Train vs Plane vs Bus – A Long-Distance Travel Cost and Time Comparison

Train vs Plane vs BusOne of my good friends is a train enthusiast.

When I was lamenting the cost of airfare for my recent trip to New York City for the BlogHer conference, my friend said (as he has said so many times before), “You should have taken the train!”

Ten years ago, I probably would have ignored his suggestion. But ten years ago, making regular flights from one part of the country to another was still a fairly cheap proposition, not even including the modern add-ons like checked baggage fees, booking fees, and seat selection fees to further increase the price of flying. Flying will probably always be the fastest way to travel, but it is starting to become expensive enough to warrant looking into other, slower, modes of travel.

To determine what kind of travel is going to be the best choice for price, time, and safety, I decided to look at a trip between Indianapolis (my home airport) and Denver, where #FinCon12 was held. I planned the hypothetical trip for the first week in December, giving me nine weeks’ lead-time (and avoiding the Thanksgiving travel glut). Here is what I discovered:

Air Travel Costs and Time

According to both and (my preferred airline), a single adult could fly from Indianapolis to Denver and back for the week of Monday, December 3 through Monday, December 10 for $230. This is a pretty good deal.

If you were to fly Southwest, the $230 would cover your flight and your first two checked bags. All you would need to shell out for is adult beverages on board, if you were so inclined. If, however, you were to take Frontier or United, which were the first two airlines offered on Kayak, you would have to pay for your checked luggage: $20 each for the first two bags on Frontier, bringing your total to $310 round trip, and $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second on United, making your trip a painful $350 total.

The good news is that all three of these airlines offer plenty of non-stop flights at this price point for this trip, meaning your total time in the air is about three hours. However, that does not include the time you need to allow for check in and airport security—an additional 90 minutes. Assuming you get a ride to the airport and do not have to park, then your travel time for this trip will be 4 ½ hours total.

As for safety, the good news keeps coming. Despite the nerves we all may feel in flying, it remains one of the safest means of travel. When comparing deaths per billion kilometers, there are 0.05 deaths through air travel compared to 3.1 in automobiles.

Rail Travel (Amtrak) Costs and Time

A single adult riding Amtrak from Indianapolis to Denver can travel in old school style for anywhere between $294 and $402. On the surface, it would appear that flying is the better deal.

However, Amtrak offers a 10% discount for AAA members, making the price a more competitive $264.60 to $361.80. Add in the fact that your first two checked bags ride free, and it makes the price even more reasonable. While meals and beverages are not complimentary on trains, you are permitted to bring your own food and drink on board and further save money that way. There are also really good dining options on board if you choose to splurge.

The timing of a rail journey is the real stumbling block. The cheapest fare available (which also happened to be the shortest time in transit) will take from Monday morning at 6:00 am until Tuesday morning at 7:15 am—a total of 25 hours and 15 minutes. The return trip is even longer at 28 hours and 40 minutes. This is even harder to swallow when you remember that the inexpensive fare is only paying for a reserved coach seat, which, while it may be more comfortable than the average airline seat, is still not the place you’d really like to be sleeping.

Safety-wise, train travel is a safe way to go, with only 0.6 deaths per billion kilometers. It’s statistically an extremely small risk, although it is still slightly higher than air travel.

Bus Travel Costs and Time

Riding Greyhound from Indianapolis to Denver will only set you back $198 round trip, making it the cheapest option by far. In addition, the first checked bag is free, and the second only costs $10, bringing your travel total to $208 — which is still cheaper than the next cheapest option of Southwest at $230. As for dining options, you will have to bring your own food or buy food at one of the bus stops or transfers.

Like rail travel, buses take quite some time. The outbound trip is 22 hours and 15 minutes, and the return trip is thirty minutes longer. I should also note that in order to avoid any transfers (where passengers are responsible for transferring their checked luggage to the new bus), I had to choose between a fare that leaves Indianapolis at 3:15 am and one that leaves at 12:30 pm. Add to that the fact that bus travel is not known for its comfort, and even the most budget conscious of travelers might rethink the idea of taking the bus.

I was surprised to find that bus travel is very safe, at only 0.4 deaths per billion kilometers. It also does well in other statistical measurements: it tops the safety list in deaths per billion journeys (4.3) and deaths per billion hours (11.1), both of which are metrics where air and rail don’t do as well because they carry more passengers.

The Bottom Line

It is unlikely that I’m going to start choosing Amtrak or Greyhound over air travel when planning any of my usual travel, much to my friend’s dismay. However, considering the lowered cost and the ability to take in scenery and enjoy the travel experience more, taking the train or the bus can be a fun part of the travel experience if you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination.

Have you ever taken the bus or train on a long-distance trip?

Image by Loco Steve

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Last Edited: October 15, 2012 @ 9:27 am
About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a former English teacher, and an excellent freelance writer. She's also a stay-at-home-mom. She resides in Lafayette, IN, with her engineer husband and son. Emily's thoughts on parenting and life in general are found at The SAHMnambulist.