I f you really want to see the United States, take a train. When you ride the rails, the journey is part of the vacation. For those who don't want the chore of driving but would rather sit back, relax, and enjoy the view, this is the way to go.

Sure, you can do that when you fly, but you can't marvel at passing geographical splendors the same way from 30,000 feet up in the air.

For your pleasure onboard
Rail travel is a super way to learn geography. Take a map along and follow the route as the train makes its way, for example, from magnificent terminals like Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, and then cuts its way through ever-changing landscapes.

Meeting new people is another reason for rail's increasing popularity. Just visit the club car to see how true that is. You'll find games, cards, and conversation going strong day and night.

On many of Amtrak's newest trains, like the high-tech Acela, passengers are pampered like never before. The train streaks between Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., at speeds up to 150 miles per hour.

Train travel certainly isn't what it used to be. Amtrak is luring passengers with increased amenities on existing trains as well as new trains, routes, and service.

Those amenities are important to most people, particularly on long journeys. Because they vary on every train, ask about a train's special features before making your reservation.

Some of Amtrak's amenities include double-decker coaches; dining cars serving fine cuisine, wine, and microbrews; take-out food counters; videos; Nintendo; floor-to-ceiling lounge cars; parlor cars with stereo systems; movie theaters; and educational talks by amateur train enthusiasts, history experts, and retired national park rangers.

Die-hard train travel aficionados wouldn't travel any other way. Railroad buffs love whooshing through tunnels and tracing history along the way. The Empire Builder and its famous 70-year-old route between Chicago and Seattle is one such example. The nostalgic itinerary combines history and unparalleled vistas through the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Washington's Cascade Mountains.

And many riders consider train travel a bargain because they get lodging, meals and transportation all in one, minivacation style. Meals usually cost extra.

Relaxation, convenience, camaraderie, scenery, geography, and nostalgia—they're the main motivators for booking a train journey. But now that Amtrak is offering more rail promotions (a congressional mandate has ordered the service to become profitable by 2003), travelers have more options than ever before.

Everyday Amtrak discounts
The first thing to keep in mind when booking rail travel, unlike air travel where many flights may be available between destinations, is that there usually are few trains on any given route. That means fares sell out fast, so book your reservation as far in advance as possible.

  • Children two to 15: Children receive 50% off when they're traveling with a full-fare passenger. The discount also applies to Explore America tickets. Children younger than two years old travel free, but without a guaranteed seat. Children eight years old and older have to pay full fare when they travel alone.

  • Students 16 and older: For an annual fee of $22.50, students receive 15% off most train travel. They also can use the card for discounts at some hotels and restaurants. For more information call 800-962-6872.

  • Seniors 62 and older: Seniors receive 15% off coach fares when they travel Monday through Thursday and on Explore America tickets. The discount has some restrictions, including sleeping cars, Club Service, and Custom Class.

  • Passengers with disabilities: All travelers with disabilities are offered a 15% discount on Amtrak trains. Two additional discounts recently were added for use through Oct. 28, 2001. An adult companion (16 years and older) traveling with a person with a mobility impairment receives a 15% discount. The mobility-impaired passenger can reserve an accessible bedroom on the train at a 30% discount.

  • One-way travel: Unlike one-way air travel, which usually has an exorbitant price tag, one-way train travel, on select routes, can offer great savings. Tickets typically are discounted 60% to 90% on certain itineraries. Check with Amtrak reservations for details.

  • AAA discounts: Travelers receive an additional 10% discount when they show their American Automobile Association card when they pick up their tickets. This discount applies to most tickets. Ask about it when booking your reservation.

  • Tie-ins with movie promotions: In the past, Amtrak has offered video certificates good for free train travel for kids from ages two to 15, when accompanied by a full-fare paying adult. For example, if you purchased Walt Disney Home Video's "Lady and the Tramp," a certificate for free travel was offered inside the package.

  • Internet discounts: You can purchase RailSALE tickets online, for Amtrak coach travel within the U.S., with a credit card. Special offers on specific itineraries for online visitors change regularly. To get in on coming discounts and be notified by e-mail, enroll at the Web site (www.amtrak.com) and book reservations online. Online tickets can be sent by mail or picked up at a staffed Amtrak station.

  • North American Rail Pass: If you love riding the rails, this is your best buy. The 30-day pass lets you experience more than 28,000 miles of railways to more than 900 destinations in the U.S. and Canada. Seniors ages 60 and older, young travelers two to 18, and college students can get a 10% discount.
For other offers throughout the year, contact 800-USA-RAIL (872-7245), your travel agent, or Amtrak promotions.

Combination packages
  • Rail/air packages: If you don't have the time to take a long train ride, take the train one way, then hop on United Airlines or United Express for the other half of your trip. You'll get air miles from United Airlines (as a Mileage Plus Member), and you're allowed up to three rail stopovers from Amtrak. Call 800-437-3441.

  • Rail/hotel packages: Amtrak offers rail and hotel discount packages for many hotels and itineraries. Contact Amtrak for a free Travel Planner guide to learn more.

  • Rail/cruise packages: Have an urge to take a train and a cruise? Together, Amtrak and Carnival Cruise Lines offer rail journeys to the ports of Port Canaveral and Tampa, Fla.; Miami; Los Angeles; New Orleans; and Vancouver, British Columbia. Travelers board Carnival ships for three- to seven-day cruises. Call 800-321-8684.

  • Group & family packages: The number of people required to qualify for a group discount varies, but it's often as few as four. Ask about this at time of booking.

  • Special promotional packages: Special offers change throughout the year. A recent offering was the 1-2-Free fare. The first person paid full fare, a second person half fare, and a third rode free.

What to consider before booking
So is rail travel for everyone? Thankfully not, otherwise there wouldn't be enough space onboard. For most people, the main drawback is time. Train travel is a throwback to when we all had more time. So if you're in a hurry, this isn't for you.

Other things to consider are possible restlessness (get out and move around when the train stops at stations) and overpriced food and snacks. While some trains feature exceptional dining car cuisine, others offer marginally tasty food. The solution? Bring snacks from home to get you through.

Also, consider the seating choices. You'll want to get the right ones for your family's comfort and budget. There are several choices available, so it's a good idea to talk to a travel agent who knows the ins and outs of passenger trains.

Today, there are so many good buys on rail travel, it's time to think about hopping on board. In addition to Amtrak, consider these North American trains for special adventures:

  • Colorado's Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, founded in 1879 by the Rio Grande Railway, offers spectacular rides high in the mountains. Call 800-409-2293 or visit the Web site.

  • Premier Selections offers luxurious journeys onboard the vintage Royal Canadian Pacific. A magnificently restored landmark, the train carries passengers to breathtaking vistas in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Call 800-234-4000.

  • For train aficionados who want their cake and rails too, the Great Smoky Mountains Gourmet Dinner Train offers exquisite dining on short trips, usually weekend evenings, throughout the year. Call 800-872-4681 or visit the Web site.
For more about Amtrak, call 800-872-7245 or visit the Amtrak Web site. Call 800-321-8684 for vacation packages.

    camaraderie, scenery,
    geography, and
    they're the main
    motivators for
    booking a
    train journey.

    Today, there are
    so many good buys
    on rail travel,
    it's time to think about
    hopping on board.

    The number of people
    required to qualify for
    a group discount varies,
    but it's often
    as few as four.

    Many riders consider
    train travel a bargain
    because they get
    loding, meals,
    and transportation
    all in one,
    minivacation style.

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.