Will "Amtrak Joe"'s arrival in the White House portend a new future for passenger rail in the U.S.? We're certainly hopeful that the most rail-friendly administration in decades can do something to juice up the system, even though the nation is in the middle of a financial crisis.
For now, though, Amtrak seems to be saving some money by cutting out loopholes people used to save money on their tickets. Don't worry, there are still discounts -- just fewer than there used to be. But up until recently, discount codes typically applied to entire routes: for instance the whole Northeast Corridor, or the entire Empire Builder.
Amtrak recently changed their computer system to lock down discount codes to specific destinations, even when you're buying online. So you can't, say, use a Philadelphia code to travel to a different city on the same train line instead, the way you used to.
But wait! There's a sneaky way around this. Unlike airlines, Amtrak lets you overshoot with your tickets -- if you buy a one-way, discounted ticket for farther than you mean to go, you can get off early with no penalties. In some cases that could save you money. We'll give you some examples below.
Codes slash Amtrak's prices. To use a discount code, start booking a ticket on www.amtrak.com or call tel. 800/USA RAIL (or 800/872-7245), depending on whether it's on online or phone code. 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.
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 sales pages (and remember, they change 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.
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 Jan. 16-23, Feb. 13, Feb. 16, April 10, April 13, Sept. 4, Sept. 7, Nov. 24-25 and Nov. 28-30.
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.
Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Discounts
Amtrak's got plenty of discounts in the popular Northeast Corridor, you just have to pick the right one for your trip. We'll start with destinations in Massachusetts and work our way southward. Codes cover almost every major stop along the way.
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. For instance: if you do a weekend day trip heading south from any station on the first train of the day, and then returning north on any evening train, the round-trip costs $25 if you use code X188.
Seven days a week, you can get 25% off all Downeaster fares to Boston provided your trip takes the late 11pm train back home; use code V687 through June 27 for that one.
Kids ride free on the Downeaster on Sundays through June 25 with code V581; seniors 62+ get half off Tuesdays-Thursdays through June 22 with code V543.
If you're heading from anywhere in the Northeast to any city in Massachusetts, make a reservation by phone (not online!) and 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 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. On an itinerary we tested, two Boston-NYC tickets cost $124, but two discounted Boston-Newark tickets cost only $100.80.
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.
For 20% off all tickets to Philadelphia through May 20, use code V451. There are various other Philly codes out there, but this one is the best.
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.
Finally, there's Washington, DC. Pairs headed to DC or BWI Airport should use code V722 for 40% off the second ticket, through Dec. 16.
Discounts Across the Nation
Amtrak discounts outside the Northeast Corridor are pretty thin right now, but we found a few. We've got nothing for the Midwest, alas; we're hoping those will crop up later this year.
If you're headed to Vermont on any train, use code V446 for 20% off all tickets through Oct. 31. You must call to make this reservation -- the code doesn't work online.
Going to Disneyworld? 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/
There are two codes for Westerners. Pairs of tickets for the Cascades trains Monday-Thursday anywhere between Eugene, OR and Vancouver, BC (including Portland and Seattle) through May 22 get you 50% off the second ticket with code H779.
And 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.