Riding the rails -- it's a beloved experience that many prefer to plane or car travel. There are no security lines and no traffic, plus the benefit of wider seats and more legroom. But among those who don't travel Amtrak regularly, it's common to hear complaints about ticket fares, the lack of luxury offerings more commonly seen with air travel, as well as the boarding and exiting frenzies famous in places like New York's Penn Station and Washington, D.C.'s Union Station.
We can dispel some of these myths. With a little advance planning and some well-trod intel, you, too, can enjoy the best that train travel can offer in a way that works for your budget and peace of mind. Read on for our tips on mastering Amtrak, then get ready to sit back and enjoy the ride.
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Many people think of train travel as a last-minute getaway option (and they should, last-minute fare deals are out there -- more on that below), but planning ahead will always work to your advantage. "The more in advance you make your travel decision, the better off you are," says Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak. "Your best chance to get the lowest price is to book as far advance as possible."
Booking your trip at least three to four weeks before you depart regularly offers drastically lower fares, often 50 percent less than what you'll see within two weeks of your departure and return dates. Magliari also notes that sleeping compartments for overnight trains often sell out farther in advance -- so bear that in mind for long trips.
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"Right now, we're offering 24 deals on fares in the Northeast alone," Magliari says, recommending that travelers head to the deals section on Amtrak's website before purchasing a ticket. There, you may find offers for 25 percent off a trip on Acela, the high-speed business class train on the Northeast corridor, discounts on travel to see Oakland Raiders or San Diego Chargers games, and reduced fares for getaways to New Orleans or Miami.
You don't have to wait for special offers, either. Amtrak has standing discounts for children, who get half-prize fares from age two to age 12 (infants under two ride for free), senior travelers, travelers with AAA memberships, active military personnel as well as veterans, students, and more. Select these options when booking, and you'll regularly get 10 percent or more off of a standard fare.
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Though station lounges aren't quite up to par with some of the luxury offerings that airlines are investing in, Amtrak does have several types of private lounges for Acela Express First Class passengers, sleeping car passengers, Amtrak Guest Rewards Select Plus, Select Executive members, and United Club Members.
With free beverages and snacks, internet access, TVs, newspapers and magazines, as well as attendants who can help you with your trip, they're a great way to spend time before departure. Magliari also notes that this is an area Amtrak is investing in -- there are new options for buying day passes to lounges, and guests in lounges now get priority boarding.
Carrying bags? You'll want to opt for Red Cap, a free baggage handling service available at 12 major stations nationwide. Most travelers don't realize Red Cap is available to all travelers. Look for the people in uniformed red shirts, show them your ticket, and they'll escort you and your bags to your train, allowing you to board early. You can pick where you want to sit, and they'll stash your bags for you; upon arrival at your destination, a conductor can set up a Red Cap for you when you de-board. Note: though this is a free service, tipping is recommended -- especially during heavily trafficked times, like the holidays.
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Several lines on Amtrak reserve one Quiet Car per train -- an entire car where all passengers adhere to a blissful library-like atmosphere, eschewing cell phone use, keeping conversation to a minimum, and politely donning headphones for their devices. If you don't want to talk to your seatmate or hear someone else's music the whole ride, this is the car for you.
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If you're interested in taking the train more than a handful times a year or more, Amtrak Guest Rewards quickly becomes worth it. You earn two points for every dollar you spend on Amtrak or with partners like Hertz, Hilton Hotels, and more. You can redeem points for free Amtrak travel, hotel stays, car rentals and gift cards when you reach 1,500. Once you hit certain levels, like Select and Select Plus, you get more perks (upgrade coupons, discounts at the cafe car) and your reward point earnings increase even more. Bonus: unused points don't expire for 36 months, giving you plenty of time to redeem them.
--By Corina Quinn
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