Hacking the Amtrak USA Rail Pass

Because I am by nature always looking for the most cost effective way to travel, seeking out an AMTRAK USA rail pass for my upcoming Adventure around America seemed to make sense.  These are available for purchase by anyone.

  • 15 -day/8 Segments – $459 ($229.50 for kids 15 and under)
  • 30-day / 12 Segments – $689 ($344.50 for kids 15 and under)
  • 45-day / 18 Segments – $899 ($449.50 for kids 15 and under)

Some things you need to know about the program:

  • The pass is good for all Amtrak routes within the USA, and can include their buses and alternate transportation methods.
  • A segment is defined as anytime you get on a train and then switch to another. One segment equals one city-to-city pair (on a single train). Sleeping accommodations require an additional charge & prices are valid all year.
  • Valid all year, no Peak/Off Peak periods or blackout dates
  • No Geographical Boundaries
  • Start date and pick up station is required.
  • Passport number, expiration date and date of birth is required for cross border journeys.
  • The USA Rail Pass is valid for regular Coach Class travel on all Amtrak trains except Auto Train, Acela Express, Metroliner, Certain Thruway motorcoach connections, the Canadian portion of trains operated jointly by Amtrak and Via Rail Canada.
  • One infant (under the age of 2) can travel free of charge when accompanied by an adult (16 years of age and older).
  • Seats are limited.

Individually purchased fairs on Amtrak are not generally competitive with airfare.

How to buy the Pass

We live 90 minutes drive away from the nearest Amtrak station, so trying to buy the ticket at first seemed a little daunting. Apparently, you can purchase your pass either online at Amtrak’s website, or from a travel agent.  You cannot purchase the passes onboard a train, over the phone, or at a station. We don’t really have travel agents in this part of New Mexico either, so purchasing on Amtrak’s website was our preferred option.

Active Duty military (including spouses and dependents) are eligible for a 10% discount off most Amtrak fares so I had to calculate that as part of the decision about whether the USA Pass was good value. The pass doesn’t offer any additional discounts.

When you purchase the pass, you need to tell Amtrak with a date and Amtrak ticket location to pick up the pass – not all stations are listed, even though you can pick up the ticket at any station. So, I picked Albuquerque, even though I’ll probably pick up in El Paso. You can pick up at the same time as your first day of travel.

IMPORTANT: Keep the Reservation number you are given on your receipt handy. This is the identifier for you in the Amtrak System. This is what you will use to reserve and ticket all of your routes.

Reservations and Tickets

Pick-up Pass and Tickets: You can pick up your pass and tickets at any staffed Amtrak ticket office in many Amtrak stations by showing your USA Rail Pass or Pass Confirmation Number. Tickets may also be collected from a Quik-Trak Machine.  Please note that a credit card is needed to activate the machine, which then prompts you to provide the USA Rail Pass Confirmation Number, which then prompts the machine to issue the tickets.

Booking Seats on specific trains

A rail pass does not entitle you to catch any train you like. You need a seat reservation and the physical ticket for each segment. Unfortunately, Amtrak does not have a way for you to book your Rail Pass routes online, so you must speak to one of their agents to make your reservations.  You can pick up as many tickets from your itinerary as you would like at one time at any staffed ticket counter. However, once you pick up a ticket, you have to swap out that specific physical ticket if you want to make a change to it.

For travellers outside of the United States, send your name, desired travel dates, your USA Rail Pass Confirmation Number and the trains on which you want to travel to inat5@sales.amtrak.com prior to arriving in the United States, or call (001) 215-856-7953 during regular business hours (Monday-Friday from 8:30-17:00 ET). If you are already in the United States or Canada, call 1-800-872-7245 and speak to a reservations agent. Travelers outside of the United States and Canada, call (001) 215-856-7953.

Be aware that passes only cover the lowest priced coach class ticket on each route, and many popular routes may already be sold out at this level.  If you have a specific route and day you want, speak to an Amtrak reservation agent to enquire about availability on the pass before purchasing and/or making firm plans. Should a route be sold out at the lowest ticket level Amtrak will allow you to use your Rail Pass, you will just pay the difference between the ticket prices.

With last minute ticket changes there may be price differences, but they may be worth asking about. It might be cheaper than extending your stay in a location while waiting for a ‘free’ day.  If you have a lot flexibility in your travel, or can pre-plan your trip at least a couple weeks in advance – it is entirely possible to not need to pay extra while riding on a pass.

Important

  • To verify accuracy of your reservations, ask to have your new itinerary e-mailed to you.
  • Amtrak recommends that you pre-book all of your segments upfront so you have guaranteed seats.
  • If rail pass travel isn’t available for your desired day, try alternative days.
  • Be Flexible: Amtrak allows you to make an unlimited number of changes to your itinerary with no change fees.
  • Not all Amtrak Stations have ticket counters!
  • Don’t feel you have to be tied to the defaults of the interactive planning tool on the Amtrak website for getting from Point A to Point B, you can piece together segments however you wish. The challenge is finding a map or route table to assist with this.

The Journey

Things I’m preparing for at the moment are largely around settling the itinerary and the people and things I am hoping to see on my journey.

  • Amtrak apparently does not provide a great deal of information about shut downs due to flooding and fires. Staying on top of the news apparently helps – I will also be using Twitter to keep on top of information. Book at least a couple hours of layover time between trains to account for likely delays.
  • I’ll be downloading the Amtrak app to for updates on when my trains will really depart. If you are not taking the train from the beginning of the line, you can also call Amtrak the day before to ask if the train is running behind. Keep in mind that they can make up time along the way.
  • Figuring out which trains are part of the Trails and Rails program. This is the program where you can hear National Park rangers make presentations in the lounge about the parts of the United States you’re crossing.
  • Working out my packing list – including food and drink. I can get hot water in the café car so I’ll be looking for gluten free options that only require hot water to be added. I’ll also be packing a small travel blanket, an eye mask and earplugs.
  • Seeking out information about which trains have 110V electrical outlets for charging my laptop, cell phone etc. I am also looking for a portable charger for my laptop. I have this Anker one for my ipad and phone which works brilliantly. Will definitely be taking a small powerboard and small extension cord.
  • A solution for Internet. I will be working on the road during this trip and I simply must be connected. I’m considering a Verizon USB dongle. But, I’m also going to see if I can use our home internet on hotspot. I am hesitant to go with the Verizon dongle because we use Verizon for our phones and I’d prefer an alternative so that I have coverage in different places. We are looking at http://www.millenicom.com/home/
  • This iPhone/iPad app Coverage? Looks like it might be useful.
  • Since 1 October 2015, check-in luggage has been weighed. You can still check luggage in up to 24 hours in advance of departure. Be aware that your bags might reach your destination before you do. Unlike airlines, however, Amtrak will check your claim ticket before handing over your bag.

Amtrak Guest Rewards

I joined Amtrak guest reward before a trip in New Jersey 14 months ago. It never accrued to my profile and I waited too long (longer than 120 days) to claim the missed travel for my account. But, I have read elsewhere that the Guest Rewards can make a difference when you’re traveling on a long journey or regularly, because it is based on monies spent.

One travel hack I am still trying to work out is buying points. Why would you want to do that? Because for a few routes around the country, it’s cheaper to purchase points and use those to pay than it is to buy coach tickets straight out. The blog Nonstop Awesomeness is where I learned about this hack, but the numbers in that post are out of date.

I am specifically trying to figure out if I can pay for a roomette supplement using points for those routes where I’d like a sleeper. Sleepers are a lot more expensive than coach on some routes. However, the cost of the upgrade to a room includes meals in the dining car, which may or may not be helpful to me as a celiac. I’ll also be checking the Price of a Bedroom for Daytime Trips because the price can be not much more than coach, and riding in the bedroom is more private.


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