These days, there are two kinds of air travelers — those who are sick of flying and those who soon will be. A good train makes a great alternative.
My friend Walt flies all over the world for his job. He has enough frequent flyer miles to circumnavigate the globe 40 times. Do you envy him?
“I hate flying. I’m sick of flying. I almost can’t stand to get on an airplane anymore.”
Back in the day, air travel was fun, romantic, thrilling. In the immortal words of B.B. King, the thrill is gone. In its place are security screeners who treat you like luggage, baggage handlers who treat your luggage like garbage, and airlines that treat you like cattle.
Did the airline overbook your flight? Too many ounces of Listerine in your toiletry kit? Do you have to run through terminals like O.J. Simpson? And why do the screeners want you to take your shoes and your belt off?
What’s next, a lap dance?
TORTURE, NOT TRAVEL
Just getting yourself to the airport often means long drives through hellish traffic, only to descend into a maze of taxis, shuttle buses and other travelers, all jockeying for the same unavailable space.
This is not travel. This is torture.
Okay, I freely admit to being a train nut. My friend Carl tells me that true rail fanatics are called “foamers.” Not sure I qualify; I’ve had all my shots. But I love traveling on clean, comfortable, well-run trains.
There’s also a personal connection. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, one of my great-uncles was a Pullman porter on the Sunset Limited, the first train I ever rode. The story of the Pullman porters and their struggle for dignity plays a major role in the Civil Rights movement.
Today, there’s a growing movement among Americans to return to a modernized and faster rail system.
Buy your ticket. Head to the platform. Climb aboard, stash your bag, find your seat. Show the conductor your ticket. That’s it. Leave from and arrive in the heart of town.
You can watch all the scenery you’ll never see from “our cruising altitude of 39,000 feet.” There’s a place to plug in your laptop or spread out your picnic lunch and your bottle of wine. If you paid extra for a compartment, you have a cozy little bedroom by night. An attendant will turn the bed down for you.
You will not be told to fasten your seatbelt because of turbulence. There is no turbulence. There is no seatbelt.
The high-speed passenger trains of Europe and Asia are the best of all. Trains like Japan’s pioneering Shinkansen and South Korea’s KTX, the French TGV, the German ICE train (the pun can’t be helped, but that’s just a cool name for a train), Spain’s AVE and the Eurostar Italia whisk you to and from your destinations at speed approaching or exceeding 200 miles per hour.
A Eurostar train takes you from London to Paris, under the English Channel via the famous tunnel, in a shade over two hours.
When traffic is at its worst, you can’t get from Roissy CDG airport to central Paris in two hours.
Most of these lines are so fast that they don’t even bother with sleeper cars. You’re going too fast to read the signs telling you the names of the picturesque little villages and towns you’re bypassing (those are left to slower local trains).
In Europe, many airlines don’t even try to compete with them on short-haul routes anymore.
SLOW BUT SCENIC
Here in the United States, even bedraggled Amtrak is gaining travelers weary of the air nightmare and rising gas prices. In summer, Amtrak’s more popular lines are selling out and running full at peak times.
Go north and you’ve got one of the most beautiful transcontinental rail trips in the world, the Trans-Canada.
Stations in New York, Chicago, Washington DC and Los Angeles have regained the buzz they maintained a half-century ago, when train travel was “it.”
Being slower allows Amtrak to run sleeper cars across the American continent. They charge per trip for one of their compartments, regardless of the number of people using it, which makes them cheaper than first-class airfares. All your meals are included — real food in a real dining car.
Speaking of food, there are excursion trains and dinner trains that don’t really take you anywhere except to a great time, day trips lasting just long enough to treat you to gorgeous views and sumptuous meals aboard restored antique trains. The Napa Valley Wine Train is an example.
Want ultra-luxury? A few well-heeled rail buffs maintain their own antique railcars, which Amtrak attaches to their own trains for trips around the country. When their owners aren’t using them, they’ll often rent them out.
Bottom line: If you’re willing to be miserable for the sake of speed, flying still wins. But when you’re ready to actually enjoy going somewhere, think rails instead of wings.