It's time to start thinking about holiday travel. Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) has plenty of discounts to make train tickets cheaper during Fall 2011, although some promotions don't apply to prime holiday dates. But if you pay attention to your travel times, you can still save up to 25% off regular prices.
How to Find Nationwide Amtrak Discounts
1. Before you start clicking links, make sure to check Amtrak's Weekly Specials. These rates go on sale between Tuesday and Friday each week. These are deeply discounted fares (often up to 80% off) that can be for any train in the country. It's a grab bag, but you might get lucky. Check them out here.
There's an ongoing 25% discount (with a 14-day advance purchase) for Northeast Regional trains, the popular line that runs from Boston to D.C. The lower fares automatically turn up when you search, and they're lower than many of the alternatives here. (This means the alternatives are better for non-Northeast Regional trains, or for purchases between three and 14 days in advance.)
2. Remember that membership has its privileges. If you're a senior citizen, U.S. military, or a member of AAA (www.aaa.com), Veterans Advantage (www.veteransadvantage.com), ISIC (www.isic.org), Student Advantage (www.studentadvantage.com), or the National Association of Rail Passengers (www.narprail.org), you can get a discount on Amtrak fares just by clicking the right box on Amtrak's purchase page. High school juniors and seniors traveling with an adult can get a 50% discount by buying their tickets at www.campusvisit.com. NARP doesn't have any membership requirements beyond the $35 annual fee, and it nets you a 10% discount.
3. Understand the fine print. Most of these deals are blacked out for Nov. 22-23, Nov. 26-28, Dec. 21-24 and Dec. 26-30. None of them work with the high-speed Acela Express train. And all of them require you to buy your tickets three days in advance, so plan ahead.
How to Find New England Train Discounts
Vermont really wants people to come by train. If you're traveling within the state, book here for a flat $12 fare on any in-state trip, through Dec. 31.
On the Downeaster train between Maine and Massachusetts, there's a Buy One, Get One Free ticket deal through Dec. 31 as long as you're heading northbound in the morning and southbound in the evening. Use discount code V773 when booking.
Kids also ride free on the Downeaster on Sundays through June 2012. Use code V581 for the child's ticket to get the free fare. Seniors over 62 get half off on all Downeaster rides if they use the code V543.
For any train to Massachusetts (but not trips leaving Massachusetts) on the Downeaster, the Northeast Corridor, or the one daily train from Albany, get 20% off by booking here. Good for travel through Dec. 15, 2011.
For trips to/from Rhode Island, save 15% by booking here. Good for travel through Dec. 31, 2011.
How to Find Train Discounts for the Northeast & East Coast
The venerable I Love New York discount is still in effect, offering 15% off all tickets on the Adirondack, Empire Service, Ethan Allen, and Maple Leaf trains throughout New York State (and to Montreal) all the way through May 2012. Book here to get the discount.
There are a lot of companion fare discounts in the Northeast, as well. Before jumping on board with a companion fare discount, make sure that you don't get a lower rate from the standard 25%-off Northeast Regional advance purchase sale -- a 30%-off companion fare is really only 15%-off each for two people.
If you're going to Newark, you can get 30% off a companion ticket for trains running through Dec. 20 by booking here. Since there's no discount for trips from the rest of the corridor to New York City, this is your best bet for a New York discount if you're coming from the rest of the Boston-Washington corridor; you can transfer at Newark for a $2 local, 25-minute PATH train ride straight to downtown Manhattan.
Travelers to Philadelphia can get 30% off a companion ticket for trains running through Dec. 20 by booking here.
For trips to Wilmington, DE, you can get 30% off a companion ticket through Dec. 20 by booking here.
For trips to Baltimore, you can get 30% off a companion ticket through Dec. 20 by booking here.
If BWI Airport Rail Station is your destination, get your 30% off a companion ticket through Dec. 20 by booking here.
Finally, here's your link for that 30% companion fare discount if you're going to Washington, DC. Same trains, same dates.
For trips to Orlando, Winter Park, and Kissimmee, FL on the Silver Star and Silver Meteor trains, you can get 15% off an adult fare by using discount code V104 when booking. Good for travel through Dec. 31, 2011.
Midwest and West Discounts for Amtrak
The Portland and Seattle versions of the Chinook Book coupon book include a 25%-off coupon for Amtrak Cascades trains, which run through Oregon, Washington, and up to Vancouver, B.C. The book costs $20, so it's hard to make that math work if you're just doing it for the Amtrak coupon. But the book has hundreds of coupons for either Portland or Seattle merchants that you might find otherwise helpful.
The East Bay and Silicon Valley, CA versions of the Chinook Book include Buy One, Get One Free coupons for the Capitol Corridor train. The same concerns as above apply; it might make sense if you intend to use more of the local coupons. Find the full list of coupons at www.chinookbook.net.
For trips to Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, Solvang, Buellton, Lompoc, Surf, Guadalupe, and Santa Maria, CA on the Pacific Surfliner or San Joaquin trains, you can get 20% off by clicking here. Good through Dec. 19. 2011.
For trips to Grover Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Paso Robles, CA on the Pacific Surfliner or Coast Starlight trains, you can get 20% off by signing up here. Good for travel through Dec. 31, 2011.
Seniors over age 62 get half off fares on the Capitol Corridor trains between the Sacramento and San Jose areas on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays; just pick the "senior" ticket type to receive the discount.
The oddest discount of the month goes to a Amtrak promotion designed to get people to Oakland Raiders football games. You get 25% off your ticket, but it's only available on game days (Nov. 6 and 27, Dec. 18, and Jan. 1) and only to the Oakland Coliseum station. If that's your game, go for it by booking here.
Have you found any other great Amtrak discount codes? Please share your best Amtrak deals below.