"Who knew that railroads offered deals?" With the worldwide obsession over airfares – and a secondary fixation on hotel deals – it may come as a surprise that railroads, too, often offer great discounts and promotions.
Even stodgy Amtrak offers deals, and some of them are pretty good. They come in several flavors.
Advertised specials are a bunch of unrelated discount programs, typically available to buy for a month or two and covering travel over several months to a year:
- As I'm writing this, Amtrak is giving 20 percent off coach fares between "selected cities" on most of its premier long-haul trains, from the California Zephyr to the Texas Eagle. While this sale will expire quickly, you can expect similar deals next month.
- Kids ride free – one or two kids for each paid adult fare – on weekend Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee. For sale through August 28; travel through August 28; valid on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
- An adult who buys a full-fare ticket can get one or two half-fare companion tickets for high school juniors or seniors. The promotion is pegged at families looking at college options. Book at least three days in advance through December 17; travel through December 20.
Weekly specials provide sizable (and variable) discounts on different routes around the country. Buy Tuesday-Friday for travel on any day other than Friday or Sunday from the second through the fifth Saturday following the sale.
Ongoing discounts without a specified buy-by purchase date apply to several options:
- Book 14 days in advance and enjoy special discounted fares on Northeast Regional services between Boston and Washington and most intermediate points. Sample fares include Boston-New York at $49 (lowest regular fare $68) and Boston-Washington at $70 (lowest regular fare $95).
- Seniors (62 or over), members of Veterans Advantage, and students with student ID get 15 percent discounts. Members of AAA and military personnel and dependents get 10 percent discounts. Seniors also get 50 percent off tickets on the Downeaster service between Boston and Portland, Maine.
Restrictions: As with airlines, discounted seats are limited and some blackout dates apply. Most sales do not apply to weekday trips on Amtrak's premium Acela Express high-speed trains or to the AutoTrain. And most sales apply only to coach travel and not to business class or sleeper accommodations, although you can upgrade some discounted coach tickets by paying the usual upgrade charge.
Getting the deals: You can check up on current Amtrak deals by logging onto Amtrak's site. And the online booking engine is pretty good about automatically offering the best discounted price for any ticket you select.
Alaska Railroad runs occasional "web special" promotions. For example, the current "Kids ride free" posting will be over by June 30, but you can expect future promotions.
VIA Rail Canada
Would you believe that you find some of the world's best rail discounts in Canada? You certainly can, at least some of the time: VIA Rail Canada's "Express Deals" provide discounts as high as 75 percent on a wide variety of rail services. When available, they post for travel a month or less in advance. Last week, the most spectacular offer was for sleeper accommodations between Vancouver and Toronto, including meals, for $C514 (about $US525), compared with a regular price of more than $C2,057. That's a huge reduction on North America's top "land cruise," a three-night transcontinental trip aboard the Canadian. That deal is no longer posted as I'm writing this, but I expect to see a new slate of Express Deals soon. Earlier this year, VIA Rail offered a systemwide half-price sale, another typical offering likely to be repeated.
VIA Rail also offers varying year-round systemwide discounts to seniors 60 or over. And in past years it has run senior promotions providing "free" companion tickets in coach and 75 percent off companion tickets in sleeper accommodations.
Unlike Amtrak, VIA Rail Canada promotional deals typically apply in all classes of service, from coach to business to sleeper. As usual, seats are limited and some restrictions apply. You can check all the latest deals through the VIA Rail website. The fare search system automatically returns the best available discount for a trip you're checking.
European Rail Tickets and Passes
Rail Europe and the other major North American sales agents for European railways frequently offer deals on railpasses. Rail Europe currently posts three deals:
- Buy a German railpass by July 11, get extra days of travel – five travel days for the price of a four-day pass or 10 days on an eight-day pass. Passes are available for either first or second class.
- Buy a France Rail Pass Premium by July 5 and enjoy a $75 price reduction.
- Buy one of several German "Rail 'n Drive" passes by August 31 and enjoy a $65 price reduction.
When I looked, none of the other specialized online European railpass agencies was matching these promotions, but if you like to do business with one of them, you can check.
As far as I can tell, deals for rail travel in other parts of the world where you might want to take a train are pretty slim:
- I found only one current promotion, in Australia: Great Southern Rail is currently running a "Kids travel for $99 a night" on two of its premier long-haul trains, the India Pacific between Sydney and Perth and the Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin. Buy two adult "Red Sleeper" tickets, take one or two kids for $A99 (about $US105) a night. Book by July 30; travel through August 31. I haven't followed this operation long enough to know how often it posts deals or how good they typically are.
- In other areas, railpasses can be good deals, but I didn't find any special promotions. In Japan, for example, a railpass for a week of unlimited travel costs just a bit more than a single round-trip from Tokyo to Osaka. And railpasses in India, Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan can be good deals for extended touring.
- Operators of luxury private rail "cruises" occasionally run promotions, but I couldn't find any at this time. Even at promotional rates, these trips can be very expensive.