Sunday, April 09, 2006

Rail Pass 101

Update (May 2010): this information is now out of date, and I take no responsibility for confusion or sadness caused by the subsequent inflation of any price quoted!

Right now, I would guess that about 75% of my contributions to the discussions on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree travel forums relate to train passes in the USA and Canada. It's not so much that I'm turning into a passionate advocate of the passenger train, I've just spent a lot of time lately researching them. A few weeks ago, after I had purchased my ticket, I noticed that Amtrak and VIA were announcing a price increase for the North America Railpass... luckily for me, but unfortunately for those you thinking of taking inspiration from my trip, the increase has hiked the Amtrak prices by about 25%.

If you're thinking of a trip, here's the breakdown of the different rail passes. Each pass guarantees you a seat in 'Coach' or 'Comfort' class (economy). These big comfy seats were designed for North American bums, so if you've never ridden on one before they're comparable to, if not better than airline business class seats. They recline and have footrests, and it's not too difficult to pass a night in one. If you want to upgrade to a room or couchette, an upgrade fee is charged.

North America Rail Pass US details - Canada details

The mamma-pass... a pass allowing virtually unlimited travel on Amtrak and VIA Rail for thirty continuous days. The only real limitations are that you can't take more than four one way trips on the same route, you must make at least one trip in each country, and the first trip you book should be in the country you purchase the pass.

The pass is sold by both Amtrak in the USA, and VIA Rail in Canada: if you are outside North America, check the current rates of exchange with your currency and you could save more. High season runs May 26, 2006 - October 15, 2006. If you take just one day of your journey in the high season, you have to pay the high season fare, so schedule carefully. Discounts available to seniors, students and children. These prices should be valid until the end of 2006.
  • Amtrak high season fare - US$999 adult, $899.10 discount
  • Amtrak low season fare - US$709 adult, $638.10 discount
  • VIA high season fare - CAN$1149 adult, CAN$1034 discount
  • VIA low season fare - CAN$815 adult, CAN$734 discount
USA Rail Pass

US and Canadian citizens are not eligible to buy this pass, and it's only sold outside North America by these authorised agents. These passes are slightly more complex, in that they subdivide the USA into four zones: north-east, east, west and national. East includes north-east, and national covers all of the zones. With the exception of the north-east pass, which is sold in five or fifteen day denominations, the passes are sold in fifteen or thirty day demoninations. Peak and off peak seasons are also different to the North America Rail Pass: this year peak periods are listed as May 26, 2006 - September 4, 200 and December 15, 2006 - January 2, 2007. Off peak are January 3, 2006 - May 25, 2006, September 5, 2006 - December 14, 2006, January 3, 2007 - March 31, 2007. Please click on the link above if this confusing you, because Amtrak do a better job of explaining it than I do.

As far as I am aware, there no senior or student discounts, but children aged 2 - 15 ride half price; children younger than that ride free. Low season prices are as follows:
  • North-east 5 day - US$155
  • North-east 15 day - US$200
  • East 15 day - US$215
  • East 30 day - US$280
  • West 15 day - US$215
  • West 30 day - US$280
  • National 15 day - US$305
  • National 30 day - US$395
  • and high season as follows:
  • North-east 5 day - US$180
  • North-east 15 day - US$220
  • East 15 day - US$335
  • East 30 day - US$415
  • West 15 day - US$335
  • West 30 day - US$415
  • National 15 day - US$455
  • National 30 day - US$565
Amtrak-operated trains to Vancouver and Montréal - but not Toronto - are included in the pass. When compared with the North America Rail Pass, then these passes now look like pretty good value. The north-east pass makes particular sense for visitors from Europe, for instance, who would like to spend either a week or two weeks seeing New England or the cities of Boston, New York and Washington DC, and a low season coast to coast trip could easily be done in fifteen days... considering the weak US dollar $305 (about £175 or euro250 at the time of writing) is a coast to coast bargain for many tourists. See Amtrak's USA Rail Pass page for more information.


For a trip to Canada, VIA Rail offer the CanRailPass. Unlike the Amtrak equivilents, the CanRailPass offers you any twelve days of travelling within a one month period. They don't have to be twelve sequential days, but if you take an overnight train that leavs at 2200hr and arrives the next day at 0800hr, you've used two of your twelve days.

The structure of the pass makes it possible to do a comfortable coast to coast trip on the thrice-weekly Canadian - VIA's only cross-country route - between Vancouver and Toronto (and then on to Montréal and Halifax). You could also include a stop over in Winnipeg to take the Hudson Bay train to Churchill, in the far north of Manitoba... just bear in mind it's a thirty-six hour trip each way, with not a lot of interesting scenery, but apparently a great atmosphere on board :) If you find twelve days isn't enough, you can add up to three extra days for a per-day charge.

  • High season - CAN$813 adult, CAN$732 discount
  • High season extra days (max. 3) - CAN$69 adult, CAN$62 discount
  • Low season - CAN$508 adult, CAN$457 discount
  • High season extra days (max. 3) - CAN$44 adult, CAN$40 discount

Corridor Pass

In the same way that there's a USA Rail Pass for the north-east of the United States, where train services are densest and fastest, VIA offers the Corridor Pass for the freedom of the southern Ontario and southern Québec 'corridor' - pretty much everywhere between Niagara Falls, Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal and Québec. For a holiday in the most populated and urban regions of Canada, but with plenty of opportunity to escape to the countryside, this pass offers a lot. The pass is valid for ten consecutive days. There's no peak / off peak season differentiation, but you can choose to pay more to travel in VIA 1 class, with access to business lounges, complimentary meals, wireless internet etc. And, no, that's not a mistake... the VIA 1 is pass is more than two and a half times more expensive...

  • Comfort Class - CAN$265 adult, CAN$239 discount
  • VIA 1 Class - CAN$693 adult, CAN$624 discount

International visitors can, therefore, fly into Québec or Montréal, and out from Toronto, and get to see a grand slice of two of Canada's most interesting provinces.