When people talk about domestic travel, they usually have driving or flying in mind. And it’s true, once you become a road warrior or learn the secret to finding cheap flights, it’s easy to forget about the choo-choo.
But if you really want to see how beautiful America is, a train ride is the only way to go. So the question is: How do you find cheap train tickets?
How to book a cheap train ticket
If you search online for “train travel,” you’ll find a fair amount of European links and “How to get around the UK”-types of articles. That’s because inter-country travel in Europe is largely facilitated by its rail system. But why should the Europeans have all the fun?
Washington, D.C.-based Amtrak operates train routes in 46 states, spanning more than 21,000 miles. So if you’re planning to travel via passenger train, Amtrak is usually your best bet.
Amtrak offers several fare categories: Value, Flexible, Premium, Business, Saver and Smartfares. Value Fares are the regular-priced tickets while Premium are top-of-the-line tickets that include complimentary meals and concierge services. Business Fares give you extra legroom, complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and your own seating section. Flexible Fares give you the wiggle room to get out of reservations without cost.
But to really save money, there are only two discount fares: Saver and Smartfares. Saver Fares are usually web-only specials that require the advanced purchase of tickets. Smartfares are weekly discounts that are typically used to fill up trains. The tickets are non-refundable and subject to availability.
Here are some other ways to score train tickets at less-than-full price:
Ask about discounts
Train companies are constantly looking to fill up their trains. Before you book, inquire about any special or last-minute fares being offered. Amtrak also offers 50% discounts for children, 10% to seniors, 10% to military personnel and their families and 10% to disabled adults and their companions. National Association of Railroad Passengers members also save 10%. Federal government employees traveling in the Northeast are eligible for savings, as well.
Check out Amtrak’s Deals page
If you want to stay abreast of the latest deals, check out Amtrak’s Deals page. There you’ll find buy-one-get-one-free specials, as well as select routes for low prices.
Know when to purchase
Maximize your buying power by choosing to book during off-peak periods. Like airlines, around the holidays and vacation season are when prices tend to be the highest.
Sure, you can purchase your ticket by phone or at a ticket counter, but to capitalize on web deals, you must buy online. If you buy online and during an off-peak time, you’ve just compounded your savings.
Split your tickets
Sometimes you’ll find that it’s cheaper to buy two one-way tickets rather than a round trip. That’s why it pays (actually, it saves) to do your homework before booking.
Sign up for the Rewards Program
By joining Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program, not only will you get deals sent straight to your inbox, but you can earn 2 points per dollar spent on Amtrak and get free travel when you reach 800 points or more.
Buy a USA Rail Pass
Serving more than 500 destinations, USA Rail Passes purchased through Amtrak make sense for the adventurous traveler who has retired or has some vacation time to spare. Priced at less than $200 for a cross-country ride, the passes are hard to beat (there are regional passes as well). They come in three packages: 8 segments in 15 days, 12 segments in 30 days or 18 segments in 45 days. Here’s an example from the ACP Rail website:
“You can travel from Washington to Chicago using one segment, hop off the train and pay a visit to Wrigley Field and Buckingham Fountain. Then, change trains and continue on to Fort Worth using a second segment!”
Pick your travel days carefully
Much like the airlines, train travel is cheapest if you travel between Tuesday and Friday. As a bonus, frequently check Railserve.com, which has Amtrak coupons on the regular. Every Tuesday a fresh batch of discounted Amtrak trains, cities and dates is posted on Railserve’s Facebook page.
Want to take a group with you? On Amtrak, you can make reservations online for up to eight passengers. More than that, and you’ll need to call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245) for assistance.