Amtrak is trying a neat new trick this summer: making their discounted rail fares easier to use. For years, if you wanted a discount on Amtrak, you had to look up obscure savings codes and punch them in when you buy your ticket. Some of those discount codes still exist (and we'll list all of the current ones below.) But more often, Amtrak is just lowering fares, which makes it easier for everyone to enjoy cheap train tickets.
When searching for budget fares on Amtrak, your first stop should always be Amtrak's weekly specials page (http://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak/weeklyspecials), 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 sales pages (and remember, they change every week), don't despair. Many fares are on sale this summer, and others have discount codes that can be applied to create savings.
To access any of Amtrak's sale fares, book your tickets online at www.amtrak.com. When you get to step 3, "View Fare," you should see the words "Your promotional discount has been applied and is reflected in the fare total below." That's how you know you've gotten a special sale fare.
To use a discount code, start booking a ticket online or call tel. 800/USA RAIL (or 800/872-7245). If you can possibly book online, do so: reservations agents tend to slap more restrictions on codes than the website does. 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. Finally, get your tickets mailed to you or pick them up from a Quik-Trak machine at a station.
Amtrak discount codes work often, but not always. They generally require a 3-day advance purchase, don't work on high-speed Acela trains, and don't work during certain holiday periods. This year, that includes Sept. 4, Sept. 7, Nov. 24-25 and Nov. 28-30.
You can't combine discount codes with fare sales I described above. If Amtrak already has a fare sale going on, the website won't even give you a space to enter a discount code. But codes are still useful for many routes and dates that don't have sales.
If codes don't make sense for you and you live in the San Francisco Bay area, Eugene or Portland, OR, or Seattle, there's a different deal you can use: coupons. Buy something called an "EcoMetro coupon book" from www.ecometro.com for $20. The books are full of coupons for local businesses, but they also all have Amtrak coupons. The Portland, Eugene, and Seattle ones get you a free companion ticket and a free child's ticket on the Cascades service. The San Francisco one gives you a free companion ticket on Amtrak's Capitol Corridor train. Check them out.
Northeast Corridor Discounts
Amtrak's flashiest sale provides 25% discounts on the popular Northeast Regional trains between Washington, New York and Boston, on Virginia trains as far as Newport News, Massachusetts and Connecticut trains up to Springfield, and Keystone trains between Philadelphia and New York. They've also somewhat lowered fares on Acela Express trains. This brings the price of a standard fare between New York and Washington from $72 down to $49, and the price of an Acela ticket on the same route from $129 down to $99. You have to reserve tickets 14 days in advance, the sale-priced tickets do run out, and this sale is only good for travel through Sept. 3.
Now, pay attention. If you're traveling along the Northeast Corridor specifically to Washington, D.C. after September 3 but before December 16, the big sale goes away, but it's replaced by a different discount: pairs traveling together get 40% off the second ticket to D.C.. That lowers a pair of New York-D.C. fares from $144 to $115.20 -- not as good as the $98 you get with the summer fares, but still a discount.
Oh, I'm sorry, did I say things were getting easier?
On other New York State trains -- including trains up to Montreal, Canada -- Amtrak's current fare sale provides a 20% discount for travel through Nov. 23, with only a 3-day advance purchase required. That makes a New York-Montreal ticket only $62 each way.
Amtrak's current Northeast sale provides better savings than the currently available discount codes, and you can't combine the two methods. But I can give you plenty of codes you can use for trips this fall and winter.
The state of Maine is proud of their Downeaster train to Boston, so they try to make sure it's full with lots of discounts. The most impressive one is a buy one, get one free ticket deal good for northbound departures in the morning and southbound trains in the afternoon or evening. Use code V773 for this deal; it's good for trains at least through December 13.
If you're heading from anywhere in the Northeast to any city in Massachusetts, ask for discount code V221. That will give you 20% off each ticket, though Dec. 15.
For 20% off trips to Rhode Island, book online and use code V174 through Dec. 16. This code can also help with trips coming northbound into New London or Old Saybrook, CT -- buy a ticket to Westerly, RI for those stations. On one sample fall itinerary we tested, a ticket from New York City to New London cost $43, but a ticket to Westerly with the code cost $36.80. You can get off early without a penalty.
If you're a pair heading to Newark, NJ through Dec. 16, you can get 40% off your second ticket using code V558 online. This can also help with trips southbound into New York City; book a ticket to Newark and get off early. If you're a real bargain hunter, you can use that Newark code to get into Manhattan northbound, too; you just have to switch trains. Get off at Newark northbound, and switch at that station for the PATH subway train, which takes 25 minutes to drop you off in downtown Manhattan for $2.
Pairs going to Philadelphia can nab 40% off their second ticket through Dec. 16 by using code V553. Pairs going to Wilmington, DE through Dec. 16 should use code V256 for 40% off the second ticket. If you're a pair headed to Baltimore, use code V828 through Dec. 16 for the same 40% discount off a second ticket.
Savings in the East
Vermont recently took an existing deal and made it better. For a while now, they've had code V446 that gives you 20% off all tickets to Vermont through Oct. 31. Now they have a new code, V189, that gives you flat $12 fares for any travel entirely within the state of Vermont. Admittedly, there's only one train each way per day, but hey, it's $12.
Going to Disney World? For tickets to the Orlando area on the three Silver Service trains, call Amtrak and ask for code V145. You may have to show the conductor a free Orlando Magicard; you can print get one at www.orlandoinfo.com/magicard/
Going to Disney World with your car? Up to two kids travel for $19 with each adult ticket on the Auto Train from somewhere-outside-of-D.C. to just-outside-of-Orlando through August 31 if you use code H809.
Deals Across America
In the midwest, Amtrak changed their Missouri discount code into a general fare sale, allowing pairs to take 50% off the second fare (so, 25% off each ticket) on trains within Missouri. That sale is good for travel through December 16, with a 3-day advance purchase required. No code is necessary.
Kids under 16 ride free on the Hiawatha trains between Chicago and Milwaukee on Fridays through Sundays until August 30, as long as they're traveling with a fare paying adult. This discount works for up to two kids per adult, and you don't need a special code to use it.
On the West Coast, Amtrak has a 30% off sale on trains and buses through August 30, to or from the northern California and southern Oregon cities of Medford, Ashland, Dunsmuir, Ms. Shasta, Weed, and Yreka. The problem is, those trains were already really expensive. A bus/train journey from Medford to Oakland, for instance, is $83. Then again, all transit up there is expensive; the same ticket on Greyhound would cost up to $161.
Also helping relatively few people on the west coast (but maybe you're one of those people) is a sale for travel only to Anaheim, CA, and only for travel from Sept. 8-18. But hey, it's 15% off. No code needed.
If you're traveling on the Pacific Surfliner or San Joaquin trains to anywhere in Santa Barbara County, CA, you can get a special code for 20% off your ticket by signing up at www.santabarbaracarfree.org/traindiscount.htm.
Finally, high school students visiting colleges can get 50% off a second ticket for a parent or guardian, by signing up at www.campusvisit.com/amtrak.