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Navigating Amtrak’s long-distance network this summer

By Bob Johnston | May 3, 2021

Return of daily service brings challenges and opportunities, such as a 50% off sale for coach customers

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Passenger train with one locomotive arrives on embankment above station platform
Passenger train with one locomotive arrives on embankment above station platform
A five-car, tri-weekly westbound Capitol Limited with two coaches, two sleeping cars and a diner-lounge car rolls into Amtrak’s South Bend, Ind., station on Amtrak’s 50th anniversary, May 1, 2021. The  train has been regularly sold out for at least a portion of its route since last October. Amtrak’s plans to resume daily service, end a 50% limit on coach-seat sales, and add cars should better accommodate demand. (Bob Johnston)

 

Finally ready to make that long-postponed train trip? Amtrak’s reservation system, both the www.amtrak.com version and the smartphone app, works reasonably well for travelers on East, Midwest, and West Coast corridors only looking for a coach seat on routes with multiple departures. But for anyone planning a longer trip on trains departing only once a day (or less), or that might involve sleeping car space, booking can often be difficult. Here are some useful tips to help get around some of the usual obstacles.

Sidestepping high fares

With coach and sleeping car inventory disappearing every day — once a train departs, that space can no longer be sold. As demand increases, Amtrak management maximizes revenue by practicing “yield management” pricing, for the limited seats, roomettes, and especially bedrooms — which keeps prices high.

Even though some equipment is being added, all trains may not get enough coaches or sleepers to justify lower prices. A spot check of adult fare summer Chicago-West Coast Empire Builder and Southwest Chief sleeping car prices on April 10 and May 2 (the parentheses indicate the number of rooms available at that price):

Chart comparing Amtrak ticket prices on specific dates

Splitting between coaches and sleepers

One way to get around the high prices on longer journeys is to ride in a different class for part of the trip. In the Empire Builder example above, buying a Chicago-Glacier Park, Montana, roomette on July 2 would cost $874 but the second night between Glacier Park and Seattle is priced at $495. Generally, the second night of a two-night trip is cheaper.

Other route segments with lesser demand where this strategy works well are the California Zephyr west of Grand Junction, Colo., and the Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited through cars that operate between Chicago and Los Angeles.

When booking a split-accommodation trip, it’s best to use an Amtrak reservation agent at (800) 872-7245 (USA-RAIL) so that the passenger only pays a through rail fare, which is always lower than if booking two separate segments online. Amtrak Guest Rewards members can also try this technique for part of the trip, depending on the number of available points and whether it makes sense to “earn” or “burn” them

Sales

Amtrak also unveils occasional limited time-only discounts, such as a recent “companion rides free in a roomette” sale. As of early May, the company is offering a non-refundable “50% off or maximum $50 fare” through May 5, 2021, good on any train in coach or Acela Business Class for travel between June 2 and Nov. 13, 2021. Complete details of the sale are available here.

Though not good on Amtrak Thruway buses, California’s Pacific Surfliners, the Pennsylvanian or Keystone Corridor, the fare applies to each train’s one-way segment, as long as the segment currently has fares available in the lowest “bucket,” or price range. So, depending on the date, a coach ticket from New York to Los Angeles on the Lake Shore Limited and Southwest Chief or the Crescent and Sunset Limited can be only $100. That’s bizarre!

Choosing the right day can help

The phased return to a daily schedule (except the Los Angeles-New Orleans Sunset Limited and the Chicago-Washington, D.C.,-New York Cardinal, which remain triweekly) over a three-week period beginning May 24 was announced in early March. As we pointed out at the time, booking a trip on a day the train wasn’t running between October 2020 and May 2021 meant ticket choices were wide open [see “As Amtrak restores long-distance service, best prices are on ‘new’ dates,” Trains News Wire, March 11, 2021].

Since that advisory, sleeping car space has filled up rapidly; the Empire Builder and Southwest Chief pricing examples shown above had been “off” days since October, while many days when trains had previously run were completely sold out. Coach seats, which started out at 0% sold, are now hovering in the 30% range. So it pays to check the reservation system for as many dates as possible when planning a trip.

Multiple-train “trick” sellouts

Large wooden lodge building, seen across large expanse of grass from station
A view of Montana’s Glacier Park Lodge when the eastbound Empire Builder was making its stop in August 2014. The mid-route destination of many travelers might cause sold-out conditions for segments on what are essentally two trains in the inventory, the Portland and Seattle sections. (Bob Johnston)

On certain routes, Amtrak uses different train numbers for the same train because the equipment might diverge to different destinations. These are:

Lake Shore Limited:

New York-Chicago       Train 48 eastbound and 49 westbound
Boston-Chicago            Train 448 eastbound and 449 westbound

Texas Eagle

Chicago-San Antonio    Train 21 westbound and 22 eastbound
Chicago-Los Angeles    Train 421 westbound and 422 eastbound Sunset Limited cars

Empire Builder

Chicago-Seattle              Train 7 westbound and 8 eastbound
Chicago-Portland, Ore.   Train 27 westbound and 28 eastbound

When heavily booked conditions occur, Trains.com has noticed that sellouts might take place in coach or sleeping car accommodations at different points along the route. So a train may appear to be sold out for a longer trip when it has inventory all the way through on two different train numbers.

Veteran sleeping-car travelers are familiar with this phenomenon when being forced — at least in the reservation system — to switch rooms en route. A Chicago-to-Reno, Nevada, trip on the California Zephyr last October required two switches on paper — but the sleeping car attendant was able to eliminate a change at Grand Junction, Colo., by simply advising a passenger boarding there that they had been assigned a different room.

A Trains.com analysis of sellouts during the last seven months shows each of the trains had a segment that sells out on either train number or have only a handful of seats remaining, which results in an unnecessarily high fare for the entire trip.

They are:

— Lake Shore Limited: New York to Albany-Rennselaer, N.Y.
Texas Eagle: Chicago-Normal, Ill.; St. Louis-Little Rock, Ark.; and Dallas-Mineola, Tex.
Empire Builder: Chicago-Columbus, Wis., and Leavenworth, Wash., to Everett, Wash.

Locomotive and four cars of a passenger train move away from the photo location through rolling hills with cattle near tracks
Amtrak’s Cardinal heads west near Bells Valley, Va., in April 2013, with only one Viewliner sleeper. Since that date, business-class seating and a Viewliner II baggage-dorm for crew has been added, but this remains the only overnight train assigned just one customer sleeper, so space is nearly always sold out. (Bob Johnston)

With Amtrak lifting its 50% coach capacity limits as of May 24, the problem is less likely. Yet demand is increasing as well, so if a sell-out is encountered on one of these trains, it is possible to pinpoint where that occurs by putting in intermediate origins and destinations. Obtaining a through ticket will likely again involve calling an Amtrak agent, who might be able to put together a fare between the two “trains” that works. Of course, no one who boards will have to change seats!

Escorted tour packages

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were several private operators who would reserve space and advertise escorted tours on Amtrak. Today, only Amtrak Vacations, at www.amtrakvacations.com, offers that option.

Amtrak Vacations, a private franchisee that receives preferential rates from the railroad, aims at travelers who may not be familiar with long-distance passenger trains. It is also a good source for the uninitiated to learn sleeping-car accommodation basics, such as the difference between a bedroom and roomette, as well as the latest information regarding onboard amenities and dining. These continue to evolve as health regulations change.

The company offers free, interactive webinars on selected topics. in May, the subjects include:

— Cross Country Rail Journeys (May 4)
— National Parks by Rail (May 11)
— Most Popular Getaways in the U.S. for 2021 (May 18)

Roger Harris, Amtrak’s Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer, tells Trains.com the company has the ability to “create a customizable package from anywhere on our system.” That ability could help bring aboard travelers who have not ridden Amtrak before.

3 thoughts on “Navigating Amtrak’s long-distance network this summer

  1. “but the sleeping car attendant was able to eliminate a change at Grand Junction, Colo., by simply advising a passenger boarding there that they had been assigned a different room”.

    I’m usually very carefull which bedroom I book. Sometimes I change travel dates in order to get a bedroom away from the bogies. I can perfectly imagine how a sleeper attendant tells me to change that room just because a cheepskete doesn’t want to do so!
    And of course the attendant doesn’t need to clean that one as well.

  2. Cincinnati is probably the worst served & has the most expensive sleeper on the Amtrak map. In it’s middle of the night stop, the rooms on the sleeper are exchanged with patrons on & off. That means you sit in the lounge for 45 minutes while the porter cleans the rooms. Lots of fun at 4 am…. or 2am if your lucky.
    P.T. Barnum would be amazed…..

  3. Wow, what a confusing maze. I have never had any problems booking a roomette on CONO, but I am cashing in points too, so that may make a difference This year instead of going to Chi and coming down from there, I am taking Amtrak bus to Carbondale and boarding, Always get off there when I return. I do not have to spend a day traveling to Chi and roaming around the station before my train departs at 8 pm. I am taking earplugs this time, with the sleeper being right behind the engine or maybe a dorm car in between, the train horns I love to hear are too loud to sleep very well. I asked my attendant about that the first time I took that train and he said they moved sleeper from rear as there was a bad whip effect and people would fall out of bed. That roadbed is one of the roughest I have ever rode on and I have taken many trains over the years, even pre-Amtrak. I was the last car on Builder for 2 days and never noticed a problem. CN did move the route farther west and into the Delta than IC used so that may cause a problem. I have noticed on other LD trains, the sleepers seem near the front now too. Will find out as our railfan buddy has put the 3 of us into roomettes on Capitol Ltd to PA this summer. It will be the first time for another friend to ride in one. We took coach on CZ part way into CO to pick up rental car for drive to Utah for Golden Spike celebration My first time overnight in coach on Amtrak, and much quieter than those I rode with parents. People roaming around all night going to smoker car or lounge, conductor announcing each station stop and people getting on and off.

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