New Amtrak Fares Debut
October 27, 2023
By Jim Mathews / President & CEO
Well, THAT was fast!
Last week Amtrak announced it was rolling out a new systemwide fares model, which I told you I thought would be a net win for most passengers based on the advance briefings I got. The announcement said the fares would roll out sometime “this Fall,” but lo and behold, on Wednesday the pricing team pulled the trigger and started loading the new fares – and the new explanations for fare rules and conditions – into the ticketing system.
What I said last week, and what I told some reporters this week who contacted me about the changes, is that this will on balance result in many more lower-bucket fares being available in many more markets. On Wednesday I started poking around on the website looking at several potential bookings, and that still seems to be the case.
One random example: if you wanted to go from NY Penn to Washington Union Station on November 7th and are willing to take the 5:15 am Regional, the no-changes-permitted fare is $19...and the full refund fare is $21! There was a time when the full-refunds/changeable fare for that ride could have been north of $100.
Selfishly, I took a look at New York to Syracuse (closest to my upstate New York home base). I found $52 for the restricted fare, but for five dollars more I could get a flexible, fully refundable coach ticket. I’ve paid $85, $90, or more for that ride in the past.
Does that mean that ALL fares across the board are lowered? Of course it doesn’t. If you’re trying to travel during the Thanksgiving holiday, don’t expect a $20 ride to New York City on the Northeast Corridor. Be reasonable. On the other hand, there are a larger number of fares in the low-fare buckets available across all three types of Amtrak trains – NEC, state-supported, and National Network – and you’ll have a better chance at snagging those fares than ever before.
As is true throughout life, the “early bird gets the worm.” Fares will rise along with demand, so as a train gets full you’ll probably see the number of low-fare offerings decrease. But if you’re willing to plan ahead, and you’re willing to accept a 25 percent cancellation fee if you change your mind, the fares in the lowest-fare “Value” bucket will be a welcome relief in many markets. And of course, if you really need that flexibility for a fully refundable and changeable fare, in most cases you'll only pay between two dollars and perhaps ten dollars for that capability.
For example, under the old fare model, it was possible to get a $31 fare between Washington, DC, and New York, but only with restrictions and there were very few seats available at that fare. If you wanted to “buy up” to a fully refundable, fully flexible fare, you could pay as much as $206 for a fully refundable coach ticket. In the new two-category model – Value and Flex – the Flex fare for that DC-NY market is potentially 84 percent lower, at $32, than the $206 Flex fare that preceded it.
How about Miami to Tampa in coach? Under the old model, the lowest available restricted fare was $31, while a flexible, refundable coach ticket was $102. Under the new model, you can ride the Silver Star between Miami and Tampa on a fully refundable coach fare for as low as $32 – a 69 percent reduction. The restricted “Value” fare in that market is now $30.
Another good example is Albuquerque and Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief. Under the old model, the lowest available “Saver” fare was $57 for a coach ticket with some restrictions, while a fully flexible and refundable coach fare would have set you back $166. Under the new model, the restricted Value coach fare is $56, while the lowest-available Flex ticket comes in at just $61.
There are even more savings for people traveling together. The “Share Fares” program is designed to capture those folks who might go on a road trip with three or more people in the car to split the cost. On Amtrak, past three passengers on the same reservation the fares will drop drastically...as much as 60 percent.
Anecdotally I’ve already heard from some people who found a high fare they didn’t like. That’s going to happen, especially if you’re trying to book on the same day or the day before travel. But every route literally has thousands of possible fares, and overall there will be more low fares across the entire matrix available. It’s something we’ve asked for as an Association for a very long time, and we’re hopeful this will get more Americans out of their cars and on to trains.
"The National Association of Railroad Passengers has done yeoman work over the years and in fact if it weren’t for NARP, I'd be surprised if Amtrak were still in possession of as a large a network as they have. So they've done good work, they're very good on the factual case."
Robert Gallamore, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University and former Federal Railroad Administration official, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University
November 17, 2005, on The Leonard Lopate Show (with guest host Chris Bannon), WNYC New York.