Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Explore America by Rail

Amtrak has offered a USA Rail Pass for a very long time. For most of that time, though, the Rail Pass was pointedly not available to U.S. residents, a confusing arrangement that is nonetheless typical among rail providers around the world. (Apparently, rail passes exist for international tourists and not to cater to tourists already in the country.)

Now, though, things have changed. Amtrak is offering USA Rail Passes to anyone who wants to buy them, and with gas prices soaring over $4.00 a gallon, traveling by train may be the perfect alternative to the high cost of a traditional road trip without resorting to the discomfort and extremely long travel times involved in long-distance bus travel.

How's it work? Well, first you buy the pass itself, the cost of which depends on three things:
  • Where (West, East, Northeast, or National);
  • When (May-Sept is peak season, while most of Sept-May is non-peak); and
  • How long (15 or 30 days) you want to travel.
The prices are surprisingly reasonable, with a National 30-day Peak rail pass going for just $599 and off-peak prices about 25% less ($469).

Having bought your pass, which you can then pick up at any Amtrak station, the next step is to schedule your travel. You do need to reserve tickets, and there are a limited number of seats on each train set aside as eligible for rail pass holders. That being said, there's no minimum timeframe to book the tickets, and if you arrive at the station and they're still available for that same day, you can scoop them up on the fly--but Amtrak is getting more popular as fuel prices rise, so it's better to plan ahead where possible.

The USA Rail Pass covers Coach seating and isn't valid on the Acela or the Auto Train. You also can't use it in Canada (though there is a North American Rail Pass that includes travel on VIA Rail Canada if you're looking to go farther afield; that goes for $999 during peak season). But you can purchase upgrades to Sleeper or Business Class accommodations where available for a surcharge, and when the cost of a single round-trip flight is as much as a 30-day blank check for rail travel, you have to wonder:

Isn't this a good time to explore America by rail?

1 comment:

Jenna said...

...if only I wasn't in debt, and actually was allowed to take time off from work...