Curious about traveling by train and public transportation while reducing your carbon footprint? Check out this tale of time, savings, and encounters on an eco trip challenge across the Southwest.

My carbon footprint was going to be insane. That realization was the first red flag that this trip was going to be unusual. It was a problem of my own making as I’d procrastinated about reservations until a month before my conference and I was determined to use my frequent flier miles between San Diego and Albuquerque. Then I saw the route. If I booked with the airlines, the 774 mile trip by car would turn into over 1,200 miles by air and involve two layovers! It was an itinerary ripe for problems – delays, lost luggage, missed connections. Time to get creative. What were the options if I don’t drive or fly, I wondered? Could I reduce my carbon footprint, save money, and turn it into an eco trip?

This is a ‘No Flight Shaming Zone’

Buying a seat on a direct flight would’ve been easy, at least I’d stack up more frequent flier miles on a credit card for use in the future. However, I had no one to placate or look after on the trip; I could take my work with me, and embrace slow travel. Eco trip game on.

Bicycle car on Metrolink from LA

Bicycle car on Metrolink from LA

When Driving Isn’t an Option

It would be simple enough to drive between San Diego and Santa Fe, NM but I also couldn’t reconcile putting that many miles on my car. Renting one for a week didn’t make sense as much of the time it would be parked while I attended my conference and that added another expense. Driving an eleven hour trip alone across 774 miles didn’t appeal to me either. I kept plotting my course…

The Eco Trip Itinerary:

  • San Diego to Oceanside Amtrak Station (32.2 miles) – The one part of the trip that I drove. Parking at the station was free and plentiful, and when I returned I would need to drive back at night after the last Metrolink train of the day.
  • Oceanside Metrolink to Union Station (89.9 miles) using the Weekend Discount of unlimited rides for $10!  All seats were unassigned on two levels with no snack bar.
  • Los Angeles Union Station to Albuquerque Station (774 miles) – an overnight ride from 6 pm to 11:30 am.
  • The last leg and subsequent travel would’ve have been the same whichever way I went, so I haven’t included that in this itinerary. I will say that Groome Shuttle ride between the Sunport Airline Terminal and downtown Santa Fe was comfortable and the door-to-door service appreciated. Riding with about fifteen passengers reduces the carbon footprint as well. Round trip was about $74.
  • Return was different as I needed to get back quickly. I flew direct from Albuquerque to Los Angeles where I caught the Flyaway Bus to Union Station and returned via Metrolink to Oceanside. My car waited for me there. Even with flying this took about nine hours total. A direct flight to San Diego would’ve been quickest for sure.
Window view from the train in New Mexico

Window view from the train in New Mexico

Upsides to Slow Travel:

  • Avoid layovers and multiple flights
  • No baggage fees or security gauntlets
  • Assigned seats
  • Save money – The coach seat was just under $75. I could’ve booked an overnight sleeper for about $352. The sleepers are bunk bed style and would’ve been a nice option if I wasn’t flying solo. Some meals are included as well. I supplemented the water, fruit and nut snacks and instant coffee packets I brought with me with snacks from the cafe.
  • Opportunity to some work done comfortably or watch movie downloads.
  • Meet people in dining and observation cars.
  • Sleep better than in an airplane economy seat with wider seats, under leg support, and a foot rest. The seats recline deeply too.
  • See more of the country. The views were lovely as we scuttled across New Mexico in the morning.
  • Discoveries: Los Angeles was one find after aother. I planned to use my three hour wait to get dinner, checked my bags in for $10 ($20 if you don’t have a train ticket,) and asked the concierge where to eat. Olivera Street was a block away and I’d explored the trinket stalls and tourist restaurants before, so the suggestion of Philippe’s French Dip appealed to me. The place is a treasure for meat lovers with lots of historical displays and photographs. Mission accomplished.
  • Challenge myself to gain new travel skills

union station in Los Angeles with its tall ceiling and Spanish Revival touches.

The Beauty of Union Station

If you’ve never seen the station, put it on your destination list for Los Angeles. The Spanish Revival / Art Deco architecture is beautifully preserved. I adored people watching as the light shifted in the main sitting area (from comfortable leather chairs for anyone with a ticket.)


  • No power outlets on Metro trains but each seat has one on Amtrak.
  • Bathrooms were cleaner and more plentiful than on airplanes.
  • Train travel is slow. However, flying would still have taken almost a full day.
Amtrak Southwest Chieftain in Albuquerque

Amtrak Southwest Chieftain in Albuquerque

The Kindness of Strangers

In the morning on Amtrak, the aroma of coffee wafted up from the cafe level. I ordered a large cup and a cheese and cracker box to go with it. One note: I can’t definitively recommend the Amtrak Coffee. It may have been the attendant’s style but while my brew was hot enough it was weak. I added one of my instant coffee packets to up the flavor. The rest of the food was surprisingly affordable.

I ended up visiting over coffee with one of Amtrak’s retirees on his way to Chicago. We talked about train travel and he pointed a few things out. Why, he asked, does the train make the occasional shimey? We ruminated about track irregularities, ground deviations, wind, and weather. It was a glimpse into train travel I would never have experienced.

Richard the tram driver in Union Station

Richard, the tram driver gave me a ride through the tunnel under the tracks in Union Station

My seatmate for the trip was a small, middle-aged Hispanic woman who understood more English than she could speak. Come morning, she offered to share her breakfast of home made tamales. I declined as I needed coffee first thing. Later as I went downstairs to disembark I couldn’t find my eyeglasses and case. While waiting to get past the crowd getting off and return back upstairs to find it, my seatmate showed up with the case in hand. We shared a sweet moment of mangled translations and smiles of gratitude before I left.

I emerged from the train without jet lag but as on any long journey whether by car, airplane, bus or train, it took awhile to feel rested and grounded once I arrived in Albuquerque.

Bikes and surfboards welcomed onboard Metrolink

Bikes and surfboards welcomed onboard Metrolink

Websites to help you plan your own Eco Trip

” If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”~ Martin Luther King.

Eco Trip Challenge Fulfilled

Travel for the masses has taken great leaps over the last decade. As a travel writer I’m intensely aware of the benefits like in this post about the Galapagos and India travel. However, until we solve the fossil fuel crisis, airplane and car travel will continue to contribute mightily to the problem.  If we move forward with ecotourism the benefits will lead to continued freedom to travel and help take care of the planet.

What do you do to reduce your carbon footprint?

eco trip challenge pin for train travelers