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Airline booking site says, “Take the train!”

CheapAir.com will now let you make reservations on Amtrak, a clear sign that the travel industry is recognizing consumers’ frustrations with air travel.

It’s one thing for Amtrak to let you reserve seats on its own Web site. But when an aggregator that deals with multiple airlines now says, “You can book trains now, too!,” that’s thought-provoking.

And the thought it’s intended to provoke is that the train is a more comfortable, less expensive and definitely less aggravating alternative to flying.

According to USA Today, CheapAir.com is including Amtrak among its listings.

There may be another booking site out there that will let you book flights and rail travel in the United States at the same time, but I haven’t found it yet.

(NOTE: CheapAir.com is NOT to be confused with CheapOair.com, a completely different outfit — although I suspect the two ARE confused several thousand times a day.)

For now, CheapAir.com will only let you book Amtrak tickets on its heavily used and extremely popular Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington DC.

The company is already planning to do the same on Amtrak routes in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

This link to CheapAir’s blog explains how the new service works.

The fact that it’s being offered at all is eye-opening, especially when you hear the reasoning from CheapAir.com CEO Jeff Klee:

“For many markets…it does make a lot of sense to consider rail instead of flights, especially when you factor in all the hassles and transport time to and from the airport.

“If you’re coming from out of town and not used to even thinking of rail, all of a sudden, when it’s presented there and you see it’s significantly less expensive and not that much longer…you’ll see a great option you didn’t know existed.”

Klee’s comments get to the heart of what makes this move worth noting, namely the hell that is now air travel if you’re among the masses who can’t afford to fly in the well-heeled classes.

I suspect it’s mainly an effort by CheapAir.com to generate a little buzz and thus distinguish itself from that large and confusing herd of travel booking sites on the Web.

But more importantly for us consumers, it means that the travel industry is not only recognizing, but is now responding, to the growing unpopularity of air travel.

Does this mean that people are going to stop flying en masse? Hardly. But it does show that the industry recognizes that travelers are looking for alternatives, and will make an effort to offer them.

The biggest obstacle to this idea is the CheapAir.com site itself. Visually, it’s very dated, the Web design equivalent of 80s chic. Worse, it doesn’t feature this new Amtrak booking option prominently on its home page, forcing users to hunt for it.

But that’s nothing that a little site makeover can’t fix. The idea itself is definitely sound and don’t be surprised to see at least some of CheapAir’s competitors follow suit.

American rail travel may still be lagging behind the rest of the developed world in speed and efficiency, but if an airline booking site finds it worthwhile to help you reserve train tickets, then Amtrak must be doing something right.

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