We’ve finally booked our big ‘whistlestop tour of America’ with Amtrak next month, taking in short stays in New York, New Orleans, LA, San Fransisco and Chicago.
Of course we’re incredibly excited, and as if visiting these cities wasn’t thrilling enough, our trip takes in 5 classic, long haul train routes, travelling through 18 states over 18 days and nearly 6,000 miles.
We’ll be taking the Crescent train from New York to New Orleans, then we have 2 nights on the Sunset Limited across the southern deserts all the way to LA in 2 nights. The following day we’re off on the Coast Starlight, up the Californian coast until San Fransisco. Then we cross the country again on board the California Zephyr, perhaps America’s most celebrated train ride, over 2 nights to Chicago. Finally, after a few nights there, we take the Lake Shore overnight to the Big Apple before flying home.
Here’s our route:
Amtrak’s website is surprisingly easy to use, once you’re familiar with the basics. In terms of rail planning, we found it to be one of the best run websites by national train operators.
The best thing about Amtrak’s site is the interactive route planner. The interface is a map of the country. To look for fares, you simply click on your starting city, choosing the green go arrow icon and do likewise with your terminus, choosing the orange stop icon. It asks you your dates and number of passengers and then returns results, either by shortest journey or cheapest price. It will also show you multiple route options, where relevant.
It will always display the standard coach fare, but it gives you the option to see prices for a variety of sleeper accommodation. Whether you choose Roomettes or Bedrooms on longer journeys, you pay for the room in addition to the individual fare, regardless of how many people are travelling in your party, which makes it good value for small families.
That’s not to say that traveling by train across America is a budget option, far from it, particularly if you’re not prepared to sleep in coach seats. Rates for bedrooms and roomettes vary wildly, depending on demand and availability for your chosen route and dates, so it’s always worth experimenting with different dates.
As an example, we managed to bag a bargain on the California Zephyr with a bedroom for $650. On another day in the same week (found on the same day) the same room was going for over $1900.
Amtrak Rail Passes
Amtrak offers a range of for different length of trips across the full national network. These can offer great value, especially if you’re planning to make at least 5 or 6 journeys, or simply prefer to have flexibility and stop off in different places en route. It’s different from InterRail, which gives you unlimited journeys across multiple countries per day of travel. Each individual journey is counted as one segment, which must be taken within a set timeframe.
Passes start at 8 segments (or journeys) over 15 days, for $450 per adult. Other options include:
- 30 days/12 segments – $679 (adults)
- 45 days/18 segments – $879 (adults)
Bear in mind that your final journey must end before midnight on the last day of your pass.
Although an Amtrak Railpass covers the entire country, there are a few exceptions. Check out this page of Amtrak’s site for full info on these.
Pass vs Individual Tickets?
It’s always worth checking the value of the pass against individual fares though, as they can sometimes work out cheaper, particularly on shorter journeys.
Note that you will still need to book reservations (or sleepers if you don’t plan to sleep in your regular coach seat) for each journey, as there are only a limited number of railpass seats allocated on each.
Why use an Agent?
We booked our trip with Holidays by Rail, a UK-based rail tour operator specialising in Amtrak and US rail travel. The trip cost exactly the same as it would have done if we booked via Amtrak’s site. Although we used the Amtrak site to plan the different legs of the journey and find the best fares ourselves, we still found an agent useful for peace of mind, to doublecheck prices, make sure we hadn’t overlooked anything and generally get sound advice.
It’s also worth noting that if you book with a railpass there may be a slight delay (overnight) in confirming your sleeper tickets, whereas point-to-point tickets are confirmed instantly.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to use Amtrak’s route planner, an agent can really help, especially with complex, multi-stop itineraries. Our agent was able to advise us on whether to book a railpass or single sleeper fares and generally provide useful information on each of our destination cities, including which areas to stay.
They also advised us to upgrade to a Superliner Roomette for the Coast Starlight train. Even though we wouldn’t be sleeping on the train overnight, with an upgrade we’d benefit from getting access to the vintage parlour car and two meals for just $100 more in total for two people. (This was actually something we already knew, but still it was reassuring to get the advice.)
This independently-run site is invaluable for trip planning, especially if you have more specific, in depth questions. The people on it are friendly, knowledgeable and super helpful. One even went ahead and costed up my journey for me!
Amtrak Discounts: American Rail Travel Deals
Since Amtrak’s fares are not the cheapest, it pays to be aware of various discounts that may apply for your trip.
Amtrak Disabled Discount
If you’re a wheelchair user, blind, deaf or have another disability that requires special attention when travelling you (and your travelling companion) should be eligible for a 15% discount on single fares, but do note that there is no discount applied to railcards. You’ll just need to provide proof of disability (a doctor’s letter will do) at the time of booking.
If you’re keen to support rail travel in America, you might also consider joining the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a group that lobbies to improve rail travel in the US, which gets you 10% discount on most Amtrak fares, along with 10% discount on Canada’s Via Rail services. Membership costs $35 per year and, despite the name, the organsiation is open internationally.
Amtrak Student Discounts
An ISIC International Student Card also bags you a 10% discount on most standard fares. The card costs $25 a year and can be used for similar discounts with other travel merchants, including Hostelworld, STA Travel, Citypass and Motel 6. It’s even open to part time students and there are no age restrictions.
Amtrak’s 25% Specials
Amtrak offer a regular suite of discounted fares which changes week-to-week,. You can usually book these up to three weeks in advance. Check the latest deals on Amtrak’s website.
Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Scheme
It’s also worth joining Guest Rewards, Amtrak’s loyalty programme. It’s free to join and open internationally. You’ll earn 2 points for each dollar spent on fares, which can be redeemed at a later date, not only on future Amtrak tickets but also on hotels, car hire and various items sold via Amtrak’s online merchant portal, plus you’ll get a 500 point bonus when joining.
On certain routes you can claim a single journey from around 1500 points. You cannot redeem them on sleeper accommodation though. The points can take a little while to process, so if you’re booking a trip, don’t bank on being able to use them on the same trip. Points remain valid for 3 years and you can buy more, often at specially incentivised rates. The Amtrak Discussion site has a busy forum section dedicated to the intricacies of maximising guest rewards points.
Check out the full range of Amtrak’s discounts for children, senior citizens, servicemen and more.
We hope you’ve found this info useful and look forward to following our American Amtrak adventures in future posts!