Amtrak Vs. Flying

I’m terrified of flying. I have to be hopped up on some serious Xanax to board a flight. Yes, I’m the person who gives up 1500 dollar plane tickets at that last minute, and not see one single penny of it refunded. (I did this right before going to Thailand several years ago.) I’m the girl who prices cars from faraway airports because getting on a return flight makes my stomach fill with bile and my head with tears. I am the girl who chose to drive to and from San Francisco with her three cats instead of board an airplane.

I would rather visit the dentist and get a gynecological exam every day for a month than have to fly somewhere. I’d rather drive, take a train, or walk for that matter. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work. We don’t get a lot of time away from work to warrant tacking on two days at the beginning and the end of a trip just for travel. And if you cut into the actual vacation time, you’re left with two days vacation. And even if we did take more time away, it’s hard to find someone to devote the time we’d like to our feline roommates for that long. Unfortunately, most of the time, flying is the only option.

We’re supposed to take an extended family vacation down to Orlando in March. My folks even gave us money in order to do so. We have Emory now and the idea of bringing him on a plane makes me want to run in the opposite direction. But I know we can’t keep this up for long. One day, we’ll want to take him someplace awesome. We’re already flirting with future World Cups, trips to England to visit The Dans, and trips to the West coast to see friends. I know we can’t keep him from flying forever. Hopefully, he won’t inherit my fear of air travel. But for now, I was hoping to find another way down south, a less fearful way of getting there. It’s not looking good.

I have priced planes, trains and automobiles and it’s looking like we’re going to have to fly and that makes my tummy turn now, two months out. I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about it. I really, really hate this. I hate that I’m so afraid to fly. I hate that it keeps me from going places. I hate that i can’t rationally wise up already.

Here was our Amtrak quote, this includes a bedroom so we don’t have to bug folks with a squealing baby:

I was blown away by this. Perhaps I’m a newbie when it comes to travel but doesn’t this seem excessive?

I wrote to Amtrak. Here’s only part of the mail, so you can get the gist. (I’m hormonal, give me a break.)

We love using Amtrak. My husband uses it for work. I need to state as much right away. We are heading to Florida in March and I thought maybe my husband, myself and our 8 month old son might take the train down instead of flying. I priced out your bedrooms. All I know what to say regarding the price is WOW. I’m shocked by how pricey it is! I guess you fill them, but wow. I’m not sure how most people can afford that price. It seems excessive to me.

Here is a little bit of what she responded with:

We are sorry that you feel our fares are too high. We firmly believe, that our prices accurately reflect the value of the services we provide. Nevertheless, we have not ignored the need to remain reasonably competitive with other carriers, and we have responded to this need by establishing several carefully constructed discount fare programs.

Some of the discounts we provide are to members of AAA and Student Advantage. We also have promotional discounts advertised nationally throughout the year. We are confident that you will be able to find affordable fares and look forward to the privilege of serving you soon.

Here is part of my response:

Actually the amount I was given after our AAA discount was 2,251.80. It’s 417 dollars via JetBlue.

Am I missing something here? Why is it so much more expensive? She writes: “reasonably competitive with other carriers” What carriers is she referring to? Air Force 1? The Concord?

I realize that those like myself who live in fear of flying can and will pay exorbitant amounts of money to avoid an airplane, but even I won’t justify a 24-hour train ride for that amount of money just because I’m too much of a chickenshit to fly. It’s not even a direct trip. We’d need to transfer in DC.

So, unless I can figure out another way to travel from now until March, here we come JetBlue. I guess I’ll use the remaining 1,834.81 to buy Xanax.


  1. I know your pain, and I hope you find some measure of relief from it, it’s one of those things people who haven’t experienced it just can’t understand. My mom was giving me a hard time about it, and I told her to imagine sitting in a closet with 5 live snakes for more than 5 minutes and you’ll understand my anxiety. She finally got it.

    I don’t know if this will help you, but it definitely helped me get over my severe and debilitating anxiety related to flying – read “The Culture of Fear” by Barry Glassner. I had been avoiding flying, spending days on end anxiously imagining every part of the flight, then I read that book and started a regimen of Dramamine (to knock me out, don’t know if this would work with you because of the infant situation) mixed with Xanax to calm pre-flight fears, and slowly I’ve weaned myself off both. I only fly twice a year, but my mantra on the plane “My fear is not keeping this plane in the sky,” for some reason really helps too.

    As for Amtrak, I took them from LA to Seattle one winter to avoid flying and it took me two days, I didn’t have a sleeper cabin. Worst trip of my life. Stuck in the mountains, bad heat, and terrible service. I don’t recommend them on the West Coast.


  2. We did our first airplane flight with our daughter over Christmas. I don’t have any anxiety over flying myself, but flying with a child made me nervous. I didn’t want to be “that lady”. You know – the one with the child who cries and cries and cries while we are all jam-packed into the plane. My fears turned out to be generally unfounded… the babe did great… only whined once on four flights… and that was only because we were going down for landing and my guess is that her ears hurt. It is a lot more complicated to travel by air with kids – the extra stuff you need, declaring bottles through security checkpoint, etc. but it did turn out easier than I predicted. Good luck!


  3. The thing about Amtrak is, there IS no competition. There’s a lot of complex issues at play but essentially, Amtrak is essentially part-owned by the US government and heavily subsidized.

    And unfortunately, what’s comparable to a room aboard one of the trains is really flying first class, which is absurd since there’s very little domestic first class left in the air anymore.


  4. ah. finally a subject on which I know a little bit about! I’m a transportation planning graduate student in IL. unfortunately for you and any other people who prefer ground transport to flying, amtrak is really meant for rural to rural destinations or, on the east coast, for travel within the boston-dc corridor. things stop being fun once you start heading south of dc. amtrak is the federal government’s ugly step child. in the 70’s, railroad companies complained bitterly that they had to provide passenger rail service when it wasn’t profitable. well, the feds told them okay, you can stop providing it if you give our newly formed “company” (amtrak) all your equipment and trackage rights. basically, amtrak is not allowed to fail, must continue providing some service, but doesn’t, contrary to an above commenter’s statement, get much government subsidy at all and they are allowed to charge different rates along different portions of the route to offset their operational costs without abiding to rules of competition pricing. bush tried to zero fund it many years in a row. it’s a necessary and useful service but it gets really expensive and thus, not so useful once you start getting into areas where there aren’t other comparable modes of rail transportation, like from dc to florida. basically, amtrak gets to charge you lots of $$ for the portion of the route south of dc in order to offset its operational costs, which are much higher along that part of the route than on the part that goes between nyc and dc.

    i’m sorry! none of this information is really very helpful to you! maybe instead of orlando, emory would like to visit philidelphia!? haha. no, i guess not.


  5. well, at least with having Emory, you will get to board the plane first and you won’t get run over by people trying to get to their seats! And that Amtrak price, is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, it’s almost like flying in Canada!


  6. TobyJoe rode Amtrak down to Georgia. He took the roomette. He said the two times he did so, the bedrooms were empty. Don’t you think they’d benefit from making them a little less expensive so that people at least fill them all the time? I would justify 1500 bucks, honestly, but above 2 grand? Wow. That’s shocking. i want to meet the people who will pay that much to take a 24-hour trip all the while sleeping above a toilet. It’s not exactly “first class” living. An entire car, sure, but a bedroom isn’t exactly huge and spacious.


  7. my boyfriend’s mom is TERRIFIED of flying. she has been on two flights her entire life (one round-trip). she and my boyfriend’s dad either drive or take the train on all of their vacations (last summer they took amtrak all the way to california). they’ve got the money, so who cares, right? except jon’s sister and her five kids live in england, and his mom won’t get on a plane to go visit them. it’s caused a lot of strife in the family.

    on the plus side, because jon rarely flew as a child, he never got over that excitement and LOVES to fly, so maybe emory won’t inherit your fear.


  8. Erica, I just read your comment out loud to my parents. Good fun. Thanks for that.


  9. Perhaps you will be so focussed on the boy that you will forget you are in the air. He will be the mayor of the plane. You should pick up sippy cups are not for chardonnay. It is not only really funny but she talks about air travel with babies. You should plan on ordering a vodka and OJ if it is a morning trip and let Toby be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the boy on the plan. We flew with Grace at 6 weeks old. It was the easiest thing ever. Flying with Grace at 2 is probably the most stressful thing ever. As toddlers all they want to do is get out and move. Booze and portable DVD player are king.

    Tell Mickey I said hi.


  10. michele.

    i am terrified of flying. but i have to do it since i live so far from my loved ones. completely freaked, but i had to work through it – especially with international travel.
    seriously, i was so bad that i was weeping out of fear on a cross continental flight when i was in high school. the steward kept trying to calm me down (i think the fact that he was really cute helped me at the time, but don’t tell my mother that or she’ll threaten to send me to a nunnery. again.)

    here’s how i think about it. flight staff fly all the time. they’re not scared. neither are pilots. so whenever i feel uneasy i do a few things.

    1) look at the flight staff. if they look relaxed/not stressed beyond a pain in the ass customer, you’re fine. if the steward is cute, bonus!
    2) take a shot of jack daniels. best 5 bucks i’ve ever spent. i usually don’t sleep before flights and a shot (or 2…) put me right to sleep. toby can handle little dude em, i’m sure.
    3) distract yourself as much as possible. i bring portable video games and books and music and try as hard as possible to tune out.

    but you have an advantage. you have the cutest little dude ever to look at. if you keep composed, he probably will too. babies are smart about that kind of thing.

    also, you have those fabulous pink and black zebra striped tights. i KNOW you do. if you wear those, you can preoccupy yourself with thoughts of “i wonder how many people are finding this odd. ha ha.” ;)


  11. That’s funny… I fear trains but love planes. Go figure. The train “thing” is one reason we don’t get into the city very often. I make the husband DRIVE there (he hates that). :-/


  12. Amtrak has almost declared bankruptcy several times over the last twenty years, and each time the government has bailed them out. They receive over a billion a year in subsidies, and are still unable to turn a profit (only the Northeast Corridor line is profitable), partly because of pricing structures like this but mostly because few people want to take the train long distances anymore, but the government wants to keep the rails functioning in case of a national emergency. The price of maintaining these lines any MBA would have shut down eons ago largely falls to the consumer. Wow, sorry for the rant—I get carried away about Amtrak.

    Of course, this is little help when it comes to making your travel plans. I don’t suppose a double Scotch on the rocks would help?


  13. Actually, the Amtrak spokesperson is right if you compare coach to coach and first class to first class. You are comparing airline coach to the equivalent of Amtrak first class. Of course, being in coach on a plane for four hours with a baby is doable. Being in coach for 24 hours on a train with or without kids is miserable. I once thought it would be fun to take the train from Birmingham to DC when I was in grad school (plus it was cheaper and I was a poor student). It was HORRIBLE. It was February and the train was incredibly drafty. The guy sitting next to me sounded like he was dying of TB. He slept with his feet on the tray table and his knees splayed out the entire time. So fun!

    How about driving? We’d be sad if you didn’t make the trip. Also, Shep would like a new Emory video. Every time I get on the computer he points and says, ‘baby!’ He loves watching Emory:)


  14. Yeah, you’re right. But I guess I figured that the whole takes 24 hours/no shower thing might come into play a bit.

    Also, we took coach down to Georgia a few years back from DC. It wasn’t awesome, but the good thing was the train wasn’t busy so we each had an entire seat to lay down across. Otherwise, I don’t recommend coach at all. And with a baby? No way, jose.

    Tell me, is driving with a 7 month old THAT far that bad an idea? Should I abort this thought immediately?


  15. How far of a drive is it? We drove from DC to AL when Simone was only 3 months. Not too bad. Just make sure you plan in LOTS of breaks. We did it in one day and that was pushing it. I think the longest trip we’ve taken with the kids in a car is 14 hours. We broke it up over two days. It really wasn’t bad but we stopped at every rest area between AL and the Outer Banks. You definitely won’t get there fast.


  16. Amtrak coach travel is inexpensive.

    Amtrak sleeper travel is very expensive—and not for any of the reasons offered by others on this blog. Amtrak simply charges what the traffic will bear, just like the airlines.

    You can reduce the sleeper charges a lot by traveling during the slow seasons and by making reservations several months in advance (Amtrak sells sleeper rooms by the advance “bucket” just as the airlines do).

    March is only two months away. And late in March is a heavy travel season with students on vacation, etc.

    Try October instead.


  17. Anything outside of the DC-Boston route is subsidized, so Amtrak (probably) isn’t even charging cost.


  18. Are you kidding me? Why would someone pay THAT much to take a train? When it takes longer to get there? Shouldn’t that make it cost less?

    That is ridiculous! Who pays that?


  19. When we were in Europe this past year, we thought taking an overnight train would be insanely pricey. Yeah, not so much.

    Two of us, Paris to Munich: $400CDN including our own private room (bunk beds) complete with a mini sink/wash up area, and breakfast.

    Maybe one of these days North American rail travel will actually be competitive.

    Please note the new pseudonym. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually stick with one! :)


  20. That is pretty insane. They probably have to charge so much because no one is taking the train like that or they count count on people who hate to fly forking it over. I always find a cocktail pre and post boarding helps a bit. And your flight is only a few hours and with Jet Blue you can watch some TV. I am not far from Orlando. maybe I can pop over and see you in a totally non stalkery way.


  21. lozapram. modern day valium.

    it is miraculous. turns the red light off and the white light on….aaaahhh


  22. I hate flying too. I have to take Xanax on the way to the airport. I have also changed my mind and backed out at the last minute at the airport.

    Once you get there,it’ll be great!


  23. just wondering if you got my email and if it was in any way helpful (real name starts w/ a J)


  24. oh, man, i feel for you. i can make myself go, but i have to work REALLY hard at making my brain go somewhere else. even then, i’m very on-the-edge of losing it. if i had to go overseas, i’d probably cancel, too!

    as someone who gets the fear, i agree that it really seems unfair and completely out-of-balance for the cost to be so astronomically different. it really stinks not to have an alternative that’s reasonable.


  25. Thanks to Mish, we’re taking the AutoRail from Virginia/DC to Orlando. It’s not as cheap as JetBlue but it’s a lot cheaper than regular Amtrak. We get a family bedroom, which is very large and includes four beds, meals, etc. It takes 17 hours and we can bring our car. So, awesome! No flying necessary! For now.


  26. After our nightmare with the airlines and airports this last holiday, I’d probably pay that fee to avoid it again. Flying itself, doesn’t bother me—ticket agents do.


  27. I go through periods where I am terrified of flying and the months before the flight I work myself into a frenzy. Fortunately, the fears have subsided as of late – perhaps the meds are working? I see in your comments that you are taking a train so that solves your problem. Have a great trip!


  28. Wow, there are some really ignorant comments here.

    First of all: You are comparing apples to oranges. Sleeper rooms on Amtrak are equivalent to First class (not business) on a flight. So price out a first class seat and then compare.

    Second: Lots of people pay good money for rooms on Amtrak, why? because while the trip is longer, its far more comfortable. You can get up and easily move around at any time. You can go grab food in the diner car. You can go to the bathroom at anytime. You can exit the train and stretch your legs are many stops along the way. This compared to being strapped into a seat like a sardine in a tin can for 5 hours, sorry, I’ll take the longer, more comfortable trip any day.

    3rd, for those pulling out the whole “the gov subsidizes Amtrak” nonsense…The Government does subsidize Amtrak. But they conveniently fail to point out is that the Government subsidizes both the Airlines and Auto companies to a far greater extent (who do you think pays for all those airports, the FAA, and highways so you can fly for $400 or drive in traffic for $200?) you still paying far more than you realize, you and doing it with your taxes.


  29. Dave: Thank you for your well-thought out comment. We took the train. We loved it. We’ve done it twice, actually, since this was posted.

    Forgive me for my ignorance. I did specify I am terrified of flying and am therefore not very educated with air travel.

    Anyway, yeah. All is well in the world of train travel over here. :]


  30. Did you take amtrak or autorail? And what exactly is autorail?? I’m also afraid of flying and haven’t flown in 4 years. I was much more adventurous in my 20s (went to Mexico, Brazil, Africa and the Caribbean..and many places across the U.S.). Now i cannot even fathom getting on a plane. It’s pretty debilitating and my hubby thinks I’m nuts. I’m planning a trip to NYC in 4 weeks and debating between Amtrak and flying. I think I may just do Amtrak. It will be 12.5 hours on train vs. 2 hours by plane. But I’m trying to rationalize it by saying that i will have 25 hours of peace (round trip) without any of my 3 small kids begging me for something :-)


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