Train vs. Plane Travel: Which Is Right for You?

For long-haul international travel, flying is usually the only way to go. But in Europe or within many countries, train travel is a viable alternative to flights. In many cases it’s cheaper and more comfortable than flying, and sometimes it’s even faster. Here's how to choose whether train or plane travel is right for you on your next trip.

Benefits of train travel

Here are a few ways you can really cash in on traveling by train.

Lower costs

One of the main benefits that train travel often has over flying is cost. In Japan, for instance, you can get a JR Pass good for a week of unlimited travel around the whole country for less than $300. Europe has a similar kind of system with its Interrail Global Pass. These kinds of passes can be cost effective if you're visiting various places in a short period of time. (See also: 5 Fun, Affordable Train Trips)

Better views

Many train enthusiasts love the fact that you get to experience the country you're traveling in from a different perspective, and often get great views from the seats. Train lines tend to run along routes that would otherwise be difficult to visit, and some of the most iconic journeys go through the heart of stunning locations. Amtrak's Coast Starlight, for example, runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, providing dramatic views of the Cascade Mountains and long stretches of the Pacific Ocean. By air, you may get a glimpse of a city or mountain range when you take off or land, but generally, you'll be stuck with mostly clouds.

More luggage

Trains also allow passengers to transport more luggage, which when traveling heavy can make a real difference. For example, Amtrak allows each passenger to check two 50-lb bags and carry on two 50-lb bags as well as two 25-lb personal items — all for no added cost. Other train services throughout the world either don't have baggage allowances at all, or don't enforce them, meaning you're free to take as much as you'd like.

In comparison, most airlines charge at least $25 for each checked bag on domestic flights, and limit you to one carry-on and one personal item. Many charge for carry-ons these days, too.

More comfort — usually

With airlines shrinking seat size and legroom to squeeze an ever-growing number of passengers onto planes, train travel can seem luxuriously comfortable. That’s assuming that you actually get a seat. Depending on what level of ticket you buy and the route you’re traveling, it may not be possible to get an assigned seat or even any seat at all. On Amtrak’s bustling Northeast Corridor line, for instance, it’s not unusual to have to stand for at least part of the ride in coach from New York to Washington, D.C.

Benefits of flying

Here are a few ways air travel beats the train.

More options for destinations

Air travel provides far more flexibility in terms of the locations you're able to get to. In many countries, rail routes are extremely limited, and can even be nonexistent. This may actually leave air travel as your only option in many instances. (See also: 10 Flight Booking Hacks to Save You Hundreds)

Plane travel is slightly less deadly

Plane crashes tend to be catastrophic, and the nature of traveling at such high speeds at high altitudes means that when they do happen, the number of deaths is high. However, plane crashes are far more infrequent than many people would imagine, and a study by Northwestern University found that the number of deaths per passenger mile is actually lower on planes than on trains. While both modes of transport are considered extremely safe, and both far less risky than traveling by car, perhaps surprisingly, the risk of fatality is lower in planes than on trains.

Guaranteed seats

Planes have a fixed capacity, meaning you will always have a seat and not have to stand up on any journey, provided you don't get bumped. Trains, on the other hand, are busy and overpopulated in some countries and along certain routes at peak times. While your aircraft seat may be cramped, at least you’ll have one. And on most airlines, you’ll have an assigned seat so you won't be frantically scanning for a seat among hordes of commuters. (See also: What to Do If You Get Bumped From a Flight)

The differences in speed and travel time

Often it's assumed that because planes travel faster than trains, getting from point A to point B is automatically going to be quicker. However, this isn't always the case, and it's important to take into consideration the full journey time rather than just the ticket's stated journey duration.

In the case of a flight, this includes the fact that you need to arrive at the airport at least one hour before takeoff — two hours for international flights. Then there's the time it takes to get to and from the airports. Airports, particularly ones that budget airlines use, tend to be out of city limits and in less convenient locations.

Train stations, on the other hand, are routinely located in the heart of cities, which could knock a significant amount off your total travel time. It may make your ground transportation much cheaper and easier as well, especially if you’re using municipal public transport.

However, for distances of more than a few hundred miles, planes are still dramatically faster than trains. You may be able to get from Philadelphia to Boston in about the same travel time, but if you’re traveling across a country or continent, train rides are for those who have more time than money, or who relish the romance and adventure of train travel.

What does the future hold?

The gap between rail and air travel appears to be narrowing, with many new high speed rail links in the planning stages across the world. This is particularly true in China, where there's a real focus on improving the rail infrastructure and creating better and quicker links between major cities.

For some journeys across Japan, China, South Korea, and Europe on modern train lines using advanced technology, trains travel significantly faster than they used to. New designs in development look to push the boundaries of rail travel even further. Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop promises speeds of over 700 mph. If this comes to fruition, train speeds could even surpass those of planes, opening a whole new world of travel possibilities.

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