Serious hunters owe it to themselves to make the pilgrimage West at least once in their life, but which form of transportation is the cheapest? For the most part, you'll need to make your decision based on personal criteria, and in purest form, that criteria will likely boil down to this: Is time or money harder for you to come by?
Let's examine the advantages of planes, trains, and automobiles, dissecting and comparing estimates in cost, time, and pure aggravation. To put everything on even footing, we're going to take an arbitrary departure town in the Mideast and a popular destination town in the West and crunch comparisons using the distance between. Let's use Lexington, Kentucky, and Grand Junction, Colorado.
When traveling to hunt via airplane, you have to deal with multiple costly facets. Ticket costs vary depending on time of year and whether your travel days are on or near weekends or holidays. According to Expedia.com, which is the online booking site I use most often, roundtrip ticket costs run between $450 and $650 September through November. Traveling on midweek days (Tuesday through Thursday) is generally the cheapest. Book early and don't buy the first time you get online. A quick daily check over a couple of weeks often turns up a substantially cheaper fare.
Air travelers must accept the cost of luggage; you'll certainly have one duffel full of hunting gear and a hard, airline approved long-gun case. Your first checked bag is $25 and $35 for the second. That's $120 total roundtrip.
Once in Grand Junction, you'll either be picked up by an outfitter or — if you're going DIY — you will have to rent a huntworthy 4x4. According to Enterprise rentals on the Grand Junction airport website, a pickup truck runs $535.91 per week plus tax. Let's say you plan on spending more than a week in the backcountry, doubled with damage insurance (yes, you'll be four-wheeling), better figure about $1,000 for a rental.
If you come out of the backcountry early, you can have your meat processed overnight and flash-frozen, pack it in coolers, and check it onto the plane with you.
However, weight can be an issue, and you start paying a toll when you check more than two bags. Checking extra luggage will run you an average of $200 per, with overweight charges of $100 to $200 for any container over 50 pounds.
When traveling by air, try this. Pick up two roller coolers at the nearest Walmart for $30 each. Stop at a FedEx outpost and ship your suitcase full of hunting gear and your rifle home to yourself for about $70. Debone and freeze 45 pounds of select meat in each cooler and check them on the plane as standard luggage — you've already budgeted for checked bags at $120, so your only extra cost are coolers and FedEx shipping.
For the best meat quality, however, it's best to have a meat processor age it properly before cutting and wrapping and then freeze, pack, and ship it to you. It's expensive. According to FedEx's website, shipping three 50-pound containers (approximate weight of boned-out meat from an elk) from Grand Junction to Lexington costs between $775 (2-day) and $968 (standard overnight). And that's not counting meat processing and packing fees, which will run about $200 to $300 for an elk.
Getting antlers home is another story. Most species shy of elk can be simply boxed and shipped for $30 or so — or even packed with your hunting gear in your checked bags. However, if you shoot a mature bull elk, the antlers will be too big to check on the plane, and shipping them can cost upwards of $200.
AIR TRAVEL COST BREAKDOWN
TOTAL TRAVEL TIME: 2 FULL DAYS
FLIGHT: $450 TO $650
LUGGAGE: $120 (ROUNDTRIP)
TRUCK RENTAL: $1,000
MEAT TRANSPORT: $100 TO $1,200
ANTLER SHIPPING: $200
TOTAL: $1,870 TO $3,170
Traveling by rail requires time. Sometimes lots of time. According to Amtrak's site, you can catch a $386 roundtrip train (coach seat, not a sleeper) from Maysville, Kentucky (about 1.5 hours from Lexington). Some 11 hours later, you'll switch trains in Chicago and have a four-hour layover, during which time you drag your luggage around with you. Then settle in for the 27-hour ride to Grand Junction.
Like I said, you'll need time. Don't take a train if you're budgeting hours. On the plus side, trains travel around the clock, so although you'll be badly cramped and dog-tired by the end, that 44 or so hours of travel is accomplished in two days' time. A benefit of travel by train is luggage freedom. Amtrak allows you two 25-pound personal items and two 50-pound carry-on items (size restrictions apply). Plus, depending on the specific train, you can check up to four 50-pound bags — the first two free, the others for $20 each. Unfortunately, many trains — such as the one from Maysville to Chicago — don't have checked-luggage compartments, so no checked luggage allowed. Importantly, rail travel often isn't fast enough to get you home before meat spoils, so all those savings are kind of irrelevant in many cases.
What about your rifle? Restrictions apply. You must declare firearms by phone no later than 24 hours before departure. Not all trains accept guns. Also, no blackpowder, percussion caps, or handloaded ammo is allowed. Most problematic? Trains not equipped for checked baggage can't carry firearms. In other words, when traveling from Maysville to Grand Junction, you'll have to ship your hunting rifle and ammo ahead of time.
Once in your hunting area, you'll have the same rental vehicle and meat care considerations as when traveling by plane.
Heading West on a train for a hunt can be wonderful, and if done a certain way, can be inexpensive. You can ride the rails, hunt with a buddy, and donate your meat to him, then head home after a dirt-cheap hunt. However, it takes a lot of time, and unless you ship meat, you'll return home protein-less.
TRAIN TRAVEL COST BREAKDOWN
TOTAL TRAVEL TIME: 4 FULL DAYS
LUGGAGE: FREE — $70+ (SHIPPING OF FIREARM)
TRUCK RENTAL: $1,000
MEAT TRANSPORT: $800 TO $1,200
ANTLER SHIPPING: $200
TOTAL: $586 TO $2,856
Teaming up with a buddy and driving West to hunt is typically the most practical travel method. No baggage costs, no problem bringing meat and antlers home, no need to rent a vehicle once in your hunting area, plus the ultimate in scheduling flexibility.
Either rent a pickup truck or share fuel cost. If you drive a buddy's truck, keep it fair by treating his wheels to an oil change once home.
Lexington is right at 1,550 miles from Grand Junction. Keeping to the speed limit, actual driving time is estimated at 22 hours, 35 minutes. You'll need a hotel; factor in an extra $150 total, split two ways.
Travel cost can be figured two ways. Add fuel and an oil change together and you've got your minimum price, but that doesn't factor in vehicle and tire wear. Federal standard mileage rate for 2017 is 53.5 cents per mile, which theoretically factors in fuel, maintenance, depreciation, wear and tear, and so forth.
Let's estimate high and say round-trip mileage will be a total of 3,600 miles. At 53.5 cents per mile, that's $1,926. Divide that between two hunters, and you've got $963 in travel costs per hunter. No hidden fees. No draconian firearms regulations. No overnight shipping charges. Just $963 done and done.
If you or your buddy is willing to drive just for fuel costs and an oil change, it's far cheaper. Estimating $2.50 per gallon at 15 mpg, that 3,600 miles will cost $600. Add $70 for a premium oil change, and your per-hunter cost is about $335 per hunter.
What if neither of you have an appropriate hunting vehicle? Rent one. According to Enterprise Car Rental, a pickup can be rented in Lexington for two weeks for about $610. (Don't ask me why it's cheaper than Grand Junction.) A full-size truck is best. Add $600 for fuel, plus the $610 rental, and you're at $1,210. Divide by two and you're looking at $605 per hunter.
The cost of luggage is free when you drive, so you won't need to worry about extra baggage fees or overweight charges. You've also brought your own coolers to bring meat home, so no shipping charges or meat processing fees there. Figure roughly $30 in ice per hunter to get your protein home fresh. Lastly, don't worry about shipping cost for your antlers. Proudly secure your rack for all to see in the bed of the truck and make the long trek home.
AUTO TRAVEL COST BREAKDOWN
TOTAL TRAVEL TIME: 4 FULL DAYS
FEDERAL MILEAGE COST: $963 PER HUNTER
TRUCK RENTAL & FUEL: $605 PER HUNTER
PERSONAL TRUCK & FUEL: $335
EN ROUTE HOTELS: $75 PER HUNTER
MEAT TRANSPORT: $30 IN ICE PER HUNTER
ANTLER SHIPPING: N/A
TOTAL: $440 TO $1,068
WHICH IS BEST?
If time is of the essence and money no great obstacle, flying is absolutely the way to go. Take a plane; pay a processor to age, process, and ship your meat and let a good taxidermist send you a nice shoulder mount sometime down the road.
If you've got more time than money, convince friends — if possible, one who has a pickup — to throw rifles, coolers, and camping gear in a truck and burn some rubber for the setting sun.
The train? Candidly, it's my third favorite choice, with one important advantage. If you have time to spare and want a stress-free, adventurous look at America, then ride the rails.