How to get a deal on a train ticket

Fluctuating gas prices, packed highways, climate change, the stress of long distance driving… There are many reasons to consider taking a train on your next trip. However, you’ll have to go further than comparison shopping if you’re looking for a great deal on rail travel. The Unites States’ Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada basically have the monopoly on passenger services with the exception of some charter services and tourist excursions. Despite the lack of competition to keep fares low, can you still get a good price on a ticket? Yes, and here’s how:

Keep informed about special promotions

Don’t miss out on a deal because you didn’t know about it. You may not have seen the ad campaign on TV or in magazines, but there’s one place where special offers, contests and promotions are always advertised: the company website. Amtrak’s Deals webpage and VIA Rail’s Special Offers web pages list all current promotions, contests and available discounts. The same goes for train excursions and charter companies. Don’t overlook the luxury — promotions often include special rates on first class tickets.

If checking websites gets time consuming, let the information come to you instead. Many companies such as VIA Rail, the Whistler Mountaineer and Grandluxe Rail Journeys offer email newsletters through their website or loyalty programs to keep subscribers up-to-date.

Purchase a pass for longer trips

If you’re planning a longer trip with many stops along the way, a rail pass is often less expensive than purchasing separate tickets. A flat fee covers unlimited travel during a given period of time, such as twelve or fifteen days of travel during a 30-day period. Look for joint deals between VIA Rail and Amtrak if your trip covers both Canada and the U.S.

Discounts for children, youth and seniors also apply. Some states even have their own promotions. For example, if you’re heading south for the winter Amtrak offers a rail pass for one year’s worth of unlimited travel in Florida.

Ask about discounts

Are you in the military or a veteran? A member of CAA/AAA? Does your company receive a corporate discount? Are you entitled to a discount based on your age? It may seem obvious, but don’t be shy to mention any discounts for which you might be eligible. Your booking agent may not ask, and you might not see an option when booking online.

If you’re travelling with your children or grandchildren, you should know that young children often travel for free or for half price during the summer and for a discounted price the rest of the year. Full time students of any age receive a discount if they have an International Student Identification Card (ISIC card). VIA Rail even offers a “Youth Fare” for people between the ages of 18 and 25 who may not be in school or have an ISIC card.

If you’re over the age of 62, Amtrak offers a discount on the price of an adult ticket. If you’re over the age of 60, VIA Rail offers a regular discount which can be used in addition to other discounts and promotions. Watch for special deals that allow you bring a friend or family member for free. Ask if your seniors’ discount entitles you to any special boarding or seating privileges for your convenience.

Book early

If you can’t take advantage of any discounts or promotions, your best bet at getting a great deal is to purchase your tickets as early as possible. There are usually only a limited number of discount seats per train, so tickets are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis. Even if the seats do not sell out, the discounts won’t be available closer than three to five days prior to departure. Last minute deals and “stand-by” options may not available.

If you’re planning a rail excursion, look for discounts or perks for booking more than six months in advance such a complimentary hotel stay, free supplementary activities or discount.

Book late

If you’re flexible or planning a spontaneous trip, look for last minute deals like VIA’s Express Deals that offer up to 50 per cent off tickets.

Be forewarned that these deals are only on specific trains, and amenities like assigned seating may not be offered.

Travel off-season

If you’re flexible about when you travel, avoid the peak summer months for significant savings, especially if you plan to take a train excursion. As with most sectors of the travel industry, companies are looking to fill seats when there is less demand for travel services. You can save hundreds of dollars by traveling in the spring, late fall or winter rather than the busy June to Mid-October season. Dates and discounts vary by company.

While Amtrak and VIA Rail don’t increase their fares during the holidays or the summer, those discounted seats are harder to get when there are an increased number of travellers on the rails. Rail passes are also less expensive during off-peak periods of January to May and Mid-October to December.

Join a club or loyalty program

It’s no secret that regular customers often get added perks and discounts, and trains are no exceptions. Both Amtrak and VIA have their own loyalty programs which allow you to accumulate points every time you travel. The VIA Préférence Reward Program lets you redeem points for train tickets and offers three-day complimentary travel insurance, while Amtrak’s Guest Rewards includes other services like gift certificates for certain retailers and airline miles.

In addition, many private companies have their own proprietary clubs that offer discounts and special promotions to members only.

Sleep on it

If you’re sleeping on the train, you don’t have to pay for a hotel room. Make sure your trip has sleeper cars available, and ask about the accommodations. Some trains offer single, double and triple bedrooms, depending on the number of berths. Many cars have a shared shower, while deluxe rooms offer a private one. Ask about details before you book to make sure your sleeping arrangements are comfortable and suited to your needs.

Make up for lost time

Delays happen with any mode of transportation. When you book, look into what compensation you will be offered if your train is late getting to its destination or if you have to take another mode of transportation in a pinch such as a bus. Find out the terms and conditions before you travel so you’ll know what to ask for and be aware of any time limitations or regulations for claiming compensation.

For example, VIA Rail offers a travel credit — if you keep your receipt. Usually the travel credit amounts to 50 per cent off your next train ticket for that portion of your trip. For example, if you were travelling from Toronto to Ottawa, you would receive the discount on your next Toronto to Ottawa trip. Another option is to accept points on your reward card instead. Take a look at the Travel Credits section of VIA’s website for details. Policies, if available, vary by company.

Know the refund and exchange policies

Avoiding fees is another trick to saving money. It’s worth it to find out the terms and conditions for canceling a ticket or changing your plans. Often the best discounts are tied to the least flexible conditions, but full price tickets often can be changed or refunded without penalty. If you need some flexibility in your travel plans, weigh the amount of the discount against the cost of changing a ticket (or losing the money altogether). Ask about the policies — and get them in writing — before you book to make sure you have the right fare. Many of the policies can be downloaded directly from a company website.

In most cases, there are no additional fees for booking online or over the phone. However, if you live within driving distance of your departing station, consider picking your ticket up to avoid the mailing cost.

Look at local options

Amtrak and VIA Rail may have cornered the market on intercontinental passenger travel, but there are other alternatives to consider as well. For short distances, commuter trains or “light rail” services are often available in large cities and their surrounding areas. Tickets often cost a lot less than regular train travel and the trains run more frequently. Make sure to check out any luggage services before you go.

Private charter companies also offer excursions, and there are often tourist trains in many historic areas. For more information about rail-related services in Canada, visit Canada by Rail. Offline, Bradt Travel Guides’ “USA by Rail” has information about train journeys in North America and practical advice for planning an itinerary.

It may take a little research, but finding out about discounts and services can help save money when planning your next trip. For more information and schedules, take a look at the company websites for Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada. Talk to your travel agent about train excursions, or look for options online.

Photo © Bratslavsky