Amtrak opens rail pass sales to US residents, makes it hardly worthwhile

Perhaps some of you are familiar with European rail passes that are available for sale – they are sold to non-European residents in varying numbers of quantities and lengths – but the general idea is that foreign tourists can purchase these passes and ride around on the European rail network for cheaper than if you purchase a handful of train tickets separately. Amtrak has also maintained a USA Rail Pass program for non-US residents, for the, you know, person-and-a-half that visits the US for the sole purpose of riding our stellar train system.

Well, fear not, loyal US readers, because you too can now experience the joy of owning a USA rail pass. You can buy a pass good for 15 days or eight travel segments ($389); 30 days or 12 segments ($579); or 45 days or 18 segments ($749). A segment is defined as getting on and off one train or Amtrak-operated bus. The pass is good for coach travel only, although you can upgrade for a surcharge if space is available. Also, you can’t just ride a train with a pass; you must also get a ticket from an Amtrak ticket office. Finally, the pass can’t be used on the Auto Train or high-speed Acela Express.

So that’s the sum of the deal – but would it ever be worth it for anyone? Read on for my incredibly detailed and researched (well, not really) analysis.

Okay, let’s say you’re a US resident actually interested in buying one of these things. Any of the three passes works out to about $48 per segment, if you use them all (the most expensive pass is a little cheaper per segment, but negligibly so.) A quick few queries in Amtrak’s reservations system, however, reveals that a short-distance trip usually only runs about $30. So to really take advantage of the pass savings, each of your segments needs to be longer, say, more than 500 miles.

Problem is, trips of more than 500 miles on a train take at least 12-18 hours – some running upwards of 24-48 hours if you take a real long-distance train. Granted, in a real life situation, some of your segments would be shorter and some would be longer. Realistically, if you want to actually save money with a pass, your average trip length would need to be about 15 hours or so. That’s 120 hours – or five straight days – of train-riding in 15 days. You could do it, but you wouldn’t have time to do much of anything at any of your layovers. On the bright side, you would save at least $500 off of buying all those segments individually.

The question remains, though: who would ever actually buy this thing and save enough money to make it worthwhile?

(Via USA Today)