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Amtrak & Via Rail Canada pros & cons

Amtrak, Via Rail - scenic routes








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Using Amtrak and Via Rail
Tips for booking and finding the best fares

Looking out of the entrance to Amtrak's Los Angeles Union Station toward the centre of downtown. The LA City Hall looms in the foreground. Trees on the right mark where Los Angeles was founded.

Above: Looking out of the entrance of Amtrak's Los Angeles Union Station toward nearby city hall in downtown L.A.

Here you find hints for booking the best fares, including passes, on Amtrak and Via Rail Canada trains in Canada and the U.S.

On the other hand, in general, you should not think of American and Canadian long distance trains as necessarily a way to save money. Often bus and budget airline fares are cheaper.

Instead, Amtrak and Via Rail Canada offer a great way to see lots of beautiful scenery in considerable comfort in a friendly and relaxing environment.

This page helps you pay as little as possible.


The Amtrak California Rail Pass - a super deal!.

Amtrak's California Rail Pass may be the best transportation bargain in North America that does not 1) merely exist for a moment until a few seats are sold out or 1) restrict who can use it.

The pass includes seven full days of Amtrak travel within 21 days that can take you from San Diego at the Mexican border to the redwood area not far from Oregon, as well as to Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada and places such Yosemite National Park.

For more information see >>>

Amtrak California Rail Pass


System-wide passes for international visitors

Amtrak

Amtrak gives you a choice of three national passes. As of July 2019, adult fares are >

  • 15 days, 8 segments, $459,
  • 30 days, 12 segments, $689, and
  • 45 days, 18 segments, 899.

Children 2 to 12 travel at a discount.

Use your segments wisely. Travelling Chicago to San Francisco takes two segments. However, that second segment is merely an Amtrak bus to the city from across San Francisco Bay. Use public transportation instead.

Via Rail

Summer youth pass

Via Rail Canada offers a remarkable summer youth pass that allows travel as much as you want coast-to-coast for 60 consecutive days for Canadian $599 (July 2019). That's an even greater value for travellers who come to Canada with strong currencies.

Things get better. Students with valid student identity cards can use this fare even if 26 years or older.

Regular nation-wide pass

Via's "Canrailpass" comes with many options and you can buy it for anytime of year.

For any 60-day travel period chose between seven one-way trips, 10 one-way trips, or unlimited travel. One free stopover of 4 hours or more per one-way trip is allowed at no additional charge. That potentially doubles your allowed number of trips. For example you could spend some time in Jasper National Park on a journey from Toronto to Vancouver.

These choices have fares for adults, seniors (60+), youth, and students. See the website.


Via Rail specials

Via publishes a simply astonishing variety of deals on its website. Specific trains, city combinations, and on and on.


Senior fares

Both the Amtrak and Via Rail offer discounts for seniors.

Amtrak.com posts deals on its website weekly. These not only save on regular fares but also are frequently lower than senior fares.


Stopovers—breaking journey

When not travelling on a pass, stopovers between the origin and destination of an Amtrak train usually (but not always) cost extra. Check.

On the other hand, if you buy a ticket let's say from Atlanta Georgia to Los Angeles via a connection at New Orleans you may find that you can break journey at New Orleans for more than one night at no extra fare. That's because the Atlanta to New Orleans service operates daily, but the direct service from there to Los Angeles operates just three times per week.

Scheduling stopovers at least at some connecting points in my experience have resulted in no extra fare even when each train offered daily service.


Take advantage of weird routings

Perhaps because it becomes so very booked up in peak seasons, Amtrak provides alternative routings.

Guess which one of the following priced out lowest in one fare search.

Chicago to Seattle via

  • Direct
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Sacramento, California (via Colorado Rockies)
  • Los Angeles (via Kansas City and northern New Mexico)
  • Los Angeles (via San Antonio and Tucson)

You guessed it. Los Angeles via San Antonio and Tucson.


Amtrak and Via Rail North American Rail Pass

Sadly discontinued.


Book early

With Amtrak and Via Rail Canada in peak seasons, fares may not be your main concern. Actually obtaining a booking on the dates you desire on long-distance scenic routes may be your main challenge.

You absolutely must book the most popular long-distance trains early if traveling during busy seasons.

As an example, just two Via Rail Canada trains per week operate between Toronto and Vancouver all year.

Amtrak and Via Rail do not have nearly enough equipment and funding to meet the demand on their long-distance networks.


Booking tips

Scenery

Both Amtrak and Via Rail Canada provide helpful Internet sites.

For example, on both sites you can download actual timetables. Use these to check if you will travel through the most scenic areas during daylight.

In some cases, the direction you travel a route may make a big difference. Also, consider what a three or hour hour delay will do to your scenery.

As an example, you run far less risk of a scenery-crushing delay travelling between Chicago and California westbound rather than eastbound on the California Zephyr, especially during winter. Moreover, travelling northbound on Amtrak's Los Angeles to Seattle service does the same.

Find this type of information on Dr. V's scenic routes page.

Same day connections

When planning your trip, DO NOT book same day connections between long-distance trains. If you must, allow many hours—more than three or four—between trains.

Why? The freight railroads on which Amtrak and Via Rail travel most of the time are just too congested to foster on-time travel.

However, you can more reliably book connections from long-distance trains to regional services when there are lots of alternative connections if you miss yours.
For example, if you are are arriving in Los Angeles from Chicago in the morning, connecing trains operate to San Diego and Santa Barbara into that evening.

Private rooms in sleeping cars

Expect to travel by coach (economy chair) class, unless you are flush with cash.

Private room sleeping accommodation on both Via Rail and Amtrak is horrifyingly expensive, with the budget group sleeping options available in Europe not found in North America.

Via Rail, though, does offer less expensive "berth" ("uppers" and "lowers") sleeping accommodation on some trains. These convert to seats during the daytime.

Economy seating

Above: A high-level sightseeing lounge car found on all long-distance "Superliner" trains. Here a fun-loving group from the Midlands in the UK has been enjoying sweeping views of California coastal scenery. These seats are unreserved.

Both Amtrak and Via Rail economy seats on long-distance trains are quite comfortable. In fact, Superliner seats on Amtrak are similar to first class seats on some airlines provided years ago. You enjoy lots of legroom, in contrast to flying economy class.

On Amtrak, most seats on long-distance trains in the western U.S. have leg rests. Look for the term "Superliner" when schedules list equipment.

You should plan to break journey on long trips in order to stay rested. Probably few can travel continuously from New York City to Los Angeles with no stops without feeling its affects.

Dining

All long-distance trains offer at least some snack service. Nevertheless, health conscious and budget oriented travellers would be wise to bring along some food.

Most Amtrak long-distance trains—all in the west—have full-service dining cars. Beware though that Amtrak has been experimenting with ways to cut its food costs.

In its dining cars, Amtrak offers a usually tasty vegan burger at lunch and usually at least one hot lacto-vegetarian choice at dinner.

Note that Via's Toronto to Vancouver "Canadian/Canadien" does not offer economy passengers access to its full-service dining cars. That may be due to lack of equipment, not to a Titanic-like class differences mindset.


A warning

Please be aware that Via Rail and especially Amtrak are political pawns.

Some U.S. politicians believe that rail services should be self-supporting, while airports, air traffic control, and highways are subsidized to the max. Canadian politicians do not say that. They merely neglect to provide necessary funding.

Politicians in both Canada and the U.S. usually travel by air. They often seem to lack empathy for those of us who love train travel and its environmental advantages.

As a result, trains may be discontinued, but not without warning..

Go to >> Amtrak & Via Rail - Travelling the most scenic routes

Go to >> Amtrak & Via Rail - Changing trains in Chicago

Go to >> Home page for other useful travel tips.

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