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The ticket office in the Amtrak station at Fullerton, California. (Photo by Carl Morrison.)

February 24, 2011

Photos by Henry Kisor,

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THERE'S A KEEN NEW online scheme to help you save money traveling by train in the United States.

A little backstory first.

Experienced train lovers know that Amtrak, like the airlines, offers "bucket" fares for its tickets, which can be something of a mystery to figure out.

That is, the first available coach seats or sleeper rooms for each train to be sold for a given date in the future are quoted at the lowest available price. (To get the total fare in a sleeping car, add the price of a room to that of each coach seat.)

As time goes on, the more seats and sleeper rooms are sold, the higher the prices for each of those creep up as the "bucket" of seats and rooms is emptied. Supply and demand, you know.

For instance, a booking a roomette way ahead of time from Chicago to Emeryville, California, on the popular California Zephyr can set you back as little as $272.00 for two people in one roomette plus $149 coach fare per person, or a total of $570 for the three-day, two-night trip. (It's a little less if you're a senior citizen.)

As departure time looms, fares for Zephyr coach seats alone can range as high as $234 per person, but if you have booked a roomette, you pay the lowest coach fare in the bucket. Thus the charge for the coach fares will remain at $149 per person from Chicago to Emeryville even as the price of a roomette zooms to a high of $660 for two. (That adds up to $298 plus $660, or $958 for the trip.)

As a rule, the closer to the date of departure you get, the higher the cost. Just like air travel but without the security hassle.
Clearly it's first come, best served. Book those seats and roomettes as far in advance as you can, and try not to go during peak times such as the holidays and the height of summer when demand is highest.

In the past, snagging the lowest fares has taken a lot of work on the Amtrak ticketing web site, checking things out day by day, sometimes across weeks and months. But a clever new web site (it's been online since August) aptly called AmSnag makes that task much easier. [The URL is current as of May 13, 2012]

On its home page AmSnag allows you to enter an origin and a destination with a range of up to 30 days from your target date, and after churning bytes for a few seconds, the site will display the costs of all train connections between that origin and destination over that range.

For instance, let's say you want to go from Chicago to Emeryville, California, the stop for San Francisco.

You enter CHI (the Amtrak code for Chicago) in the "Depart from" box and EMY (the code for Emeryville) in the "Destination" box. You enter your date range. Then you click the "Continue" key. That's it.

Besides Chicago directly to Emeryville on the Zephyr, AmSnag will show the cost of traveling Chicago to Seattle to Emeryville via the Empire Builder and southbound Coast Starlight, and Chicago to Los Angeles to Emeryville on the Southwest Chief and northbound Coast Starlight. In addition, it'll show the prices of traveling Chicago-San Antonio-Los Angeles-Emeryville aboard the Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited and Coast Starlight.

It will also show fares involving other train and bus connections in California.

A sample AmSnag result is here. The query was made Feb. 23 for Chicago to Emeryville beginning April 1 for 15 days. ("NA" means "Not applicable" and "SO" means "Sold Out.") Doubtless the results will have changed by the time you read this.

You need to know the station codes for your origin and destination, but you can get those on the Amtrak web site, where you will do your actual booking of the tickets once you have the best fares. (Or you could call 1-800-USA-RAIL.)

The only known bug on the site is that if sleeper accommodations are sold out on Superliner trains, "Family Bedrooms" will appear "NA" rather than "SO." But that is exceedingly minor.

The AmSnag creator, Paul Marlin, says he's a retired statistician who took up computer programming as a hobby. Kudos to him for this splendid labor of love.

One more tip: If only coach seats are available on a train on the date you want to travel but you think you'd really like a roomette, buttonhole the conductor once the train leaves and see if there were any no-shows. Sometimes one gets lucky and can get a roomette for a cut-rate price even lower than the lowest bucket fare.


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