Amtrak has reintroduced its USA Rail Pass, on sale at $299 through June 22; the regular price is $499. It gives one traveler up to 10 segments of travel, systemwide, during a 30-day period. Start travel within 120 days of purchase. On most trains, a reservation and a ticket—no cost—are required.
No trips are blacked out, but the pass is not valid for the Acela, Auto Train or Maple Leaf; each passholder can make only four one-way trips between any two stations, and the pass is not valid for any train on which Saver or Value fares are not available.
The most important drawback to the current pass is that you cannot upgrade to sleeper service. That means you cannot use it for a “land cruise” long-haul experience, notably on the California Zephyr, Empire Builder or Southwest Limited multinight schedules.
Amtrak will restore traditional cook-to-order dining car service on six key western long-haul trains, starting June 23: California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle. This is clearly a sensible move: Lots of travelers who use overnight trains are doing so to enjoy a total “land cruise” experience, and Amtrak’s current prepackaged fare just does not cut it.
The other big Amtrak news is not so good. Start of service by the new Avelia Liberty trainsets—the ones designed to replace today’s Acela—has been delayed up to a year, according to current reports. Apparently, despite all the previous engineering detail, testing revealed that the Avelia’s pantographs cannot stay in constant touch with the catenary wire. The new guess is for initial operation in “spring 2022.” This is just one more reminder of the pathetic state of US supposedly “high-speed” rail development. In case you are interested, even the supposedly highest-tech Acela trains take some 15 minutes longer between New York and Washington than the 1969 Metroliners.
Amtrak has no corner on delays: Caltrain announced that the launch of electrified services on its commuter rail network between San Francisco and San Jose will be delayed by two years until late 2024.
Otherwise, Amtrak is back close to normal except for transborder Canadian links. Regional and local systems are restoring service, although most remain at a lower level than pre-Covid.
Planning a possible trip to Europe is still a crapshoot. Most signs point to a reopening of Europe to US travelers by July, although each country will have different dates and remaining requirements. As far as I can tell, most of us will not go until we are assured that if we are vaccinated, we need no tests and face no quarantines. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand remain closed to US visitors.
Other Amtrak Doings
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and local Coaster rail service will be canceled on a few weekends through late 2021 to allow work on the coastal bluff at Del Mar. Southern terminals for some trains will be Los Angeles and Irvine for others, with bus replacement. Dates vary, so check before you plan a trip.
Conventional Amtrak Deals: General Conditions
Except where noted, all Amtrak promotions apply to coach travel only; discounts apply to full-fare tickets and cannot be combined with other discounts; most deals entail blackout dates; seats are limited; some promotions do not apply to all trains; most promotions make provisions for one or two children accompanying each adult traveler. Companion and most children’s deals require all travelers to travel together. Amtrak also offers other minor deals and promotions. In most cases, the Amtrak website automatically computes and displays eligible discounts for any trip you enter. Check amtrak.com/deals for details and booking.
Standard Ongoing Discounts
Amtrak routinely offers modest discounts to certain travelers. For the most part, these discounts apply only to coach travel and are generally not combinable. Most routine discounts do not apply to weekday Acela Express trains and many do not apply to some Thruway bus travel. When you enter itineraries and personal details, the Amtrak website automatically computes discounted fares. Discounts are subject to capacity control.
- Senior: 10% discount for travelers aged 65 or over except on cross-border travel with VIA Rail, where the minimum age is 60. Senior discount is not valid on business class (except limited Acela options), Auto Train, Saver fares or sleeper accommodations. 50% senior discount on Downeaster trains. 15% discount for seniors aged 62 or over on Capitol Corridor, Pacific Sunliner and San Joaquins; any-age advance purchase fares may be lower.
- Disability: 10% discount for travelers with disabilities and traveling companions, with appropriate ID. 50% discount on Downeaster trains.
- Children: One child aged 2-12 travels for 50% off with an adult age 18 or over.
- Military: 10% discount for travelers on active duty and their spouses/dependents, including travel on Auto Train, excluding Canadian portion of transborder trains.
- NARP: 10% discount for members of National Association of Railroad Passengers with three-day advance purchase.
- “Share Fares:” Average 35% discount for groups of up to six traveling together with three-day advance purchase. Works best for groups of 3 or more.
- Veterans: 10% discounts for veterans; applies to all coach seats and business class on Acela. Check “Military Veteran” in the booking window. Proof of veteran status can be required. Also, 15% discounts in California on Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner, and San Joaquins for veterans and family members, ending December 31, 2021.
- Amtrak routinely offers Saver Fares discounts of 15% to 25% on most trains with 14-day advance purchase. These discounts are limited to coach class and to Saturday and select off-peak Acela business class trips.
- Capitol Corridor: Up to 5 companions: 50% discounts on most dates, now through Jan. 31, 2021.
- Short-Term “low fare” promotions: Amtrak regularly selects individual routes to cut normal fares by as much as 50%. Discounts require 7- 14-day advance purchase.
- Northeast Corridor: BOGO free companion ticket on Acela and Northeast Regional trains for Saturday travel. Buy through at least three days in advance, through Aug. 21, 2021, with no travel dates specified.
Other U.S. Rail
- Metra, the regional suburban heavy rail system in the Chicago area, continues to sell its $10 all-day unlimited ride passes at least through June 30.
- Everywhere: communities around the country are using the low pandemic traffic levels as opportunities to maintain and upgrade their light rail, metro and heavy suburban rail systems. This means temporary shutdowns of various lines at various times, typically with substitute bus service. I will try to highlight major changes, but I cannot keep up with every local transit system. Check any city you plan to visit. Ditto major tourist lines, many of which are reopening this summer.
- Brightline, the private rail system that links Miami with West Palm Beach in South Florida, remains suspended. Tri-Rail and SunRail continue to operate with modified schedules.
- Rocky Mountaineer continues to list July 5 as the start of its summer season with a full schedule to resume in August. Schedules are contingent on the border status.
See our report on rail news outside the U.S..
Ed Perkins, editor
For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel