With high gas prices scorching Americans during this summer travel season, more and more people are taking to the rails. According to government statistics from May 2008 (the latest ones we found available), Amtrak ridership rose by 14% from February 2007 to February 2008 as the cost of both airfares and driving rose. According to news reports in June, vacation travel on Amtrak is up a staggering 28% from last year.
In fact, on some routes Amtrak has more passengers than they can handle. Some trains are sold out weeks in advance -- when we checked a trip from Washington to Miami, it was hard to find a seat. But Amtrak can't add more trains because it's starved for funds, and because the freight railroads who "host" it on their tracks don't want to allow more passenger traffic.
Trains may be filling up, but Amtrak is still offering plenty of discounts in the form of their perennial discount codes. We've got some new arrivals and some old favorites for this summer. Unfortunately, Amtrak recently changed their computer system to make some codes less flexible, but we hope you'll still be able to find one for your trip.
Codes slash Amtrak's prices. To use a discount code, start booking a ticket on www.amtrak.com or call 1-800-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 [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. Also check out Amtrak's "weekend getaway fares" page, which has special sales for weekend trips within the Northeast.
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 and don't work during certain holiday periods. This year, that includes Aug. 29; Sept. 1; Nov. 25-26; Nov. 29-30, and Dec. 1.
If codes don't make sense for you and you live in Minneapolis, 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 anywhere in the country, along with a free child's ticket on the Cascades service. The San Francisco one gives you a free companion ticket on Amtrak's San Joaquins train. And the Minneapolis one gives you 50% off a companion ticket, apparently anywhere in the country. Check them out.
Codes for Northeastern Travelers
Code V856 used to cover the entire Northeast, but Amtrak's recent computer-system changes locked it down to destinations in Massachusetts. V856 will get you 20% off the price of tickets to the Boston or Route 128 stations in Massachusetts. You just have to book regional trains (not Acelas) and book three days in advance. This code is good for trips at least through Dec. 13.
Another great older code, V454, now only applies to trips ending in Philadelphia. This one gives you 25% off each of two tickets for a couple traveling together, for travel through Nov. 2.
On Amtrak's Downeaster train between Boston and Portland, Maine, there's a great buy one, get one free deal going -- that's a full 50% off each of two tickets! Use code V773. This code is only good for morning departures northbound, and afternoon departures southbound.
The following codes work only by phone, not online. I couldn't even get Amtrak's automated service, "Julie" to accept these codes -- you have to call 1-800-USA-RAIL and talk to a human.
You'll love train travel in New York State and Canada by using code V464 for 20% off your tickets -- but only over the phone, not online. V464 now works with any of the Empire Service or Lake Shore Limited trains within New York State or the Adirondack to Montreal, but not the Maple Leaf into Ontario. It's good through September 2008.
If you're headed to Vermont, call and ask for V209. That gives you 20% off any fare to the Green Mountain State on trains through Oct. 31, 2008.
If Rhode Island is your destination, V731 is your telephone-only code. That code gives you 20% off the regular fare on non-Acela trains to any Rhode Island station, for trains all the way through Dec. 12.
Four stations in the Northeast have destination-specific, phone-only discounts for couples and groups. All four codes work for travel through Dec. 13, and they all take 50% off the second ticket for a pair traveling together. From north to south, they are Newark, NJ: V863; Wilmington, DE: V256; Washingon, D.C.: V722; and Baltimore: V828.
Codes in the Rest of the USA
Maybe there aren't quite as many codes in the rest of the country as in the Northeast, but you'll probably still find one to fit your trip. These codes work either online or by phone.
In the Midwest, code V665 gets you 50% off a second ticket on the two daily trains each way between Kansas City and St. Louis, MO. That one's good through December 15.
On the Pacific Surfliner and San Joaquin trains from San Diego up past Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the city of Santa Barbara is sponsoring H752. That nabs you a cool 20% off those fares, through Dec. 8.
Portland, OR is a quirky town that sponsors some quirky codes. These codes work on any Amtrak Cascades train, anywhere from Eugene, OR to Vancouver, BC. Through August 29, you get a quirky 19% off all Cascades tickets by punching in H773. Then, from Sept. 4 -- May 22, 2009, couples can get half off the second fare (sorry, single travelers) with H779 for an even bigger discount.
If you're going to Montana's Glacier National Park on the Empire Builder train, you can get a 10% discount by reserving your Amtrak ticket through .
On Fridays through Sundays through August 31, you can use H766 to get two kids' fares free with one paying adult on the Hiawatha trains between Chicago and Milwaukee.
Finally, folks headed to Florida should pick up a free Orlando Magicard at www.orlandoinfo.com/magicard. You can use it to book yourself a ticket over the phone (not online) with V673. That will get you 20% off tickets on the Silver Service to the Orlando area through the end of 2008. If you'd like to book January-May 2009 travel, use code V145, which works on the Silver Service but not the Auto Train.
. . . And What About Canada?
Gas prices in Canada are even higher than in the US. Think $4 a gallon is tough? Try paying $4.70/gallon in Montreal, or a stunning $5.21 in Vancouver. Canada's answer to Amtrak, VIA Rail, is trying to take the sting away with some summer sales.
Current deals include a C$59 one-way fare between Toronto and Montreal or Ottawa, between now and Oct. 5. VIA is also running a 50% off sale in the most heavily traveled Canadian corridor, between Windsor, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City, on Saturdays until Sept. 27. And every Wednesday the VIA Rail Website churns out more discounted fares, which you can find at www.viarail.ca/en_expressdeal.
The drive from Toronto to Montreal is about 550 km. With gas at C$1.24/liter, driving a Toyota Corolla getting on average around 12 km/liter, that's C$57 in gas costs alone -- plus wear and tear on your car, tires, oil, and the strain of driving. For the same price, you could ride in style and let the train do the driving.