Train from Boston to Gainesville, FL = crazy?
October 4, 2006 6:45 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I (both *hate* flying) are required to go to Gainesville area in April. We also need to bring our kids (5 and 2yrs). Is travelling by train a reasonable alternative to flying, or should I just accept the fact that we'll be flying there?

I started looking at Amtrak's website, and it appears that I'm going to need to talk to an actual person there to find out if the route is even possible. If I have to get off in Tampa or Jacksonville, that's fine. But it appears that getting info online regarding train travel is not as easy as air travel.
Anyway, the appeal of the train to me is that we would avoid having to fly, and may have some more options for getting the active kids to be able to stretch, etc. It appears from Amtrak's site that there are mini rooms available.

Anyway, any advice on the following would be great...
- am I crazy to consider it, and why?
- What's it really like?
- If you've travelled by train before, how did you plan your trip (called Amtrak, online, etc)?

Note that I suspect this will not save me any money. In fact, I'm prepared to pay *slightly* more if it appears that this will make our trip easier. Also, the fear that we have of flying is not based on safety concerns - they are irrational, claustrophobic fears mostly. We would have to be dosed to pull this off via plane. Add our kids to the mix, and it isn't appealling.

posted by tom_g to Travel & Transportation around Gainesville, FL (44 answers total)
I've travelled by train on short distances (Portland, OR to Vancouver, BC) and it wasn't bad, but driving would have been more convenient. MA to FL is going to be a very long trip, especially with kids. Is driving a possibility for you? A road trip would allow you greater control over the journey.
posted by necessitas at 6:56 AM on October 4, 2006

I just planned a route from Boston, MA (Amtrak code BOS) to the Gainesville, FL (Amtrak code GNF) bus stop on their website. It's a total of three legs. Train to Washington, DC and then a train to Jacksonville, FL.

The total fare for random days in April is $765.00 for couch seats. AAA $688.50. Adding a room adds about $800 each way I think.

I don't think there's any way for me to share my search with you, but go to Amtrak's website and put BOS (or RTE if the Route 128 stop is closer to you (or whatever for that matter)) in the Departs field, and GNF in the Arrvies. Or some other station if you want to book the final leg of your trip seperate from Amtrak.

If you're having any problems with the website itself, just say here.

In terms of train travel, I like it. I've done many trips from the DC area to Philly and Boston. One long-haul from DC to Montana and one to Cleveland. All enjoyable. But no, you almost never save money with a train over flying now.
posted by skynxnex at 6:57 AM on October 4, 2006

We've considered driving. The only problem would be that the kids would be buckled into their seats for way too long. They would go crazy, and then we would soon follow.
posted by tom_g at 6:58 AM on October 4, 2006

In my opinion, it's crazy. It's possible, probably. But crazy. You need to be aware that this trip via train is going to take huge, huge, enormous amounts of time. I wouldn't be surprised if it took you more than a few DAYS of traveling straight in order to get there. However, I also think it is completely unacceptable to board a plane with a 5 and a 2 year old and dose yourself to sleep. Maybe if your kids were around 10...but 2? You need to be awake during that trip for the sake of your children, the other passengers, and the flight crew. Now there's some insanity.
posted by theantikitty at 7:00 AM on October 4, 2006

Train travelling is absolutely reasonable--if you don't mind it taking 24 hours plus.

I've travelled via rail and it's actually quite enjoyable, though I've never been on one for over a day.

But I've seen plenty of families traveling together. It's better than a car, because you can get up, walk around, read--do as you wish, while not being tied to the wheel.

It looks like Amtrak would take you as far as Jacksonville, with the last leg via bus. You could just skip that part, however, and rent a car. Gainesville is only about 70 miles from Jacksonville.
posted by c:\awesome at 7:01 AM on October 4, 2006

I have taken the auto train twice from Sanford to D.C. I was in my early teens at the time. It's very dull, but at least there is an observation car (but it isn't a very scenic route).

Night-time was horrible -- I slept in my seat (I'm not sure if there were proper sleeper cars, or if my folks were just cheap), which was cramped (I was only 5'8" at the time) and noisy due to the constant fidgeting of the other passengers.

If your phobia is really that bad, it is a viable option, though note the route only goes as far north as Virginia. But it's a long trip and be prepared to entertain your children.
posted by Sangre Azul at 7:01 AM on October 4, 2006

The only problem would be that the kids would be buckled into their seats for way too long. They would go crazy, and then we would soon follow

We just drove from Ga to Maine and back and in a couple of weeks are driving to Chicago with a 20 month old-rear set DVD players are a godsend for long car trips with kids.
posted by TedW at 7:01 AM on October 4, 2006

And looking at other answers it appears my 20 year old Amtrak experience is still valid; they quoted me a price higher than the airlines and were taking three days to send me from Texas to GA via Chicago and were unable to get me closer than 60 miles from my final destination. My wife's grandmother travels by train sometimes and delays of 6 hours are not uncommon, so you want to plan for that in addition to the quoted length of the trip.
posted by TedW at 7:05 AM on October 4, 2006

necessitas and theantikitty: Why are you all dissing the length of the train trip without even attempting to find out how long it really would be?

Amtrak claims, for example, it's 3:30 from Boston to NYC. Then an overnight to Jacksonville that's 19:42 and finally a 2 hour bus ride. You leave Boston at 6:15AM and get to Gainesville, FL at 9:05 the next morning. So 27 hours.

Google maps says it's 1,225 miles from Boston to Gainesville, FL. That's more than 20 hours driving time alone averaging 60 MPH. In this case, train is a lot faster than driving probably. Even more so when you have kids.

While kids may quickly get unhappy on a car, when you have a train and can walk from car to car and sit in different places (your seat, snack car, lougue car, maybe an observation car) 20 hours on a train isn't that bad.

(You can also choose to leave Boston at 9:45PM and get to Gainesville, FL at 9:05 two days later. Most of that extra time is because of 8 hour layover in Washington, which might be nice if you never seen DC.)
posted by skynxnex at 7:06 AM on October 4, 2006

Tom, my parents and I did Connecticut -> Florida Keys several times, from when we were that age to our mid-teens.

You'd be surprised what kids will put up with. All it takes is some patience and tolerance on your part, to borrow a minivan or conversion van from a friend (which is what we did -- back in the days before portable DVD players, getting a TV and VCR into the back of a van required a specialized van!), and to have the right attitude of keeping the kids happy, entertained, and fed.

My parents even dragged us through the Williamsburg, VA outlets on every return trip... talk about a stop we dreaded, and then riding home in a van full of stinky dried flowers.
posted by SpecialK at 7:06 AM on October 4, 2006

Oh, and my dad also drove like a bat out of hell. Familiar terms from our childhood: "Hmn, this Honda Oddysey gets great gas mileage at 80." "Sorry, Officer, I thought I-95 meant that you could go 95 miles per hour."
posted by SpecialK at 7:07 AM on October 4, 2006

Our family did a very similar trip when I was a kid, from Newark, NJ to West Palm Beach, FL. It took about 24 hours or so, but seemed longer. Lots of loud people and kids as passengers. Plus there were some interminable delays, like sitting still for two hours for no apparent reason. OTOH, it was very memorable, and stands out from all the times we drove the same route (which also would take 2.5 days and require two hotel nights). So I would give it a shot.

I would skip that 2 hour bus ride at the end though. Just take the train to Jacksonville and then rent a car.
posted by smackfu at 7:08 AM on October 4, 2006

Plan on MASSIVE delays. You simply cannot give any credence whatsoever to an Amtrak timetable unless travel is between DC and Boston, where they own the track, or at least have more control over it. I'd recommend getting a sedative from your doc and flying, speaking as a airline hater myself.

Last two trips I was forced on on Amtrak were in the SE corridor, and trip times doubled due to freight trains. Amtrak leases it's track below DC, so it's at the mercy of freight lines. The exception is the DC to Boston corridor, so that's an anomaly.
posted by docpops at 7:12 AM on October 4, 2006

I really like trains. I took the train from Chicago to Washington, DC, a few times in my early 20s, and it was generally a pleasant experience. Nicer than driving or taking the bus, cheaper than flying.

There's often a car where movies are shown, a car where meals are served, and a car where you can buy snacks. You'll probably want to bring food, too.

On the long train journeys I took, most of the travelers were college kids, early 20-something, or retirees, and once people sussed out who was in it for the long haul people started talking and I got into some interesting conversations I would never have had otherwise.

It might be hard with two little kids, but air travel is hard on little kids too -- takeoff and landing hurts their ears a lot more than most adults realize. If you plan well, bring lots of food, and have the mind set that the journey is a big part of the experience, I think you'll have a good time.

If you can afford it, you might look in to getting a sleeping car. I've never done it, but I'm sure it's a lot nicer than sleeping in a chair.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:13 AM on October 4, 2006

It's doable, but I don't know if I'd recommend it, especially with kids. You would have to change trains in either New York or Washington, DC, and the leg from there to Florida (Jacksonville) is at least 16 hours, not including the virtually inevitable delays. For a trip that long, you'd probably want a bedroom on the train, which greatly increases the cost and also isn't really designed for two adults AND two children.

You would also face some time waiting in NY or Washington for the next train; one option has you waiting in DC for eight hours (which may be less, depending on how late the train from Boston is running), another (also changing in DC) has about a two hour wait, and the third (changing in NY) about an hour and a half.

I've ridden the train from New York to Washington a couple of times, and I don't know that it wouldn't drive me insane to have kids along. Sure, you can walk through some of the other cars to stretch, but you're still on the train and there's not very much to do.
posted by Godbert at 7:13 AM on October 4, 2006

You might want to read this before planning your trip.

I would think about taking a train trip, but only if I did not have any deadlines about when I had to be there.
posted by Melsky at 7:13 AM on October 4, 2006

This is the link I was trying to post before, don't know why I can't get it to show up.
posted by Melsky at 7:15 AM on October 4, 2006

Flying directly into Gainesville, what with transfers and all, ends up being almost as crazy as taking trains anyway. I would suggest taking the train to either Jacksonville or Tampa, and then driving to Gainesville--it really isn't that long of a drive either way, and there are a number of rest areas along the Turnpike and I-95. Even better if you can arrange (as my parents did) to start driving very early in the morning so the kids are still too sleepy to do anything else in the car.
posted by casarkos at 7:16 AM on October 4, 2006

I second the motion that it is crazy, unless you're willing to sit on several trains for 30+ hours, and endure hours of just sitting on the train, waiting for it to move.

My wife recently took a train trip from Chicago to Detroit, a relatively straight shot that takes about 4 hours to drive. The train was scheduled for 6 hours, and took 9.

Turns out, passenger trains take 2nd fiddle to cargo trains, so they were constantly "waiting for the track". It turned out to be a nightmare.

My suggestion, watch a little A-Team, see how they got BA Baracus (Mr. T) on the plane all those times. Suck it up, and you'll be fine. -- I don't like to fly either, so I'm constantly reminding myself, days before the flight, that right this minute, my plane is in the air, doing the same route it will for my flight, and it's going to land safely just as it will when it's my time.
posted by duncantuna at 7:19 AM on October 4, 2006

My boyfriend took a train from NY to NC, and it was delayed in both directions- 14 *hours* on the way back. Even if the train IS on time, it's a long loooooong ride. A plane ride would be a lot less painful.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:27 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Previous comment is, of course, only if you're absolutely dead set against flying, because it really is much easier than train if you can find a direct flight into MCO or JAX and drive from there.
posted by casarkos at 7:29 AM on October 4, 2006

Rather than take a regular car, I like the idea of renting a really nice mini van with great seats, entertainment on board, etc. and doing the drive. Plan to make frequent stops, bring lots of DVDs, music, games, etc. for the kids and it should be fine.
posted by gfrobe at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2006

I think it's not a bad idea, but I think you have to seriously consider the problems people have pointed out. There will be delays. It will be expensive. It will take a long time. You should plan to arrive at least a day earlier than you need to, in case there's a big delay.

That said, if you can get over all of that, I think the train is a pretty good way to travel with kids. I base this only on seeing other families on trains I've been on, but it can be a pretty good scene. Since there are 4 of you, you might be able to get a set of seats that are facing each other; these are usually in the front or back of each car. This can create a nice little play area for the kids.
Also, compared to planes, there are more bathrooms and if you kid starts crying/screaming/fussing, you can walk with him/her into different cars, giving the passengers in your car a bit of a break from the noise.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2006

theantikitty: Why are you all dissing the length of the train trip without even attempting to find out how long it really would be?


Plan on MASSIVE delays. You simply cannot give any credence whatsoever to an Amtrak timetable

skynxnex, That's my experience. I have travelled by Amtrak train pretty frequently in the not so distant past, and I would be VERY VERY VERY surprised if your quoted timetable was anywhere near true. Hell, it takes 12 hours to get from Pittsburgh to NYC -- a 6 hour drive. Personally, I think that trip sounds like hell. If the alternative, though, is a major freak out about a plane and sedating yourself whilst leaving a 2 and 5 year old to get into major trouble on an aircraft, definitely go with the train.
posted by theantikitty at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2006

"However, I also think it is completely unacceptable to board a plane with a 5 and a 2 year old and dose yourself to sleep. Maybe if your kids were around 10...but 2? You need to be awake during that trip for the sake of your children, the other passengers, and the flight crew. Now there's some insanity."

Must've missed the part where the OP mentioned anything like this. Wow.

I would add that if your kids are train/bus/public transportation obsessed like many kids are, trains aren't such a crazy idea. The novelty and excitement of the situation will get them far, then with proper planning, you can finish out the rest. Two-year olds still sleep a lot, and five is old enough to really get into the trip.
posted by artifarce at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2006

Amtrack doesn't own the tracks south of DC so freight trains in the South get priority over passenger trains so expect delays - lots of delays once you get south of Washington DC. I recently traveled from NYC to Raleigh NC and back. The train ride was suppose to be a 9 hour ride each way. The train was 4 hours delayed heading down and 12 hours delayed coming back. Expect even longer delays if you are heading all the way down to Florida.

Driving would be best - just get a dvd player and screen for your kids in the back and put on their favorite movies. Train travel is not cheaper than flying nowadays. I enjoyed the ride down though, I was able to read a lot, sleep, watch movies, look out the window, etc. But the time delays are crazy and make train travel not worth it in my opinion.
posted by Stynxno at 7:55 AM on October 4, 2006

Isn't there a prescription medication you can take to relieve flight anxiety?
posted by LarryC at 8:03 AM on October 4, 2006

should I just accept the fact that we'll be flying there?

This is one very real option. My career has recently required me to overcome my lifelong fear of flying - because I have to fly if I want to keep the job. The first few times were hell, but I'm OK with it now. I'd still rather drive, but flying no longer cripples me like it did (I'm also in the irrational fear camp).

Second option would be to treat yourself to a nice rental van, one with unlimited miles and a DVD player, and enjoy the scenery. Should be an enjoyable drive in April. Driving beats both flying and train when it comes to traveling with kids, because you have the control to pull over and stop for a rest when you need to.
posted by jbickers at 8:04 AM on October 4, 2006

Must've missed the part where the OP mentioned anything like this. Wow.

I presume it was this:

We would have to be dosed to pull this off via plane.
posted by smackfu at 8:05 AM on October 4, 2006

I presume it was this:

Woops. Yes. Still, a bit of an extrapolation.

I guess if it came down to the plane you could always take shifts in being "dosed" if dosed did have to lead to sleep (it could also just lead to relaxation/calmness/anti-anxiety).
posted by artifarce at 8:15 AM on October 4, 2006

Meds don't need to put you out. Believe me, you can be plenty alert for the kids but without the white-knuckle syndrome.
posted by docpops at 8:18 AM on October 4, 2006

We've considered driving. The only problem would be that the kids would be buckled into their seats for way too long.

It's not safe or desirable to let your kids run around a moving train, so except for the seatbelt there's not much difference. A stretch/snack break every 2 hours or so does wonders. On a train, you can't stop and walk around even if you want to; you're at the mercy of someone else. And if you're sitting in the station for five hours waiting for a train that's running late, that's absolutely hell on kids. Reconsider driving.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 8:19 AM on October 4, 2006

Additionally, what I have seen in some of the responces is that people are assuming that the train operates at the same speed south of Washington as it does in the Northeast corridor, IT DOES NOT. They share the tracks with freight operators, and as such you will frequently find yourself stuck behind a freight train going 20 miles an hour. You might want to consider taking an express train from Boston to DC then renting a car or flying out of national for the rest of the trip, the flight is only a few hours from DC I believe.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:31 AM on October 4, 2006

I used to hate flying. Then I took Amtrak from NYC to SC and now planes are a joy by comparison. The delays are miserable, as are the times you spend waiting in stations for the train to show up for your next trip. Keep in mind that you'll likely be waiting in tiny, small town stations that bear no resemblance to the large and entertaining stations of Boston, NYC, and DC.

I'll also mention that I booked my trip with Amtrak well in advance, but when I arrived at the train there were no seats left. I ended up in the dining car for about 5 hours.
posted by lalex at 8:45 AM on October 4, 2006

DEFINITELY you should train it at least once in your lives. But Western Amtrak, with its glass-bubbled observation cars, is more fun than Eastern Amtrak, without as many delays. On the other hand, I've taken Amtrak lots of times and it's been more or less on schedule. The trains tend to be full of interesting people - lots of European travelers - and it's much friendlier and civilized than air travel. Plus not having to be strapped into a seat for X hours on end really, really takes the edge off, and you get to see some of the country. The sleeping cars are definitely worth it.

My sympathies, though, for having to go to Gainseville at all.
posted by DenOfSizer at 8:50 AM on October 4, 2006

PS Definitely explore DC during your layover, too - Union Station is lovely, and close to the Mall... very convienent.
posted by DenOfSizer at 8:51 AM on October 4, 2006

I'm absolutely terrified of flying. I've flown and been on lengthy car trips with my children from the time they were infants to their current near-double digit years. Even though DVD players, headphones, and a stack of movies 'help' during car trips - flying wins hands down. My kids have had tons of fun during all the flights they have been on.

What has helped me to cope during any flight is to take Xanax upon boarding the plane. It buffers my anxiety significantly. They are old enough now to know that I have flying issues (and that I take medication to help) but it hasn't colored their experience. I've found the best place to sit is ahead of the wings as this seems to offset turbulence and engine noise (especially on MD-80's).

I have had a friend who took a 200 mile train trip with her 5 and 2 year old and it took 36 hours (should have been 6). She opted for the train trip thinking it would be fun, easy, and, like me, she hates flying. *chuckle* She doesn't recommend it.
posted by lostinsupermarket at 9:03 AM on October 4, 2006

I had a friend do CT to Florida in...June? 2005. She strongly disrecommended it. Once you get past the Northeast corridor (west of Philly and south of DC) the delays just stack up and while you can get up and walk around, you can't stop as you wish.

I drove from CT to (southern) Florida this summer and one leg was two relatively relaxed comfortable days, with our stop in Fayetteville. (The way down we took our time; the way back my companion was violently ill and I was driving to get us the hell home.)
posted by cobaltnine at 9:03 AM on October 4, 2006

thanks for the excellent advice. To be honest, the potential for multi-hour delays is a real turnoff. I may go back to my 2 options: car vs. plane, although I haven't completely ruled out train. Car seems really expensive because of rental costs + they only give you 700 included miles (.50/mile for each over). That makes it ~$500 more than plane.
posted by tom_g at 9:58 AM on October 4, 2006

IMHO, suck it up and fly. door-to-door your trip shouldn't be much longer than 6-7 hours (including renting a car and driving a couple hours to gainesville). far less time, effort and expense than the other options.
posted by gnutron at 10:29 AM on October 4, 2006

I took a train from D.C. to Austin this year and it was a disaster! Constant delays including sitting in one spot on the track for 8 hours. There was some kind of storm and we had to wait for the track to be fixed. After that all the freight trains were running behind so we had even more delays having to wait for them to go past us. It took twice as long as am track estimated on the website.
posted by meta87 at 10:38 AM on October 4, 2006

You say you would need to be "dosed", but have you actually consulted a doctor? My mother started having awful panic attacks on planes because of claustrophobia, so now she has a precription of a low dose of Xanax when she travels. It doesn't knock her out at all, it just calms her down so she feels normal and relaxed.
posted by gatorae at 3:18 PM on October 4, 2006

Avis rental gives you unlimited miles, so do quite a few different rental agencies.

A van rental for a week from AVIS for two drivers, plus two child seats, no specials = 739.30 USD.

Gas for 1200 miles @ 25mpg = $130
@ 20mpg = $160

Total cost for transportation (@20mpg): $1060

averaging 70mph (I haven't driven up/down the east coast, but 70mph is the average speed west of the Missisipi River) = 17.5 hours. Stopping for 20 minutes every 2 hours gets you: 8 breaks x 20 minutes... 2 hours 40 minutes.

Total travel time = 20 hours. A 5 hour drive shift is acceptable (actually, 2 drive shifts = 4 hours, 40 minutes... approx 4 shifts, approx equal driving time...)

If you don't need the car while you're there, it's cheaper to rent a car in Boston and drop it off in Gainesville. A van rental for one-day, one-way, unlimited miles = $120.

That means you can get by with $460 total cost. The rental is, however, 24 hours only...

And this is AVIS, there are many more car companies out there, and they tend to be competitive. Also, many companies have coupons and specials. If Boston has an Entertainment Book, there will be a whole section aimed just at travel coupons, there will be quite a few coupons in there for car rentals.
posted by hatsix at 3:45 PM on October 4, 2006

I took the train round trip between Boston and Rocky Mount, NC once, and I'll never do it again. The trip took about 18 hours, through the absolute ass-end of America. The east coast rail corridor, at least between those two points, was an urban wasteland that was really unpleasant to look at. Books and CDs could only occupy me for so long, and sleeping mostly upright in a seat wasn't pleasant.

That said, I also took two longer train trips, between Chicago and Portland, OR, and between Denver and San Francisco, where the scenery was stunning and made up for the difficulty in sleeping. It's true that Amtrak will cost you about the same or more than flying and take a helluva lot longer. I dunno. I don't have kids, but I think even if I did I'd sooner drive than take the train.
posted by autojack at 4:57 PM on October 4, 2006

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