By SARAH FOWLER
Whether by air or rail, travel in and out of the Delta has never been easier, and comes with some significant perks
In the 1980s classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin struggles to get home to his family for the holidays. Stuck with John Candy, hilarity ensues as the pair bumble their way through a series of unfortunate events that take them across the United States via every mode of transportation imaginable. In short, it’s a travel nightmare.
Luckily, getting in and out of the Mississippi Delta is a smoother ride. Literally and figuratively.
Whether you’re hopping a train down to New Orleans or heading north to Chicago, Amtrak offers a direct trip without the headaches of driving there yourself. If you’d rather take to the skies but don’t want to deal with the hassle of getting to a large airport in Jackson or Memphis, boutique air travel has you covered—and for less money than you might think.
Both options make it easier to get away and are there to carry you back home.
Looking for an easier, smoother option to get down to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, Carolyn Dent, daughter Margaret, and family friend Michaella Bartlemay hopped on an Amtrak. Cooler in hand, they boarded in Yazoo City and quickly made their way to the scenic car with a roof of windows.
“It was beautiful,” Carolyn said. “The train rode by where we turn off onto our country road.”
Carolyn, who makes the drive into Jackson daily, said, “It was cool to see everything from a different perspective too. The train tracks are completely different from the road.”
The train made stops at various stations along the way and more Ole Miss fans got on, all headed down to the Sugar Bowl. They had drinks and snacks they had brought with them, talked with the other passengers, and at one point, even all “did the Hotty Toddy.”
Once they arrived in New Orleans, they took “a $10 Uber” to their hotel and that was that; the ease of a direct flight without having to be at an airport hours before the flight and go through security. Plus their own wine.
“I get so stressed driving; that was probably my favorite part is that I didn’t have to worry about the road or driving,” she said. “It was as simple and stress-free as travel could be,” Carolyn said.
“The three of us just had a lovely time.”
Paige Hayes of Clarksdale, and her daughters, Kate and Mary Claire, have also utilized Amtrak services but separately. They’ve all taken advantage of the newest Amtrak station located in Marks. The girls have taken it down to New Orleans and Paige used it coming back to the Delta after helping her mother relocate in Louisiana, boarding in Hammond and getting off in Greenwood.
Traveling on a Monday, the train “wasn’t crowded at all.” Paige settled in with a book and a bottle of wine.
“It was great,” she said. “Just a few stops and basically the same amount of time as driving the car.”
Kate Hayes, 28, currently lives in New York City and has used Amtrak twice to travel to weddings when she’s visited home—once to Jackson and once to New Orleans.
Sitting in the observation cart, she was “blown away” by the experience, from the helpful staff to the scenery.
“It was gorgeous, even on a rainy day, to be in the middle of the trees,” she said.
She and her younger sister, Mary Claire, traveled down to New Orleans and the two were able to read, get some work done, and even pop a celebratory beer when they passed into Louisiana to “start the weekend early.”
Paige is hoping her mother will be able to use the train as well when she comes up to visit.
“It’s so easy,” she said.
While the only direct routes from Mississippi either go to Chicago or New Orleans, Amtrak can take passengers across the continental United States and into Canada. In touting their routes and the places reachable by train, Amtrak Vacations touts National Parks in Utah and Maine, Muir Woods in California, Music City and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee, Whitefish, Montana, and Key West, Florida, just to name a few.
“We go to some really gorgeous places,” said Marc Magliari, senior manager, public relations for Amtrak. “People need to see some of these places; there’s a lot of great places out there.”
Offering an example, Magliari said passengers in the Delta could take the train down to New Orleans and then hop another train to Big Bend National Park in Texas. Or, going the opposite direction, head to Chicago and be in Glacier National Park by the next evening.
“Once people see how good it can be and we’re working harder to make the current service better and to add more service,” Magliari said, “it’s not a hard sell to have repeat business.”
He argued that highways and airports almost make the case for him.
“Have you driven I-55 or I-10,” he asked. “The number of bad drivers, big trucks, drivers holding the phone or shaving or putting on makeup or reading and sending texts, all of those make it clear there’s a better way to travel.”
As far as train travel versus commercial airports, “Generally speaking, we don’t get to know what color socks you have or if they match unless you’re going to a private room,” he said.
“We’re less intrusive. We’re certainly a more laid-back environment.”
The convenience once you arrive at your destination is unmatched, he said.
“If you go to New Orleans, the streetcar goes right to the station. If you go to Memphis, the streetcar goes right to the station. Chicago, you’re right downtown.”
Carolyn Dent agreed.
“It takes us thirty minutes to get to the store, so it was lovely driving twenty minutes to get to a modern-day transportation system and end up in a place as great as New Orleans from little old Yazoo City.”
Haley Kelly frequently uses Contour Airlines for trips to market for her Cleveland boutique, H Squared. Pictured with store manager Anne Barton Field.
If you like the convenience of train travel but would prefer to get to your destination a little sooner, booking a flight may be the answer and there are several options worth exploring.
Haley Kelly, of Cleveland, frequently travels to Dallas for market to buy for her downtown clothing store. She now uses Contour, a boutique airline which flies out of nearby Greenville and because of the early morning and late afternoon flights, can get two days’ worth of work done in Dallas while only having to spend one night. That simply wouldn’t be possible if she drove or flew commercial.
“It’s very seamless,” she said. “It’s super, super easy and, once you get there, you just grab your bags off the plane and head on to wherever you’re going. Instead of me driving seven and a half hours to market, it’s a little over an hour there and back.
“It’s so wonderful, so great, so easy and inexpensive.”
Danielle Morgan, a Greenwood native and Executive Director of Mississippi Tourism, said her niece frequently flies into Greenwood from her home in Nashville on the boutique airline, Contour. When she meets her at the airport, Morgan makes a point to notice the license plates in the parking lot.
“You see people from all over,” Morgan said. “It’s a great way to access the state in an inexpensive way and you can reach some of those rural areas, like the Delta.”
Courtney Ayres flies Contour for both work and fun, including a recent trip to Nashville to celebrate a friend’s fortieth birthday. The group of ten flew out of the Greenville airport and arrived in Nashville an hour later. She notes that while the flight there is a breeze, it’s the coming home part where flying locally “really comes in clutch.”
“Going on a trip is fun; it’s the coming home. Everybody is exhausted it’s all planes, trains, and automobiles and then you have to drive two and a half hours home. Ugh. You just want to be home. It’s just a whole ordeal that we at this point have exed out of our travel.”
Living in Greenville and flying out of Memphis can make a short flight an all-day experience—depending on the time your flight leaves, it can sometimes be a two-day trip just to go on the actual trip. Flying local saves her on the gas it takes to get to the airport, fees to park in the garage and, in some cases, a hotel room. And then there’s the physical toll, especially traveling with children.
“With kids, you schlep them in the car for two and half hours. They’re asking, “Are we there yet.” Even a two-and-a-half-hour car ride is draining. It’s physically exhausting.”
Growing up, Ayers traveled extensively with her family, and it is important to her for her children to have those same experiences—to be able to explore outside the area where they’re from.
With two flights a day into Dallas, Ayers pointed out that you can then go anywhere in the world.
“You can be in Dallas at 8:30 in the morning. That gives you the pick of the litter of any flight anywhere. It’s the easiest, cheapest thing ever and you only have to get to the airport an hour in advance. In Memphis, you’re paying $150 to park your car at the airport for the week.
“We use it all the time. You can’t beat it. For $55 to $95 a leg, it’s a no-brainer for us.”
For traveling to and from, Mississippi-based Nicholas Air offers the speed of flight with service custom-tailored to individual needs.
Luke Chamblee, of Oxford, has flown Nicholas Air for the last four years. In the hotel industry—including the Cotton House Hotel in Cleveland—Chamblee is a frequent flyer. The customer service offered by Nicholas Air is second to none, he said.
“Just like you have service at a restaurant, there’s a service aspect to flying,” Chamblee said before ticking off a long list of positive attributes.
“It’s timing, it’s customer service, the quality, it’s on time, it’s clean. The pilots are very welcoming—they greet you when you come on with your family. The aircraft are overly maintained; their safety record is phenomenal.
“Everything you could think about related to customer service is top-notch. They’re the best of the best of the best.”
Chamblee, who has used Nicholas Air to fly to New York, Park City, Utah, Mexico, Miami, and other destinations, noted that whenever he calls the airline “you’re talking to a person based in Oxford, Mississippi.”
“We ought to be proud that this company is in Mississippi,” he said.
“What makes us different is the fact that our company is so rooted in the customer service side of the business as much as we are about the quality of the aircraft,” said Nicholas Air President Peder von Harten.
Providing national and international flights, Nicholas Air has become a trusted favorite among celebrities, CEOs, and local families who prefer to fly without the rigamarole that comes with flying commercial, all from the convenience of their local airport.
“Time is our most valuable resource,” von Harten said, noting that what could be an hour flight quickly becomes an hours-long affair with the time it takes to drive to the airport, get there the recommended two hours early, and go through security. Then there’s the wait of retrieving bags once you land. That time is saved when flying private, giving you back hours of your life to spend elsewhere, on more enjoyable experiences.
“Yes there’s a cost to that,” he said, “but for the business traveler, to be out and back in the same day, able to be home with the family, to go to the birthday party, go to the football game, those are things people have reprioritized.”
“In the Mississippi Delta, in lieu of an hour or a half drive (to a commercial airport) they can fly out of Clarksdale, they can fly out of their own communities,” von Harten said. “On any given day you’ll see a Nicholas Air red tail at airports in Florida, the Caribbean, the Mississippi Delta, and everywhere in between.