The U.S. routes where trains trump planes

Step away from Skyscanner! Train travel in the U.S. can be fast and convenient, with bonus legroom, remarkable views, and a reduced carbon footprint.

Train travel across the U.S. can be a relaxing, enjoyable way to see the country. Image credit: Geber86/iStock
Train travel across the U.S. can be a relaxing, enjoyable way to see the country. Image credit: Geber86/iStock

While the United States may not be blessed with a comprehensive high-speed rail network as is enjoyed in Europe, the often-sidelined national train service, Amtrak, is thriving. From East to West, and North to South, Amtrak’s 21,000 miles of track stretches across 46 states, connecting more than 500 U.S. destinations. 

Depending on your destination, journeys in the U.S. by train can actually be better, and more convenient than the equivalent flight. Train stations tend to be centrally located, meaning travelers avoid time spent in transit to far-flung airports. In addition, trains are generally more comfortable, with more legroom, and more space to walk around and stretch your legs. These days, almost all Amtrak trains are equipped with reliable Wi-Fi, making them an excellent choice for business travelers looking to get a little work done in transit.

Train travel is an environmentally friendly choice, producing far fewer carbon emissions than the equivalent flight. Passengers can enjoy the view from their windows guilt-free, as their train glides past oceans, and through forests, deserts, and mountain ranges.

If you subscribe to the adage that “the journey means more than the destination”, or are looking to break the monotony of a frequently flown route, read on for a few popular journeys in the U.S. where train travel reigns supreme.

Los Angeles to San Diego, California

Book a seat onboard the Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles, and you’ll enjoy remarkable views of the Pacific Ocean as you cruise down the coast into San Diego.

The train departs from Los Angeles’ historic Union Station, which opened in 1939 in the midst of the golden age of train travel. For those used to flying out of LAX, Union Station’s towering painted ceilings, intricate tiling, art deco touches, and grand marble floors are a welcome change.

The journey itself takes just under three hours and once the train exists the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, the ocean landscapes start to unfurl. View the shimmering Pacific Ocean as the Pacific Surfliner runs level with the sea, interchanged for cliff faces and sleepy surf towns as the train creeps inland. The train terminates at the century-old, Spanish revival Santa Fe Train Station, in the center of San Diego’s downtown.

Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington

Board the Amtrak Cascades railway between Portland to Seattle, and you will be blown away by the majesty of Washington State and the Cascade Mountains.

This stretch of Amtrak’s famously scenic Cascades railway line offers a comfortable and relaxing way of getting between two of the Pacific Northwest’s largest cities. The journey takes just three-and-a-half hours, hugging the mighty Cascade Mountains and passing many of the region’s most beautiful natural attractions, as well as quaint riverside villages and farmlands. 

The sleek, European-style trains that service this particular route are a cut above Amtrak’s standard offering, with wide reclining leather seats, bike racks, and a baggage check service for those who wish to avoid lugging their own suitcases on and off the train. The carefully designed Bistro Car menu features regional specialties, including local wines, craft beers, and world-famous Seattle coffee blends.

A view out to Mount Adam in the Cascade Range. Image credit: thyegn/iStock
A view out to Mount Adam in the Cascade Range. Image credit: thyegn/iStock

Chicago, Illinois to Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The distance between the cities of Chicago and Milwaukee is less than 100 miles, which means Amtrak’s Hiawatha train service is almost as fast as flying.

While this train journey isn’t particularly scenic, it’s easily the most sensible way of getting between the two cities. Those opting to fly must travel 30 minutes by car to reach Chicago O’Hare airport from the city’s CBD and allow time for check-in and baggage check. Those who choose to travel by train have the luxury of leaving from the city’s central Chicago Union Station, for an hour-and-a-half train journey which delivers them directly into the heart of Milwaukee. 

This is an extremely popular journey, with 14 trains Monday through to Saturday and 12 services on Sundays, giving you plenty of flexibility. One stand-out feature of the Amtrak trains that service this route is the “Quiet Car” section. In this car, cell phone usage is prohibited, and talking must be kept to a whisper – perfect for business travelers looking to catch up on work or rest before arrival.

El Paso, Texas to Tucson, Arizona

Explore the USA’s southern frontier, by boarding the Amtrak Sunset Limited train service between the border town of El Paso, and the desert oasis of Tucson.

Considering there are no direct flights between these two Southern cities, Amtrak train is quite possibly the most convenient and hassle-free option. The six-hour journey is fabulously scenic, and whether you are traveling for business or pleasure, nothing beats sitting back in air-conditioned comfort as you watch the rugged, red, dry-as-a-bone desert stretch out in front of you.

Keep an eye out for large pecan tree orchards as you exit the outskirts of El Paso, after which you’ll spot a section of the border wall which divides Mexico and the U.S. From there on out, the landscape is like something out of a Wild West film. You’ll enjoy sprawling deserts and cacti, rugged rock formations, and wild expanses of yellow tundra. 

A view out to El Paso. Image credit: DenisTangneyJr/iStock
A view out to El Paso. Image credit: DenisTangneyJr/iStock

New York City to Boston, Massachusetts

Home to baked beans, the Red Sox, Harvard University, and one of the world’s most prestigious marathons, those traveling to Boston from New York City are best to book passage on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train service.

The Amtrak train is by far the most convenient choice for those traveling out of Manhattan, as it departs from New York’s centrally-located Penn Station. The journey takes just under four hours and is a particularly excellent option for frequent business travelers seeking a more comfortable way of getting between these two major business hubs.

Economy seats on the Northeast Regional service offer an extravagant 39 inches of legroom – eight inches more than you’ll enjoy on your average economy flight. Opt for a Business Class Seat for even more legroom,  and complimentary drinks. The train terminates at Boston’s Black Bay Station, close to many of the cities trendiest bars and restaurants, and a stone’s throw from the city’s commercial center.

New York City to Washington DC

You can also catch the Northeast Regional southbound out of New York City, which will deliver you to the U.S. capital city in just three-and-a-half hours.

The speed and convenience of Amtrak’s service between these two cities leave little excuse for booking a flight. As with the aforementioned NYC to Boston route, Southbound trains also leave out of centrally located Penn Station, and you’ll arrive directly into Union Station in DC’s political heart, close to Capitol Hill, The White House, and The Washington Monument.

If you travel the Northeast Regional service frequently, then it’s worth signing up for Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program. As you accrue points you will be eligible for certain perks and privileges, such as business and first-class upgrades, and access to Amtrak’s exclusive business lounges.

New York City to Montreal, Canada

For those who don’t mind lengthy train journeys, the 10-hour ride aboard the Amtrak’s Adirondack train service is blessed with outstanding scenery.

While 10 hours in the air can feel like an eternity, traveling by train with a window seat and access to a well-stocked dining car can be a highly enjoyable, even bordering-on-indulgent, experience. There is one train per day, which leaves at 7.15 a.m. from Penn Station, so passengers can enjoy the scenic route by daylight.

After exiting the concrete jungle of NYC, the train heads into upstate New York and then along the Hudson River Valley, dotted with charming farmhouses and rolling meadows. As you head North, the Adiron Mountains (for which the train line is named), and the Green Mountains of Vermont offer astonishing views – especially in autumn when the leaves start to turn. The train pulls into Montreal’s Central Station at 7.20 p.m., a few hours after crossing the Canadian border. Stretch your legs with a walk through the city, followed by maple whiskey and a healthy portion of the Québécois delicacy, poutine.


Grace Catherine

Grace is a freelance writer and digital project manager from New Zealand currently based in Mexico City. She is an avid traveler who loves destinations with an eclectic history, a bike-sharing scheme, and plenty of cool animals.