Forget the Plane and Park the Car: 13 Tips for Train Travel

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If you're sick of the airport and can't afford to gas up the family car, hopping a train is a more appealing way to get around. But read on to find out how you can save while riding the rails.

As the price of gas has once again risen over the last year, apparently so has the number of people opting to take the train.

Last month was Amtrak’s best January on record – 2,126,429 passengers hopped aboard. That’s almost 94,000 more than in January 2010. In fact, last month marked the government-owned rail system’s 15th consecutive month of ridership growth.

“The steady rise in ridership demonstrates a growing demand and the ongoing need for a national intercity passenger rail system,” said Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman in a press release [PDF].  “With oil approaching $100 a barrel, we expect to continue to post strong ridership numbers as more and more people choose Amtrak to meet their transportation needs.”

Whether you’re already taking the train or are now considering it as an alternative to rising gas prices, be sure to check out these tips and tricks from Amtrak…

Book the best bargain

  • The early bird gets the worm: “The earlier you book, the more likely you are to get the lowest fare available for any given itinerary,” advises Amtrak, which allows passengers to book up to 11 months in advance.
  • It pays to be flexible: “Trains and accommodations tend to sell out during holidays and peak travel periods. Fares will vary based on the date and time you travel.”
  • Dig for discounts: Amtrak offers “substantial discounts” to certain passengers (like children and seniors) and to passengers with certain memberships (like AAA, Veterans Advantage, and Student Advantage). Check out their Passenger Discounts page for more.
  • Watch the Weekly Specials: Check for “deeply discounted” rates in the Weekly Specials,  available only for certain routes and redeemable only online.

Explore long-distance options:

  • Route Atlas: “An interactive map that will help you explore all the places Amtrak goes. Travelers can plot custom routes to see the various options Amtrak offers between any two stations,” the rail service says. “We’ll even draw your route on the map so you can see where you’ll travel from beginning to end.”
  • Routes page: If you know where you want to go, you can get more information about the Amtrak route or routes that can get you there at the Routes page. Once there, use the ‘Find Routes’ tool to show you which Amtrak routes travel between the departure and arrival cities of your choice.”
  • Famous routes: “Many passengers plan their long-distance trips by choosing to travel along one or more of the famous American train routes in the Amtrak route system. Follow the storied path of the City of New Orleans down the Mississippi from Chicago to The Big Easy. Or, ride the mighty Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, through America’s great northern plains.”

Prepare for a stress-free ride

  • Get documented: “Be sure you have all travel-related documents together before you leave for the train station.” And don’t forget your tickets!
  • Travel healthy: If you take medications or have other medical needs that may affect your trip, be sure to read the Personal Food, Beverages and Medications page; if you have dietary restrictions, the Dining Options page.
  • Consider travel insurance: Amtrak and Access America have partnered to offer “optional travel insurance to protect your trip investment if you have to unexpectedly cancel or interrupt your trip.” Check out the Travel Insurance page for details – but also shop around to make sure you get the best deal.
  • No one likes excess baggage: “Carry-on baggage is limited to two pieces per passenger (with few exceptions),” says Amtrak, and “checked baggage service is available on certain services. Be sure you understand our baggage guidelines before leaving for the station because some baggage cannot be accepted onboard.”
  • Sitting pretty: On most routes, seating is available on a first-come-first-served, so arrive early to snag the best spot.
  • Make the most of it: “Don’t forget to bring along those personal items that will help you get the most out of your trip. Our seasoned riders recommend the following:
  • Deck of cards
  • Travel games, board games
  • Personal CD or DVD player (with headphones)
  • Cell phone
  • Camera, video camera
  • Snacks, beverages
  • Binoculars
  • A pillow and blanket
  • Comfortable footwear
  • Crayons and coloring books
  • Crossword puzzles
  • A good book or magazine
  • A travel journal or notebook
  • Maps (to follow along during your journey)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hand towelettes and sanitizer
  • Sunblock”
Stacy Johnson

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