This week we asked guest writer Sarah Grant to give her opinion on whether planes or trains are better for long distance travel.

This is a tough one. One of my most memorable travel experiences took place on a train. It was Idul Adha (Eid al-Adha) and I was in Indonesia, January 2005. I had been staying with a friend in a suburb of Jakarta and booked a middle class train ticket to Central Java (just outside of Solo to be exact) to attend a friend’s traditional Javanese wedding. A plane ticket was an option, but given the high holiday, tickets were in high demand and the price was impossibly high.

Idul Adha is the Muslim day of sacrifice, marked specifically by the sacrifice of animals to provide the poor with food. Gulai kambing (goat curry) is a particularly seminal dish on this day and local, regional, and national banks collect charitable donations for months in order to donate live goats to poor villages and urban slums around the country.

Though I had spent plenty of time on various islands around Indonesia, this was my first train trip and first high holiday spent in central Java. My friend’s housekeeper sent me off with a plastic baggy full of gulai kambing, sealed tightly with a rubber-band lest I miss the festivities and special food after the eight hour journey.

While I did not participate directly, the ride, first through urban slums on the outskirts of the city and later through rural villages allowed me to spectate no less than a dozen goat sacrifices, deep prayer, and communal feasting from the window of the train. I had no idea that a train ride across Java would render the diversity of Indonesian landscapes, communities, and holy holidays so immediately visible.

Incidentally, another of my most entertaining travel experiences took place on a 30 minute flight from one small island in eastern Indonesia to another. Let’s just say that I was on a budget airline. After carefully weighing the recent safety record of the airline versus the local ferry, I settled on the former.

The seat in front of me broke off the hinge and fell, along with an elderly gentleman, into my lap mid-flight. Several men were smoking kretek (clove cigarettes) throughout the flight. I had to carry my neighbor’s newspaper wrapped luggage, including 5kg of special chili peppers for the duration of the flight. It was a trip and I’ll never forget it.

These days I perpetually weigh time, cost, safety, comfort, and other variables as significant factors in my choice to take a train or a plane. I’m often shocked at how expensive a short train ride in the U.S. can cost. It’s comparable to budget (or standard fare) airline ticket prices at times.

That said, I often ask myself how much time I have to spare and if the journey is part of the travel experience itself. The rather expensive and short train ride from Vienna to Graz is absolutely stunning and much preferable than car rental options or a direct plane to Graz.

I’m not the idealistic, overly romantic travel-type but there is something special about trains in Europe and the U.S. for that matter. It’s undoubtedly part of a unique and potentially inspiring travel experience. Landscapes — desolate, arid, swampy — are inspiring. I ask myself the following: What do I need inspiration for at the moment?

California Zephyr

A passenger in the observation car of Amtrak’s California Zephyr route.

Even Amtrak knows that the isolation and beauty of train travel can inspire a wide swath of writers (see their writer residency program). How much time can I spare? Lastly, I check my privilege and consider whether locals take trains because they simply can’t afford a plane ticket, or if train travel is something that provides a distinctly local perspective that cuts across class and access.

Posted by Sarah Grant