Airplane alternative: Amtrak train travel is a hit with this Gadling blogger

When searching out the means to go to New York City with my six year-old son from Columbus, Ohio, the $340 sticker price of an airline ticket seemed hefty. Plus, there’s the cost of getting from the airport into Manhattan.

Toss in flight delay possibilities, airport security issues, and other unforeseeable problems like lost luggage, and, frankly, airline travel seemed like too much trouble.

Driving, though, wasn’t appealing either. While my son would be chattering away in the back looking for entertainment for 11 hours (and no, a DVD player doesn’t work that long) I’d be trying to pay attention to the road. My son DOES NOT fall asleep in a car easily no matter how hard you beg–and I’ve begged.

Then there’s the price of gas. Yikes!

I turned to Amtrak for a possible solution. Bingo!

With our AAA discount and buying the tickets in advance, the cost for two one-way tickets was $135.00 because my son’s was half-price.

(We traveled back on Greyhound. Post coming on that one.)

The hitch was Columbus’s passenger train service doesn’t exist.. Train travel means a trip to Cleveland.

Luckily, my in-laws’ house is minutes from the Cleveland Amtrak station. We’d get an evening visit before the 6:30 a.m. departure. My husband drove us up and rallied for the 5 a.m. wake-up call.

Here is the difference between air travel and train travel and why I’m sold on the later

Getting a ticket

Train travel:

  • I called Amtrak directly after looking on-line at the ticket schedules. The helpful real person told me how early we needed to get to the train station and booked our tickets at no extra cost. She also gave me a tip on how to avoid a cancellation fee. Don’t pick up the tickets before you travel, and then call to cancel up to a day in advance.
  • I picked up a print version of the tickets at the Amtrak ticket counter about 20 minutes before departure. Easy as pie. (Eddie’s pics are the ticket counter in the Cleveland train station and the view outside the station when the train arrives.)

Air travel:

  • I buy directly from an airline’s web site after locating the cheapest prices using Expedia or Travelocity. Of course, there’s cancellation fees if you change your mind, but on many airlines, like Northwest, you can cancel within 24 hours without a penalty.
  • I print out boarding passes after picking out my seat assignment whenever possible.
  • Booking through a real person costs extra money.
  • Booking is easy, but nerve-wracking. Because it costs to change plans, and booking is usually done so far in advance, I have a burst of anxiety each time I make reservations.

Waiting for departure

Train travel:

  • The train station was quiet–sleepy even. Since only one train was coming, there wasn’t a lot of hoopla and noise. Not loads of announcements or interruptions.
  • Plus, from the door to the seats in the waiting area was only a few steps. There wasn’t the security gauntlet either.
  • The one downside was I hadn’t had coffee yet and wanted some–VERY MUCH. There were only vending machines, and unfortunately, the hot drink vending machine was not working properly. I have no idea what ended up in my cup, but it wasn’t coffee. I dumped it in the bathroom sink.

Airport travel:

  • Airports, in my experience, are not particularly relaxing. By the time you are waiting for the gate you’ve had to pass through TSA and other rigmarole steps, all seemingly designed to interrupt the flow of going from here to there.
  • There is usually decent coffee, however, if one is willing to pay the price. I am.

Boarding and Departure:

Train Travel:

  • When the train arrived, there was a quiet movement to the door. My husband helped carry our luggage ALL THE WAY TO THE TRAIN.
  • At the train, a friendly conductor asked, “Is anyone traveling together?” Those traveling with someone else were given priority boarding. My son and I, along with two couples, moved to the front of the pack.
  • “Do you need any help with your luggage?” asked the friendly, smiling conductor. “No, thanks,” I said, but appreciated the hand on my elbow and as I climbed on after he HELPED my son get on board.
  • Another man gave me a paper with our seat numbers written on it. Before new passengers get on, the train personnel find out which seats are free to help passengers find seats easily. Handy, clever and HELPFUL
  • The train aisles are wide and easy to manuver. The luggage rack is easy to reach and able to accommodate carry on size luggage. For large suitcases, there is a place at the back of each train car.
  • Because it was still early in the morning, the lights were dim and boarding was a quiet process as to not disturb the passengers who were still sleeping.
  • My husband was allowed on board and gave us a kiss good-bye before we departed.
  • Departing was quiet. No announcements about safety or what to do in an emergency. We glided out of Cleveland in the dawn with people still snoozing away.

Air travel:

  • You leave your loved ones behind at the security check. No chatting while you wait for boarding which could take hours if there’s a delay.
  • If you’re on a carrier without seat assignments, you have to scout out seats and hope that you can find seats together or ask someone to move.
  • If you have seat assignments you bump down the aisle, trying not to whack people with your carry on luggage, hoping that there’s a spot to store luggage somewhere near your seat.
  • If you’re traveling with a child, you’re directing him or her where to go without any assistance.
  • Departure involves announcements and noise. Slamming of bins, safety talks and engines whirring. If you’re trying to sleep, lots of luck.
  • That said, there is something thrilling about a take-off on an airplane.

Seats and storage

Train travel:

  • Enough room between rows for my son to sit on the floor and play.
  • Seats have a leg and foot rest that created the effect of sitting in a recliner.
  • Each seat has a pillow and a clean head rest cover if you board in the morning.
  • Luggage fit easily under the seats in front of us and in the storage over the seat
  • Tray tables, when down, were a comfortable distance away
  • There are power outlets at each seat, so if you have a lap top or a portable DVD player, you can get plugged in.

Air travel:

  • Even a slim person can feel uncomfortable in coach
  • Feet rests kind of work
  • Getting all but the smallest carry-on won’t fit under the seats. Bin space is usually okay, but there’s a procedure for settling in comfortably. Airplanes are not roomy
  • Tray tables can’t be down if you want to do anything else– like breathe
  • Pillows?

Food and dining

Train Travel:

  • Because there isn’t a problem bringing food and drinks on a train, you could bring a fully loaded picnic basket
  • There’s a snack car where good coffee is available (Eureka!) and several food options. You can buy a sandwich and carry it back to your seat in a handy carry box, or sit at one of the booths. I only bought coffee here. We opted to eat in the dining car.
  • The dining car is a treat and not expensive. We ate both breakfast and lunch here. The dining car has table cloths and a more formal atmosphere where you get waited on.
  • For breakfast I had scrambled eggs, a croissant, homemade hash brown potatoes, and a side order of sausage which I shared with my son. He had a child’s order of French toast and orange juice. The total bill which included tax was $12.
  • For lunch we split an order of Buffalo-style chicken wings and spring rolls which came with celery sticks. My son had cranberry juice to drink and I had coffee. The total was $12. We didn’t eat all the chicken wings so we were given a carry out plate with a cover.

Air travel:

  • We know how this has been going lately. Nuff said. Just think of your last airplane dining experience, even if you paid for it, and think about how that went as you balanced food and your reading material on the tray table in front of you.

Other passengers and personnel

Train travel:

  • People on the train talk with each other. The pace allows for conversations and finding out a bit about people’s lives.
  • Our first interesting conversation was with an Australian fellow who shared our breakfast table. He was on a 30-day train trip around the U.S. and had just come from an air show in Wisconsin. We shared travel stories and he enjoyed my six-year old. He was perhaps 60 or so.
  • There was a family sitting in back of us who were with three kids. They had traveled to and from California on the train for part of their summer vacation. My son played with their kids for a few hours, both at our seats and in the snack bar car.
  • Another young couple was on their way to New York City from Cleveland and was interested in things to do in Manhattan
  • The wait staff in the dining car were wonderful. Very solicitous and great towards my son.
  • The conductors were friendly and often asked people if they needed any help.

Air Travel:

  • I’ve had interesting conversations with a passenger once in awhile, but air travel does not entice conversations since much of the plane is filled with people who are on their way to or from a meeting. People have an aura of, “I’m trying to catch up with my life,” on a plane.
  • I rarely chat it up with airline personnel. Nothing personal, Heather and Kent, but they’re busy people, particularly on short flights.


Train travel

  • Clean and roomy. Also, nice smelling soap. Since trains sway, it creates some going to the bathroom excitement.

Airplane travel

  • Airplane bathrooms are cuter.


Train travel

  • Perfect for scenery watching. We went past farms, small towns and through cities like Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Hudson and Poughkeepsie. Through a good part of New York, there were gorgeous views of the Hudson River that went on for miles. I love watching landscapes change.

Airplane travel:

  • Except for take off and landings, and passing over landmarks like the Grand Canyon, scenery is not normally top on my list of air travel highlights.


Train travel:

  • As soon as the train pulls into the station you can get off. You have your bags whether you have big or small ones. Penn Station is easy to navigate. It was easy to find which subway we would take to get to Union Square, the station near where my brother lives.
  • We took a taxi, also easy to find.
  • We were at my brother’s apartment about 20 minutes after we arrived at Penn Station

Airplane travel:

  • If we had flown we would have arrived at Newark Airport and either taken the bus which would have been about $22 total and then involved a taxi ride (another $12 to $15) or taken a door to door service which would have been more. Either way, it would have been over an hour to get to my brother’s.
  • Newark is fairly easy to navigate.

Traveling with a child

Train travel:

  • This was an adventure for my son. He loved playing with the other kids, eating in the dining car, watching the scenery, and spending time with me. He DID FALL ASLEEP at lunch so I had to carry him back to our seat.
  • We read, he drew, played games and took little walks.
  • Kids are not seen as hassles on the train. From what I can tell, people like to travel on trains with their kids so that’s why there are kids.
  • Maybe because there is enough room on a train, if someone is bothered by kids, he or she can move.
  • Airplane travel:
  • Air travel is something my son enjoys. His first airplane trip was when he was three months old and take off and landings are swell. He is more squirrely on a plane though because there is not much room to move.
  • I’ve never found an air travel to be that unfriendly towards my kids, but I am cognizant that when someone hears my son’s jubilant voice, he or she may wish they could move, but they can’t move, so I am on edge.

Summary and other points

My trip on the train sold me on train travel. I know there are problems with train travel, particularly the on time factor–even our train was a half hour late, but on time statistics with airplanes aren’t great either.

I can honestly say when we arrived in New York, I felt rested. All that gentle swaying probably relaxed me.

The last photo is at Penn Station after we arrived.