Train Travel 101

Is Train Travel Right For You?

Trains can get you from place to place quickly and comfortably.
••• Ken Paul / All Canada Photos / Getty Images

Train travel is becoming ever more popular. Amtrak, the US national passenger rail company, reports that ridership continues to grow each year. The UK's Office of Rail Regulation's statistics show similar increases in both passenger kilometers and numbers of passenger journeys. There's every reason to believe train travel will continue to attract more passengers as airfares climb and travelers consider alternate modes of transportation.

Statistics aside, the question for vacationers is, "Should I travel by train instead of by air, bus or car?" The answer depends not only on your budget but also on your destination, desired comfort level and itinerary.

As you plan your vacation, you'll need to consider the pros and cons of train travel before you decide how you'll get from place to place. Here are some factors to keep in mind.

Train Travel Pros

  • Train travel is fast and direct between major cities, especially in countries with high-speed trains.
  • When you travel by train, you can truly relax. You're not navigating the autobahn or driving a manual transmission Fiat on the "wrong" side of the road, so you can watch the scenery go by, take a nap or read a book.
  • Train travel is fun. Who doesn't feel a thrill at the sight and sound of a powerful locomotive pulling into the station?
  • It's relatively easy to book a train trip. In many countries, you can book your tickets online instead of going to a train station to buy them.
    • If you'll be in the same region or country for an extended period of time, you can save money by purchasing rail passes. Many passenger rail companies offer a huge variety of rail passes, including weekend and family passes. Some rail companies also offer senior discounts on rail passes and regular tickets.
  • For solo travelers or couples, traveling by train can be much less expensive than renting a car in another country, particularly when you factor in the cost of fuel and tolls.
  • Traveling by train is an excellent way to meet locals and find out more about the places you're visiting.

Train Travel Cons

  • Train schedules may not match your preferred travel times and days, so you might have to adjust your itinerary. This is especially true for long-distance train travel in the US.
  • You may have to deal with a late-night layover in a sparsely-populated station in order to make a train connection.
  • If you want to visit hill towns or remote archaeological sites, chances are you'll have to take a bus taxi from the train station in order to get there. Big-city train stations are usually located downtown, but smaller train stations are often placed on the outskirts of the towns they serve.
  • In many countries, you'll need to reserve your seats – for a fee – and you'll usually have to pay a supplement to travel on a faster train. If you don't reserve a seat, you may end up standing for the duration of your journey.
  • You may need to bring your own food and beverages onto the train.
  • Conditions may be crowded, dirty or uncomfortable, particularly at peak travel times or in developing countries.
  • The locals you meet may turn out to be diehard party animals or, worse, petty criminals. You'll need to wear a money belt to keep your valuables safe.

In the end, you'll need to do some research on train ticket prices, check schedules against your proposed itinerary and weigh the pros and cons of train travel against your personal preferences.