For the annual ski trip instead of driving to ski we were “training” to ski. That is we took the Empire Builder Amtrak train from Columbus Wisconsin to Whitefish Montana. In my previous two trips we had sketchy driving conditions, vehicular breakdowns, arduous driving, and pricey overnights at hotels. So when I broached the subject of this year’s edition of the trip to my cousin he emphatically suggested we take the train. I agreed.
Training to Ski — The Cost
As always we are looking to minimize costs. I would rather pay for ski gear and lift tickets than transport. At first glance the winner of the cheap contest is the truck. The cost of fueling the truck one-way matches the cost of a seat on the train. However, once you add in a hotel room each way then driving looks less attractive. I rule the cost of taking the train to be on the train’s side if you have one or two drivers or are unable to drive straight-through for any reason.
Training to Ski — The Risks
Even if you have enough drivers to split the gas costs and drive straight through there are three risks you need to consider.
The first risk is breakdown risk. Even newer lower mileage vehicles are susceptible to breakdown. If you have an older or high mileage vehicle breakdown risk goes up. If you have a vehicle that is hard to find parts for consider that an increase in risk here. Last year on our way back we ran into this problem, the alternator on my truck decided to die around Anaconda Montana. Fortunately, the event occurred in the middle of Friday and instead of having lunch with my cousin in Bozeman we had dinner with her and her family.
The second risk is weather. We are going to to go skiing and so we seek copious snowfall. That copious snowfall can happen anywhere on our route and with 1,400-1,600 miles of driving in the north-central USA snowfall and blizzards are a likely thing to occur. Not only can they slow you down, the can cause that plan to drive straight through to find a hotel and hole up. So there goes savings and time.
The other risk is the road-traffic accident. Even if you do everything right that deer running across the road or that jerry spinning out into you will ruin your day. Obviously for this event count yourself lucky if it only costs time and money.
I will not say the train totally eliminates the three risks, but all three of them are reduced significantly. Amtrak I trust has a team of mechanics who look after and proactively keep the trains in repair. I also have to believe the train can push through blizzards that will force cars off of the road. Train accidents are practically non-existant.
The only significant risk the trains pose is delay.
Training to Ski — The Benefits
The benefits of taking the train is mainly that of less stressful travel. Instead of having my hands gripped around the steering wheel at 3:31 am I was able to sleep.
That is the most obvious benefit and is closely related to other benefits as well. You can focus on visiting with your travel partners or fellow passengers. I met some neat people and my cousin and I were able to chat about many different things. I was able to work my Twitter feed as well and I was able to engage in some solid skiing discussions. While going through Glacier National Park on the way back I was able to sit in the observation car and stress free look at the mountains (I was looking for signs of avalanches — I did not see any).
Getting on the train and getting my bags checked in was a breeze. No x-rays, no intrusive questions, no removing my boots, none of that!
Training to Ski — The Drawbacks
Despite the simplicity of getting my luggage checked in (1 ski bag with two skis, two ski poles, and one shot ski and one bag packed with miscellaneous gear and needs) you are still limited to a certain amount of baggage.
Lack of whimsical mobility is also a drawback. Yeah, ski towns and resorts have buses but you need to pay attention to the schedule and follow it (and of course those buses can get off of schedule too). You can’t just come and go as you please. However, if you “Après Ski” you may have a bad day and taking the bus helps preventing that.
The train is notorious for being late. Amtrak leases the tracks and does not have the right of way when terrain limits the track to one set of rails. The train was about 1.5 hours late on our return and lost another 1.5 hours before we got off of it. I distinctly remember at least two stops in Glacier National Park one about five minutes the other about 30 minutes.
Training to Ski — The Decision
I enjoyed the train ride. The train being late was not that big of a deal, we simply walked a few blocks and got breakfast at the Buffalo Cafe. The notion of not having to worry about driving through bad weather, sketchy icy roads, or breaking down is worth it. Could we have flown? Yes, it would have cost more but not all that much more.
Will I take the train again? YES, there are a few more good ski resorts along Amtrak train lines. In fact, I think the train ride would be perfect for large groups of skiers going to one of those resorts.
Training to Ski — Your Turn!
Have you take the train on a trip? What did you think of it? Would you take it again?