Amtrak Boston to Chicago
January 28, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have inside experience, advice or discount price tips on Amtrak, Boston to Chicago (and return) sleeper service?

I know it is a long trip, but I hate flying. This wouldn't be a one-time trip, but a regular and sometimes spontaneous thing. Does Amtrak discount through travel services? I would be booking as a single. Thanks.
posted by Pennyblack to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Previously... some good advice here
posted by timsteil at 10:14 AM on January 28, 2010

If you're a student, you can get a Student Advantage Card and save 15% on Amtrak.

AAA members save 10%.
posted by bengarland at 10:32 AM on January 28, 2010

I've done the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to Rochester, NY and back. I very much preferred it to flying although, yes, it is a long trip.

There are (small) discounts for AAA and National Association of Rail Passengers, students, military personnel, etc., but I haven't heard of additional discounts.

AmtrakDelays is good for figuring out what the current on-time performance of a given train is likely to be. (It was almost exactly on time eastbound when I took it; the westbound trip started half an hour late but got to Chicago on schedule).

Are you thinking of going in a seat or in a roomette?
posted by enn at 10:34 AM on January 28, 2010

The general rule for Amtrak booking is that prices always go up. Their price structure is to assign each room on the train a price, with 3 or 4 different pricing levels. Then they sell them from cheapest to most expensive. There is no time component to pricing like airlines have (14-day advance fares and such), just straight demand.

So, on the trip in question, those prices for a roomette one-way are $184, $246, $369, and $431 (plus the $83 cost of a normal ticket). So this is quite a spread. You should buy as early as possible, and always look at the prices on the day before and after if your plans are flexible.

The other important thing to know about Amtrak booking is that tickets are generally fully refundable. For seats, up to the date of travel, and for sleepers, up to 7 days before. This means it makes a lot of sense to buy the tickets speculatively, for the dates you might travel, as early as possible so you get the lowest fares. And then cancel the ones you don't need.

(The exceptions to these rules are that occasionally Amtrak will run a fare sale with non-refundable tickets.)
posted by smackfu at 10:35 AM on January 28, 2010

The fine travelin' folk over at Flyer Talk have you covered on discounts:

Also, as I learned in a prior ask mefi, your Amtrak experience is pretty specific to your line of travel. I take the Surfliner nearly every week and it's awesome. It's nearly always on time. I've had a significant delay once in 3 years and that was due to a freight car derailment on the track ahead of us. The crew are sweethearts and very flexible if you need to change times. On the other hand, I've heard the opposite it true on some lines. Get advice from someone who rides that particular route often.
posted by 26.2 at 10:36 AM on January 28, 2010

Generally, on Amtrak travel:
Trains are chronologically unreliable. You will often be late, sometimes by hours.

On that route in particular:
Boston-to-Chicago is via the Lake Shore Limited train, the 449. Sometimes you'll get a search result on the Amtrak booking page which implies that you're taking the LSL 449 to Albany, then transferring to the LSL 49 through to Chicago. That's not true, don't let it mislead you. It's the same train, you're not transferring. You'll see that your departure times and arrival times in Boston and Chicago are the same.
The weather, in addition to the freight trains that own this section of rail, snarls travel here throughout the winter. It can get really bad. As in, more than 24-hour delay bad. For a trip that's almost 24 hours as it is... just something to consider.

On sleeper cars:
I know that for the route back to Boston from Chicago, they'll let you check in early and board earlier than other passengers, because the return trip starts at night. I don't know if that's the case on the way there, since it leaves in the morning.
Sleeper cars sell out first, and fast, on long routes like this one. Buy early.
The sleeper cars are called "Viewliner," don't let that throw you. The cheapest sleeper is a Viewliner Roomette. It's like sleeping in a coffin, but hey.
You're not guaranteed a quiet sleep, you know. I've done a sleeper and been so miserable next to a loud family that I moved myself, plus blanket, to the quiet car and slept in a chair. It wasn't half bad. You could save some money by traveling coach and going to the quiet car to sleep.

On discounts:
Get the Amtrak Guest Rewards thing. It's free, and it's a lot like Southwest's. You ride X number of times, you get a free trip.
You can buy a multi-ride ticket on the Amtrak website that allows you monthly, two-ride, six-ride, and ten-ride increments. I don't know if all routes are eligible, though.
AAA members get 10% discounts.
posted by juniperesque at 10:47 AM on January 28, 2010

Agreed, the Amtrak Guest Rewards is pretty good if you are in the Northeast. Spend $1500 and you get a free coach ticket from Boston to DC, or anywhere in between. (You have to spend a LOT more to get free sleeper rooms though.)
posted by smackfu at 10:55 AM on January 28, 2010

I'm curious as to why you want to do this so much. I know you said you "hate flying," but the whole train experience isn't that much different from flying (besides the whole "being up in the air" part) and substantially longer, even before the delays are factored in. Air travel can have delays too of course, but they are generally more expected (big storm at destination or origin), usually not endless, and always offer the possibility of getting a hotel for the night and rebooking yourself the next day (or the day after that). With a train, you can wind up in a 24 hour delay where you're actually stuck on the train as juniperesque suggests. Cost-wise there's not a huge difference if you're looking at a sleeper, and assuming you get a reasonable airfare, the difference is never all that substantial between big terminals like Boston and Chicago.

Even if you have a mortal fear of flying, I'd strongly suggest working on that issue instead (I know there are past threads here on that topic), especially if this is going to be a regular trip for you. For me, it's the loss of control in air travel that bugs me the most, being subject to delays and cancellations and unhelpful/rude staff and not really having any idea what's going on. Long distance train travel seems to pretty much have the exact same problems, except the whole thing takes a lot longer, so you're stuck in the miserable experience for even more hours. No thanks!

Besides, think of all the other cool places you'll get to go if flying isn't quite so painful for you.
posted by zachlipton at 11:06 AM on January 28, 2010

I've traveled on the lake shore limited pretty frequently recently (about 15 trips over the past four months), although I have a bit of a shorter trip (Detroit-NYC). I have a student advantage card (15% disc) so that trip costs me about $66 one-way.

To be honest, if you have the money for a sleeper car, which is crazy expensive, you should just fly/drive/rideshare via craigslist. My experience is that eastbound trips are less crowded (probably because it leaves CHI at midnight and people seem to be less eager to travel/board at odd hours). I've never had less than two seats to myself on the eastbound train (making it really easy to sleep), whereas, westbound, it's usually full up because a lot of people get on in the upstate NY stations, where stops happen in the evening going to Chicago.

Like someone said upthread, the train leaves chicago and splits at albany, so the back half goes to BOS and the front half goes to NYC. Coming to Chicago, NYC train gets into Albany around 6:15ish, waits for the Boston half, and then both halves leave for Chicago around 7pm. Albany is a nice station; they've got a coffee place with sandwiches and stuff, although you can't really walk to anything from around there AND albany is the only stop with a substantial layover.

As to the timeliness issue, only 2 or 3 of those trips have been late. 2 were pretty minor (~20 min late), and the one very late trip was a westbound train during a crazy snowstorm (which can be a huge factor considering it runs right next to the great lakes). It seems to me that the LSL has enough leeway to make up time if there's a track delay or something like that. I've been pretty impressed, actually, by the on-time performance, even if the total trip time is completely absurd.

other tips:

bring your own food!
don't smoke between the cars
be polite to the amtrak employees, there are some crazy people on the train
posted by ofthestrait at 11:24 AM on January 28, 2010

For the one night you'll be on the train, sleeping in coach is quite tolerable. But the roomettes are fun enough to just about justify the expense. (I don't know if you get any sort of price break on the 2-bunk roomettes when you travel as a single, but I have seen them occupied by a single traveller.)

When you get to Chicago, by all means take yourself to breakfast at Lou Mitchell's. It's a block or two west of the station.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:30 PM on January 30, 2010

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