Out of the blue, Amtrak has decided to allow Americans in on the big rail pass scheme that's usually offered only to international visitors. We don't know why (we don't even know when Amtrak will arrive at the station, so how could we know about its business practices?), but the loosening of the rules can translate into some hefty savings off the usual rates. Just in time, too, for car-weary budgets.

Up to now, the USA Rail Pass was only offered to visitors from abroad. Americans who wanted the discount found themselves out of luck, so most of us didn't know much about it.

The USA Rail Pass works a lot like the more famous Eurail passes. It's good for a defined length of time (it comes in 15-day/$389, 30-day/$579, and 45-day/$749 varieties) and you can take a set number of trips during that period (8 for 15 days, 12 for 30, and $18 in 45 days).

The pass can be used both on trains and on the connecting Amtrak Thruway bus system. It can also be used anytime as long as you start using it within six months of buying it. There are a few notable exceptions, though. You can't use it for the swishy Acela service in the Northeast (although you can use it for regular train service serving the same cities), and the Auto Train to or from Florida (on which you also bring your car) is also out.

Using the pass isn't ideal for regular commutes between, say, San Diego and Los Angeles, which costs around $30 as it is, but it's prime for many other trips. But for people who need to commute between Washington, DC, and New York City, the pass would slash the one-way fare from around $73 each to about $48 each over eight trips. That saves you $200.

You can also pack a major long-distance trip onto the pass and save money. I priced out a trip between Los Angeles and New York City, stopping in Denver, Chicago. The total price a la carte was $383, but using the 15-day pass, I could go all the way back again for just $6 more. Miami to New York can cost $197, so using the pass to go round-trip would save a little money, too.

Having consumed its bowel-tangling food and suffered for hours on its rails waiting for lagging freight trains, I find myself choking on these words, which seem necessary all the same: Thanks, Amtrak.


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