You know the drill by now: Amtrak has semi-secret discount codes that shave money off fares, so there's really no reason to pay full price for your rail journey. Between the fire-sale fares and discount codes, you'll find cheap rides from sea to shining sea.
Your first stop when booking a train ticket should always be Amtrak's weekly specials (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. A ride between Chicago and New Orleans right now, booked through that page, is $54.90 - $49 off the regular price.
If you can't find your route on the weekly sale page (and remember, it changes every week), don't despair. Discount codes can give you up to 50% off regular fares. 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.
The best code right now for individual travelers is V626. Learn it, live it, love it: it gets you 20% off all trains in the Northeast Corridor except the Acela Express, and it's good through September 30 of this year. We found it works as far north as Portland, ME, and as far south as Newport News, VA. Enjoy. [Editor's Note: This code no longer is applicable for the Northeast Corridor.]
If you're traveling with a friend in the northeast, go for V756. That gets you 50% off the second ticket for two people traveling together. It works on all Northeast Corridor trains except Metroliners and Acelas from now through June 30, except from February 18-21 and March 24-28. For couples, this can be big savings. If that one doesn't work, V753, V730 and V755 are all very similar.
Westerners get a few codes, too.
Couples traveling on the Cascades trains between Eugene, OR and Vancouver, BC should use H451. That will make your second ticket completely free on all Cascades trains between now and May 26, except during February 18-21 and March 24-28. This is an amazing code that makes travel in the Pacific Northwest amazingly cheap.
Amtrak has also extended the "kids ride free" program on California's Capitol Corridor trains between San Jose and Auburn, and their associated buses, which stretch from Santa Barbara all the way up to Eureka. Between now and March 20, except Feb. 18-21, on weekends up to two kids ride free per paying adult. Use code H405 for these fares.
Speaking of kids, if you're taking your teen for a college visit this year, check out www.campusvisit.com/amtrak. If you fill out the form on that page, you'll get a special promotional code that will give you buy one, get one free tickets anywhere in the country for high school juniors or seniors traveling with a parent or guardian to visit a college. Certain holiday weekends are blacked out, as are trains between Boston and Washington leaving on Fridays and Sundays from 9 am until 7 pm, but it's still a great deal.
Talk with fellow travelers about his column on our Car, Bus and Rail Message Boards today.