While I truly appreciate the technological miracle of human flight, I’d altogether avoid flying if it were possible to do that and still indulge my serious case of wanderlust. And I love a good road trip, but who would want to drive everywhere? So until teleportation devices are invented I’ll continue to travel by train whenever possible…and here’s why.
1) Bells and Whistles – No other form of transportation has sounds as exciting for kids and inexplicably nostalgic for adults to hear than the ones a train uses to announce its presence. Those who live next to railroad tracks excepted, there’s something a little wrong with people who don’t like the sound of a train whistle, or the clanking bells as it approaches a station.
2) Downtown to Downtown – Saving on cab fare, rental cars or time spent commuting from airports on the outskirts of a city is a definite train travel perk. Whether headed somewhere for work or pleasure, arriving downtown saves time and lessens the likelihood you’ll succumb to the tempting smell of an airport Cinnabon.
3) Leg Room – Tall people sometimes have to pay extra to bring their legs along while traveling. On a 13-hour flight from the States to Tokyo my legs literally touched the seat in front of me the entire way. I paid an additional fee for United’s Economy Plus on the way home to try and avoid significant back pain. In contrast, regular economy class on a train comes with space for my legs to happily accompany me at no extra cost.4) Unrestricted Tech & Comfort – Smart phones, iPods, laptops, DVD players and other electronic devices are unrestricted from the time you step foot on a train until you get off. No getting yelled at by flight attendants to turn stuff off. The same goes with seatbacks and tray tables. So settle in, recline with outstretched legs and listen to your own playlist while typing a list of reasons to ride trains.
5) Conductor’s Hats – When having your ticket collected, it’s always nice to see a neat hat.
6) Scenery – Peering into the downtown of various stops, and lakes, mountains or the permafrost landscape of destinations is something that just can’t really be done by plane. Some train journeys themselves are even UNESCO World Heritage sites, like Switzerland’s Bernina Express and the Himalayan Darjeeling Express in India. Amtrak’s Adirondack train from NYC to Montreal even offers historical and nature information by the National Parks Service in the café car. Riders can get a free ‘tour’ and ask questions from two expert volunteer guides there just for the fun of it.
7) No Groping – Besides not having to trek out to an airport, you don’t get put through the metal detectors, baggage x-ray, grope-tastic pat-downs, shoe removal, and restrictions on liquid and other items in your luggage.
8) Private Cabins – On a long train it’s splendid to curl up in bed and sleep like you mean it instead of getting whiplash from nodding head syndrome in a seat. Plus, it’s fun for a little hanky panky when traveling with a significant other and much easier to deal with than the logistics of joining the Mile High Club.
9) Smelling the Roses – Aside from great scenery, sometimes the trip is in the journey. Being on a train can be a great time to unwind and relish the travel part of traveling.
10) Cool Names – Unlike most planes (with a few exceptions), trains often have cool names, which adds a little extra magic to the ride. Some are even named for folk songs, like The City of New Orleans. But even when they’re named simply for their destination like the Narita Express, it somehow seems cooler.
11) More Luggage, Less Fees – You’d have to bring a startling amount of luggage to be charged extra for it on a train, while fees for even one checked bag has become the norm for most airlines. And overhead storage spaces are larger on trains, so heaving it up there is a bit easier. This often also helps make boarding faster because the guy in front of you doesn’t have to try and deny the laws of physics by insisting his puffy oversized carry-on “always fits” for what feels like an our before the eventual walk of shame to gate check it.
12) Meeting People – When a creepy guy or freakishly chatty person is your seatmate on a flight, the only hope for getting away is to slyly slip your earbuds in and avoid eye contact at all costs. But on a train, not only can you get up and walk to grab a beer and sit at a table, people are generally friendlier and in a better mood (you included), so it can be fun to talk with people – especially locals along the train route in a foreign country who are happy to offer destination advice.
13) Affordable Upgrades – In most developed countries there’s not a huge difference between train classes, or if there is, the second-class accommodations are comfortable enough not to care. And the difference between upgrading to business or first-class is nowhere near as traumatizing as jumping from a $300 airfare to an $8,000 airfare to do so.
14) Fewer Crying Babies – When my kids were babies, I dreaded the rolling eyes and sighs of other passengers just because we were boarding a plane. And when I’m traveling alone, no amount of motherhood could make me want to listen to someone else’s kid wailing in my ear the entire flight. Trains offer a bunch of ways to beat this conundrum. First off, parents can walk around as much as they want, or take a little tyke to the cafe car for a snack. Similarly, you can seek respite in another train car until the crying has ended. Bonus: since trains don’t have huge altitude changes, children’s ears don’t get the dreaded ear pressure problem that often sets up a chain reaction of crying the entire flight.
15) It’s Green – Some experts say traveling by train can cut a passenger’s carbon emissions by up to 90 percent versus flying. Combine that with reason #2 on this list and deduct the amount of non-renewable energy used while commuting to the train itself.
16) Less Carnage – There is some debate on how to calculate the percentage of injuries and fatalities on planes versus trains. But unless you’re a drunk guy parked on the tracks, it seems you’re less likely to die maimed and incinerated when a train derails, than when a plane crashes.
17) No Speeding Tickets – Not only do trains help travelers avoid traffic jams and tolls, you can hop on high speed lines like the European InterCityExpress (ICE), or Japan’s Shinkansen which both regularly travel over 180 mph. Try to do that in a car on I-80.
18) Less Barfing – For those of us afflicted with being prone to motion sickness, a train ride is often far less nausea or headache inducing. In fact I can read, watch a movie, or happily type away on a computer, which would be impossible in a car without blowing chunks. Maybe it’s the large windows, or the consistent rhythm, but riding the rails can even be comforting, especially on overnight journeys when it feels like you’re being rocked to sleep.
19) Wheelchair Accessible – One of my kids uses a wheelchair and it’s exponentially easier to travel by train than go through the hassles of an airport’s invasive security screening (since he can’t walk through the detectors), not to mention the sheer logistics of getting on and off a plane. Plus, passenger services often offer a porter who will help with luggage and a little ramp to get on and off the train.
20) Compensation for Delays – It would be unheard of with airlines, but you can sometimes get a partial refund (in the form of a voucher) for severe train delays. I often take the Acela Express train from New York City to Washington DC and on a recent trip was delayed due to mechanical failure for an extra 1.5 hours on a route that normally takes only 3 hours. I called customer service afterward and a friendly fellow sent me a $75 voucher.
[flickr image via Train Chartering & Private Rail Cars]