Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Frugal Retirement Travel-Riding the Rails?

Most of my travel experiences are done on the road these days. By this I mean that I drive from destination to destination, but enjoy the drive itself and the experiences on the way. Unlike many of my fellow bloggers I choose to drive rather than RV, and there are a few reasons for that. I don’t want to be responsible as a single person for maintaining such a vehicle on any level. I enjoy driving along the open road at reasonable speeds (yes, I’m the girl who passes you on the left going eighty, it’s who I am). Finally, I prefer to be in the middle of a town once I arrive, park my car and walk for two days.  This is true whether it’s a small gulf coast town or a city.  I rarely fly these days, unless it is a place such as the northern eastern seaboard (a separate topic in and of itself)!

I enjoy road travel for a variety of reasons.  Car travel allows me to start and stop as I see fit, to take side trips as the mood strikes.  Some travelers pick a series of destinations and drive from point to point. I do that, but may veer off the road if something interesting arises. If I see a lovely place to stay, I may cancel reservations and stop earlier.  I can (if I choose) take the canine family members with me on road trips.  Road tripping can be as expensive or inexpensive as one makes it, within reason. Overall it’s a cost expensive way to see many things in a certain amount of time. Sometimes my road trip is part of a large end destination and sometimes the trip is its own reward (such as my gulf coast trip).

Recently I’ve been investigating train travel here in the US. In Germany, approximately one third to one half of our vacations from Frankfurt were taken by train. We’ve taken train trips up and down both the Rhine and Mosel Rivers ending in Trier.  We took the ultimate speed train to Berlin.  We took trains through the Alps  to Venice and then Florence.  So I figured it was time to look at train travel here.

Specifically, I have been looking at a train called the Zephyr that travels from Chicago to San Francisco. In my case I would board the train in Denver.  This train then travels through some of the most beautiful parts of the US-the Colorado mountains, Utah and California including the Sierra Nevada. It passes through towns such as Glenwood Springs, Salt Lake City, Reno and others on the way.

Train travel, especially this route, interests me on many levels.  Almost all of this trip has stunning views.  When one drives, one has to pay attention the road, pesky thing.  Yes, there are views, and yes, one can stop at “scenic points”.  In a train trip, one can be immersed in the scenery-and still hop off at interesting destinations.  Almost all of the cities on my route, including San Francisco, can be enjoyed without my car once I arrive-walking and public transportation will allow me to see plenty!  This route is a perfect way to check out train travel.

As with any kind of travel comparison, there are ups and downs.  In this case, with particular route, I would probably end up take the same train on my return.  I would resolve this dilemma by choosing different places to hop off in one direction, or else riding the rails straight through one way and making stops the other way.  The only alternative for me to take an alternate route is to go south and end up in San Antonio and still have to get my home it would seem. If I drove, I would take one interstate to the coast and another one home.  That said, the “interesting places” on interstate 70 in Utah are few and far between-too south for some and too north for others. So that comparison seems pretty even. Sorry folks, but the Amtrack photos are stock and not the best!

While I adore road tripping, and still do it as a single person, on occasions it can become extremely solitary, especially if the dogs are not along for the ride.  Not solitary enough for me to stop traveling, as I love it, but an alternative for one trip might be interesting.  My roomette/sleeper car would have room for two (whether there would be two, I do not know) and meals (part of the freight) would be taken in the lounge car or dining car.  On the other hand, the dogs would have to stay with family on this trip.

The final comparison is, of course, the finances.  On the surface (and being realistic) train travel is probably not as cheap. However, when one compares all the costs, the difference gets  much smaller and needs to take into account those intangibles above. “Guestimating” at dates and getting approximate costs reveals the following:  a reserved coach seat in a regular car (that reclines and has foot rests) costs around $500.00 round trip.  Food (my own or dining) would be extra. A “roomette” for two people with seats that would turn into beds would add $500 each way-and all food and non alcohol costs would be included as part of the fare.  Obviously the seating would depend on my route-for this particular comparison I will say that I would use the roomette one way take a coach the other way when I am stopping. That makes my total cost one thousand dollars before taxes-and my food costs free one way.

This trip is 2400 miles on mainly mountainous interestates. I have a large tank and just under 300 miles on flat roads cruising at sixty to seventy.  I figure $600 for gas and so on depending on roads and would hope to come in under.  I would also anticipate three extra hotel rooms. For example, the train comes into Reno at nine am Monday and I would catch the train the next day. Were I driving of course, I would arrive  by dusk on Sunday and leave Tuesday morning.  While I aim for $100 in hotels per night, to be safe I would allow an extra $450 here.  Finally of course, there is the food issue. While I do take food with me in the car(a major advantage of driving), I also occasionally eat out in the evening. The food costs are still under investigation-obviously I have the costs of food I bring in the car. Is it worth the extra money for free food in a lounge car? I’m still working on this one. 

Finally, there is that “intangible cost” of wear and tear on my car.  For my own benefit, when comparing types of travel, I use the government mileage standard. This is not necessarily out of pocket money-but extra maintenance on my car is a cost of road trip travel.

All and all, I don’t see the difference in cost as prohibitive and I see this as a one time (perhaps to be repeated elsewhere) experience. It’s time to start making firmer plans-checking lowest prices, choosing dates, looking for deals and discounts and tours in San Francisco. Right now this trip is planned for early fall (I have a trip to New Mexico and Texas planned during the summer), so I have plenty of the to get the “best deals”.

Meanwhile I would love to hear your opinion. I would be making at least two stops total along the way, and I am a gal who can sleep sitting up in a recliner if I am tired. Would you spend the extra money for the private room?  Both ways?  I’ll say here that I would still probably sleep sitting up, but the knowledge that I was in a room for two with no children and someone else who wanted quiet (I can always go to the lounge car to socialize) is a huge temptation.  Worth the cost?  What say you?  Have you ever traveled in this country by train?


  1. Sounds like a great adventure. I like the idea, but the cost for me and my husband would be higher.

    I can't sleep sitting up, so it would be a roomette for me.

    We traveled by train from Istanbul to Ankara. I slept all night in the roomette but my husband lay awake listening to the train moving along the tracks.

  2. Yes, for a couple it would certainly add up. Even if I get the roomette both ways I may or may not lie down......

  3. I loved traveling by train when I was younger.... It seemed to be a more leisurely trip in comparison to flying. You also got to see things that you couldn't from the window of a car.

    God bless.

    1. Jackie I think it will be very relaxing as well........looking forward to it.

  4. I have taken that trip. At least back when I took it, the boring parts (across the Nevada Dessert) were during overnight hours. I love train travel.

    I had a roommette and found the privacy and quiet very restful. With a roommette a porter comes in at night and converts the room from daytime to nighttime use. You also get free coffee in the morning!

    That trip is a great experience.

    1. Yes, I just need to make sure my bed is on the bottom, cripple that I am!

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  6. Hi,
    I took the Zephyr in 1999 from Sacramento (very near the beginning of the route on the West Coast) to Chicago. From Chicago I took an over-night train (the Lakeshore) to Rochester, New York. I was by myself (48 yrs old at the time). I got the roomette from Sacramento to Chicago (round trip) since it takes 2 days/nights and loved it. I sat in coach from Chicago to upstate New York both ways. Most meals I took in the dining car which you share with others at my table. I did take some meals in my roomette since I felt like I was coming down with a cold. You have either option for eating. I did find the observation car was fairly crowded most times but since I had my own window in the roomette it was fine. I have driven across country once and even though I saw some incredible sites I felt the train ride was better. You go to places you would never see by interstate and I loved how I was able to really see America instead of watching the road in front of me or helping navigate for someone else. I must admit, most of my friends/family (including my husband) thought I was crazy to not fly and get to upstate New York so much faster but I am glad I didn't listen to them. I am taking the exact Amtrak trip in 2014 to go to my grammar school reunion. I hope you decide to try the Zephyr. Nancy from Fair Oaks CA

    1. Thanks Nancy! This is all great to hear. I as m becoming more interested day by day! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  7. I am a cheap traveler so I go for the sitting up seats...on the other hand...if the train is not full you might have enough room to lie down on the seat anyway.... Actually ...when I took Amtrack,both ways between SLC and Denver....I hardly used my seat....all day I sat in the observation car for a fabulous all round view.
    If you take the more southern train out of LA, there is a connecting bus up to Denver from Raton NM. that is part of the train ticket. Also at Flagstaff ...a bus to go see the grand canyon. At least there was a few years ago. aloha

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