Long Train or Road Trip: The Ultimate Showdown

I spent some time this morning dreaming, as I am want to do, of how I could take a nice long trip across the country. But my fantasies were torn. Should I load up a car with jerky and my favorite classic rock hits, and take to the winding highways and byways, forging my own path across America’s wheated plains? Or should I book myself a sleeper berth on a train and cross the land by rail, patiently watching the country pass me by, reading, thinking, and taking in the joys and intrigues of train travel (which I’m aware, are not quite what they used to be).

It’s a tough call, so I put it to you, Atlas Obscura, which is the superior form of slow travel, road trip by car or a lengthy train ride? This is the final reckoning. The ultimate showdown. The arbitrary opinion poll to decide all things! Cast your vote, and then tell us what you like most about your pick in the comments below!

  • Rail Journey!
  • Road Trip!

0 voters

Trains are so good for contemplation, so meditative and therapeutic and lovely. But cars let you see all the weird out of the way stuff that’s off normal transit routes! This is the hardest question anyone has ever asked. I’m waiting to see the case people make for each before voting…

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This was a tough call, but I voted for road trip because of the control you have. If something seems curious to you, you can just pull over and investigate. But I do really, really love trains and like @AbiInman mentioned, find them therapeutic in a way.

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If I’m exploring a place for the first time, I would want to be in a car, to go at my own pace and stop where I like.

But to just get from A to B, even if it is my first time there, I would take the train if possible. I love figuring out the maze of connections of getting around by train and transit. There’s nothing like rolling into a city, seeing the skyline, maybe crossing a bridge, and then you’re right there under the towers, or in central square, walking through the station like it’s the year 1880. And you don’t have to worry about parking!

I just took the train from Ottawa to Toronto with my daughter, her first trip on a train (she’s 3 1/2). Although we experienced the other side of train travel, in Canada at least, of massive delays and maintenance issues (the trip took 8 hours instead of 4), it is otherwise a very comfortable and exciting way to travel, and a true grand entrance to the big city.

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I’ve done some road trips in the US, and they’re fun in their own way. I’ve taken the long train trips in Europe, especially the train to Paris to Milan, and they’re also interesting. I like train better because it feels much more romantic. I wish train travel in the US is a bit more affordable and accessible.

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I’ve yet to take a train trip, which I really someday hope to but when my buddy and I drove across the country 20 years ago with little in the way of schedule or itinerary we wound up creating the adventure spontaneously depending on what struck our fancy.

The fact that we were in a 15 year old Jetta with 200k miles and no synchronizer in second gear was a ton of fun until I let the magic smoke out of the wiring harness in Boulder. Oops.

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I was just considering my own summer travel plans, and train travel is definitely a possibility!

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I think it depends on what you want out of the trip! If you want to control what you want to see, then road trip all the way. But if you want to really just soak in the culture of a place / admire some beautiful landscapes, then trains (and you don’t have to worry about navigating or driving long hours, you can just sit and watch the world go by). There’s also something to be said that you can make more friends on trains, more so than in a car. You can also hop on/off trains in some places and wander around, then jump back on the train and head off to another new adventure.

Anyway, tl;dr, I hate driving, and I love taking photos/videos, so trains all the way.

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Curious, as my kid is around the same age - Did you note any advantages or disadvantages of train travel in regards to the toddler level of patience? I’m weighing the best methods of getting my rugrat on a trip.

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For me, there is no question. Being 6’4" and of large build, trains are simply too confined and claustrophobic for me to ever get comfortable on one. I would much rather hop into my van and take a long drive and see the sights. It is comfortable, has a bed in the back, and I am in complete control of the situation. I can decide if I want to take detour to an interesting sounding spot, or if I want to spend more or less time at any point on the trip.

Trains are OK for commuting, but for a journey of exploration I prefer to be the one in charge of the mode of transport.

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Our family of four chose Amtrak last summer from Kansas City to San Francisco. It was epic. If you cannot afford the sleeping car, I would highly, emphatically, recommend taking a car. We slept in our seats in coach because we had success doing that on a shorter trip years prior, but soon realized that was not a good option for longer trips where you might spend two nights in a row on the train. We managed because we broke the trip up into stops along the way, and our kids are older (12 and 15). It was great, we saw the country in a way that would not have been possible otherwise, but it was very difficult at times with screaming babies, overflowed toilets, loud passengers and their unmuted electronics, smelly feet and any other thing you can imagine.

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Although I’ve always traveled by car to see the quirky side of places, I’m leaning more and more toward public transportation lately. Being let out at the train depot in some cities is sometimes an adventure in itself! Besides being environmentally friendlier, it’s kinder to your psyche not seeing the world from a highway.

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Road Trip hands down. Gives you the chance to stop take pictures read the signs and even venture off the road to get that fantastic view which would have been only in a blink of the eye as the train went past it.

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I voted road trip, although I love trains. We just don’t do long distance train travel well in the USA. There are trains that pass through wonderful scenery, but sometimes only at night. You just have more control over your journey with a car.

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Road trip if you’re traveling with a friend. Train if you’re traveling solo. I would choose road trip with a friend.

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Gosh! My partner and I are planning a two-week vacation traveling through Portugal and Spain. It’s a toughy because we want to visit a few different beaches along the southern coasts, but at the same time, naps on the train will allow us to see more.

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Trains go where there are no roads, which is their own way of seeing out of the way places. Even going from Boston to New York you get a whole different view than from the roads. As others have noted, though, you can’t stop the train and go poking around on foot the way you do in a car.

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For me it’s trains. I’ve taken about a zillion road trips in the US but only a couple train trips, one overnight. Now I want more. It’s the novelty, I’m guessing, because my one Amtrak trip from SF to Portland was delayed 8 hours in Sacramento, and pulled up to the Willamette and stopped for another few hours before crossing the last mile to Union Sta. I ended up jumping off the train (24 hours into a 16 hour trip) bandito style and calling my pals for a rescue once I figured out what street I was on. Does that sound like a horror story? It’s not! I loved it! I saw places I’d never see from a road and have a hilarious train abandonment story. And the return trip was only 15 minutes behind schedule.
Trains are far more socially interactive than cars. People take trains just to meet other travelers. You have to be prepared to amuse yourself, be passive, and to put up with the good, the bad and the ugly but it’s a totally different perspective on travel and history.

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It’s probably the best possible option for a toddler, since the seats are big and comfortable and you can easily go for a walk down the aisle, maybe even to a dining or observation car. Plus nice big windows and usually a fold down table that’s handy for drawing. Plus on a practical basis, on most trains there’s just lots of space. Easy to stick your books down the side, water bottle in the pocket, boots under the seat and lots and lots of head space. And a lot of luggage storage space too. A stroller should be no problem I would think.

I didn’t see much disadvantage aside from the unpredictability of the schedule and the equipment. Here in Canada VIA Rail is known for rarely being on time. Amtrak might be similar on most routes. Our train had a stuck door which meant we left 40 minutes late, which put us out of sync with the freight trains, which get priority on the rails. So we would have to stop and wait for trains to pass. And then there was an accident on the tracks and we sat still for about 2 hours. I got a 50% credit on my next booking (if I take the train in the next 6 months, which is unlikely).

So it sounds trivial but there is a good chance you’ll be delayed, just plan accordingly.

Ultimately driving always gives you more flexibility, but of course you have to pull over and stop to get the kids to stretch their legs, go to the bathroom. Train is definitely more convenient if it matches with your route and destination.

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US-based, so know that as you read all this: I’d be more of a fan of trains if the routes weren’t so long to get to one place. For the time you spend on a train going across USA, you could’ve already stopped at the weird fruit stand off the side of the highway, stopped at a historical site. driven through a quaint countryside town, or just whatever the heck you want. Aside from the control factor in your scheduling, taking trains in the US for long distances doesn’t seem like a time-effecient way to see and experience the country. Pro-road trip 100%.

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