Face it: flying in the summer of 2007 is awful. This is the worst summer for airline delays in at least seven years. Where I live in New York, a pathetic 57% of flights clocked in on time during June at my closest airport -- and that isn't counting flights that are cancelled or diverted.
So maybe it's time to consider the train. According to Amtrak's most recent performance report, their northeastern Regional trains were 76.7% on time in June, with other trains' on-time performance ranging from an impressive 93.5% for the Hiawatha line north of Chicago to a big zero for the cross-country Sunset Limited. (For more stats, open up the Monthly Performance Report and go to page 84.) More importantly, getting stuck on a train is a lot more pleasant than getting stuck on a plane: the seats are bigger (the bathrooms are, too), you can walk around, there are usually electrical outlets available, and there's often even a bar or observation car to wander into.
So let's celebrate Amtrak's nationwide discounts, which continue from spring into summer. Frequent readers of our Amtrak columns will notice that there's only one new discount here since we last reported in May, but we re-checked all of our discounts to make sure that, yes, they still work. Conversely, if there's an older discount missing from this list, it's because we checked it and it doesn't work any more.
Our usual primer: when searching for budget fares on Amtrak, your first stop should always be Amtrak's weekly specials page, where they sell tickets on specific routes from a few days to a month in advance at up to 90% off. If you can't find your route on the weekly sale page (and remember, it changes every week), don't despair. Discount codes cover many of Amtrak's most popular routes. Sometimes they're also combinable with senior, children's, or AAA discounts. So pile on the discounts to get the absolute lowest fares.
Discount codes don't work during Amtrak's busiest periods. For the rest of the year, that's May 25-28, Aug. 31-Sept.3, October 5-8, November 9-12, November 20-27, and any time after December 13. So forget about finding a discount fare for Memorial Day or Thanksgiving -- it just ain't happening. Discount codes also generally require a three-day advance purchase, so plan at least a little ahead to get the best fares.
To use a discount code, start booking a ticket on www.amtrak.com. This is important: buy your ticket online, not in person. On the page with the list of trains, marked "2 -- Select Train" -- there's a promotion code field near the bottom. Enter the code before you click the "View Fare" button. If one code doesn't work, try another. Remember the blackout dates listed above, and also that most codes require a three-day advance purchase. Finally, get your tickets mailed to you or pick them up from a Quik-Trak machine at a station; I've seen reports of human Amtrak agents refusing to acknowledge discount codes.
Amtrak's Top Codes
Brought to you by the fine folks at American Girl Place, the nationwide V185 10% discount is still in effect. It works on any train in the US except the Acela Express and trains to Canada. Just book online, and you'll save a few bucks any time between now and December 13.
Within the Northeast Corridor, you can find an even better discount. Code V688 still gets you a 20% discount off any ticket on a standard reserved Regional train (no Acelas) on routes from Massachusetts as far south as Washington, DC. This code also works for travel through Dec. 13.
Further south, If you're traveling anywhere along the Carolinian, Piedmont or Silver Star trains from New York down to North Carolina, Tampa and Miami, you can nab 20% off with V630. This works on the whole route, including trips solely within the Northeast Corridor, as long as you're on those specific trains -- numbered 73, 74, 79, 80, 91 or 92. This code looks to be good for travel through Nov. 1.
Speaking of Florida, if you're heading to Disney, pick up a free Orlando Magicard (www.orlandoinfo.com/magicard) and use it to book yourself a ticket over the phone with V542. That will get you 20% off tickets on the Auto Train and Silver Service to the Orlando area, for most of the year.
On the West Coast, H636 is the code for the Pacific Surfliner trains from San Diego to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Paso Robles and for the San Joaquin trains in central California. You'll get 20% off the regular fare all the way through Dec. 13 with this code, which is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Car Free project. The H636 bonus can combine with the current 30% off sale on San Joaquin fares, which runs through Sept. 30. There's no special code to get those fares -- they're just all discounted right now.
In the rainy confines of the Pacific Northwest, the city of Portland sponsors H715. That one plants you on a Cascades train between Eugene, OR and Seattle, WA -- but not north of Seattle -- for 15% off, through Oct. 31. The eagle-eyed will notice this one is our new code.
Save More, Ride With a Friend
There's a slew of codes all of which promise 50% off a companion ticket (that's 25% off each of two tickets) in the Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Portland, ME down to Newport News, Virginia, with branches out to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Albany, NY. V769, V679, and V383 all supposedly work for travel until December 13, so if one doesn't work, try a different one of the trio.
Texans and Oklahomans can have a little more fun with H711, which gives you a free companion ticket on the Heartland Flyer train from the Dallas metroplex up into Oklahoma through Dec. 13.
In the Midwest, V539 will give you and a friend half-off the second ticket on trains #311, 313, 314 and 316 entirely within Missouri, through Dec. 13. Missourians, your tax dollars are going to pay for these trains, so we're showing you the discounts.
For older teens (high school juniors and seniors), if you happen to be visiting a college on your trip (and aren't there colleges everywhere?) sign up at www.campusvisit.com. You'll get a code that's good for a free companion ticket to travel with you through Dec. 7.
We'll check up on these codes again in a few months. For now, have a great time riding the rails.
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