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Even Better than the Rail Thing: New Train Deals (And, Alas, Some Fare Hikes)
By Sascha Segan
October 12, 2005

If $3.50 gas is getting on your nerves, take a moment to pity folks in Europe paying $6/gallon -- and start thinking about your next train trip. Rail Europe, the source for European railpasses, has a slew of new discounts for the winter and new passes coming out in 2006. On our side of the pond, Amtrak has raised prices (but not by very much), and Canada's VIA Rail has a good deal for folks heading east.

Fall Savings on European Railways

Railpasses in four popular European countries have become cheaper this fall. The new 2-day France Railpass, running at $99 for second class and $129 for first class, is really less of a pass than it is a way to get a big discount on a round-trip using France's high-speed TGV system. TGV trains go great distances quickly, but they're extremely expensive; if you just walk up to a ticket counter in Paris, you'll pay $174 for a second-class round-trip between Paris and Avignon. The French railway site www.voyages-sncf.com offers lower fares, but only on limited trains for inflexible tickets. So $99 for any TGV round-trip -- or as many stops as you can cram into two days -- sounds great to us. The two-day pass must be purchased by December 5 for travel through January 31.

Italian rail pass prices have been cut by 17% for travel from November 1 through March 31, 2006; the winter discount brings the price of a four-day Trenitalia pass from $206 down to $173. Paralleling the new shorter French pass, Rail Europe is also selling a special three-day Trenitalia pass through February 28. Prices start at $153 for a second-class pass and $191 for a first-class pass for solo travelers, with even lower rates for youth and couples traveling together.

British railpass prices have dropped by 25% for travel between November 1 and February 28, and that includes Rail Europe's entire vast, perplexing array of UK passes. (The only exception: discounts on the Scottish Freedom Pass are only good through the end of 2005.)

That means four days of second-class rail travel in the UK can cost as little as $142 for adults, and even less for seniors and groups. A "Days Out of London" pass covering two days' of travel within England over a weeklong period runs as little as $52 for adults. Just make sure to double-check your pass prices against the British prices found on sites like www.rail.co.uk. For instance, a regular round-trip from London to Oxford costs around $35, a trip from London to Brighton costs $36.96, and a trip from London to Manchester costs $96.80. So using a Days Out of London pass for just one round-trip to Oxford would be a bad idea, but for two daytrips or a longer journey, it's a steal.

Buy your British pass by the end of 2005, or your Scottish Freedom Pass by December 15 to get these lower prices. Buy all railpasses at www.raileurope.com.

Planning for Mid-2006? Hold Off

If you're the kind of traveler who plans way in advance, you might want to hang out a while before thinking of any spring or summer 2006 rail trips in Europe. Rail Europe told us they're bringing out a slew of new passes in January, which might range from good deals to great ones depending on pricing.

For 2006, Rail Europe will introduce new single-country passes covering Greece, Poland and Sweden and two-country jobs for France-Germany, France-Benelux, Germany-Austria and Germany-Switzerland. They'll also add Romania to the full Eurailpass, so that pass now covers 18 countries.

We see the three two-country Germany passes, especially the France-Germany pass, as being especially good deals. France and Germany both have lots of expensive, high-speed trains, and the single-country passes for both have traditionally saved travelers a lot of money. Passes are also usually a good idea for jetting around Austria and Switzerland.

We'll keep a gimlet eye on the Poland pass, though. Eastern European railpasses have in the past generally been more about convenience than about price; tickets in most eastern European countries are cheap, but getting a pass means you don't need to deal with the complexity of buying individual tickets. Check back in January for more information.

Meanwhile, Back In North America . . .

Socked by fuel prices and its low priority in terms of Federal government spending, Amtrak started raising fares this month. The sharpest rises will go to commuter passes in the Northeast corridor, which won't affect tourists much. But fares on most trains will be 5%-7% higher than previously, and more trains will use airline-style pricing with different levels of fares depending on advance purchase and peak travel days.

Realistically, this shouldn't change your Amtrak travel plans. Book in advance over the Internet whenever possible, make sure to stay on top of the weekly specials and discount codes, and remember that trains on Fridays and Sundays are usually more expensive than on other days. We just looked and found over a dozen weekly specials online, including tickets from Minneapolis to Seattle for $88.80 and from New York to Chicago for $58.80; check them out at http://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak/WeeklySpecials.

Canada's VIA Rail has one interesting promotion for the fall: a cap on fares if you're going from to Nova Scotia or eastern Quebec. Fares on the daily "Ocean" or "Chaleur" trains are capped at C$99 from Montreal to as far as Halifax or Gaspe, or C$119 from other cities in the main Quebec-Ontario rail corridor. That's far cheaper than flying, and a lot more comfortable than taking the bus. To get this low fare, buy your tickets online by November 30 for travel through February 28, 2006 (including Christmas!) at www.viarail.ca/planner/en_promo_east.html.


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  Even Better than the Rail Thing: New Train Deals
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