Disadvantages of Traveling by Train
Advantages and Disadvantages of Rail Transport
December 28, 2023
Alicia Butler is a full-time traveler and freelance writer. She started traveling full time back in 2018, before it was cool to do so. Her favorite cities in the world are NYC, Oaxaca, Lisbon, and Edinburgh.
She was an NYC tour guide for eight years, so she can tell you all the best places to eat pizza, bagels, and falafel — as well as what to pack and what to leave home.
One of my favorite ways to travel has always been by train.
There’s just something really romantic about train travel. Getting to see the countryside. Enjoying a slower pace. The opportunity to stop at destinations along the way.
But not everything is all rainbow smiles and puppy dog kisses on the rails. In fact, there are a lot of disadvantages of traveling by train.
Find out how to mitigate the downsides of train travel and when you should make the journey by bus, car, or plane instead.
This post may contain affiliate links, so if you buy something after clicking on a link, I might (fingers crossed!) just get a little commission. Good news: I only recommend products that I love! Which means you can feel good about all of my recs.
Traveling by Train in the US Vs Europe
Train travel in the U.S. really differs from the European train experience. If you’re used to traveling by train in one or the other, there are some things you should know before you board.
Traveling by Train in the US
US train travel has come a long way, but it’s by no means as convenient as European train travel. There are several disadvantages of traveling by train in the U.S.
Even though our tax dollars fund the railways, Amtrak prices can get steep around the holidays and can be even more expensive on certain routes.
Amtrak is also known for delays and breakdowns, causing even more frustration.
Here are some of the pros and cons of traveling by train in the U.S versus Europe.
Pros of US Train Travel
- Fewer language barriers
- Both Amtrak & commuter trains available
- Few trains have ticketed seating
Cons of US Train Travel
- Tickets can be pricey
- Fewer trains in the South
- Business class can be expensive
- Prices increase closer to travel dates
Traveling by Train in Europe
There are fewer disadvantages of traveling by train in Europe.
Most of the trains here run on a pretty tight schedule, there are fewer delays and cancellations, and there are more high-speed trains.
Just like in the U.S., tickets can be pricey, but the trains are more convenient and you’ll save money by booking in advance. The price difference between 2nd class and business class isn’t as stark in Europe as it is in the U.S, either.
Here are some of the pros and cons of traveling by train in Europe.
Pros of European Train Travel
- Cheaper upgrades
- More train routes
- Great way to see the countryside
- Lots of high-speed trains
Cons of European Train Travel
- Trains can be crowded
- Luggage space is limited
- Language barriers in some countries
- Prices increase closer to travel dates
- Some train routes don’t operate seasonally
Advantages of Traveling by Train
Though there are a lot of disadvantages of traveling by train, there are also plenty of advantages, too.
Despite the fact that train travel is considered more inconvenient by many people, it’s actually my favorite way to travel through a lot of Europe — and even much of the U.S.
Here are a few of the advantages of traveling by train.
Don’t Need to Arrive Early for Boarding/Security
You can show up a few minutes before most trains are scheduled to leave the station because you don’t need to arrive early for boarding and security — especially in the U.S.
In Europe, you need to go through security at some train stations and for some routes. You’ll need to budget a little time for this, but it takes a lot less time than airport security. In the U.S., you don’t need to go through a metal detector or have your bags scanned.
If you’re planning to travel between Europe and the U.K., you’ll need to pass through border control, so always plan at least a half hour for that.
Great Way to See the Countryside
Train travel is a great way to see the countryside. When you fly between destinations, you’ll miss everything in between.
If you drive, you’ll probably only get a view of the country from the highways, which isn’t very interesting.
One of the best reasons to take the train instead of a bus or driving is that you’ll avoid traffic.
This could lessen your travel time — and your stress.
The train from Tacoma to Seattle can get you between these two cities in less than an hour, whereas you could sit in traffic for up to two hours if you plan to drive.
Instead of feeling stressed and rushed, you can sit back and relax and enjoy the scenery.
Take Your Car on Some Trains
On some trains in the U.S., such as the auto train that runs between Orlando and Washinton, D.C., you can take your car.
You need to arrive early so Amtrak can load your car on the train. But it’s still convenient — and in some cases more cost-effective — to take the auto train instead of driving the distance.
The auto train is an overnight train and includes a sit-down dinner in the dining car if you book one of the suites.
Suites on Amtrak aren’t the fanciest or the best, but you can at least enjoy some privacy and shut-eye on the 12-hour journey.
One disadvantage of taking the auto train between Orlando and D.C. is that it’s often notoriously delayed.
The one time I took this train, we were supposed to arrive in D.C. first thing in the morning but were stuck in Georgia for nearly eight hours, arriving much later in the day.
Bring as Many Liquids as You Want
When you travel by plane, you can’t take full-size bottles of liquids in your carry-on. So, you’ll need to either arrive even earlier to check a bag (and potentially pay a fee) or take travel-sized bottles.
You also can’t bring bottles of water, soda, or other beverages through airport security. Buying these items at an airport post-security can be pretty expensive.
On a train, you can bring whatever liquids you want.
Better Traveler Experience
Train travel is just more comfortable than plane or car travel. You can get up and walk around, go to the bathroom, or get food in the cafe car without worrying about turbulence.
The seats are usually bigger, there’s more legroom, and the tray tables are designed better.
Some Routes in Europe Don’t Offer Flights
Europe has a law that says if it takes two hours or less to travel by train between two cities, flight cannot operate between them. In these cases, you’ll be required to travel by train.
Disadvantages of Traveling by Train
Of course, train travel isn’t perfect and there are plenty of disadvantages of traveling by train — both in Europe and the U.S.
Here are some of the most common disadvantages of traveling by train.
May Need to Use Rideshares or Taxis to Get Around
When you’re traveling without a car, you’ll need to take public transportation or rideshares once you reach your final destination.
If you’re traveling to a city in Europe, you can usually take public transportation to get around. But cities in the U.S., like Los Angeles, San Diego, or Austin, may require a car.
Some Route Require Several Transfers
There’s not always a direct route between destinations, so you may need to transfer trains at some point in your journey. This can make your travel time even longer.
If you’re traveling in Europe, there may only be a few direct trains that run each day. Depending on when you want to leave, these routes may not be the best option.
Some direct or high-speed trains also don’t operate in winter. I once planned a trip from Florence to Lyon and found out (a little too late) that the four-hour high-speed train I planned to take wasn’t operating in November.
If I wanted to travel by train, I’d need to travel for 13 hours and transfer five times.
Potentially Longer Travel Times
Air travel just takes less time. A high-speed train trip from Florence to Bordeaux takes about eight hours total.
A flight between the two cities takes about an hour and a half (though you need to add up to two hours to your travel time for check in and boarding at the airport and another half hour to 45 minutes for baggage claim in Bordeaux).
Even with all the hassle at airports, your travel time is cut in half when traveling by plane.
There are limited train routes in the U.S., especially in the South.
Even between two tourist destinations, like Lake Chelan and Seattle, you’ll need to drive. This is partially why it takes so long to get to Lake Chelan from Seattle.
If you’re planning on traveling between these cities, you’ll need to take a bus, drive, or fly.
Train Delays, Cancellations & Breakdowns
Just as there are a lot of flight delays, trains can be delayed or canceled. They can even break down — especially in the U.S.
This can add hours to your already lengthy journey.
Not Enough Space for Luggage
In the U.S., I’ve never had an issue finding a luggage rack to store my larger suitcases.
But in Europe, a lot of passengers don’t respect the rule that states you can only use large luggage racks for large items.
I’ve seen small, carry-on luggage and duffel bags placed in these areas, leaving no room for my huge suitcase. When this has happened, I’ve needed to heave my heavy, giant suitcase into the overhead luggage racks that are usually reserved for smaller pieces.
This can be kind of a pain, and it adds a lot of stress to an already stressful journey.
Passengers sometimes act like they’re the only people on the train.
I’ve gotten stuck next to the lady who talks loudly on her phone for hours, the guy who blasts his music or podcast without headphones, and passengers clipping their nails.
This can be kind of a pain. On a plane, the flight attendants pace the aisles and reprimand passengers for this kind of cockamamie. But there aren’t as many conductors or train employees and a lot of this disrespectful behavior goes unnoticed.
Crowded Train Cars
Trains can get just as crowded as planes — and sometimes it’s even worse.
If you’re taking a commuter train, you might even get stuck sitting on a three-seater row, which is even more uncomfortable than getting stuck in the middle seat on an airplane.
Booking a business-class or first-class ticket (if they’re available) can ease some of this congestion. These tickets are cheaper in Europe than they are in the U.S.
Fewer Checked Baggage Options
On some train routes, you’re allowed to check your baggage. But you can’t do this on every train.
Instead, you’ll need to carry all your bags onto the train, sometimes heaving them up steep steps.
It’s worth it to pay more for direct high-speed trains, as long as you can afford it. You’ll be able to sit back and relax for the entire journey without worrying about missing a connection or delays on more than one train.
Tips to Make Train Travel Better
Though there are plenty of disadvantages of traveling by train, this type of travel is both convenient and more environmentally better than flying.
Here are some ways you can minimize its downsides and make traveling by train just a little bit better.
Check Schedules for the Date of Your Travel
For my fateful train trip between Florence and Lyon (that never happened), I’d looked at the train schedule for the month I was planning the trip instead of the date I was traveling.
Google showed that there was a high-speed train between the two cities that would take only four hours. But when I tried to book the trip several months later, I saw those trains didn’t run in November.
Many trains don’t run in the winter, on weekends, or on weekdays. Make sure the journey you want to take is possible by checking out tickets for the exact dates of your travel.
Pay a Little More for Direct Trains or High-Speed Trains
It’s worth it to pay more for direct high-speed trains, as long as you can afford it.
You’ll be able to sit back and relax for the entire journey without worrying about missing a connection or delays on more than one train. You also won’t need to lug your bags from train to train, possibly up stairs.
Prepare for Your Train Travel Wisely
You can bring as much food or drink on a train as you want. You don’t need to worry about bringing full-size bottles of liquids.
If you have the space in your travel bag, I’d recommend bringing your own food and drink — especially if you’re traveling by train in the U.S. Amtrak doesn’t offer the best food options and meals and snacks are really expensive.
Though a lot of European trains have decent food in the cafe car, it’s still a little pricey.
I always bring some of my own snacks on the train, especially when I’m traveling by train in the U.S.
Whether I’m traveling by train in Europe or the U.S., I like to purchase meals at the train station before I board. This can be a little hit or miss, depending on the train station.
At larger train stations, like Grand Central Terminal, you’ll find some great food options. Yet, smaller train stations may not offer anything more than chain fast food restaurants.
I find the grab-and-go options at train stations to be a bit better than the ones in the U.S.
I also like to stay occupied on the train. To be honest, I play a lot of games on my phone. But I also like to download “free” magazines that I get with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.
Of course, you could always download magazines for free if your local library allows you to do so. You can also download e-books at your local library.
If you’re bored on the train, I have a list of e-book recommendations! Most of my recommendations are not available on Kindle Unlimited, but you can still download these at your library or purchase them on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
Because train travel times can be longer than flight times, you may want to use some of my ideas for the best things to do on a plane on your long train journey, too.
The water available in the bathrooms on trains isn’t potable, so I bring a collapsible water bottle with a filter built into it. I still wouldn’t fill it in a train bathroom, but you could fill it at the train station before you board.
Or, just buy a bottle of water at the grocery store beforehand — you’re just going to have an extra thing to carry.
Use Trains to Travel Between Cities
Because most cities have public transportation, you won’t need a car anyway. In fact, it may be easier to use public transportation than to get around by car.
If you’re not going to need a car at your destination, you may just want to travel by train. It could be cheaper and you’ll be able to enjoy the journey along the way.
Try to Pack Light
If you can’t check a bag, try to travel light. Just remember that you’ll need to carry and lift all your luggage yourself on a train.
Upgrade Your Ticket
In Europe, a business class upgrade is a lot cheaper than in the U.S.
If you can afford to upgrade in Europe or in the U.S., I’d recommend doing so. Only because you’re going to experience less crowding and you’ll potentially get better amenities.
I like to try to book single seats if I’m traveling alone. That way, I get both an aisle and a window seat. Plus no one sits next to you, so you get a little more space to stretch out.
As long as you’re not traveling on the Acela or the Eurostar (and you’re booking far enough in advance), you could potentially get a good deal on a business class or even a first class upgrade.