Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Rail Romance

By Paul Gerald

JANUARY 20, 1998:  I should confess right off that I positively love traveling by train. I don’t pretend to suggest that it’s the most efficient way to go, and as long as Greyhound is running, the trains will never be the cheapest. But there is something good-old-fashioned wonderful about sitting in a big comfortable chair while those cars roll and sway along the tracks and towns cruise lazily by the windows.

Nonetheless, Amtrak has a travel-market share about the size of a squashed pea. That’s basically because just about everybody has a car and because most travelers don’t get enough time off to spend, say, three and a half days going from Memphis to Seattle – even with the mind-boggling ride across Montana.

But these days Amtrak is throwing all kinds of things at us to get us to ride the rails. And truth is, if your dates are flexible, you have just a little extra time on your hands, and you work at the fare game, the train can make for a heck of a trip.

Here are some highlights from Amtrak’s current offerings. Call 800-872-7245 (USA-RAIL) for more info.

  • The Explore America Fare divides the country into four zones and gives you 45 days to complete a trip with up to three stops in it. Within one zone, the ticket is $198. Since Memphis is in a zone that stretches from Atlanta to Denver and from New Orleans to Chicago, you can go Memphis-New Orleans-Denver-Chicago-Memphis for $198. Moving through two zones (like to either coast) is $258, all three zones is $318. Florida is its own zone. If your trip happens after June 19th, each of those fares goes up about $50.

  • The air-rail fare, the best of both worlds, is a deal Amtrak struck with United Airlines. You take the train to any city United flies to (all other Amtrak discounts and packages may apply, and three stops are allowed), and then fly home.

  • Ski packages to resorts in all parts of the country include discounts on train travel, lift tickets, and accommodations. There are also sightseeing packages with Gray Line in a few dozen cities and Rail-Cruise Line packages. Take the train to Miami, and then set sail for the islands!

  • Online reservations at www.amtrak.com. I went there and acted like I was a couple going down to New Orleans for Jazz Fest in April, and within a few minutes (and that’s on my poor little 4-year-old Macintosh) I was ready to roll at $156 round-trip for “both” of us. The fare range on that ride, which takes from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, is $78 to $180 per person.

  • Friendship Fares: These are only on the West Coast, but they’re worth mentioning if you think you’re headed that way. After one person pays full fare, the second person in the group pays half, and the third pays nothing.

It must be said that getting a fare from Amtrak often seems like getting a fortune from an arcade game: You drop in your penny and hope for the best. It seems like every seat is at a different price, and as a reservations agent there once told me, “You have to remember that we take reservations 11 months in advance, and we have 400 agents working 24 hours a day taking reservations. It’s basically the luck of the draw as far as when you call and where you’re going.” The lesson: Plan ahead, be flexible, and call early.

While I had that agent on the line, I did some more checking and came up with some basic fares and times. On all these, I asked for fares in the spring or early summer.

Memphis to Denver, through Chicago: The cheapest seats are already filling up between Chicago and Denver. The trip is about 34 hours, with a six-hour layover in Chicago (think pizza and beer), and round-trip fares range from $198 to a scary $572.

Memphis to Chicago, a nine-hour overnight run: From $138 to $254 round-trip.

Memphis to Miami: three days, round-trip from a terrifying $504 to $940. Look into an Explore America Fare for that route.

Some of my fondest travel memories are from trains: cruising the Columbia River Gorge between Oregon and Washington at sunset, watching the windsurfers frolic on the waves. Going west – and up – out of Denver in March, with snow on the mountains and two-dollar margaritas in the club car. Leaving Chicago with a bunch of berserk Stanford fans after their team had beaten number-one Notre Dame in football. Splurging for a sleeper car between Washington and Atlanta and waking up to ham and eggs. Sitting bumfuzzled in the glass-topped dome car rolling through the heart of Alaska.

All I can say is, throw efficiency to the wind and go get some of those memories for yourself.

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