a train without worrying about security and traveling to and from the airport can make this a much more pleasant journey. Third, this is another of Amtrak’s special routes, meaning a one-way ticket onlys set you back 1,500 points. Finally, this route also has free Wi-Fi.

Many special routes on Amtrak have limited timetables but can offer a nice alternative to flying.
Many special routes on Amtrak have limited timetables, but offer a nice alternative to flying.

OTHER ROUTES The routes I mention above have multiple flights and trains running every day, so it’s easier to aggregate data for comparison. However, there are several others routes out there for which Amtrak could be the better option if the train works for your schedule. Each of the following is one of Amtrak’s special routes, which again require only 1,500 points for a one-way award ticket. In no particular order:

  1. Fort Worth, TX – Oklahoma City (Heartland Flyer): This route takes passengers straight north from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City, and one-way flights for the dates I checked range from $87 – $137. The flight is just under an hour and runs frequently throughout the day, but DFW isn’t the most convenient of airports. The daily Heartland Flyer is just $28 – $39, and while it does take close to 4 hours, the 5:25 pm departure would allow you to get a full day of work in before hitting the road. The return train leaves at 8:25 am and arrives around lunchtime, giving you an entire afternoon at home/in the office. With just one train a day, this may not fit your specific plans, but it could be a good option.
  2. Chicago – Ann Arbor/Detroit (Wolverine): Any University of Michigan students/alums may be familiar with this route. The Wolverine generally runs three times a day in each direction. With a morning, noon, and evening departure (in both directions), the timing allows flexibility with classes or business meetings. With prices as low as $34 for a one-way ticket (flights start around $100 in advance but get close to $200 or higher closer to departure), this too could be a great value.
  3. San Jose – San Francisco/Oakland – Sacramento (Capital Corridor): While this route does have multiple daily trains, it actually hits four large cities, so rather than try to break down the math, I wanted to include it here. The train from San Jose to Sacramento takes slightly over 3 hours and can cost as little as $40 one-way. This is also a train that has free Wi-Fi, allowing you to get work done as you zip through the Northern California countryside.
Buy points and get a bonus.
Amtrak Guest Rewards has a simple redemption program, but you can get a lot of value out of it.

As I mentioned before, there are many factors that come into play when deciding how to travel, so figure out what works best for you. If you live close to the airport or have elite airline status, flying might be more convenient regardless of cost. I’d love to hear from our experienced Amtrak riders out there. Are there other routes where the train beats flying, or other factors you think weren’t taken into account? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!