Plane, train or automobile? Which is best if you’re heading someplace that’s not really close, but not all that far away, either? To help you decide, we took all three transportation modes to the on-the-cusp destination of Raleigh, N.C.
Like many a Washington commuter, I’ve developed a coping mechanism to tune out the world around me. A metaphorical head in the sand, if you will. Okay, it may mean that I’ve missed my train stop once or twice, but anyone who’s ever encountered that singing dude on the Metro can relate.
This highly evolved superpower means that I’m probably less perturbed than some other people by the inconveniences and unpleasantness of plane travel. I’ve resigned myself to security lines, limited cabin space — fine, airlines, you can have $25 to check my bag — and ambient noise (bless you, Kindle!).
Still, I think even the patience of a saint would be tried by standing in the bus outside Gate 35A at Reagan National Airport.
Until now, everything in my weekend getaway to Raleigh has gone swimmingly. The idea is to compare my experiences with those of my driving and train-riding colleagues. Who will reach Raleigh, a medium-distance destination, the fastest? The most efficiently? Who’ll endure the least amount of stress? The way things are going, I’m thinking the latter won’t be me.
My trip on this Friday began at 12:10 p.m., walking out the door of my South Arlington condo to catch a Metrobus to the Pentagon, where I connected to the train that took me to the airport. Getting through security took me a not-atypical 12 minutes. Even with that slight delay, I arrived at the gate 25 minutes before my plane was scheduled to board. Plenty of time to kick back and read.
For those unfamiliar with Gate 35A, let me explain. It’s not so much a gate as a pass-through, where a bus takes you to the planes that are too numerous to all be connected to the terminal via the jet bridge.
Yes, it all sounds very charming and retro, walking from the runway onto your plane. But today, the romance is gone.
We’ve been standing on the bus for about 25 minutes. It’s practically bursting at the seams, between the crew for our plane and at least one other, passengers for a full flight and all the requisite carry-on bags (not everyone is so willing to fork over the checked-bag fee, although today I’m traveling with only a small backpack).
I’m hot and feeling more than a little claustrophobic. The shuttle operators keep opening every door as each new arrival tries to board, squeezing into any available open space. With barely room to breathe, let alone whip out my Kindle, I’m beginning to yearn for a car, even if it does mean four hours on the interstate.
My frustration subsides when we finally board the plane at 1:40 p.m. and I can start reading. Wheels are up at 2:13 p.m. I’m barely through my cup of orange juice by the time we begin our descent into Raleigh. Wheels down: 3 p.m.
By 3:23 p.m, I’m in the cab line and worried when I don’t see a stream of taxis, as I typically do at National. Will this holdup ruin the excellent time I’ve been making so far? I barely have a chance to let my imagination run wild before the cab line attendant directs me to my ride.
The drive takes about 25 minutes, and we hit only the slightest bit of traffic as we get closer to the downtown hotel where I’m supposed to meet my colleagues.
I arrive at 3:51 p.m., and even though we’ve agreed that it’s not a race per se, I feel triumphant at being the first to clock in. My first-place finish — sorry, can’t help it — means that I have a little time to walk around. So I stroll to the state Capitol, enjoy the sunshine and have a snack.
The other two competitors show up within the hour. Was that bit of extra time I had worth the $3.30 in Metro fares, the $194 plane ticket and the $35 cab ride? Did those costs balance out the fact that, in the end, the entire journey required very little effort on my part?
Total time (one way)
3 hours, 41 minutes
Total cost (round trip)
Stress level (1-10)
The upshot of our experiment? Well, the plane is fastest, the car cheapest and the train the least stressful. But basically, how you choose to go really depends on your personality type. So here’s our quick and easy guide to the best mode for you:
The friendly skies are made for: Goal-oriented travelers who just want to get there and hit the ground running or rich-as-Croesus travelers for whom money is no object. And, of course, loyalty-club travelers who just want to rack up those frequent-flier miles.
Riding the rails is best for: laid-back travelers who think that the journey is half the fun and timid travelers who fear flying and don’t dare to drive. Also eco-minded travelers concerned about their carbon footprint.
You’ll drive if you’re: a control-freak traveler who wants to go when you want to go or a cheapskate traveler who hates to shell out more for transport than absolutely necessary. Or a lots-of-luggage traveler who likes to haul along half your household.