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September 22, 2003 -- The key to low Amtrak fares is knowing the codes. The national railroad has various semi-secret discount codes which give riders from 5 to 20 percent off trains booked online at www.amtrak.com. We last wrote about these codes in July, and since then there's been a new one, so we thought we'd sum them up for you.

To use an Amtrak discount code, start booking your ticket online. On the screen with the list of trains, you'll see a space for "Promotion Code." Enter the code there. If one code doesn't work, try another one.

The newest code is H345. This code only gives you 5% off, and it's loaded with restrictions and blackout dates. In general, it'll work on most trains running between now and April 30, 2004, except during holiday periods, and it won't work on Acela, Metroliner, or on Northeast Corridor trains on Fridays and Sundays. It's a small discount, but it's the only one they have going that applies to the entire Amtrak system. Find full details at www.amtrak.com/savings/banner2.html.

If you're traveling in the Northeast Corridor, try V529. This code gives you a 20% discount on trains from as far north as Maine, as far south as Virginia, as far west as Harrisburg and anywhere in New York State, as long as you're not traveling over Thanksgiving weekend or between 11 AM and 11 PM Friday and Sunday. It's good for travel through Dec. 18.

If you need to travel on Friday or Sunday, try code V709. V709 doesn't work on quite as many trains as V529 -- we couldn't get it working for fares from Virginia or for a train from Buffalo to Albany -- but it works all week. Try V529 first, and if you don't get a discount that way, punch in V709. Code V709 is good for travel until November 9.

Travelers over the age of 62 can also get 15% off most Amtrak fares by asking for the senior citizen's discount. Even better, the senior discount works in combination with the discount codes for a super-discount.

...And The Sale Goes On

Discounts still too expensive for you? Always check Amtrak's Rail Sale (http://tickets.amtrak.com/Amtrak/railsale) page, where truly outrageous savings can be found.

For instance, when we checked Thursday, the railroad was selling tickets from New York, Boston or Washington to Chicago for around $39 each way. Tickets between Chicago and Indianapolis were a mere $9.30.

Even better, there are $30 tickets between New York and Charlotte, NC that can be turned into truly cheap fares between New York and DC. On the Rail Sale page, pick trains 79 or 80 and make your endpoints New York and Alexandria, VA. (If you have a ticket to Alexandria, you can get on or off in DC; the Alexandria station itself is in the DC suburbs, on one of the Washington Metro subway lines.) You'll get a $21 fare each way. That's amazing.

The big problem with Rail Sale fares is that they're totally unreliable. The specific fares we're listing may be sold out, or may have disappeared by the time you read this. There are always some great deals listed on the Rail Sale page, though.