Guest post from Kaylea
I thought about taking the train for years before I booked my first trip, but every time I did a search through a travel agent website, the trip came up costing a lot more than I wanted to spend.
Looking back, I am sure I missed out on some wonderful experiences, and could have saved a lot of money on some of my long road trips, if I’d had a better understanding of the Amtrak system.
If you’re living with a train enthusiast who’s eager to take a ride on the rails; or, if you’re looking for an alternative to driving or flying for your next family trip, these tips will help you keep more money in your wallet.
1. Plan ahead….way ahead!
My experience with train travel is that the best prices are available four to six months in advance, and the cost can double over the course of that time. Yikes!
2. Learn the routes that serve your town and your destination.
Whether you live in a major rail hub or only see a train a few days a week, trains follow set routes – certain cities, certain times. Use the Amtrak route guides to figure out what trains serve your area and your desired destinations.
If you know what routes you’re interested in, you’ll be able to more easily identify the sales and options that apply to you. You can travel to a larger hub and change trains if a point-to-point option is not available – just make sure that your luggage will be permitted on each train in your itinerary!
3. Flip the trip – focus on the journey, not the destination.
Amtrak doesn’t go everywhere, and it’s often not the cheapest way to get from point A to point B.
When planning your next family vacation, ask yourself, “Where can we go via train?” You can cross the country with lines like the Empire Builder or the California Zephyr, or take a day-trip to a point of interest. Consider going half-and-half — take the train on your way there, and then fly home.
Pursuing a train trip without first determining whether your destination is well-served by train routes could be seriously expensive!
4. Join Amtrak Guest Rewards.
This is the Amtrak equivalent of frequent flier miles, and you can accrue points with each trip. You can also earn points via Amtrak partners, like hotels, airlines, car rentals, and online merchants.
I always join the frequent guest programs when I travel, but I don’t travel often enough to accumulate very much at any given company. The option to transfer points from other frequent guest programs is useful in this case.
Scraping together what I have scattered around has helped me to build my points totals more quickly. And if you don’t end up becoming a frequent train rider, you can redeem for gift cards or give your points away to a friend.
5. Plan a SmartFare trip.
Taking advantage of sales is an obvious tip, but Amtrak’s SmartFare sales are a bit trickier to plan around.
Amtrak posts their coach SmartFares weekly, typically at a 25% discount. Sounds good, but here’s the tricky part: your trip has to take place within the next few weeks! This is a challenge for vacationers, since there’s no guarantee that a desirable destination will be on the markdown table at the time you’re planning to travel.
One way to get a handle on SmartFares is to read through the history of the specials and sales offered over the last year. If you visit a train travel resource like RailServe or Amtrak Unlimited, and scroll through the history of what’s been posted, you’ll get a sense of what might be available for you.
Since SmartFares are coach fares, this approach may be more suitable for a day trip or single overnight than a cross-country journey.
I keep a list of a few destinations for which I’m watching for SmartFares to pop up – in my case, that’s our state capital of Springfield, the water park resort area called Wisconsin Dells, and the city of Galena, a walkable historic town. Using these inexpensive fares for a short trip is a great way to get your feet wet before deciding to take a longer ride.
Traveling by train has other advantages beyond simple economics. You can focus on your family instead of watching the road. You can move around the train and hop off at longer stops to stretch your legs. And the availability of bathrooms, sightseeing cars, and a café car keeps everyone traveling comfortably.
By train is our family’s favorite way to travel, and I hope it will be an enjoyable and economical option for yours as well!
Kaylea is a Chicago writer and technologist. Together with her husband and two daughters, she has taken seven overnight train trips in the last four years. Her e-book, Family Travel by Train: Riding the Rails with Kids Five and Under, is available via the Kindle Store.