Seniors on the Go: Amtraking This Fall

By Ed Perkins

The current push for high-speed service refocuses national attention on rail travel. Unfortunately, we'll all be a lot older and grayer before any of the proposed new high-speed services actually leaves any station. Still, low-speed Amtrak is a pleasant, if not high-speed, way to make a fall trip. Amtrak continues to offer several enticements:

-- Seniors (age 62 or over) get 15 percent discounts on most trains, excluding high-speed Acela Express in the Northeast and the Auto Train.

-- Children age two through 11 pay half fare when traveling with an adult. Infants under two travel at no charge.

-- Students and veterans who enroll in special programs get 15 percent discounts on many trains.

-- Rail passes covering multiple trips start at $389 for up to eight "segments" over a 15-day period.

-- Periodic promotions cut prices -- a little -- on individual routes, mainly short-haul trips.

Discounts and promotions generally apply only to coach travel. Upgrading to sleeper accommodations for overnight trips can generally more than double the cost of a trip.

Several Amtrak runs provide close to a full day of good fall sightseeing. Among the rail fans' favorites, with some good fall foliage opportunities, are New York-Montreal, New York-Vermont, Charleston, WV-Washington, Los Angeles-Emeryville (for San Francisco), Denver-Salt Lake City, and Emeryville-Reno.

Many rail fans also recommend overnight trips: Chicago to New York, Boston, or Washington, or Los Angeles to Seattle. Sitting up one night in coach isn't anywhere near as bad as overnight in an economy airline seat: Amtrak's coach seats are wider, with no middles and lots of legroom and recline. Two consecutive overnights in a coach seat, however, can be a bit more of an ordeal, but if you're game, popular two-night trips include Chicago-Emeryville, Chicago-Los Angeles, Chicago-Seattle, and New Orleans-Los Angeles.

Of course, overnight trips in sleeping accommodations can make a great trip, reminiscent of the glory days of railroading. But a roomette from Chicago to Seattle would more than double the cost per person for a couple or triple the cost for a single traveler.

Are Amtrak's rail passes a good idea? Only if you want to take a lot of train trips. Let's take one typical long-haul trip as an example: Chicago-Seattle-Los Angeles-Chicago, is about enough traveling -- more than 15 days -- for most travelers. Three one-way coach tickets would add up to $391 for most travelers, $332 for seniors. The least expensive pass, at $389, would barely cover the individual fares for any-age travelers; seniors would be better off with individual tickets. However, for any travel beyond that one circle trip, the pass would be a better bet. It would also cover, for example, a Chicago-Boston-Washington-Chicago circle, which would cost $230 on individual tickets. And if you want to spend a lot of time riding trains, you can buy passes covering 12 segments over 30 days for $579 or 18 segments over 45 days for $749. Children pay half; no senior discounts.

If you want to cost out some trips, Amtrak defines a "segment" as each time you get on and off of a single train. That means, for example, a train trip from Indianapolis to Minneapolis, with a Chicago connection, would count as two segments, even though the total distance is much less than a one-segment trip on the same train from Chicago to Seattle.

Until some of the proposed high-speed projects are completed, Amtrak's appeal to people who just want to get from one place to another is limited to a few short-haul areas: The Northeast between Boston and Washington, Chicago to Milwaukee, Emeryville to Bakersfield, and San Diego to Los Angeles. Trains in these areas are relatively fast and frequent, providing a reasonably attractive city-center to-city-center transportation option. For longer trips, however, Amtrak trains are mainly for people who like to ride trains, not for people who want to get where they're going. But if you're a train buff, fall is a good time to take advantage of one of Amtrak's deals.

© Ed Perkins

Vacation Travel - Seniors on the Go: Amtraking This Fall