Rochester To NYC: A Plane Vs. Train Smackdown

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“Let’s get ready to rumblllllllllleeeee!!! In this corner, the champion of American travel affection, the fast and nimble superstar of the skies, the commercial airplane!”

The crowd goes wild.

“And in this corner, using 20-40 year old equipment maxing out at a pedestrian 79mph, it’s AAAAMMMTRAAAKKK…”

The 25% of the crowd that DOES clap does so because it’s polite, or maybe because they truly love the idea of what the American passenger rail company could be in a perfect world.

Yes, train travel in this country is slow, and the airline is by far and away the first choice for journeys of any healthy distance. But today, we are actually going to realize this public transportation throw-down. I’m going to show you exactly what the real differences are between a plane and a train trip between my home city of Rochester, NY and New York City.

Let’s start with a few ground rules. I’m going to assume that both modes of transportation arrive on time. For both trips, I am going to assume that my final destination will be at the Row NYC Hotel in Manhattan, where I last stayed when I visited The Big Apple with my wife the last time we were there. To be kind to the airline trip, I’m going to say the luggage is “carry on” only. This is a distinction I don’t need to make with regard to the train (Amtrak has far more flexible baggage rules than airlines), but I feel like this trip is a quick “for fun” weekend adventure… so we will be nice to the airlines and assume that we just have carry-on luggage.

Let’s begin. The travel time for the Amtrak train 7 hours and 4 minutes. For the plane, it’s a speedy 1 hour and 26 minutes. Right off the bat, the airline seems to have the obvious and distinct advantage of 5 hours and 38 minutes. But this is simply travel time, far from a comprehensive comparison between transit durations.

The first Empire Service Amtrak train traveling East is train 280, departing the Flower City at 5:40am. Because there is no security, baggage check, I usually arrive at the Amtrak station at 5:30. Parking at the Rochester Amtrak station is free by the way.

If I’m flying, experts suggest that I arrive at the airport 90 minutes before scheduled departure to account for ticket check-in and security. Unlike the train, parking is not free.

To be fair, I will arrive at the Rochester International Airport at the same time I would for a train, 5:30am. This works out perfectly, because there is a Delta Airlines flight to NYC leaving at 7am, exactly 90 minutes after my arrival time. I check in, navigate through security, removing electronics, liquids, shoes, my belt, etc…. I might even get a pat-down. Lovely.

Meanwhile, I experience NONE of this while traveling by train. I arrive at the station, I go to the platform, and walk onto the train when it arrives, no questions asked. Once on the train, the conductor asks to scan my e-ticket on my phone. Easy as pie. No pat down needed. No limitation on the number of ounces of liquid or the off chance of a TSA attendant rummaging through my underwear during a random luggage check… in fact, no one checks my bags at all.

When you figure in 90 minutes I arrive at the airport prior to departure, versus the 10 minutes by train, the result is 80 minutes off the initial 5 hours and 38 minutes. The “difference balance” of time is now 4 hours and 18 minutes.

Once on the train, I can enjoy a level of comfort in a coach seat that is 25% wider than any coach class airline seat, and has endless amounts of legroom in comparison to commercial flights. Furthermore, at any time, I can get up and use one of two restrooms in my train car, or visit the cafe car for a variety of food and beverage options. Even booze. There is also “diner” style seating in the cafe car if I choose to watch the Upstate countryside pass by while enjoying a good meal, a cold beer or a trendy cocktail.

On a plane, I am pretty much stuck to my cramped seat. Yes, it’s a short hour and a half journey, but during this trip there is limited opportunity to move around and the “packed like sardines” feel is extremely uncomfortable.

Bam. My plane arrives at Laguiardia Airport at 8:26am. It takes me 25 minutes to access mass transit connecting the airport to my destination. After that, it takes two modes of public transit and 1 hour and 4 minutes to travel to downtown Manhattan. All in all, I probably arrive at Row NYC around 10:15 am.

By train, I arrive in downtown Manhattan at 12:45pm, and arrive at my final destination at approximately 1:15pm… a 3 hour “difference balance” between train and airline.

A trip that appeared to differ by 5 hours and 38 minutes, in reality, ended up differing by about 3 hours. During this time, Amtrak travelers experienced the following advantages…

  • Downtown Rochester to Downtown Manhattan service, with no connections or transfers. This is an often overlooked plus… since Amtrak typically arrives right in downtown in most major cities, there’s no need to take another train or bus to your final destination.
  • The ability to comfortably move about the train. If you’re sitting next to someone who’s creepy, you can move to another seat or grab a seat in the cafe car
  • 25% more width than airline seats and more legroom than you’ll ever need!
  • A cafe car with a wide variety of snacks, meals, beverages and even booze.
  • Beautiful scenery as you travel along the old Erie Canal, the Mohawk River and the Hudson
  • Plenty of room to release the tray table at your seat and get work done. On a train, you still have cell service, a wall plug at your seat, and WiFi, which admittedly is a little iffy.
  • Then there’s the cost. A round trip ticket from Rochester to NYC is typically $134. If you buy in advance at an off-peak time, you can get the same round trip airfare for $151, just $15 more than Amtrak. But Amtrak’s price advantage kicks in when you want or need to travel last minute. When I travel across New York State by train for a spontaneous day trip, I often book the ticket the night before. When I do, the prices stay pretty consistent. Not so much with the airline. For example, it’s Thursday… If I wanted to go to New York for business of pleasure this weekend, Amtrak’s cost for a ticket is still $134 round trip. That same 7am flight? $537. The cheapest round trip is $495. Amtrak wins the “spontaneous travel” game. Even buying a week and a half out the airline is still $241, while the train is still $134.

Let’s review. The airline beats Amtrak badly on travel time. But this is not as bad a beating as most people think when we consider early airport arrival and the hour-and-change trip from the airport to Manhattan.

Amtrak beats the airline in the areas of parking cost, no security check, no restrictions on liquids, seat comfort and legroom, the ability to move around, a dining car to enjoy food and drink, power at your seat, point-to-point travel with no transfers and less money, especially when booking last minute.

Do all these pluses for Amtrak make up for the 3 hours of extra travel time each way? For me, yes. I don’t like the stress of triple-checking every item in my bag to make sure it’s allowed, getting to the airport early, going through security and spending an hour-plus trying to get from the airport to downtown at my destination. Give me a slower, more comfortable journey with less hassle any day.

But that’s not everyone. For most, the priority is speed, and people will do anything to get where they are going a little quicker. I think we can all understand that. The purpose of this piece is to simply address the ACTUAL time saved by flying from my home city to New York (far less than people realize) and the comforts and conveniences that Amtrak provides that are unmatched in the world of American regional transportation.

Our trains aren’t perfect. But they’re better than most people think. For me, it’s Amtrak all the way… the best way to see New York State.