A few weeks ago I got sucked into a long series of on-line surveys, all because of the offer of a free $250 gas card. That card would've bought about 50 gallons of gas at the time, which in turn would be at least 1900 miles of driving in our Honda Civic. When we bought the Civic, getting nearly 40 instead of 20 mpg made us feel like we're paying only two dollars a gallon.
We try to "piggyback" trips as often as possible; if we can accomplish a task without driving, we will. Living in Ilwaco, a person can be almost car free. My husband and I literally walked out our door with our luggage and took a variety of public transportation modes all the way across country to visit my in-laws in New Jersey. First, the earliest Pacific Transit bus to Astoria dropped us at the Chamber of Commerce a few minutes before the Amtrak bus left for Portland. There we had a choice of stopping downtown in Fareless Square and taking MAX to the airport or being dropped at the train depot. For us, it was the train depot, where we checked our bags except for one small overnighter and a bag of snacks and books.
The trip across country by train is admittedly long: You board in Portland in the afternoon, spend two nights and days getting to Chicago and then switch trains for an overnighter to the eastern seaboard. When we were younger, we took coach the first and third nights and a compartment the middle night. Now we're creakier and take a romantic, little compartment the whole way. When you take a compartment, not only do you get a bed but also all your meals in the dining car. The food is far better than what's offered on planes, given it's prepared right there on the train, and service is attentive - again far better than on a plane. (Of course, what do I know; I haven't been on a plane since early 2001 - but that's another story.)
We started this "train instead of plane" business for a number of reasons. We'd done a lot of plane travel and grew tired of it. We went around the world on Continental, Thai, and SAS back in the eighties. We also used boats and trains in almost all the eleven countries we visited. Even a train trip in India (admittedly with a first class ticket) was more pleasant than the crammed-in conditions of air travel.
There is also something about the hectic atmosphere of most airports that raises one's anxiety level, even without the added (absolutely irrational) fear of flying and dying in a crash. By comparison, train stations are relaxed places (again except for India where there is such a crush of people that nothing can be relaxing) where staff look you in the eye and give you the feeling that your trip is the only really important thing to deal with today. On board the train, there's legroom, the opportunity to walk the cars, and a friendly and open atmosphere among passengers, who often turn out to be fascinating travel companions. Perhaps that's because there are fewer business travelers ... in a hurry, self-absorbed, and wanting to be left alone to focus on their laptops.
When we returned from our around the world adventure, we took the train back east and noticed the contrast with flying. By train, we gradually acclimate to the quickening pace as we move east, starting with Chicago where the bustle is up-speed from Seattle, but low gear compared with Manhattan. Coming west, Chicago is where we notice the pace downshifts and a bit more color shows up in people's clothing.
When we've flown, we've taken a mere day to go from our rural, small town environment and been plopped into one of the most intensely developed, densely populated places on earth. While New Jersey is really no more polluted than Tacoma's shipyard area and rural Jersey feels a lot like the Willamette Valley or the Centralia area, there is still a mild form of culture shock waiting for rural people like us.
Our other reason for taking the train is that it's energy efficient. According to Oak Ridge National Lab, Amtrak uses 2650 British thermal units per passenger mile, lower than any other transportation mode except a vanpool (1322 Btu) or a motorcycle (1855 Btu). Compared with air travel (at 3261 Btu) or by car (3512 Btu), we get to feel good both ways ... physically and ethically.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who loves to travel and wonders if there's an ocean liner trip in her future.