If you enjoy train rides and seeing the American countryside, then Amtrak is the way to go. Its nationwide rail network has more than 500 stations located in each of the continental United States, with the sole exceptions of South Dakota and Wyoming. You might also find the fare structure refreshing: Because you get the best fares straight from Amtrak, there's no need to shop around on other travel booking sites. And except for the occasional online-only promo, you'll get the same price whether you book online, at the station or by phone.
That said, there are a few reliable ways of scoring cheap – or at least cheaper – Amtrak tickets.
Amtrak ticket prices generally don't fluctuate up and down like airline tickets. Instead, Amtrak seats are sold in fare "buckets," starting with the cheapest fares first. Once all the tickets in that bucket have been depleted, the price goes up to the next highest fare. Amtrak tickets go on sale 11 months before the scheduled departure, and the cheap seats go fast on popular routes – so the sooner you can shop, the better. If that exact fare were to be part of a sale at a later date, customers say that Amtrak is usually good about matching the price; all you have to do is call.
Even a short-advance purchase can save you money, because many routes offer an automatic "Saver Fare" discount of 20 to 25 percent if you buy at least two weeks ahead of time. But there's a catch: Those Saver Fares only apply to the cheapest pricing bucket.
Buy in Bulk, or Share
If you plan a short period of intensive train travel, you can save by purchasing a USA Rail Pass – Amtrak's version of a punch card. It's available for nationwide routes or a California-only option. If you're traveling in a group on a long-distance route and aren't up to sleeping in coach, you can also save by sharing a sleeping room. The rooms are priced according to the space, not the occupancy, with up to four people allowed in most family rooms. Better yet, the price of the room includes free meals in the dining car.
Join Amtrak Guest Rewards
While joining Amtrak Guest Rewards doesn't get you immediate discounts, it does let you earn points that work almost exactly like airline frequent flyer miles. Amtrak miles are based on what you pay instead of how far you travel. You earn a base of two points per every dollar you spend on Amtrak tickets, plus bonuses for traveling in business class or Acela first class. Free tickets can be redeemed starting at just 800 points, and new members receive a 500-point bonus after meeting a few conditions – so you might get to those free fares sooner than you expect. You can also buy extra points to bolster your account, and every so often, buying points and redeeming them for a ticket actually works out to be cheaper than buying the ticket itself.
Tune in to Amtrak
Amtrak releases weekly specials, called SmartFares, and sporadic three-day flash sales and holiday specials; for example, they offer "Track Friday" specials on Black Friday. They also offer sporadic specials discounts for special occasions, such as families doing campus visits or traveling with children. Stay tuned to their website and social media sites so you don't miss out.
You can also follow deal aggregators like RailServe on Facebook, where they faithfully announce Amtrak's latest deals as soon as those come out. In addition, RailServe is one of the best sources of Amtrak promo codes, which are usually offered in connection with special events but advertised only rarely, if at all.
Join Partner Organizations
Amtrak has ongoing discounts for seniors, students, military personnel and their families, and passengers with disabilities. If you don't fall into one of those groups, you can also get discounts if you're a member of AAA, Veterans Advantage or the National Association of Railroad Passengers. If you're booking multiple tickets or taking a long trip, your discount savings might be more than the cost of joining the organization. However, you might lose your membership discount if you make last-minute changes to your tickets.