Last Thursday I rode a train to Chicago from Winona. I returned this last Monday. The train was definitely the best method of travel for this journey.
I could have driven to Chicago (5.5 hrs) or flown from Minneapolis/Rochester/LaCrosse (less than 1 hr in the air, lots more on the ground). The train took 6 hours (10:11 am to 3:55 pm CST). It cost me $112 dollars – the cheapest option at first glance would be driving, but factor in parking in Chicago for a few days, and I reckon it’s more.
Pros of the Train:
- Most environmentally-friendly option
- Cost-effective (train tickets I believe are often the highest up front cost, but then no baggage fees, no parking fees, etc.)
- It’s by far the most comfortable of the options, with the ability to move around. And the coach (economy) on the train has wayyyyyyy more leg room than airplane economy, in fact I reckon it’s more than first class on most airplanes. Also observation car has nice seats and tables if you don’t like your seat.
- Scenic – the views from the observation car are far nicer than driving I-94 to Chicago, and more so than flying
- Able to use a cellphone (unlike flying), however no wifi onboard either. Power outlets available too.
- Time-effective – whereas when you are driving you just drive, and with flying you’ve got security, boarding, baggage, etc for ages. I got lots of work done during my trip.
- No airport security.
- No baggage restrictions, able to take bikes, pets, large luggage, etc far more easily than airplanes.
- Amish People to stare at in puzzlement (lots traveling both times I was on).
- Better food than airplanes.
- Drops you off right in the downtown, no need to hike in from the airport in the distant suburbs.
- No ear-popping pressure changes of air travel. No dead skunks on the side of the road like driving.
- A general sense of class and sophistication as you travel the Empire Builder line, built by the imposing Minnesotan, James J Hill.
Cons of the Train:
- Frequently accused of running late. That said, it was exactly on time both times I have ridden. Also accusations are usually that it is a whole 15 minutes late, whereas with airplanes you can sometimes end up stuck overnight…
- It was probably the fastest option to go to Chicago (unless you do 80 on the freeway, of course, and don’t stop for gas for food). It is however much slower than flying for long distances – it’s a 40 hours ride from Winona to Seattle. For that distance, I reckon I’d fly, personally.
- Lack of stops and routes. This is debatable – Winona has a train station but not an airport. The train station is closer than the nearest airport. But I have only two destinations on this route (not including transfers) – Chicago, Seattle/Portland and everything in between. If you live in Chicago, you can go almost anywhere in the country, but if I wanted to take the train to, say, Florida or California, well, it would be a tedious journey.
And an FYI: Sleeper car fares include meals, so the extra price actually is probably worth it for long haul trips.
Conclusion: trips of 4 – 12 hours, in my opinion, and for which there is a train line available, the train is the best way to go.