Amtrak: No Cheap Rail Pass For You

Reader Dan writes in with a tip about Amtrak’s Rail Passes. The only “national” pass available to US and Canadian citizens stipulates that “Your trip must include at least one journey between the U.S. and Canada.” and costs $999 peak/$709 off peak for 30 days of Amtrak travel. Sounds like a deal, right? Until you look at the pass available to “international” travelers.

$565 peak/ $395 off peak, no trip to Canada required. From Amtrak’s site:

    “The USA Rail Pass is for international visitors only. US and Canadian citizens are not eligible to purchase USA Rail Passes, unless their permanent residence is outside the US or Canada (proof of residency required).”

The only explanation given for why the USA Rail Pass is not available to US and Canadian citizens is “The USA Rail Pass is not intended for use as a commuting pass.” Isn’t there some way of preventing people from using the pass as a commuting pass other than a high price? Amtrak is, after all, supported in part by tax dollars.—MEGHANN MARCO

USA Rail Pass [Amtrak]

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  1. Mumbly Joe says:

    Europe does the same with the Eurail pass — Europeans are not allowed to buy them, only foreign tourists:

    http://eurail.rs.teaw.de/index.php?view=cms_752#2

  2. Mumbly Joe says:

    Though now that I think of it, I should mention that Europeans can buy the rough equivalent, the Interrail pass. So much for that.

  3. RexRhino says:

    I believe part of the thinking is that by subsidizing the travel of foriegn visitors, they will choose to visit the United States and Canada. After all, if you don’t get a sweet deal, you could just as easily choose to vacation somewhere else.

    Where as, if you live in the U.S. or Canada, you don’t have much choice but to deal with whatever price Amtrack (or Via Rail in Canada) offer you – It isn’t like you are going to move to another country because you are upset about train fares.

  4. brilliantmistake says:

    They must assume that even with the potential for unlimited use, foreign visitors will never use the trains as much as a year round resident could, if given the opportunity. Hence the comment about commuting. It would be unusual for a tourist to make 10 train trips a week, like a commuter.

  5. major disaster says:

    Interesting. They make you prove you’re either a non-US/Canadian citizen, or a US citizen living outside the US or Canada. But they don’t appear to require the non-citizens to also live outside the US or Canada, at least not by my admittedly casual skimming of the site.

    So it seems like citizens of other countries who live here could in fact buy this pass and use it as a commuter pass.

  6. major disaster says:

    Actually, I just reread and realized I missed something. So, um, nevermind. Ignore what I just posted.

    (Hangs head in shame. Vows to learn to read better.)

  7. alhypo says:

    Price discrimination is a common practice for monopolistic companies. It allows them to tap into additional markets with customers who are not willing to pay as much, but they still want to charge the higher price to the customers who are willing to pay or unable to substitute to another service. Without some way of separating the different groups of customers they can’t make nearly as much money. The citizenship requirement accomplishes just that.

    Airlines separate business and vacation customers with the “Saturday stay” rate. If you plan on staying over a Saturday it suggests you’re a tourist who has the time to search for alternative services if the price is too high, so you get a lower rate in general. Business travelers like to get home for the weekend, they usually aren’t using their own money to travel, and they don’t have many other viable transportation options, so the airlines jack up the price.

  8. Sarahs says:

    I agree with the above comment by alhypo. The thing that should be considered though, because Amtrak is subsidized by our taxes, is the government should be providing us with more incentives to commute via mass transit, not less.

    Besides mass transit taking longer and being less confortable, it is often more expensive than driving our polluting, gas guzzling cars. Which is totally the case for anyone who takes BART in the Bay Area.

    Besides the monthly rail pass, has anyone noticed how expensive it usually is to take Amtrak just about anywhere? It’s usually less expensive to fly (or drive). And anytime I do find myself on Amtrak, the train is nearly empty. Too bad Amtrak doesn’t understand that lowering the price can increase revenue.

  9. acambras says:

    That’s a shame. If their intent IS to attract foreign travelers to the USA, the weak dollar is already doing that — Europeans were making special trips to Minnesota to do their Christmas shopping at Mall of America.

    I would love to be able to travel by train, but the last few times I’ve done ticket searches on Amtrak, the fares were almost as much as plane tickets. And of course a trip that would take 1/2 day by air would take 3 days by train. :-(

  10. planetdaddy says:

    My inlaws take Amtrak all the time. It is overpriced and something goes wrong on every single trip. They still take the train. I don’t get it.

  11. acambras says:

    Well, I don’t particularly care for flying. I’d love to leave driving to someone else so I can read, sleep, or knit, but the bus is certainly no picnic. So that would leave the train. But if only I have one week off, by the time the train reached my destination, it would be time to turn around and come home.

    So that leaves driving for the shorter trips, and flying for the longer trips. Given how long train travel takes, the only way they could compete for my business is to be very very cheap. Which they aren’t. Like I said, it’s a shame, because I think I’d enjoy a cross-country train trip.

  12. nonuthin says:

    I’ve been on an Amtrak rail pass as a U.S. citizen, even going into Canada. Their “not intended as a commuting pass explanation” fails on its face, because the rules for their US/Canada rail pass disallow riding the same circuit between two cities more than three times, thus preventing commuting. So they’re already preventing what they claim to be trying to prevent by use of another rule.

  13. bbot says:

    Japan does the same thing, with the Japan Rail Pass. They actually make a fairly big deal of the “foreigners only” status.

    http://www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en002.html

    I liked it. Sure made riding the shinkansen (ultra-high speed train system. Prices are close to what an equivalent plane flight would be) cheaper.

  14. Bobg says:

    I’ve got a good idea. Let’s make it hard to use Amtrak and, while we’re at it, make the potential riders mad at Amtrak. Too many riders make the Amtrak employees work too hard and, besides, then you have to count all of that money from fares. I wonder why Amtrak keeps losing money? Maybe we should have a government commission study this for a couple of years. I say that Congress should appropriate 50 million dollars for the commission to study this.

  15. Chairman-Meow says:

    A completely understand why Amtrak does this.

    Their biggest revenue generator is the “Northeast Corridor” This is the stretch from Washington DC to Boston. They make most of their operating revenue here.

    The NE Corridor is also where they have the highest density of travelers.

    The NE Corridor is the only trackage in the US where they actually own the tracks. Everywhere else they have to pay for right-of-way to the host railroad.

    Now you understand why Amtrak doesn’t want to offer a “commuter pass”

    Yes you guessed it! Money, Money, and, of course, Money!

  16. john_nyc says:

    I agree with FTE. I was thinking the same thing. I take the Acela myself, because I think it’s a more civilized mode of travel than the Delta Shuttle. At around $200 a pop, if I did the NY-DC trip more often, and this rail pass was valid for US citizens, I’d definitely take advantage of it as a commuter pass.

    I’m not going to begrudge Amtrak any money making opportunities. How long has Congress had them on financial life support?

    I’d rather see Amtrak have policies like this than see the US not have a viable inter-city/interstate passenger rail system. There was a reason that it got nationalized in the ’70s.

    Not everyone can fly or wants to fly. If Amtrak got broken up and sold off piecemeal to the states or private companies, I think we’ll see large gaps in service. This of course, will mean our freedom of choice will be limited and that just ain’t American.

  17. spinachdip says:

    Japan Rail Pass is pretty much the same thing.
    You have to be either
    a) A non-Japanese citizen with a tourist visa (i.e., no expats on work or student visa)
    b) Japanese citizens wit permanent residence in another country (that’s me!)

    It’s a great deal – roughly $250 for a week for travel in Japan with very minimal restrictions. Pays for itself after a ride from the airport to the city and a round-trip on the bullet train. The value and not having to go through the sometime complicated process of buying tickets is a godsend for tourists.

  18. spinachdip says:

    Oops, bbot bbeat me to it.

  19. ElizabethD says:

    I’m with BobG on this one. I adore train travel (and hate flying), but Amtrak makes it too difficult and expensive for me to use it often. I wish there were enough potential ridership in the U.S. to introduce a competitor and make Amtrak really work for our patronage.

  20. Pssssst... says:

    I have an international passport, would that be enough to get the cheap pass…or is more information required?

  21. Sheik says:

    I really think that Amtrak would be able to make more money if they offered more promotions for potential riders or just lowered the fairs. Its not exactly realistic for anyone to take the day off for a train ride. I’m looking to take a trip from NYC to DC and would love to be able to take the train. But a train ticket is the same price as a plane ticket. I will probably end up taking the Chinatown bus. $20 bucks one way and it only takes 2 hours.

  22. spinachdip says:

    Sheik – I hope you mean it only takes 2 hours more – I’ve never done the NYC-DC trip in less than 4 hours.

    And yes, I’m a semi-regular Chinatown bus rider. $20 each way (or $35 round trip) is hell of a deal for a service that’s more-or-less reliable, much more convenient than Greyhound and no more dangerous than other transportation options (I’ve suffered zero fatalities so far!).

  23. major disaster says:

    no more dangerous than other transportation options

    This I’m not sure is true. The Boston-New York route seems to constantly have accidents and other problems. (Fung Wah – not sure if they’re the only company, but they’re they one you always hear about.) They are in the news all the time in Boston because of it.

  24. Phyllis Nefler says:

    spinachdip, greyhound is also now offering low fares between nyc-dc, nyc-boston, etc that compete with the fung wah. who knows how long they’ll last, but i was happy to see that. i prefer the fung wah location to port authority however!

  25. spinachdip says:

    major disaster – yeah, Fung Wah seems to be a constant source of adventure, though I haven’t personally witnessed anything dangerous on the NY-DC routes. To be clear, the “no more dangerous” comment has less to do with my faith in Chinatown buses than the lack thereof in Greyhound, Delta, Amtrak et al.

    Phyllis – I’d heard about the price drop in NY-Boston, but not about NY-DC. Thanks.

    Still, I prefer the Chinatown drop-off locations to either Greyhound stations. I can walk to the NY Chinatown stops and the DC Greyhound stop is in a not-so-nice locale with not-so-good Metro access.