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Amtrak discount hunters, winter has fallen. The holiday season is Amtrak's busiest and most expensive, and it's the time when our national railroad is stingiest with discounts; pretty much all discount codes are blacked out from Nov. 9-12, Nov. 21-28, and from Dec. 15 until Jan. 7, making for some expensive travel.

At least you'll be paying more for faster trains. At the end of October, Amtrak shaved half an hour off the formerly two-hour trip between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA by electrifying the tracks; they're also increasing the number of daily round-trips there from 11 to 14. In the Midwest, they're adding two new trains from Chicago to St. Louis, one from Chicago to Carbondale and one from Chicago to Quincy. The railroad also added more trips between Seattle and Portland and Sacramento and San Jose in California. We've got discount codes for many of those trains below.

As always, your first stop should still 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 per cent off. When we checked, the specials page was even selling a few tickets for blacked-out dates, such as $17.40 one-way fares from Kansas City to St. Louis on Nov. 9, a trip that's normally $25.

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.

To use a discount code, start booking a ticket on www.amtrak.com. 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.

20% Off and a Nifty Membership Card

The most powerful code you can use online right now is H571. That's an Amtrak Guest Rewards promotion giving you 20 per cent off on pretty much any train nationwide except the Auto Train, even including those nifty Acela high-speed trains. Sign up for Amtrak's frequent traveler program for free at www.amtrakguestrewards.com and be ready to produce your membership number on demand. H571 is good for trains through Dec. 14.

The only better discount available to the general public is Amtrak's group fare, and you need four people to make that cheaper. If you are, indeed, traveling in a group of four to six adults in the Northeast, use code H620 for travel between now and December 14. That gives the third through sixth people 75 per cent off.

I've got plenty more codes, though, if for some reason you're allergic to Amtrak Guest Rewards. (Don't be afraid; it's free to join.)

Two people traveling together in the Northeast (from Albany, Springfield or Boston as far south as Newport News and as far west as Harrisburg) can use V383 to get 25 per cent off each ticket, now all the way through June 30, 2007. There are a bunch of similar companion-fare codes out there right now, including V761, V714, V372 and V679, but V383 lasts the longest. Code V707 also works for any trip within the state of New York, as far north as Plattsburgh and as far west as Niagara Falls (except on the Lake Shore Limited train), from now until April 2007.

On the East Coast, codes V617 will take 20 per cent off the fare on the Carolinian (trains 79/80) and Piedmont (trains 73/74) running between New York City and Charlotte, NC for travel through Dec. 3. The code works with any two stations on those lines. Code V662 extends your 20 per cent discount all the way south to Miami, working with any two stations on the Silver Star, trains 91/92. That one will work well into '07.

Individual travelers destined for Rhode Island can also use V731 for 20 per cent off tickets through Dec. 14, 2006, but they'll need to book over the phone, as you can't use V731 online.

If you're heading to Disneyworld this winter, pick up a free Orlando Magicard at (www.orlandoinfo.com/magicard) and use it to book yourself a ticket over the phone with V515. That will get you 20 per cent off tickets on Auto Train, Silver Service and Sunset Limited through Dec. 14.

Leaving the East Coast, code V663 only gives 10 per cent off, but it works on a wide range of trains, like the Texas Eagle (trains 21/22 from Chicago all the way to Fort Worth) and everything that runs from Chicago south to St. Louis and Kansas City, through Dec. 14.

The Empire Builder train stretches all the way from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, passing Minneapolis and Big Sky Country along the way. Use code V524 for 15 per cent off any Empire Builder ticket from now through Dec. 14, except on the blackout dates I mentioned about.

Once you get to the West Coast, there's one more code for you. H574 knocks 20 per cent off the price of tickets on the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains in California, from Oakland and Sacramento down to Bakersfield, and from San Jose up to Auburn. That one is also good through Dec. 14.

Finally, we'll be good sports and we won't give away the secret code for discounts on Pacific Surfliner trains between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. Rather, sign up at (www.santabarbaracarfree.org/register.htm), and Santa Barbara Car Free will send the code to you.

Hungry for more Amtrak codes? Check back after the new year or discuss them on our Message Board.