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Train

Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) has an extensive rail system throughout the USA, with Amtrak's Thruway buses providing connections to and from the rail network to some smaller centers and national parks. Compared with other modes of travel, trains are rarely the quickest, cheapest, timeliest or most convenient option, but they turn the journey into a relaxing, social and scenic all-American experience, especially on western routes, where double-decker Superliner trains boast spacious lounge cars with panoramic windows.

Amtrak has several long-distance lines traversing the nation east to west, and even more running north to south. These connect all of America's biggest cities and many of its smaller ones. Long-distance services (on named trains) mostly operate daily on these routes, but some run only three to five days per week. See Amtrak's website for detailed route maps.

Commuter trains provide faster, more frequent services on shorter routes, especially the northeast corridor from Boston, MA, to Washington, DC. Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express trains are the most expensive, and rail passes are not valid on these trains. Other commuter rail lines include those serving the Lake Michigan shoreline near Chicago, IL, major cities on the West Coast and the Miami, FL, area.

Classes & Costs

Amtrak fares vary according to the type of train and seating. On long-distance lines, you can travel in coach seats (reserved or unreserved), business class, or 1st class, which includes all sleeping compartments. Sleeping cars include simple bunks (called 'roomettes'), bedrooms with en-suite facilities and suites sleeping four with two bathrooms. Sleeping-car rates include meals in the dining car, which offers everyone sit-down meal service (pricey if not included). Food service on commuter lines, when it exists, consists of sandwich and snack bars. Bringing your own food and drink is recommended on all trains.

Various one-way, round-trip and touring fares are available from Amtrak, with discounts of 15% for students with a valid ID and seniors aged 62 and over, and 50% for children aged two to 12 when accompanied by a paying adult. AAA members get 10% off. Web-only 'SmartFares' offer 30% discounts on certain undersold routes (destinations change weekly; see www.aaa.com for details).

Generally the earlier you book, the lower the price. To get many of the standard discounts, you need to reserve at least three days in advance. If you want to take an Acela Express or Metroliner train, avoid peak commute times and aim for weekends.

Amtrak Vacations (www.amtrakvacations.com) offers vacation packages that include car rental, hotels, tours and attractions. Air-Rail packages let you travel by train in one direction, then return by plane the other way.

Reservations

Reservations can be made any time from 11 months in advance up to the day of departure. Space on most trains is limited, and certain routes can be crowded, especially during summer and holiday periods, so it's a good idea to book as far in advance as you can. This also gives you the best chance of fare discounts.

Train Passes

Amtrak's USA Rail Pass offers coach-class travel for 15 ($459), 30 ($689) or 45 ($899) days, with travel limited to eight, 12 or 18 one-way 'segments,' respectively. A segment is not the same as a one-way trip. If reaching your destination requires riding more than one train (for example, getting from New York to Miami with a transfer in Washington, DC), that one-way trip will actually use two segments of your pass.

Present your pass at an Amtrak office to pick up your ticket(s) for each trip. Reservations should be made by phone (call 800-872-7245, or 215-856-7953 from outside the USA). Book desired dates as far in advance as possible, as seats allocated for USA Rail Pass holders are limited. At some rural stations, trains will only stop if there's a reservation. Tickets are not for specific seats, but a conductor on board may allocate you a seat. Business-class, 1st-class and sleeper accommodations cost extra and must be reserved separately.

All travel must be completed within 330 days of purchasing your pass. Passes are not valid on the Acela Express, Auto Train, Thruway motorcoach connections, or the Canadian portion of Amtrak routes operated jointly with Via Rail Canada.

Sample Train Fares

Sample standard, one-way, adult coach-class fares and trip times on Amtrak's long-distance routes:

ServicePrice ($)Duration (hr)
Chicago–New Orleans13320
Los Angeles–San Antonio15129
New York–Chicago10819
New York–Los Angeles23263
Seattle–Oakland10923
Washington, DC–Miami14723

All Aboard!

Who doesn't enjoy the steamy puff and whistle of a mighty locomotive as glorious scenery streams by? Dozens of historic narrow-gauge railroads still operate today as attractions, rather than as transportation. Most trains only run in the warmer months, and they can be extremely popular – so book ahead.

Here are some of the best:

1880 Train Classic steam train running through rugged Black Hills country.

Cass Scenic Railroad (www.cassrailroad.com) Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia.

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Depot Living, moving museum from Chama, NM, into Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Ends at historic mining town Silverton in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Rides from Bryson City, NC, through the Great Smoky Mountains.

Mt Hood Railroad Winds through the scenic Columbia River Gorge outside Portland, OR.

Skunk Train Runs between Fort Bragg, CA, on the coast and Willits further inland, passing through redwoods.

White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad Klondike gold-rush-era railroad has departures from Skagway, AK, and Fraser (British Columbia), and Carcross and Whitehorse (Yukon) in Canada.

Also worth riding are the vintage steam and diesel locomotives of Arizona's Grand Canyon Railway, New York State's Delaware & Ulster Railroad and Colorado's Pikes Peak Cog Railway.