Amtrak fare aberrations

Amtrak fare aberrations

This Post covers a rather mundane topic, how to save money on Amtrak tickets. There isn’t a lot of controversy here, but in case a reader is planning on some train travel, here are some things of which you might consider taking advantage. And traveling more cheaply means you can travel more.

Amtrak uses dynamic pricing whereby ticket fares fluctuate over time for any given train or route depending on availability and rising or falling demand. It is pretty much the same as for the airlines, with a difference. The Amtrak reservations people over the phone are unrelentingly nice and helpful. They don’t have to endlessly type into their computers in order to find information or make some entry, it all happens at a conversational pace. The App and webpage interface is easier to use than airline systems, if you prefer to just do it all from your phone or computer. And sometimes bargains crop up and depending on the fare you can take advantage of them even if you’ve already booked a higher price. That happened to me recently and I saved $200 while upgrading from a small Roomette to a full en suite Bedroom on my trip back east across the Rockies.

This last February, as I was looking into taking my cross county trains from LA to Seattle and then to Chicago, making multiple stops, I would go on Amtrak’s App or webpage for different routes and check different days. Because I had the freedom to choose my days of travel I would search around for travel days with the best prices. What I found was a reasonably settled pattern of escalating ticket prices running up a scale from saver fares, to coach, to business, to a Roomette (the first level for a private bed overnight, sleeps up to 2), to family rooms (sleeps up to 4) to en suite Bedrooms (sleeps up to 3).  

Additionally, for the most part tickets available tomorrow or next week would cost more than tickets two or four months from now. So it almost always pays to reserve ahead. But it isn’t always so simple.

i would sometimes see dramatic differences between fares on the same train only a day apart. A sleeper roomette might be $300 on day and $500 the next for the same route. And occasionally I would see compression between different classes. While a coach seat and sleeper car might have the same difference in price usually, occasionally that spread would shrink or expand. The classes of sleeper cars would likewise be subject to different relative changes day to day. On one day a Bedroom might cost double the fare for a Roomette; the next the Bedroom might only be 30% higher.

Even less often I would see reversals, such as where a family room might be less than any other sleeper, or a Bedroom would be less than a Roomette on the same train on the same day. Admittedly, this wasn’t often. But it did come up sometimes.

And sometimes a ticket could cost more for traveling less far, again on the same day, just getting on or off an interim spot could cost more. There were times when this penalty for getting off early could be as must as an additional 100%. Sometimes it just didn’t make any sense  

Sensible or not, what these changing fare aberrations mean is that bargain hunting is possible. If you have decided to embark on a cross country train trip then time may not be a crucial factor for you. So the travel day you choose could be  flexible. If so, then look around for days when a fare can be reserved cheaper.

And look for deals even after you have booked a ticket. Should you happen to notice that the $350 Rooomette ticket you bought is now being advertised for only $310 on the same day, you may be able to change your fare to the lower ticket and get a voucher for the difference. 

In the case I described at the beginning here, I was traveling from Seattle to Chicago on the Empire Builder. It’s a roughly 48 hour trip over two nights. I had purchased this ticket a few weeks before. I checked the morning before scheduled to leave, just out of curiosity, and found that these tickets on this same train were now a lot cheaper. In fact the en-suite bedroom was now cheaper than my prior purchased fare for a Roomette, $200 cheaper. There seemed to be a way to just make this change in the App but I wasn’t sure, never having exchanged a ticket on Amtrak before. So I called their service center  

It can take a bit to get to an agent. But once there she cheerfully told me that yes indeed I could move from the small Roomette and into the larger Bedroom and still save $200. In a matter of minutes this transaction was all done and a new email ticket was issued and with a travel voucher usable for the next 12 months. I can use the electronic voucher simply by referencing the voucher number online when I buy another trip. Or if I forget or lose that, I can just call and get another cheerful agent to pull up the info by my name.  

I think I had become so jaded by the restrictions on airline change tickets and fees that I had simply assumed that this just couldn’t happen.


(1) Usually book ahead and check dates around when you hope to go.

(2) Look to see if a ticket is less if you travel farther, sometimes a ticket can be half as much just by going a little distance more.

(3) If you’ve booked an Amtrak ticket in advance, then every so often check in the App and see if in fact prices have gone down. On the App this exercise can take about one minute.