AMTRAK Travel: What You Need to Know to Ride the Rails

AMTRAK Travel: What You Need to Know to Ride the Rails
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If you want to travel throughout the U.S. or to select Canadian cities near the border, you might consider train travel using AMTRAK. Depending on the destination, type of pass or ticket and the service level you choose, AMTRAK travel can save you money versus flying and provide the sightseeing opportunities of a road trip without the effort of driving. AMTRAK offers plenty of train routes, seat and room accommodations and even full vacation packages to fit your budget and travel preferences. Here's what you should know about AMTRAK rail travel.

Basics of AMTRAK Service

AMTRAK features stations in major cities in most states across America as well as in British Columbia and a few different cities in Ontario, Canada. This means you get the flexibility to choose from ​over 500 possible destinations​ available ​over 30 regional and long-distance routes​. Many people use the service for long-distance travel including plans to travel from coast to coast. However, you can even use it to commute to work between two neighboring cities in some areas.

Routes are broken up into segments that refer to legs of the trip where you hop on the train and then hop off at a stop. So, if you book a trip between two cities that are multiple states away, there's a good chance you'll have at least one stop in a city in between and eventually board a connecting train to get you to your destination. Your route could also utilize a Thruway service where you might get on a bus, van or take another mode of transportation after getting off an AMTRAK train.

This form of rail travel stands out from transportation options in terms of convenience, pricing and overall experience. For example, AMTRAK trains usually travel faster than buses, allow you to sit back and fully enjoy the view unlike with driving and can cost a lot less than planes if you go with the economy seating option and take advantage of deals. You also get convenience features on AMTRAK trains such as a dining car where you can get food, access to comfortable seating with sufficient legroom and even private room options, and often handy features like electrical outlets and Wi-Fi. It's also possible to get a Quiet Car to reduce distractions.

Understanding AMTRAK Train Options

Along with standard AMTRAK trains, you'll find special options that might be available for your route or your needs. For example, the Acela train offers a more luxurious experience with high-speed travel of as fast as ​150 miles per hour​ between certain East Coast destinations such as Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. If you want to bring your car with you for your destination, the Auto Train runs from Lorton, VA, to Sanford, FL. There are also special trains designated for scenic routes such as the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight and the Grand Canyon Railway.

Each of the train types can have different seating and room accommodation options available. Here are the options and the features that set them apart, keeping in mind that all the private rooms will include free meals, a car attendant and access to station lounges:

  • Coach seating​: This economical option gives you a comfortable seat that reclines and has access to electrical outlets, a personal light for reading and a tray you can use for working and eating.
  • Business-class seating​: Found in special business cars, these seats come with the amenities found with coach seats but give you more legroom and come with free drinks.
  • First-class seating​: If you travel on the Acela train, these luxury seats come with perks like free meals, plenty of space, personal service and quietness.
  • Roomette​: This private room accommodates two people and comes with two seats that turn into berths for sleeping plus your own shower and restroom.
  • Bedrooms​: Available in standard, family and accessible options, bedrooms are more spacious than roomettes and come with a sink alongside the shower and restroom. Depending on the room, you might get one or more sofas and sometimes an armchair. The standard and accessible options provide two berths for sleeping versus four with the family option.
  • Bedroom suite​: Considered the most spacious option, the bedroom suite offers two bedrooms with their own showers, sinks and restrooms. You'll have berths for four people to sleep in and two chairs and sofas to relax in during the daytime.

Exploring AMTRAK Pricing

When you search for AMTRAK tickets, you'll find that the pricing for standard one-way or round-trip journeys will depend on the level of fare you choose, your trip duration and date, the time until the trip occurs as well as any upgrades you select. Typically, you'll pay less booking in advance, taking advantage of available discounts and going with more basic travel options.

You'll find the lowest rates when you opt for Saver Fares that aren't refundable and when you book far in advance, while Value Fares come with standard pricing but the ability to get a refund with fees possible. AMTRAK has these options in limited quantities. Flexible Fares come at a higher cost but offer the most flexibility for sudden cancellations and help you avoid change fees. All of these options will be cheapest when you go with regular coach seating, while you can pay extra to upgrade to business-class seating.

The most expensive AMTRAK trips provide you with special perks along with premium seating or even private rooms that make long-distance trips more enjoyable. These include first-class seats on the Acela train as well as private bedrooms and roomettes. Keep in mind that only certain routes and trains will include these premium options, and you can expect to pay considerably more than you would with coach or business-class seats. Auto Train trips also come at a premium cost that can vary more widely.

Checking Out AMTRAK Discounts

To save money on your train journeys, you can take advantage of various discounts that may be seasonal or location-based. For example, AMTRAK sometimes offers savings on trips in certain regions like the Northeast or even specific states like Virginia, New York or California. Some discounts exist for specific train routes and for people who buy multiple tickets. "Buy one, get one free" offers are also occasionally available.

You can also take advantage of the service's everyday discounts if you qualify. For example, kids can get ​half off​ their tickets, while seniors and military members enjoy a ​10 percent​ discount. Students can get a ​15 percent​ discount, while people with disabilities, those traveling in groups, government workers and travelers with certain associations can find savings options. You'll also get money off if you plan a vacation to a national park through AMTRAK.

If you join the AMTRAK Guest Rewards program, you can get further deals such as free upgrades, coupons for companions riding with you, special discount offers and even potentially free travel opportunities. You gain points for purchases you make, and you accumulate different rewards upon reaching different tiers. You have opportunities to get bonus points when you purchase business and premium services. The points you earn can help you get train tickets as well as other items like hotel stays, meals, gift cards and vehicle rentals.

Considering AMTRAK Special Passes

Alongside the regular discounts, points program and occasional travel deals by region, AMTRAK regularly offers special passes that allow you to take multiple trips over a specific time period and pay a single rate that helps you save money. These passes are a good option whether you want to travel across America or just visit the same places often. While availability can depend on the time and promotions AMTRAK runs, here are some of the common rail pass options you can consider:

  • California Rail Pass​: Made for people who have already arrived in California, this pass lets you travel from city to city in the state with several train options available. The pass is valid for ​21 days​, and you can travel up to ​seven days​ with it. Note that this pass won't let you ride on certain trains like the California Zephyr or Sunset Limited, and there are limits on one-way trips with the same segment. You can upgrade from the included coach seating if you pay a fee.
  • Multi-Ride Pass​: Targeting people who commute for work or otherwise need to go to the same city regularly, this pass comes with a monthly option as well as tickets including either ​six or 10 rides​ over a specific time period. AMTRAK lists specific routes that qualify for this pass, and long-distance routes don't qualify. For example, you can get a route from Chicago to Milwaukee, New York City to Washington, D.C., San Jose to San Francisco or Charlotte to Raleigh.
  • USA Rail Pass​: Made for traveling the country with ​500​ qualifying destinations, the USA Rail Pass will let you have a ​30-day​ period to travel a maximum of ​10 segments​. This option gives you a lot of control over trip planning since you can book the trips to hop off at interesting destinations. It comes with coach seating without upgrades available, and it doesn't work for special routes using the Auto Train or Acela among some others. Like with the California Rail Pass, you'll face trip limits when going to the same destination.

Researching AMTRAK Vacation Packages

While you can simply buy AMTRAK tickets or passes on their website and then arrange for other accommodations or travel yourself, you can find travel packages through AMTRAK Vacations that can take some of the planning work away, help you save more money and provide unique experiences. You'll find a wide selection of routes with different themes such as national parks, major cities and state tours.

Some trips like the California Zephyr Rail Experience include tickets for tourist attractions in multiple cities along with hotel stays. Some sample destinations through the AMTRAK Vacations program include the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Seattle, Yosemite and Zion National Park.

Getting AMTRAK Tickets

Unless you're using AMTRAK Vacations to book a travel package, you can simply head to the AMTRAK homepage to get your tickets. You'll find boxes to type your origin and destination cities along with your trip dates to search for one-way or round-trip journeys, or you can browse the site for rail passes and other options. Alternatively, you can purchase tickets in person at an AMTRAK station or call ​1-800-872-7245​.

AMTRAK offers multiple ticket options including electronic tickets you can either print or display on your phone and physical tickets you either have mailed to you or receive at a kiosk or onboard. The electronic ticket option offers the most convenience and is widely available for most train routes. You'll find you can purchase etickets and check schedules at AMTRAK.com.

Preparing for AMTRAK Train Trips

Before you head to the station to start your trip, AMTRAK suggests that you take some time to make sure you bring the right items and understand the train ride experience. For example, you'll want to find out which amenities are available at the stations you'll stop at along the way, as well as what features you have on your train. You'll also want to make sure your baggage follows the rules, that you bring appropriate identification and your tickets and that you have any necessary accommodations like hotels booked.

On your trip day, you'll want to arrive ​30 to 60 minutes​ early so you can check any luggage and get other arrangements made before you board your train.