Budget Travel: Ride the rails

Travel by train means that you must enjoy “getting there” as much as “being there.” Since it takes a lot longer than flying, you have to make transportation part of the experience. Don’t just think about hopping on a train to get somewhere. Instead, you’re going to the train! And, eventually, it will lead someplace.

Even with fantastic deals on flights right now, travel is still expensive. A long flight followed by a long stay in a hotel adds up quickly. Because the economy is circling the drain right now, a lot of frequent travelers are changing their habits. Vacations that would normally last a few weeks are being pared back to a few days. Trips abroad become trips in the United States. Dreams of Hawaii are confined to the lower 48. Weeks are becoming weekends.

This is where the train can help.

If you’re looking for a weekend getaway, deals by rail abound, and you can replace short flights with reasonable train rides. You’ll pay a fraction of what you would for a flight, enjoy the journey and still have plenty of time at your eventual destination.

Before we even talk about at train fares, let’s look at the hidden cost of flying. I’m not referring to taxes and fees … we all know about that. Instead, reflect on your last trip to the airport. I just flew out of JFK two days ago. It cost me close to $60 to get a town car from my Upper West Side digs. While that sounds like a relatively luxurious way to roll, a taxi would have cost about the same. I could have taken the subway, but that would have required lugging my baggage around for two hours. I’ll have to pay the same amount to get home from the airport next week. Transportation from the airport to my hotel wasn’t as bad, but it’s still another hidden cost.

If you don’t live in a city, you may wind up driving yourself to the airport. Depending on the length of your trip, that could cost at least as much as my town car rides, maybe more. There is no way around it. Expect to add at least $100 to the cost of your airfare to get a real sense of how much your flight is going to cost.Trains are different. I can catch Amtrak from Penn Station, which is a short subway ride ($2), or around $7 by taxi. When I get to my destination – for me, it’s usually Boston or Washington, D.C. – I can do the same. Train stations tend to be in the cities to which you’re traveling, while airports are on the outskirts (at best).

You also save time.

A flight from New York to Boston, for example, takes less than an hour. But, I have to spend 45 minutes in a car en route to the airport. And, I have to spend at least 45 minutes at the airport waiting for my flight. For peak travel times, it’s smart to arrive at least an hour early. Then, depending on traffic, it’s at least another half hour from Logan Airport into Boston. All in, my trip is more than three hours long. By train, it’s 15 minutes to Penn station, three hours on the train and 10 minutes from South Station to the downtown.

Okay, since it’s break-even on time, let’s talk about cost. You can get lucky with prices on these short run flights, but you have to be careful. If you wind up on a peak time for business travelers – who don’t usually shop for bargains – you’re competing for space and paying a premium. This happens with the train, as well, but not to the same extent.

Most of Amtrak’s hot deals are on the East Cost right now, where a roundtrip ticket almost anywhere seems to cost less than $50 for a weekend getaway. Out west, there are plenty of low-priced tickets, as well, including a round trip between San Diego and San Francisco for less than $150.

If you need some peace for the weekend, the train may be the best option you never thought about. There aren’t many good flights for under $100, even for the short runs that you could cover by train. And, you’ll avoid the hidden costs of air travel. The best part? There’s no flight attendant galley for Uma Thurman to disrupt!