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January 03, 2017

Have you heard about the guy who traveled cross-country on a train for only $200? The story resurfaced last week and has since been shared thousands of times.

The trip is possible. And the story is true. But it doesn't address how really cheap travel is a bit like making a deal with the devil.

This whole thing started when Derek Low took Amtrak from San Francisco to New York City in 2011. He posted about the experience on his blog—sharing highlights like the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, the Colorado River—telling other travelers that the four-day cross-country journey is possible for only $213. (And for a consultation fee of $49, Low will help travelers book his same trip).

Those with a mastery of American geography will note that all of Low’s highlights come from the Western part of his trip. He does not mention any beautiful sites after Denver. But the journey from Denver to New York City lasts roughly 40 hours (if you’re lucky). Ergo, that’s 40 hours aboard a train with no outside distractions.

So what about what’s happening inside the train car during that time?

Any traveler considering a cheap cross-country train ride should be prepared to relinquish their personal space for days upon end. For four days—including (at least) three nights—travelers will use their seat as couch, dining room and bed. It is possible to book a sleeper car for the journey, but that extra cost can quickly top $1,000.

Bear in mind that buying food on board a train is one of the most efficient ways to drain a wallet. Food prices are on par with those at an amusement park, and if your plan is simply to drink your way through the four-day journey, better BYOB. Alcohol prices are enough to drive you to drink.

Although Lakeshore Limited trains (the route from Chicago to New York) have Wi-Fi onboard, the California Zephyr service does not. That means travelers will spend at least 50 hours racking up data charges to communicate with the world outside the train—in the places where it’s possible to pick up a cell signal, at least.

And there is no access to showers. And, for those who remember from earlier in this explainer, the entire journey takes four days. Four days. No showers for anyone. No personal space. (Unless you booked that sleeper, which does come with shower access.)

For those who can handle all of the train’s conditions for four days, bear in mind that the journey could take longer than four days. Lakeshore Limited service arrived on time only 56.3 percent of the time over the past 12 months. California Zephyr performance is slightly better, arriving on time about 70 percent of the time.

For travelers who are willing to sacrifice both comfort and time, cross-country Amtrak could be the way to go. However, for those who are sticklers for things like on-time arrivals, public hygiene and personal sanity, flights from San Francisco to New York are roughly the same price.

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