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Travel 2006    

Road & rail


Millions of Americans still prefer to see the U.S.A. the old-fashioned way.

Want to see America? Travel by rail

When it comes to planning a vacation, many people are more concerned with getting to their destination than in the travel experience itself. But if you find sightseeing to be a joy, a trip by train can enable you to see more of the country that you're passing through, while possibly saving you money in the process.

As the nation's airlines have in recent weeks announced price hikes to combat rising fuel costs, the cost of train tickets has remained stable. "The cost of fuel is a much smaller portion of what it costs to run passenger trains than it is in other modes (of transportation)," says Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak.

Planes "are much more driven by fuel prices than we are. Not to say we're immune from it, but generally speaking, we are much less driven by fuel prices than some other modes are."

That doesn't mean you won't pay a pretty penny for train service, particularly during the peak travel season, which ranges from two weeks before Memorial Day until two weeks after Labor Day, according to Magliari. Other peak travel times are during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Not only are rates lower during off-peak travel times, but since the lowest-priced seats tend to fill up first, you're less likely to be able to buy the least expensive tickets if you don't book your seat weeks or even months in advance.

It's important to "plan and make reservations well ahead, especially on Amtrak's most popular routes during the summer," says John Pitt, author of "USA by Rail." That's because trains tend to fill up quickly during these times, he says.

Since Amtrak is pretty much the only game in town for long-distance rail travel, passengers don't have as many options as airline passengers, who get to choose from a variety of competing airlines. As a result, there is less of an incentive for steep price cuts during the travel season.

If you're not planning to go far, you may have other railway options. Several states have train systems that offer travel between cities or counties. For example, the Capitol Corridor Service offers railway travel to parts of Northern California, while New Jersey Transit offers train service throughout the Garden State. Though these railway services are primarily designed for commuters, you can take advantage of them if your destination is not far, or if they can take you to another airport or train station where you can find a less expensive plane or Amtrak fare.

Shopping for discounts
Naturally the first place to check for fare specials is the Amtrak Web site. The site features weekly specials on varying routes. Certain passengers are also eligible for discounts. For example, children between ages 2 and 15 ride for half price, while students, seniors and veterans are among the groups that benefit from special rates as well. AAA members can save 10 percent on a ticket by mentioning their memberships.

-- Posted: May 15, 2006
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