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It happens every time.

You're driving from the Twin Cities to Chicago for a fun weekend jaunt. You left home at 10 a.m. and made great time through Wisconsin. You're mentally and physically ready to check into your hotel, when the traffic sharply slows, then grinds to a halt. It's an absolute parking lot out there.

Your hopes for a speedy drive to the Windy City have died on Interstate 90 in someplace called Schaumburg. And as you watch the planes landing at nearby O'Hare airport and the Blue Line train speeding past, you think: Should we have flown?

For Minnesotans visiting Chicago, the Second City has always felt just a little too far to drive, but a little too close to fly. Now, with the introduction of the new Amtrak Borealis train route, there's an improved third option, as well.

So which is best? Let's do a common-sense thought experiment for traveling from downtown Minneapolis to the Chicago Loop, for a long weekend in July, via three different modes: plane, train or automobile. Ultimately, it depends on which criteria you value most — time, money, environmental impact or convenience.

Traffic flows along Interstate 90 as a Metra suburban commuter train moves along an elevated track in Chicago.
Traffic flows along Interstate 90 as a Metra suburban commuter train moves along an elevated track in Chicago.

Shafkat Anowar, Associated Press

Time

This is a big consideration. For driving, Google Maps estimates about 6.5 hours to complete the 409-mile trek on I-94 and I-90 — if you never stop for food, fuel and bathroom breaks. Let's figure another hour for those. And you have to leave early, say 8 a.m. or sooner — otherwise Chicagoland's aforementioned midafternoon rush will devour your time saved. Realistic total: 8 hours.

You would think flying is a lot faster, right? A flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Chicago O'Hare averages about 1 hour and 35 minutes (which seems slow for a 334-mile air route). But also consider the 30-minute trip to the airport, the standard advice to arrive at the airport two hours early, and a minimum of 1 hour to take the CTA train from O'Hare to your Loop hotel. If all goes well, your total time will conservatively be about 5 hours.

The new Amtrak Borealis, which debuted May 21 on the same track used by the classic Empire Builder, boasts a slimmed-down 7 hour, 24 minute travel time from St. Paul's Union Depot to Chicago's Union Station in the West Loop. Add in another hour for travel to and from the train stations. Total: 8.5 hours.

Winner: Flying.

Loser: Amtrak.

Cost

For our hypothetical July long weekend trip (Friday to Monday), we found round-trip airfares on Google Flights as low as $92 on Sun Country, $117 on United and American, and $118 on Southwest — the latter flying to Chicago Midway rather than O'Hare. (Sun Country and United's Basic Economy service charge extra for a carry-on bag, but for a summer weekend, packing just a free personal item would suffice.) Delta had the highest base fares, starting at $175.

The first page of Google Flights search results for flights from MSP to Chicago on July 5 shows base round-trip fares starting at $92.
The first page of Google Flights search results for flights from MSP to Chicago on July 5 shows base round-trip fares starting at $92.

Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune

The average midsize car in the U.S. gets a paltry 27 miles per gallon on the highway. We'll assume you brought your more efficient car and grant you 30 mph at a current gas price of $3.50 per gallon. That comes out to $95 in gas over the 818-mile round trip. We'll even depreciate your car by about $82 (10 cents a mile). You'll also pay $4-$8 in tolls on I-90 through Illinois, but at least the tollway is now compatible with Minnesota's E-Z Pass. Total: $185.

On Amtrak, we found a few July weekend fares from $91 to $112 and up.

Don't forget the costs of getting to the airport or train station via rideshare ($30-$40), light rail ($2-$2.50) or self-parking ($54-$90 at MSP; $6-$39 at Union Depot). But once you're in Chicago, you'd likely want to lose the car anyway and rely on the "L" train, rideshare and walking. Overnight hotel parking can reach $50 a night. And remember: Flight and train costs are per person, whereas the driving cost covers everyone in your vehicle.

Winner: Driving (couple or group); Amtrak or flying Sun Country (solo).

Loser: Flying Delta or driving solo.

Environment

There's no question that flying is a big carbon hog here, especially given the relatively short journey. Google Flights' results list a range of 59 to 112 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e) per one-way segment — and that's per passenger. (United's and Sun Country's Boeing 737s are generally on the low end for the route, while American Airlines' regional jets are the worst.)

A screenshot of the Travel and Climate calculator's analysis of carbon emissions per person from Minneapolis to Chicago, assuming three passengers.
A screenshot of the Travel and Climate calculator's analysis of carbon emissions per person from Minneapolis to Chicago, assuming three passengers.

Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune

The Travel and Climate calculator, a public initiative from Sweden, compares the relative carbon emissions from flying vs. driving vs. train for trips around the world. For Minneapolis to Chicago, the calculator estimates 75 kilograms of CO₂, one-way, for an economy flier. For a midsize car, though, the calculator actually shows twice the carbon emissions on the trip, or 151 kilograms. The impact per person drops off with three or four auto passengers.

It's the train that charges to victory in this category, though, with only an estimated 18 kilograms of carbon emitted, per passenger. Chug, chug!

Winner: Amtrak.

Loser: Flying (couple or group); driving (solo).

Comfort, convenience and stress

Driving all day on the busy interstates will have most drivers — and passengers — wanting to book a massage when it's all over. (Personally, I like to steer clear of the heavy truck traffic on I-94 and detour on Hwy. 52 and I-90 via Rochester. But that could add at least 30 minutes.)

On a plane or train, you can just sit back and watch Wisconsin go by. The rock-bottom airfares we listed are generally for economy seating, with 29 to 32 inches of legroom. So you won't be especially comfortable on a plane, but it's just 95 minutes.

Amtrak only describes its legroom as "ample," but suffice it to say the train seating is more spacious than the economy cabin of a plane, with no middle seats. And you're allowed two free carry-ons, which is one more than Delta, American or Southwest. But 7.5 hours is a long ride.

An Amtrak passenger train sits near Chicago's Union Station in the evening. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
An Amtrak passenger train sits near Chicago's Union Station in the evening. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press, Star Tribune

Scheduling is also a factor. On July 5 alone, there are a whopping 24 flights on the five airlines to O'Hare or Midway, guaranteeing that you'd find a time that works for you.

Amtrak, on the other hand, only has the one daily 11:50 a.m. departure for the Borealis, which arrives in Chicago at 7:14 p.m., a little later than we might like. (Plan on a late dinner reservation.) Amtrak's Empire Builder covers the route from 8:50 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., but it might be more expensive and subject to delays.

With driving, of course, you make your own schedule — and that could be a problem. Unless you and your group are highly organized enough to get on the road early, having a scheduled 11:50 a.m. train or 3:27 p.m. flight could actually force you to travel more efficiently, saving time in the end.

Otherwise, you might find yourself spending precious hours of your Chicago getaway on the Schaumburg pavement.

Winner: Amtrak.

Loser: Driving.