I flew from NYC to Boston, took the train back, and timed it to see which was faster. The result was closer than I expected.

  • Airplanes have long replaced trains as the dominant form of travel in the US but the competition still runs strong in the Northeast. 
  • Traveling by plane over train isn’t automatically the fastest or more convenient option as the airport experience alone can add hours to a journey. 
  • I flew Spirit Airlines to Boston and returned to New York on Amtrak’s Acela to see which mode of transportation was faster.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“To fly, or to take the train,” that is the question. And the answer is not always simple, especially in the Northeastern US. 

On longer trips, the answer is clear: flying beats rail every time. But for cities on the Northeast Corridor, specifically New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, the clear choice is not always as obvious and each traveler has a personal preference on which is better.

Flights are shorter than train trips but require getting to an airport, enduring a security screening, and possibly incurring delays, all of which increase the overall travel time. Train travel offers the ability to arrive at the station minutes before departure with no security checks required, though the possibility of a delay remains. 

On a recent trip from New York to Boston, I decided to answer the question once and for all and timed myself as I traveled between the two cities. I flew Spirit Airlines for the first half of my journey and took Amtrak’s high-speed Acela for the second half to see which one was faster.

Read more: Spirit Airlines’ low-cost model puts it in the perfect spot to be the big winner of the pandemic, a Deutsche Bank analyst says

Full disclosure: I’m an aviation enthusiast, as my job suggests, but I do also enjoy a good train trip. 

Here’s which one was the better option for the 200-mile trip between New York and Boston. 

My day started at New York's Pennsylvania Station where I'd begin and end my journey to Boston.

I descended into the subterranean station to start with a quick train trip to Newark airport where I'd catch a Spirit Airlines flight.

For continuity's sake, I decided on Amtrak for the quick hop to Newark instead of NJ Transit and was on a Washington-bound Northeast Regional service. I paid $24 for the ticket.

This was only the first of four legs of the journey to Boston and I started my timer at 9:35 a.m., as soon as the train started to move. Here we go!

The train wasn't at all crowded as Amtrak is limiting bookings to 50% on all of its lines.

My oversized grey leather seat was quite comfortable, but I wouldn't be staying in it for long, unfortunately.

The 24-minute journey soon came to a close as we arrived at the Newark airport stop.

Here, I'd transfer to the AirTrain to get to the airport.

I wasn't even a half-hour out from New York City and already I was taking two trains before even stepping foot on the plane.

I arrived at the airport at 10:21 a.m., an hour and 24 minutes before my 11:45 a.m. flight. But that wouldn't all be downtime as I'd still have to get through security and queue for boarding.

Read More: I flew on Spirit Airlines’ first ‘shuttle’ flight from Newark to Boston for $25 and still overpaid – here’s why it’s a great budget option

Security was quite empty but it was still a 25-minute wait to get to the other side as Spirit did not give me TSA PreCheck on my boarding pass.

If I did have PreCheck, I would've arrived at the airport much later and this would've been a quicker journey. But I played it safe and arrived early as I didn't have it.

Once on the other side, it was a few minutes wait before boarding and not enough time to do much of anything. I did end up writing a quick article on the news of the day from Delta but it wasn't enough time to properly load up my computer and file it.

Read More: Delta just became the only airline to block middle seats into the spring — but it could be the last extension

My ride to Boston was a new Spirit Airlines Airbus A320neo that was delivered to the airline just last month.

Boarding was prompt as the flight was empty and I headed to my seat in the back of the plane.

There wasn't much in terms of seat amenities as Spirit is known for its bare-bones flights. What you see here is what you get.

But we soon departed and one of the key selling points of flying versus taking the train quickly showed itself in the great views of Manhattan.

The flight time to Boston was only 41 minutes and with no WiFi onboard, the only thing to do was listen to my carefully curated playlist of Boston-themed music. First up, "Shipping Up to Boston" by Dropkick Murphys followed with "Boston" by Augustana.

Flight attendants quickly performed a drink service but as nothing on Spirit is free, including water, there weren't many takers.

And before we knew it, the captain informed us that we'd be landing shortly and the rest of the flight was spent enjoying the New England scenery.

We touched down in Boston exactly 41 minutes from the time we departed Newark.

But the journey wasn't over yet and I kept the timer running as I still needed to get downtown.

While not the fastest mode of transportation, I caught the free Silver Line bus to South Station.

The journey time is around 20 minutes compared to a 10-minute drive without traffic. And you can't beat free!

I stopped the timer as soon as I felt the fresh air of downtown Boston after stepping out of South Station. The final time: three hours, 34 minutes, and 39 seconds.

Now, to do it in reverse. I thought I'd give Amtrak a leg up by taking the high-speed Acela.

Read More: I paid $20 to ride Amtrak’s famed high-speed Acela train for the first time during the pandemic and it was the perfect alternative to flying

The train was scheduled to depart at 4:15 p.m. for a three-hour and 45-minute ride to New York's Pennsylvania Station.

Only four station stops would be made along the way, not including the two in Massachusetts at Boston's other station, Back Bay, and the Route 128 stop.

After a long day, I was glad to just be taking one mode of transportation to get to New York instead of four.

Amtrak now assigns seats on the Acela and capacity is capped at 50%, just like on the Northeast Regional.

But even then, there was no shortage of seats to choose from.

Social distancing was not a concern on this service, luckily.

I got comfortable in my seat and started the timer as soon as we pulled away from South Station.

The train had all of the perks that the Spirit Airlines flight did and more. Seat amenities included a tray table…

Two 120v AC power outlets…

A foot rest…

And an overhead reading light.

But speed would be the name of the game here, not amenities. We nearly reached speeds of 150 miles per hour in Massachusetts, according to my Waze app (the only app I had that conveyed speed), but slowed down as we entered Connecticut and New York.

I quickly got comfortable and settled in for the 4-hour journey. "Settling in" was not something I was able to do on the way up since I was constantly moving from one mode of transportation to another.

The lights were dimmed as we roared down the coast and though the train does slightly shake during the journey, I quickly became accustomed to its gentle rocking and drifted off to sleep.

If I didn't have to be at a 6:30 p.m. meeting I could've slept all the way to New York.

But I had to attend this meeting, for which I used Amtrak's free WiFi. This is another thing I wouldn't have been able to do while flying as the meeting was longer than the flight time between Boston and New York.

The lights of the city soon came into view and our conductor notified us that we'd be arriving 10 minutes ahead of schedule — not bad for Amtrak.

Soon enough, I was back in the heart of New York City. Stopping my timer once outside the station, the total time was three hours, 39 minutes, and five seconds.

Train travel failed to beat airplane travel, even with the added extras of getting to the airport, going through security, waiting for the flight, and taking a bus to downtown Boston. Even I was shocked, especially as the Acela was achieving speeds of nearly 150 miles per hour in some stretches. 

But I was able to do things on the train I was not able to do on the plane journey. During the four hours I spent on Amtrak, I slept, worked, attended a meeting, and relaxed. 

While I undoubtedly enjoyed the plane journey, I was constantly on the move going from one train to another, then onto a plane, and then onto a bus before arriving in Boston. I was a living “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” character. 

So which will I take next time? I still prefer flying but I can’t knock train travel and if wasn’t in a hurry to get to Boston, I’d absolutely take the train. It’s worth noting that the Northeast Regional is slower by around 30 minutes on the route compared to Acela.

But if I’m in a rush, it looks like I’m flying.

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