When Should You Take A Train Or Bus Instead Of A Plane?

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Here’s a maths problem for you: If a train and a plane leave the same city at the same time, and the train takes a little over five hours to get to your destination but the plane only takes 75 minutes, which is the better option?

If you read the New York Times’s Frugal Traveller column, you already know the answer:

Why trade a roughly 75-minute flight for a 320-minute train ride? Conversely, time. Once you factor in the commute to the airport (in my case, one hour), suggested arrival at least an hour before takeoff, runway taxiing at touchdown, disembarkation and travelling to your destination (often an hour), flying takes about 255 minutes. I accepted the 65-minute difference as a productivity trade-off and the price of peace of mind.

As travel writer Elaine Glusac explains, travelling from Sydney to Melbourne by train might take a little longer, but the lower price point ($80 round trip by train, up to $400 by plane) and more relaxing travel experience makes it more than worth it.

Plus, it’s better for the planet.

However, not all of us have the option to grab a train trip that’s just a smidge longer than a direct flight. I’m planning to travel from Cedar Rapids to St. Louis for the Financial Freedom Summit, for example, and I could either take a four-hour flight connecting through Chicago at $430 round trip, or take a six-hour Greyhound to Chicago and the aforementioned just-over-five-hour Amtrak to St. Louis, adding up to $250 round trip.

That said, there’s a third option worth considering: an eight-hour Burlington Trailways bus trip that would cost me $300 round trip. Before you’re all “don’t trade a four-hour flight for an eight-hour bus trip,” hear me out:

  • The bus in question leaves at 9:30am and arrives at 5:30pm at a stop that’s within walking distance of the convention hotel.

  • My flight options either leave Cedar Rapids at 6:30am (which means I have to wake up around 4am) or 11:26am; if I chose the latter I’d arrive at the airport by 10.

  • The flight leaving at 11:26am has a slightly longer layover in Chicago, with a total flight time of 5 hours and 5 minutes. I’d arrive in St. Louis at 4:31pm, toss in another hour for disembarking and baggage claim and between 30 and 60 minutes for me to get to my hotel, depending on whether I took public transportation or spent $60 on a rideshare.

Essentially, the two trips would take the same amount of time and the bus trip would be less expensive and more environmentally friendly. As National Geographic’s transportation comparison breakdown reminds us, buses are often the most energy-efficient form of travel, and short-haul flights are often the least. If I owned a car, it would be more energy-efficient than a plane but less energy-efficient than a train or a bus, unless it was an electric car.

I used to take trains and buses over planes every chance I could get, but that was when I lived on the West Coast. Now that I’m in the Midwest, I had assumed flying was my only realistic option — but it doesn’t have to be.

So if you were me, what would you do: take the flight with the layover in Chicago, or the eight-hour Trailways ride?

And how do you decide when to take ground transportation instead of flying?


Comments

    Sydney to Melbourne by train isn't a *little* longer than a plane lol.

    A plane takes about an hour and a half...even accounting for the commute to and from the airport at both ends and all of that, it still wouldn't take any longer than 3.5 hours total, maybe 4 if you're unlucky. Sydney to Melbourne by train though takes 11 hours, not including the commute to and from the station at each end. It's at least three times longer, to the point where if you're going by train you're looking at an all-day or overnight journey, rather than just a morning or afternoon if you were flying.

    A cheap flight from Sydney to Melbourne is also only going to set you back around $70-$90 (Jetstar or Tigerair), $120 (Virgin) or $150 (Qantas) if you book far enough in advance, though it also depends on the time of year as well of course.

    If you're talking Sydney to Canberra, that's a different story, it's definitely overall quicker or at worst about the same to train or drive compared to flying. But Sydney to Melbourne? No way.

    SPEED vs PRICE:

    Metro to regional, CBD to CBD, leaving Friday, cheapest/shortest trip, based on my own experience and current bookings:

    Tilt Train, Brisbane to Hervey Bay: $91.50, 3hrs, 40min (220min)
    Greyhound bus, Brisbane to Hervey Bay: $82, 5hrs, 50min (350min)
    Aeroplane, Brisbane to Hervey Bay: $263, 55min (FLIGHT ONLY)
    Including 20min boarding call and 20min each way uber/taxi to/from CBD: +$68, +1h (115min)

    This means that the fastest way to make that trip is a minimum of 1h 55min (115min), at $331.

    The difference between flight and train costs an extra 1h 45min to save $239.50.
    That's not a bad saving - ~$136 bucks an hour saving.
    Bus is right out, though. You'd only save an extra $9.50 compared to train, but take an additional 2hrs 10min.

    I'd be interested to see how the maths works out on capital to capital, eg: Brisbane to Sydney/Melbourne or Sydney to Melbourne on its own.

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