There's something about a reinvigorated national rail service that's magic.
Now, I'm not saying that Amtrak is truly coming back. But our national train line seems to have a sparkle and verve it didn't have for the past few years, now that a rail-friendly federal administration is in office. One of the most noticeable marks of better health is new service. Over the past few months, Amtrak has redesigned their website, extended the Northeast Corridor trains farther into Virginia, started a second Seattle- Vancouver train and inaugurated a new station in Washington State. Federal recovery funds are also letting Amtrak spruce up its ancient fleet.
Amtrak is offering plenty of discounts, too. As we discovered this summer, you're now just as likely to find fare discounts automatically punching themselves up on check-out as you are to require an obscure savings code. That might put this column out of business, but it's a good thing for travelers; fare sales are much easier to use than discount codes.
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. Many fares are on sale, and others have discount codes that can be applied to create savings.
To use a discount code, start booking a ticket online or call tel. 800/USA RAIL (or tel. 800/872-7245). If you can possibly book online, do so: reservations agents tend to slap more restrictions on codes than the website does. After you choose your train, you'll be shown a page marked "Passenger Discounts/Promotion Code." Enter the code and click "Apply Discounts." 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 three-day advance purchase, don't work on high-speed Acela trains, and don't work during certain holiday periods. Over the next few months, that includes Nov. 24-25, Nov. 28-30, Dec. 17-23 and 26-30; Jan. 3-4 and Feb. 12 and 15.
You can't combine discount codes with fare sales. If Amtrak already has a fare sale going on and you enter a discount code, you may end up with a higher fare than the sale fare. But if that happens, just start the purchase process over.
If codes don't make sense for you and you live in the San Francisco Bay area, Portland, OR, or Seattle, there's a different deal you can use: coupons. Buy something called an "EcoMetro guide" from www.ecometro.com for $20. The books are full of coupons for local businesses, but they also all have Amtrak coupons. The Seattle and Portland ones give you 25% off the adult fare on Cascades trains and, separately, a free child's ticket. The Bay Area ones give you a free companion ticket on Amtrak's Capitol Corridor train. Check them out.
Northeast Corridor Discounts
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. It's good for trains through the end of the year, and you don't need a code.
Amtrak's flashiest sale provides 25% discounts on the popular Northeast Regional trains between Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston, on Virginia trains as far as Lynchburg, 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 good for travel through Dec. 2.
On trains within New York State -- including trains up to Montréal, Canada -- use code V122 for a 20% discount for travel through Nov. 23, with only a three-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 beyond Dec. 2, or for trips with less than a 14 day advance purchase.
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.
Going to New Haven, CT? Use code V266 for 20% off any ticket through March 13. But watch out for this one if you're including New York City in your trip as well, because there's a commuter rail line called Metro-North which runs trains between New York and New Haven for much lower rates than Amtrak does. (Find them at www.mta.info.)
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.
Discounts in The East
Vermont has extended a great deal through the end of the year. Code V446 gives you 20% off all tickets to Vermont from outside the state. Within Vermont, use code V189, which 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. (Now how about getting a second train, Vermont?)
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 get one for free at www.orlandoinfo.com/magicard/.
Trips to the Midwest
Folks traveling between Chicago and several New York and Massachusetts cities on the Lake Shore Limited train can get 40% off a second ticket without a code, as long as they book by November 30 for travel through December 16. Eligible cities include Boston, MA, New York, NY, Albany, NY, Syracuse, NY, Buffalo, NY, Framingham, MA, Worcester, MA, Springfield, MA, and Pittsfield, MA.
Amtrak's ongoing M issouri fare sale allows 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.
If you're traveling on the thrice-weekly Sunset Limited between Houston and New Orleans, use the URL to book your tickets and you'll get 20% off on trains through Dec. 16.
Cheap Fares Out West
On the West Coast, Amtrak is running a 25% off sale on the two daily trains that run from Portland, OR through Seattle to Vancouver (but not the buses that ply the same route.) This is one of those no-code sales, so you'll just get the discounted price if it's available.
The East Bay Express newspaper is sponsoring a 15%-off sale on Capitol Corridor trains between Auburn and San Jose, CA through Dec. 16. But you have to use this specific link to book your fare: http://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak/Promotion?_promokey=29.
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.