AmtrakAirlines want you to pay up. And not just in the form of higher overall fares -- although booking website Kayak.com predicts those will rise 3% this summer -- but also in terms of where you sit.

Choose window or aisle seats, and you'll pay more, even if you're traveling as a family. The Associated Press did the math, and it turns out that giving Junior a view or mom extra legroom amounts to about $25 each way. And that's probably the low end. Premium seats on premium routes could cost far more.

What's a vacationing family to do?

Driving is certainly an option. But anyone who's taken a long driving trip with a family of five can tell you that traveling in a tightly packed van isn't exactly comfortable. There's no room to stretch out. It's also easy to miss the beautiful sights when driving toward a distant destination, a task that requires hours of focus.

However, there's another alternative -- a travel mode you may not have considered.

All aboard!

Taking a train -- while more expensive than gassing up the car -- can be a surprisingly smart option for families who prefer a little more leg room and want someone else to do the driving.

Cross-country trips could run into the thousands quite quickly. But a family of five traveling from Denver to Salt Lake City might enjoy significant savings riding the Amtrak:

Mode
Fare (roundtrip)
Travel Time (total)
Fly
$998
2 hours, 50 minutes
Drive
$106*
17 hours, 24 minutes
Train
$595
30 hours, 8 minutes
Sources: Southwest Airlines, the Department of Energy, AAA, Amtrak, and author's estimates. *Cost of gas.

Granted, Denver to Salt Lake isn't likely to be a common tourist trip. But the booking exercise is instructive in that it shows the savings available when trying alternatives.

How do some popular trips stack up? 107

Flying five people from New York City to Orlando in late June for four days costs $2,171 on Southwest Airlines (LUV). Taking Amtrak -- reserving coach seats for the roughly 24-hour trip -- would cost the same five people just $1,347.50. Driving all 1,079 miles (nonstop except for refueling) would take 18 hours and cost just $207 in gas, making it the cheapest (though most stressful) of the options.

Similarly, a family of five taking the train from Boston to Washington, D.C., during the same time frame would cost $724.50. JetBlue Airways (JBLU) would charge $898 for the same route -- and according to Kayak, that's the lowest published airfare. In each case, Amtrak offers savings.

Of all the choices, trains offer an uncommon mix of comfort and flexibility. The trade-off? It's going to take longer to get to your destination.


The Luxuries of Riding the Rails

Yet train travel's greatest weakness -- travel time -- can also be its greatest strength. If you plan ahead, those extra hours can be filled with fun and meaningful activities.

Long hours rolling down the tracks are idle time for sightseeing, walking the cars, and meeting other travelers, playing board games, talking, streaming movies, and even working a little for those self-employed white-collar workers who don't officially get "vacation time." Food is available most hours. Entertainment is limited only to what you've packed and your imagination.


Small children and their parents might find the long hours unbearable, but older kids might enjoy the chance to explore. At the very least, taking a lengthy train trip with the kids might serve as a test run for how they might cope with overseas flights that tend to take 10 hours or more.

Train travel also affords a level of self-sufficiency not available to those who fly. Travelers can pack coolers of food and drink and bring extra bags with blankets and pillows for "camping out" in reclining coach seats. (Although small staterooms with built-in beds are available to those willing to spend a few hundred dollars extra.)

In our hectic, always-on lives, we tend to forget how to slow down. Taking a train takes us back to those times in life when taking breaks wasn't just OK, but encouraged.

What are your vacation plans this summer? How are you cutting costs? Please weigh in using the comments box below.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Southwest Airlines.



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Joanna k

we went to Chicago on Amtrak from DC. We got on the train at 4:30, had a steak dinner, slept comfortably in our cabin, and woke up 1 hour outside of Chicago (oh, and we had a great breakfast on the train too). It cost $100 less than flying. And the best part? NO TSA feelie show.

June 04 2012 at 3:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Peter H. Coffin

Do not forget that "cost of gas" isn't even close to the cost of driving transportation. There's good reason that the IRS allows 55.5 cents per mile to be deducted for business purposes -- that's a lot closer to the actual cost. Which puts the cost of driving to about $300.

June 04 2012 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Steampunk Sweetheart

There may be no TSA--but TSA, frankly, isn't doing a thing to make airlines safer--unless you've got a federal air marshal aboard you're dead meat if a terrorist targets your plane. Also, while you CAN die in a train crash, the odds of survival are MUCH higher than when the plane goes down. Planes are basically 101 ways to die and if you fly often enough, your number WILL come up.

As far as the comfort on Amtrak goes, if you're going long-haul, you want to go in the sleepers. It's more expensive, but it's much more comfortable. Plus the food's included. I doubt my parents considered taking us kids to Florida on the coaches for even five seconds. More comfortable for you, keeps the kids away from other travelers. It's a vacation-if you can't afford that, you probably should stay closer to home anyway and just drive.

My transportation choices are always: Train (Amtrak/VIA), drive, transatlantic liner (what I will do if Cunard ever goes away I don't know), and if there is an ocean and absolutely NO other option and I don't have any real choice and HAVE to go, I'll fly.

June 04 2012 at 3:03 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Grace Burson

One thing not mentioned in the article (though perhaps it's come up in the comments) is that when you buy a sleeper berth on Amtrak, you can eat in the dining car FOR FREE - and the dining car serves good-quality food, unlike the cafe car - with white tablecloths and table service and the whole nine yards.

My four-year-old and I are traveling from Boston to St. Louis via Chicago later this month, in sleepers for the Boston-Chicago leg, and the WHOLE TRIP, including berths and three meals in each direction in the dining car, cost $750.

June 04 2012 at 3:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Unknown Sender

i hate to comment twice but this subject is good enough to warrant explaining all the things the common folk arent told. so heres a few more benefits you could expect from either more patronization of Amtrak, OR the building of an HSR.....

first, as it stands right now, there is NO TSA on our passenger train services. though dont think they arent protected. for some unknown reason it seems the security measures that our railroads took to insure our safety were not even thought about when our illustrious govt concieved of the ill fated TSA. what you can be assured of is there are plain clothes folks on our trains and lurking conspicuosly at our stations that are there for us. yay us! and i didnt need an anal retentive cavity search to board my train. that fact alone youd think would make you folks want to ride the train more.

two, and if more of us rode, then a simple chain of events would be set into play..... more ridership would mean the fares would lower. more trains would be needed. thus more light would be shed to reviving the rail passenger service. need proof? here ya go..... remember Conrail? i know, you probably thought it was the govt using convicts to run a railroad. NO! however it was a govt owned railroad. freight only. much like its twin Amtrak which is passenger only. now ya got the picture? well, as it turns out, we people used Conrail so much so that it was profitable, essentially bought itself away from the govt, became its on entitty (private just like all our other railroads). only to sell out to two other major rail carriers in the end. (we only have 5 left in the country now). well we didnt use Amtrak as much, and this is why the govt still subsidizes it.

three, if we patronize it more, and item #2 happens, its very possible it can have the same results as Conrail. and thus, our national debt went down that much. ok, just a drop in the bucket, but its more than all our elected officials combined are doing! do the math!

four, heres the immediate returns.... ya think that plane or bus seat is large and comfy? they will feel like tuna cans after you sit in a train seat. and thats coach class! window seats you are not charged extra for. and dont forget, they are on some cars, up to 10 times larger than a plane peephole. oh yeah, your gonna see EVERYTHING on your vaca looking out a train window. not to mention are you allowed to just walk up and down the 50' plane isle? can you do that without even touching a seat? well, feel free to do that on a train (few hundred feet long). restrooms are 2 to 3 times the size and way more cleaner. airplanes dont have rooms you can rent only cruize ships do. odd though that you cant book a cruize from Denver to Salt Lake. getting the point?

fifth, safety. hands down, the numbers dont lie, railroad travel is THEE SAFEST form of mass travel on the planet! bar none! for the family minded, with the kids on ultra high play mode, safety is a nice free feature to have.

PEACE!

June 01 2012 at 1:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Unknown Sender

ok folks, this wasnt covered in the article, but apparently the postings are wondering this....

why arent we (USA) doing the 'H'igh 'S'peed 'R'ail thing? simplest answer is were americans... we expect it to be built in japan or china, shipped here and slipped under the door. the other more obvious reason is $$$. thats right $$$! it always comes down to that doesnt it?

for some lameass reason people seem to think that cement ties (sand, gravel, etc etc) and steel rails (more abuntdant minerals) should cost a few million a mile to make instead of the pennies it actually is worth. ok, i can concede on the train sets being worth a few million seeing how those are race cars on steroids with NO steering wheels. (for those who didnt know this, trains do not have steering wheels. essentailly they are self powered rollercoasters). plus Wifi, flats screen tvs ( yes tvs! not like planes) and all the other amenities that your minivan, bus, or plane do NOT have.

another concern is land. if you own the land where they want to put the right of way, youd sell it for all you could, right? so theres a major expense. why not use existing railroads? simple answer there too... railroads are in the freight business only since we people gave up on them by using our cars and planes. this is how Amtrak came about. Amtrak only owns a tiny tiny tiny percentage of the track it runs on. most of it ironically being the North East Corridor, which, double irony, is the US's only existing 'supposed' HSR. though the trains are rarely allowed to travel more than 100mph for any length of time.

heres an interesting cudo. should we americans make the choice to return to using trains as the viable mode that it was/can be again, then dont think Amtrak wouldnt answer the call. maybe not with HSR, but certainly something could be done in the more near future easily.

an HSR for some reason people think would take forever and a day to construct. thats just a bunch of lameasses talking who just happen to be the decision makers. get rid of those people and youve cleared the first hurdle. its just a clear, level and straight (as often as it can be) path with railroad tracks. thats it! there was a time in this country when it was a major event to lay as much track as you could in one day. now, were lucky to make it thru the drive thru in under ten minutes.

say you get the land. say you get the materials and trains at a price thats business worthy. say you get everything you need, and you still have one thing left to do..... get the people. this is why we gave up on trains. they just dont go where cars and buses can. and its not likely your gonna be able to get a ticket to europe, train only. they dont float well and last i heard they arent water tight either.

do know that a well built and operated HSR can compete and blow away an airplane. 300mph on the ground is faster than 300mph in the air. and WAY more comfy! just know its doable, we just arent doing it!

June 01 2012 at 1:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jjbwnyc

i love driving, its so much more fun. i have taken the train from NY to Boston a million times. it will get you there, its boring and no one wants to be on that train. now the train from san diego to SF was fantastic but then again i could get there when i wanted to. the trip from san antonio to NY was amazing i loved it and would definitley do it again, you have a "layover" in chicago for 5 hrs. i went to the museum and then had a great lunch.....but i love driving its releaves my stress and i can stop whenever i want. planes are very disappointing, why bother telling the stories blah blah blah...and the last few times TSA screened me i wasnt wearing underwear...oops its more comfortable that way..its was summ'a

June 01 2012 at 1:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ddj503

I love trains. please support them, put money into them, get them going across America! Why don't we have the high speed trains other countries use from their metropolitan cities?

June 01 2012 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
lagik

was on high speed trains in Europe going 200 MPH traveling from country to country
smooth ride, nice scenery, cheaper than flying,
about the same time considering getting to the airport early & flight time,
US needs to upgrade it train system!!

May 31 2012 at 10:41 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
dbloom2595

My family took several trips by train and thought it was o.k., except for the first come, first served on Amtrak from Philadelphia to Manhatten. I've taken trips all around the the USA in cars, including VW Bugs and four in the seat of a Ford F-150. I would rather travel in any of these than fly in that hell they call airlines. My husband and I drive 7000 miles round trip every to see our daughter in Alaska rather than giving another dollar to the airlines.

May 31 2012 at 10:02 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply