Is Amtrak Cheaper Than Flying?

When thinking about your next travel destination, you may be asking yourself which mode of transportation would be more affordable. It’s understandable with the rising prices of gas, which affects the cost of flights. An avid traveler knows it’s not just the cost of the ticket that needs to be considered, but the cost of luggage and food, among other fees.

YES! Amtrak is cheaper than flying, especially if you are traveling regionally. A few variables make train travel less expensive in these cases. However, there are situations, especially with long-distance traveling, where flying is the less expensive option.

Let’s look at what factors contribute to cost in Amtrak train travel versus flying and what scenario would warrant traveling on a plane versus a train. Keep reading to find out key advantages to traveling on Amtrak.

Amtrak price
Todd & Jack Humphrey

What Makes Amtrak Less Expensive for Regional Travel?

Train travel may seem like an old-fashioned form of transportation to get to your next vacation destination. Still, it can be the most affordable way to travel regionally for some. Riding the rails from Seattle to Portland is roughly three and a half hours, the same time it would take driving your car. With the gas prices currently, it would cost approximately $90 for a full tank of gas to make it a round trip. An Amtrak ticket from Seattle to Portland runs as low as $27, about $54 for a round trip. The cheapest plane ticket from Seattle to Portland is $163 at the time of this article.

There are a few factors that contribute to regional train travel being the less expensive option:

  • Higher Demand equals lower cost
  • Less likely to have to pay to use railways
  • Less likely to be delayed

Why Does Amtrak Cost More for Long-Distance Trips?

Various reasons justify the added expense of train travel the longer the distance. In these cases, it may be more economical to travel via plane. Flying from Chicago to L.A. can range from $350 to $650. For the same trip on Amtrak, the ticket price would range from $329 to $897 for coach seats. Prices go up from there if you select a business seat or request a room. Some travelers are willing to pay a slight difference in price to get to their destinations sooner.

There are several reasons why prices for Amtrak may be higher when traveling long-distance than flying with any given airline. Passengers may not consider these factors because they involve logistics not commonly known.

  •  Labor Costs
  • Supply & Demand
  • Paying to Use Tracks
  • Delayed Trains

Amtrak has never made a profit from transporting passengers. In fact, Amtrak loses money every year it operates. The margin of loss has lessened each year in the last decade, but it has yet to break even, and the coronavirus pandemic dashed the railway’s hopes of making a profit any time soon. Amtrak loses the most potential profit on long-distance routes. Let’s look deeper at how the previously mentioned factors affect cost.

is amtrak cheap
Jonathan Lee

The Cost of Labor

Amtrak service workers are unionized and, as such, are protected by the unions in terms of pay, job security, and working conditions. The median salary for an Amtrak service worker is $64,150. While some workers are paid less, the same amount are paid more, depending on their position. Some positions make up to $150,000 a year.

Many positions in airlines are unionized as well, so it’s not just about labor costs. Labor costs wouldn’t be as big an issue if it weren’t for the next factor.

Supply and Demand

No matter the demand for train travel, labor costs and other expenses remain the same. Amtrak will try to offset those costs with higher ticket prices when there isn’t a high demand. More specifically, it will raise the price of the most popular routes to cover the loss of revenue on the routes that don’t have a high demand.

In 2018, Amtrak serviced 6.4 billion passengers. That might seem like a lot, but it is dwarfed by automobile and air travel. Domestic air travel served 730 billion passengers in the same year, and highway users accounted for 5.6 trillion. Amtrak and the state government pay for routes 750 miles long or less, but Amtrak pays for long-distance routes.

Paying to Use Tracks

Many don’t know this, but Amtrak doesn’t own all the tracks it uses to transport passengers. In fact, Amtrak only owns 623 miles of the 21,400 miles it uses daily. So, the company has to pay for Amtrak trains to be permitted to use the track it doesn’t own.

Amtrak has to contend with several different companies for the use of railways. BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, Canadian National Railway, CSX Transportation, and Norfolk Southern Railway, to name a few. Every year Amtrak pays out $142 million to host railroads to use their tracks and other resources.

is amtrak expensive
Todd & Jack Humphrey

Delayed Trains

Due to Amtrak not owning a majority of train tracks it uses, they not only have to pay to use them, but they are subject to certain railway etiquette. If a train owned by Union Pacific Railroad crosses paths with an Amtrak train, Amtrak is expected to give the right of way to the Union Pacific Railroad train every time.

You can imagine how many delays this causes, and delays cost money. Trains don’t arrive on time, which means they can’t depart on time for the next set of passengers, affecting the number of trips a train can take in a day.

The Advantages of Traveling Amtrak

Traveling isn’t just about the cost; it’s about the experience. Most passengers, especially families, will pay a little extra for comfort and flexibility to relieve the stress of traveling. Convenience goes a long way, especially when traveling with children. There are some added advantages to train travel that are unique to this mode of transportation.

Taking in the Sites

Unlike flying, train travel offers a variety of scenery to look at as you whiz past to your destination. You could be in snowy mountain countryside one hour and rocky desert the next. Amtrak offers the opportunity to see the United States as you have never experienced and all from the comfort of your seat. Unlike driving yourself, you can focus on taking in the sites and let someone else focus on the road.

More Luggage, Less Cost

One of the biggest setbacks to flying is the amount of luggage you can take on the plane. Additionally, most airlines will make you pay to check in any baggage. There are very few, like Southwest, that will allow you to check in two bags before they begin charging. Two bags may seem like a lot for one person, but two bags are child’s play if you’re traveling with children.

When traveling on most airlines, your first checked bag will be charged approximately $30, the second bag $45, and the price continues to go up from there. If you go over the 50lbs weight limits, you will be charged extra on top of what you’re already paying. Amtrak allows you to check in two bags for free and two more bags for $20 each.

amtrak station
Jonathan Lee

Comfort and Flexibility

One of the primary complaints travelers have of flying is that there is not enough space to stretch their legs or move around. The plane’s design doesn’t account for the need to be active to avoid your limbs falling asleep or keep your back from being in pain.

Most of the time, you are sequestered to your seat with the fasten seatbelt light on, and the only time you can move around is when you’re going to the restroom. Even then, you are contending with the limited space of the middle aisle, the beverage cart, or other passengers waiting to use the restroom. If the flight is especially turbulent, you may have to wait until you arrive at your destination to be able to get up out of your seat at all.

Not only is there a lot more leg space on a train, even in coach, but you can book a room that will allow you to move about freely anytime you want. Regardless of your seat, Amtrak states that there is no time during your trip when you can’t move about the train. The company’s only request is to be considerate of other passengers during overnights. For families with restless children, this can be a trip saver.

Eat Anytime You Want

When you’re on a flight, you’re at the mercy of the beverage/snack service. The flight attendants control when they disperse drinks and complimentary snacks. If you’re sitting in the back of the plane, it could be quite some time before you get your bag of pretzels. If you planned ahead and purchased a meal, you’ll be one of the lucky ones and get your food first once the plane has reached altitude, but you’ll have to eat in a cramped space with a drop-down table barely big enough to hold your laptop.

On Amtrak, you can eat any time you want. Beginning, middle, or end of your journey, you can make your way to the dining car or the Café and have more options to choose from for your meals or snacks. You can sit at a real table, large enough to comfortably seat you and your family and still have elbow room.

How to Find and Get Cheaper Fares for Amtrak

The cost of taking a vacation or traveling for work can add up between transportation, accommodations, food, leisure activities, etc. One of the highest costs is travel, whether by train, plane, boat, or automobile. Travelers are always interested in a deal or way to potentially cut some of those costs. Luckily, there are several ways to do just that for Amtrak.

Amtrak Rolls Out Deals

Like airlines, Amtrak will regularly have flash sales or discounts as incentives for travelers to book trips. Weekly deals could save passengers upwards of 20% off their coach fares. Deals are updated weekly; keep in mind that some of the deals are contingent on your booking Tuesday through Friday.

Purchase a Rail Pass

The operator’s rail pass program is a tool to help you obtain a multi-trip pass that allows you to travel within a region over a 15, 30, or 45-day period. This pass is most helpful for avid train travel or long-haul journeys. The California rail pass allows seven days of travel over a 21-day period at only $159 per adult.

Use a Promo Code Website

There are legitimate online sites that will offer you deals on Amtrak train tickets, and Promo codes and special discounts will be available on the site and ready to use with your next purchase. One example is, and you can check out their Facebook for minute-by-minute updates on inexpensive fares before booking your trip.

amtrak ny
Todd & Jack Humphrey

Join Amtrak Rewards

Joining a rewards program seems like a hassle-free way to accumulate points through travel that you can use later on for other trips. Amtrak offers two points for every dollar spent via Amtrak Guest Rewards. New members are rewarded with 500 bonus points after signing up (provided you travel within 90 days of joining), and you can redeem free travel after just 800 points.

Book in Advance

Booking in advance doesn’t work with every form of travel, like airline flights, but it will benefit you when booking with Amtrak. The best prices are offered for early bookers, and prices will rise as fewer seats are available. Early birds can get up to 25% off ticket prices if the bookings are made 14 days in advance. This deal specifically applies to train routes in the Northeastern region.


It’s always worth checking Amtrak fares before jumping to any other mode of transportation. Between the already cheap fares and any added discounts or use of reward points, you can be traveling at a fraction of the cost of flying and take advantage of the benefits of train travel.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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