Some Amtrak Fares Are Hard to Figure Out.

After many years of thinking about it, I’m finally going to take VIA Rail’s wonderful trans-Canada ride in the middle of winter. VIA announced a 50% off sale a week or so ago and I went for it. I’m also starting to book my travel to NARP‘s annual Spring meeting in Washington, DC. In working on both itineraries, however, I came across what seemed to be some out-of-balance fares from Amtrak.

For instance, after I get to Toronto, I’m going to take Amtrak’s Maple Leaf to Buffalo and connect there with the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. As many of you know, the westbound Lake Shore starts out in two sections, one leaving from New York’s Penn Station, the other originating in Boston. The two sections merge in Albany and it’s just one long train by the time it gets to Buffalo.

If I buy a roomette from Buffalo to Chicago in the sleeper on the Boston section, the cost is $266. But if I book a roomette in a sleeping car that’s part of the section coming up from New York, the cost is $215. Same consist, identical accommodations, different cars … but one roomette is $51 cheaper. Hmmmm. Why is that?

And, as they say on TV, “But wait! There’s more!”

I’ve never been to the Alamo, so I want to stop off in San Antonio on my way back to the West Coast following the NARP meetings in Washington. I’m going to book the Capitol Limited to Chicago, the City of New Orleans to New Orleans, and the Sunset Limited from there to San Antonio. That’s where the Sunset and the Texas Eagle merge and continue on to the West Coast as one long train.

Once again, I ran into more of that strange pricing: If I buy a roomette on the Texas Eagle from San Antonio to L.A., the cost is $625. But if I book an identical roomette in one of the cars in the Sunset’s consist, the cost is only $397. Just as with the Lake Shore Limited, it’s one long train leaving San Antonio, but the cost of a roomette in one car is 37% less than an identical roomette in another car.

I had no idea why those fares are structured that way, so I contacted a NARP member who is a bona fide authority. Sure enough, the apparently odd pricing is really a way for Amtrak to get the best possible use out of available equipment and thereby maximize revenue.

To illustrate, let’s consider two hypothetical passengers: Charlie is from San Antonio and Pete lives in Little Rock. Both of these guys want to travel on the same day in an Amtrak sleeping car to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, space is tight and there is only one roomette left on the Texas Eagle. If Charlie from San Antonio books it first, when Pete goes on line, he’ll discover that all the roomettes have been sold and the poor guy has no other practical rail option.  However, if Charlie can somehow be encouraged to book his roomette on the Sunset Limited instead of the Texas Eagle, that last remaining roomette on the Eagle WILL be available for Pete. And that’s why, when Charlie goes on line to make his reservation, he’s given a choice that is a no-brainer: $625 for the Eagle or $397 for the Sunset.

Is it just me … or is this really fascinating stuff?