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I really like riding trains (which mostly consists of Amtrak), and I think it’s an extremely underutilized mode of transportation in the U.S. My favorite reasons: It’s a smooth ride and less noisy than an airplane. I don’t have to worry about security delays like I do when I’m flying. The seats are more comfortable and it’s easier to move around. The views are impressive, too. But the major problem I have with trains: it’s more expensive that I’d expect. The minimum cost to travel from New Haven, Connecticut to Washington, D.C. by Amtrak is about $120 round-trip. This is just the minimum – if you aren’t luck enough to get this fare, the price can exceed $200. Compare this to taking a bus for about half that at $60 round trip.
Since I’d strongly prefer to take the train over the bus (I don’t have to transfer in NYC and it’s a shorter ride by 90 minutes), I’ve looked around online to find what I can to make Amtrak rides cheaper. Here are some tips I’ve found:
Book early. It’s nearly a universal rule that the earlier you book on Amtrak, the better deal you’ll get. The savings can be substantial (think about half the cost for booking early versus buying a ticket on the day of travel). As an example, Amtrak is offering 20% off the lowest fares if you book before June 24 and travel in September to November. If you’re planning a trip, but aren’t 100% sure, book anyway. Amtrak doesn’t charge fees for changing reservations (as long as you do it at least one hour in advance), you’re simply responsible for changes in price.
Travel between Monday and Thursday or on Saturday. Amtrak fares are lowest on these days, and Amtrak advertises weekly specials that are available only on certain days with certain restrictions. If you can fight through some of the fine print, you can get these deals.
Sign up for Amtrak rewards. You can earn points for every Amtrak trip and eventually earn free travel, just like frequent flier miles. Signing up is easy and free. Just go to the Amtrak Guest Rewards sign up page and fill out the simple form. If you travel within 90 days of signing up, Amtrak will give you 500 points to start. In the Northeast, a free one-way trip is costs 3,000 points. This might take a bit of work to get there, but it’s worth it if you’re going to make the trips anyway.
Get the Amtrak credit card. Like most rewards card, the Amtrak Guest Rewards card offers a sign-up bonus as well as points for every dollar you spend. The initial bonus is 6,000 points, which is enough for a round-trip for one zone (and possibly two round-trips on alternate itineraries). The value of these bonus points can be a few hundred dollars alone. There’s no requirement to use the card after earning the initial reward if you don’t want to, but you can continue to earn Amtrak rewards points and earn more free trips if you’d like.
AAA discount. If you’re an AAA member, use your card to get a 10% AAA discount on just about any trip. This is good towards the lowest advertised fare, which often isn’t the lowest fare offered if you book really early. This is useful if there aren’t any other better discounts offered.
Special discounts for students, seniors, children, etc. Amtrak offers many regular benefits for all of the following:
- Children – Kids 2 through 15 years – 50% discount. Infants under 2 ride free.
- Seniors – 15% discount
- Military – Active duty US military personnel, their spouses and their dependents – 10% discount
- Student Advantage – 15% discount with Student Advantage card or International Student Identity Card.
- Veterans Advantage – 15% discount with Veterans Advantage card.
- Group and Convention Travel – groups of 20 or more may be eligible to receive discounts up to 20%
Check the list of Passenger discounts here.
Advertised specials. If the other deals weren’t already enough, Amtrak has another page of advertised specials. These are often specials pertaining to certain routes or particular itineraries. If you check pack here now and then, you might find something relevant for your trip of choice.
Multi-ride tickets. Amtrak offers tickets for multiple rides to the same destination. Just to compare to other fares, I checked the cost of a 10-ride pass from New Haven to Washington, D.C. It costs $872 for 10 rides and must be used within 45 days. At about $87 a ride, this doesn’t seem like a great bargain. You can also get a monthly pass for unlimited travel for a whopping $1,962. You’d have to do around 20 one-way trips in a month to make this worthwhile. These probably aren’t the best deals, but it’s worth checking out for repeat trips and pricing out the options.
USA Rail Passes. Amtrak also offers USA Rail Passes, which are also good for multiple rides, but can be used for various destinations instead of repeat trips to the same two spots. This is ideal for traveling around the U.S. within a relatively short period of time. For an 8-segment trip (used within 15 days), the cost $389, which is about $47 per segment. This could be a good deal, depending on your segment length and cost. There are 30- and 45-day options available, too.
Just like airlines, traveling on Amtrak can be a bit complicated and it’s not always clear what your best options are. Be sure to check through all these different options before booking or call Amtrak (1-800-USA-Rail) to discuss your best options with an agent.
Do you often ride by train? Do you have any other tips or resources for savings on Amtrak?
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photo by: besopha