In just about any part of the world that has a good rail system, traveling by train is far more pleasant than traveling by economy-class air. Seats are wider, legroom is better, you avoid the time and expense of getting to/from airports, you avoid security hassles, and you see some great scenery out of wide windows. Relative costs vary—in many places, trains are cheaper than flying; in others, rail fares are higher. Many rail systems offer discounted rates to seniors, youth, and members of various organizations, but "sale" fares for travelers of any age are sometimes better.
United States: Amtrak routinely gives 15 percent discounts on coach tickets, system-wide, to seniors age 62 or over, members of Student Advantage or student card holders, and members of Veterans Advantage; members of AAA and the National Association of Railroad Passengers get 10 percent discounts. These discounts do not apply to weekday Acela Express trains, business class, sleeper accommodations, and some rail services. Membership discounts may require three-day advance purchase.
Amtrak seldom offers system-wide discounts, so these are good deals when you qualify.
Canada: VIA Rail routinely offers modest variable system-wide discounts to seniors age 60 or over and youth ages 12 to 25; they usually apply to sleeper accommodations as well as coach. But several times a year, VIA Rail offers 50 percent off system-wide deals in all classes to travelers of any age, and its last-minute "express" deal discounts are even bigger. If you're flexible, you're better off with the any-age discount deals.
Europe/U.K: Senior rail passes, for travelers age 60 or over, are available in first class only for the U.K., France, and Romania, and in either class for Ireland. The Britrail senior pass costs about 15 percent less than the any-age first-class pass, but it's 20 percent higher than the any-age second-class pass. The French senior rail pass is a good deal at only a few dollars more than the any-age pass. Most rail passes offer reduced-price youth versions in second class for travelers age 4 to 25.
For extended stays or trips when you expect to take lots of short trips, some countries sell senior and youth cards that provide discounts for a full year on most tickets: The U.K senior and youth RailCards, 30 pounds for either (about $48), offer 30 percent discounts on almost all tickets; the French Carte Senior, 60 euros (about $80) offers standard-class discounts of 50 percent on some trains and 25 percent on all trains, or 40 percent on all first-class tickets on TGV and intercity trains; and the corresponding youth Carte Jeune, at 50 euros, offers 25 percent to 60 percent discounts.
The problem with these rail cards is that, although you can buy them online, the French system will not mail them to addresses in the United States or Canada. And if you wait until you arrive to buy, you find that you've missed out on some even better advance-purchase deals for travelers of any age. Your best bet is to arrange for someone in France to receive the mail and then express it to you.
Other Areas: Many countries around the world offer reduced fares for children as old as 16. But as far as I can tell, the extensive rail systems in China, India, Japan, Taiwan, and New Zealand offer no senior or youth deals. Australian railways offer a "backpacker" discount of approximately 20 percent on the six-month unlimited travel Explorer passes.
The outstanding rail website Seat61 reports an interesting quirk for buying tickets for New Zealand train trips. If you buy from your own computer, the New Zealand office detects that you're in the U.S. and fails to show the lowest fares. Seat61 tells you how to fool the system into thinking your request comes from a computer within New Zealand. This trick might be useful for other areas, as well—if you're enough of a computer pro, give it a try.
Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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