On the Myth of “Travel Options”

Ever since the public outrage at the TSA began last week, I’ve heard a lot of people put forth the following solution:”If you don’t like it, drive or take the train.”

Handy for the majority of Americans who own a car. Totally feasible for many of the corridor-city residing people whose family lives within 25 miles of the nearest train station (and, presumably, has a car to pick them up). But let’s explore the options for a carless couple traveling from New York City to visit their respective families in Cincinnati and Columbus Ohio in December.

Normally, we fly in to Columbus, spend a few days with my family, borrow a car, and spend a few more in Cincinnati before returning to Columbus for our departing flight. The itinerary this year is similar:

12/22: Depart: 9:25 AM; Arrive: 11:26 AM (2 hours 1 minute)

12/29: Depart: 6:40 AM; Arrive 8:25 AM (1 hour 45 minutes)

Total cost for per person: $234.40

Taking into account that planes use more fuel than cars, and that airlines employ significantly more staff than trains or buses (not even including security), economics would seemingly dictate that flying should be the most expensive option, the trade-off being time vs. cost.

Wrong.

Let’s look at my other options.

Bus

Greyhound’s web-only fares quoted me the same web-only price for multiple departure times. Given these options, I chose the shortest travel time going out. However, on the way home, I decided I wanted to have some time at home the day I arrive, so I opted for longer hours on an overnight trip:

12/22: Depart: 1:15 PM; Arrive: 1:25 AM 12/23 (12 hours 10 minute including 1 layover)

12/29: Depart: 12:15 AM; Arrive 2:45 PM (14 hours 30 minutes, nonstop)

Total cost for per person: $190.08

At least I am saving a little money with the bus, even if I am spending an extra 22 hours or so en route. That’s only if I go for the web-only fare though; the cost of a refundable ticket is $241–$6.60 more than my flight.

Train

Sadly, Amtrak doesn’t offer service into Columbus (and if Ohio’s Governor-Elect Kasich has his way, that will continue indefinitely). But with a slight re-ordering of our travel plans, I learned we can take a train from NY to Cincinnati. Let’s see what that does for us:

12/22: Depart: 6:45 AM; Arrive: 1:03 AM 12/23 (18 hours, 18 minutes)

12/29: Depart: 3:29 AM; Arrive 9:45 PM (18 hours 16 minutes)

Total cost per person: $310.00

So, I can pay $75 more and get 32 additional hours of travel time in return? With deals like this, I find it hard to believe trains aren’t doing better in this country.

Car

Suppose I go the American way and rent a car. A one-week rental with unlimited mileage starts at $457, including tax. Slightly cheaper than the $478 it’s going to cost us to fly. Except we haven’t bought our three-four tanks of gas or paid any tolls yet, and we’re spending about 10 hours going each way.

All this to is to say: despite the inconveniences associated with the airport and my intense fear of heights, I usually fly. In fact, I usually feel good about flying. I sometimes even enjoy drinking ginger ale at 14,000 feet. And I don’t expect any of my other options to be nearly as quick. But for flying to be both one of the more affordable options, and by far the most efficient one (environment aside), the choice that people tell me I have isn’t as simple as they assume it to be. I hope that this does make people reconsider air travel: real competition and legitimate use are the only way that other forms of transportation will become viable.


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