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Why Amtrak Can Never Beat European Train Travel

The mammoth US train company, Amtrak, may have versatile routes and (occasionally) decent prices, but European train travel trumps US train travel in almost every way. I rode two Amtrak routes in the last month with mixed experiences. Here's what I can tell you about Amtrak vs European Trains.


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old Amtrak station ticket booth

Booking and Pricing


Amtrak

Booking a trip on Amtrak is really simple. You can get last minute pricing that isn't too astronomically different than buying your tickets further out from your travel date.


With their useful app and online booking tools, it is a very intuitive system to understand and book with.


Amtrak app screenshot

In some cases, same day travel booking can be confusing. For instance, I booked a trip for an 11:28am train to Tampa and after I clicked 'pay', it said "Great - you are confirmed for the 10:47am train to Tampa!". It was 10:30am and I was still at home. Ruh-roh.


Turns out, Amtrak will display the time for a delayed train. So although I never would have made a 10:47am train, because the train was already delayed the system simply spit out the new time as the departure time for buying tickets, too.


Talk about confusing!



European Trains

European Trains, surprisingly, can be a even more confusing to book. Without knowing what train line to travel with in each country, it may be a bit of a goose chase.


Because I travel frequently in Spain with Renfe, I'll use them in most of my examples here. Although traveling with them is great, Renfe's booking tool is downright AWFUL. To the point where it takes me an hour to book something, and a lot of excess swear words against the brand as I'm booking it.


Some websites, (Renfe I am talking to you), just don't have it together. From inputting the wrong travel dates to confounding issues with payment and pricing totals changing throughout the booking process, it's truly horrid.


That's why when I travel on European Trains, I start with an aggregate tool first. I want to know what line I need to be on, and what my options are. There are three big outfitters for this including Omio, RailEurope and Trainline.


Browsing these websites is a snap. Check them out for yourself at the links above, or use the widget tool below to get a feel for potential routes and rates:



Note that European trains often operate like air travel and get more expensive (or even sell out) closer to your travel date, so it is important to book early.



Punctuality and Speed


Amtrak

I'd need an hour of your time and a long sit down over a glass of wine to explain the problem with Amtrak's punctuality.


My experience on commuter style rail routes like the one I took from New Haven to Mystic, CT recently, is that those run pretty well on time.


Amtrak train departure signs

It's when you start working long haul routes that things get sticky. Taking into consideration weather delays, broken rail crossings, baggage cars needing to be loaded or unloaded, and lack of consistent organization, Amtrak has a lot of growing to do.


Expect delays far beyond what seems reasonable. For instance, a couple we traveled next to had to be on board their cruise ship in Tampa by 3:30pm. The train arrived 2.5 hrs late leaving them literally 9 minutes to run to the cruise terminal and beg for passage by the all aboard time. What a mess. (Psst. if this is you, consider reading my tips on how to avoid common cruising mistakes).


Others missed family events, and we missed our 4 hour window for fun with friends (we were only taking a day trip), trimmed down to a quick 1.5 hr meal before we had to turn right back around and get on the train again.


Point being, if you have somewhere to be, don't expect to be there on time.



European Trains

European trains, on the other hand, are punctual to a T. Arrive minutes before travel and know you will be boarding at the exact moment it says you will be boarding. Trains are punctual within a 1-2 minute window of error.


When making stops along the route, they give roughly 3 minutes for an on and off opportunity. With Amtrak, we would sit for 15-20 minutes at a station before moving on. Imagine that type of wait all the way up the Eastern Seaboard?!


European trains are not only punctual, but they are FAST. High-speed trains are the norm, and they cut the time of traveling by car in half, in many cases. Amtrak took what should have been a 1.5-2 hour car ride and made me endure FOUR HOURS of travel by train instead.


I don't call that efficiency.



Comfort


Amtrak

Aside from being an aged silver bullet much like the aluminum colored Airstream campers, the insides of the Amtrak trains are actually really comfortable (although filthy and not cleaned often). Trash was left in seat backs from previous riders, the floors hadn't been vacuumed in ages, and someone even left behind a pair of "Bride" flip flops at my seat. How nice of them!


But, as I said the seats WERE comfortable. Built for enduring slow travel, the seats are by far the biggest I've seen in the business.


Amtrak train exterior

The seats recline way further than any economy class airline seat, they are wide for most butts, and the leg room? Well the seat in front of my was so far away, I couldn't even touch it with my tippy toes and outstretched legs. Look how spacious it is - and my husband is a big guy!


spacious Amtrak seating

Most cars were well air-conditioned (to the point of freezing), while our car was the unlucky car of squelched air vents and major heat problems. Yay for us!


All seats were forward facing, great for travelers with motion sickness issues sitting backwards.


As for comfort in safety and security, Amtrak doesn't check bags and they don't do a security check. I will say that the clientele of our Amtrak train was mostly budget travelers, sometimes even being a little too salt of the earth, so take that as you wish.


There were some characters I didn't feel comfortable having my daughter around (I'm talking street bums taking their clothes off on the train), and being America, honestly there's no guarantee that half of the people on the train weren't packing some sort of weapon or firearm.


Even scarier, I was never once asked for an ID. Not during booking, and not during boarding or ticket check.


That said, I never felt unsafe, but just keep this in mind compared to European train travel.



European Trains

On the flip side, European trains are not built for long overnight travel and typically are built with comfort in mind as a sidebar to convenience. Seats are narrow and compacted in with other travelers, often knee to knee in the four-seater table style scenarios.


cramped seating on a european train

Train seats in Europe are commonly similar to bus seats, which is perfectly fine since the amount of time on the train is typically minimal.


Trains are spotlessly clean.


Safety is similar to an airport, with bag checks, ID checks, and scanning machines before boarding.



Onboard Amenities


Amtrak

I noticed plugs for chargers and the bathrooms weren't awful. The greatest thing I can say about Amtrak is that their cafe and dining cars are cool.


The dining car on our return train (which was an overnight train headed north) was as you might expect from train travel of yesteryear. There were tablecloths and flowers on the tables, which were separated by ornately decorated glass partitions between the tables. Waiters wearing black suit vests and white collared shirts assisted in serving a meal of steak, salmon, chicken or pasta. I took a peek in there and would have been pleased to dine there if I were an overnighter.


For the rest of us pedestrians, we had the cafe car. When I discovered the cafe car I was happy to relax away from the rest of the passengers for a bit.


Amtrak cafe car


We ordered gin and tonic, beer, wine and snacks and enjoyed a nice sit down for awhile.



woman smiles with drinks in train car


European Trains

European trains offer similar cafe cars with typically standing room only areas to enjoy a quick beer or, in Spain, a really nice espresso. It's also a nice place to step away from the seats for awhile and enjoy a bit of air away from fellow travelers.


european cafe car


Amtrak vs. European Train Travel: Living in the Past vs. Embracing the Future


If you ask me, Amtrak is tired. The golden age of travel by train in the United States is deader than a doornail and reserved now only for salt of the earth budget travelers and dreamers hoping for more out of the experience.


historic Orlando train station tracks

European trains will undoubtedly remain superior so long as they continue to offer high-speed rail routes that cut travel time at prices similar to budget air travel.


Although I totally dig the turn of the century vibes of the Amtrak stations I've visited, they are tiny, lacking in amenities, and living in the shadow of their glory days 100 years ago.


old timey waiting room

The stations in Europe, like the Madrid station below, are often outrageously adorned, fantastical and historical places buzzing with people, food options and transit warriors.


Train travel in Europe is often more common than owning a car, and is a primary mode of transportation.

Madrid train station

European trains are newer, cleaner, well maintained and punctual.


Amtrak needs a serious facelift to attract a new generation of middle class travelers. Right now taking Amtrak is not much different than taking your local bus, and if we're comparing that to Europe too, Europe still wins in the bus department (save that for another day).


Take Amtrak if you want to try a day of nostalgia and the clickety clack of the ye' old railroad days, but don't use it as your primary mode of travel. It will be a long day.

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Hi, I'm Maria!

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