Those of us who have backpacked in Europe know the romantic image of train travel can be a reality, at least on the Continent. With its North America Rail Pass, Railpass.com is hoping to entice frugal travelers on these shores to climb aboard this summer. If you have a surplus of time and energy, this $999 unlimited-ride pass may put your summer travels on the right track.
What you get for your thousand bucks is 30 days of travel on most, but not all, passenger rail networks run by Amtrak in the U.S. and VIA Rail Canada. That's a lot of miles (or kilometers if you're up north), with more than 900 potential destinations spread across the two countries. But just how many trips would it take to make the pass worth the money? I priced out three very long-distance routes (Boston to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Vancouver, and Vancouver to Montreal) and found a total price of $1,183, with a total travel time of almost two weeks. So buying the pass is more cost-effective if you spend a lot of time on trains. I guess that's kind of the point.
How does the North American Rail Pass stack up against other available passes? Amtrak's own national 30-day pass goes for $599, and though VIA Rail doesn't have one exactly like this, its Canrailpass, which allows 12 days' travel within a 30-day period, sells for $837 CAN (about $787 U.S.; see xe.com for current exchange rates). If you add those two together, you're looking at $1,386, and Railpass.com's offer comes out ahead.
On the downside, the pass comes with a number of restrictions, including no validity on the Acela Express or Auto Train. In Canada, the pass "cannot be used for travel on the trains and buses mentioned in the VIA timetable but operated by other companies (except Amtrak trains)." Curiously, passholders are required to cross the U.S.-Canada border at least once, so travel in only one country is not an option. One somewhat troubling restriction is that there is a limited number of Comfort-class (basic service) seats set aside for passholders, which gives the pass an unfortunate "award-ticket" feel.
Assuming the restrictions don't feel too onerous, this pass is a good value for the sightseeing enthusiast who wants to leave the driving to someone else and just kick back. Travelers who want to save money on gas or have less impact on the environment will still end up spending a decent amount of money and potentially traveling a great distance, so it's hard to see those goals being fulfilled here, though Railpass.com is promoting the pass with those angles.
Since most of us working folk won't be able to take a month off, this deal is probably best if you're a student or senior with a more flexible schedule, though you'll need to travel a bunch to make it worthwhile.