We are currently planning significant trip to United States later this year – and it’s interesting to note the differences as well as the similarities.
On this trip, we are going to travel nearly 4500km by land – that’s the equivalent of a loop from my home city of Brisbane, via Sydney, down to Melbourne, then across to Adelaide, then north to Broken Hill, and from there back up to Brisbane again.
But where our US trip is different is that roughly 2000 km of the trip will be by train.
We are going from San Francisco to Denver, Colorado on the California Zephyr, through some truly beautiful territory across the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains – at a cost of just $350 each, with a sleeper, and all meals.
The equivalent distance on Australian long-haul trains might be on the Indian Pacific from Adelaide to Perth. The cost for that journey? $1589 each, or 4-and-a-half times. And that’s just the base-level sleeper, with extras like meals costing – well, extra!
But, of course, the Indian Pacific is a premium rail experience – really only for tourists who are doing it specifically for the journey, and The Ghan is largely the same.
So what about the Sprit of Queensland? It’s popular with tourists, but is a more ‘mainstream’ long-haul passenger train.
The equivalent journey is Brisbane to Cairns – and that would cost $585 – or only half as much again as the Zephyr. But there are no sleeper cabins on the Spirit any more, apparently.
Last time I took that trip, probably 30 years ago, we had a sleeper cabin.
But as I started researching this piece I found there are now only seats in the main carriage – and there are no meals included, etc.
So the equivalent trip in the US would cost $150 each – or around one-quarter of the cost.
Of course, it would be much cheaper and much faster to fly in all three cases – and it would probably be cheaper to hire a car .. but in the US, the lower cost of rail makes a trip across half a continent at least feasible.
The original plan was to traverse the whole of the US by train, buying a 30-day rail pass and taking the Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago, and then another train to New York and Washington, and down to New Orleans, and across to Texas and back to California.
We could have done the whole trip for just under a thousand dollars each (Australian) but we decided against that.
Why? Well, there were a number of reasons – one is that the ticket only gets you a seat in an economy cabin – no bed, and no showers etc.
But the deal-breaker for us was there were no guarantees that we would actually get a seat when we needed one.
You see, that pass only works if the train you want has less than 80% of its full passenger load.
Which is fine if you are a backpacker who can crash for an extra night in a hostel, while waiting for the next service .. but not so good for middle-aged foreigners like Shirley and me.
Instead, we are going to do the Zephyr as far as the Rocky Mountains, and then drive the rest of the trip over three weeks, in a series of hops – driving for a day and then staying for two or three days in an area while we explore each region.
The cost of a small car for that 20-odd days is around $1600 Australian or $80/day – and the interesting part is that around $500 of that $1600 is because we are picking up the car in Colorado, but dropping it off in Los Angeles.
But again, doing a comparison to Australia – a similar car would cost around $2000 – and 900 of that is a one-way fee – so a one-third fee seems pretty good to me!
I did suggest buying an old clunker for around a grand and then dumping it at a wrecking yard when we reached LA, but Shirley seemed singularly unimpressed with that idea 🙂
Not so many years ago this sort of trip would have needed a travel agent to organise it – and while we do have a tame travel agent in the family (our son Alan) we only got him to organise the flights this time around.
The rest we are doing via the internet.
That’s partly because almost all the locations we are staying at are Worldmark resorts in the US – We’ve been owners in the Australian sister club for about 15 years.
But its also partly because we can ask fellow travellers on the internet and get invaluable advice, ideas and tips.
I’m not just talking about TripAdvisor (although I’ve been using that site for many years) .. but also Facebook pages and groups which relate to the areas we are travelling through.
There are also the ‘official’ sites for tourism groups and cities – they obviously have a story to sell, but their advice can be really useful as well.
And then there are the blog-posts from those who’ve ‘been there, done that’.
They provide the sort of advice that previously only came from travel pro’s.
I am vacuuming up all this information as we prepare for the trip – and then I’ll write about it, in a blog like this, detailing OUR experiences.
Hopefully, that will add to that stash of knowledge for the next traveller. And the #travelbloggers community will continue to grow. Doncha love it?