Although environmental concerns and the stimulus package focused attention on rail travel, the country doesn't have much to show for it yet. Still, if you're interested in an all-day sightseeing ride or two- or three-day "land cruise" this summer, Amtrak has something for you.
Amtrak continues to offer its standard list of discounts:
- 15 percent off for seniors age 62 or over and members of Veteran's Advantage or Student Advantage.
- 10 percent off for seniors 60 or over on cross-border trains to Canada, active duty military personnel and dependents, and members of AAA or the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
- 50 percent off for children ages two through 11.
All of these discounts are taken off the lowest available price, in coach class only; they do not apply to weekday Acela Express runs, and may require a three-day advance purchase. You can upgrade from a discounted coach ticket to business class or sleeper accommodation at the usual upgrade fees. Seat limitations and other restrictions may apply; membership- and age-based discounts require a currently valid ID.
Prices for Amtrak's USA Rail Pass remain as last year: $389 for up to eight travel segments within 15 days, $579 for 12 segments over 30 days, and $749 for 18 segments over 45 days; children 2 to 15 pay half. Passes apply only to coach travel; pay the usual supplement to upgrade. Travel is limited to no more than four one-way trips between any two cities (or intermediate cities). Other restrictions apply.
Amtrak also continues its occasional localized promotions. As of early May, for example, children 2 to 15 pay $19 on the Auto Train from Washington to Florida this summer, when accompanied by a full-fare adult, purchase by June 5; discounts of 20 percent on "Regional" trains (not Acela) within the states of Connecticut or Missouri, valid all year; discounts of 25 percent on all Northeast Regional trains with 14-day advance purchase, no closing date specified.
Amtrak is also taking a page from the airlines' marketing manuals and promoting up to triple mileage credit on some trips. And Amtrak continues its weekly specials—generally on relatively short runs—on sale Tuesday through Friday.
For those of you who haven't used Amtrak before, here is Amtrak 101: Coach on Amtrak trains is far more comfortable and pleasant than coach on airlines; travel in overnight sleeping accommodations for a couple generally costs around three times the cost of two coach seats; Amtrak long-haul trains are slow; and long-haul trains can often run many hours late, so you can't count on making a tight schedule.
Several Amtrak routes provide a full day of good sightseeing. Among the most widely recommended itineraries train buffs are the New York-Montreal, Los Angeles-Emeryville (for San Francisco), Denver-Salt Lake City, and Emeryville-Reno itineraries. Amtrak currently doesn't offer rail/air packages—one way by train, the other flying—but these days you can usually find decent one-way airfares.
Amtrak's top one-night land cruises are Emeryville-Seattle, Chicago-New York, and Chicago-Washington. Two-night trips include Chicago-Los Angeles (the old Super Chief trip), Chicago-Emeryville (the old Zephyr route with spectacular mountain scenery in the Rockies and Sierras), and Chicago-Seattle/Portland.
Land cruises in coach—sitting up all night—can be a bit of a strain, especially the two-night options. But a land cruise in sleeper accommodations can be fun. It puts you in a time warp, harking back to the glory days of railroading and "name" trains of the '30s and '40s. But those nostalgia trips come at a cost: For travel in early June, one-way roomette round-trips for two from Chicago to Emeryville cost $943. Despite the stiff prices, roomette accommodations are already selling out for prime summer trips.
It will be many years before you'll see any significant progress toward real 21st century high-speed railroading here in the United States. For now, long-haul Amtrak trains are mainly for people who like trains, not for people who want to get where they're going. But if you're a train buff, Amtrak is ready with its regular full summer schedule.
Have you ever taken a land cruise? Do you plan on riding the rails this summer? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!