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5 scenic Amtrak trips you can enjoy on a budget

March 29, 2020
7 min read
Grand canyon at sunrise
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Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials note that the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing some travel guides because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. TPG doesn’t advise booking travel until later this year — and even then, be mindful of cancellation policies.

Ah, the Great American Road Trip: Plan a route, load up the car, pack road snacks, argue about the playlist, get stuck in traffic, deal with aggressive drivers, get a speeding ticket … ugh. Maybe it’s not so great after all.

If the idea of a road trip is more attractive than the trip itself, why not switch the planning to a Great American Train Trip?

Amtrak is a vastly underutilized travel asset. Not only can everyone enjoy the scenery as it whizzes by, but there are also snacks and drinks on board, opportunities for naps and even free Wi-Fi on certain routes. With no extra fees for luggage or changing your trip, taking the train is a sweet deal.

If you’re considering a road trip on the rails, check out these scenic routes that are as attractive for your wallet as they are for your photos.

From the Big Apple to the City of Saints

Sample nature’s ever-changing autumn color show on the Adirondack, rated one of the “Top 10 Most Scenic Train Rides in the World.” Start in New York City for your urban fix before immersing yourself in the world of leaf-peeping, plaid shirts and farmers markets along the shores of Lake Champlain. End your trip with European elegance in Montreal, with its cobblestone streets, boutiques and cafes — just don’t forget your passport.

Montreal. (Photo by Xiuyuan Zhu/Getty Images)
Montreal. (Photo by Xiuyuan Zhu/Getty Images)

Once we can all hit the road again, check for the weekend $45 one-way fare special.

Ride and ski: From Denver to Winter Park

When the snow flies, skiers and snowboarders pile on the layers and pack into their cars to head into the snow-covered Rockies. However, there’s an easier — and more scenic — option. The Winter Park Express runs from Denver’s Union Station to Winter Park Resort each Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the winter. Not only do passengers avoid interstate traffic but they’re also treated to incredible views in the Superliner® Sightseer Lounge Car, with windows from floor level to the top of the railcar.

Winter Park. (Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)
Winter Park. (Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)

Adult fares start at $29 each way; each ticketed adult can bring a child age 2-12 for half the adult fare.

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Spectacular vistas: From Chicago to San Francisco on the California Zephyr

On one of the oldest and most scenic routes in the U.S., the California Zephyr sweeps passengers from the Windy City to the City by the Bay through the spectacular Rocky and Sierra Mountains on a 2,300-mile journey. Whether it’s mountain vistas or desert beauty you’re interested in, the Zephyr is an unforgettable route. Want to break up your trip? Stop in the Mile High City (Denver), soak in the hot springs in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, or tour Salt Lake City.

Sunrise in eastern Colorado, seen from the lounge car of the Amtrak train California Zephyr. (Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)
Sunrise in eastern Colorado, seen from the lounge car of Amtrak's California Zephyr. (Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)

Plan ahead (7-14 days in advance) and save 20% on a regular adult fare.

California dreamin’: From wine to waves

There’s a lot to explore in California. But rather than battling traffic (cough, Los Angeles), why not ride in style? The Pacific Surfliner route provides a scenic way to sample surf and sun-soaked vines on California’s coast. The Surfliner route's northernmost destination is the historic city of San Luis Obispo which charms visitors with historic architecture (including some from Frank Lloyd Wright) and the chance to sample wines from nearby Edna Valley. Board the train and head south for the sunny climes of San Diego where old meets new from the Gaslamp Quarter to the Victorian grande dame hotels. No matter which way you travel, don’t forget your surfboards and bikes — trains have special racks to accommodate them.

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in Gaviota State Park. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in Gaviota State Park near Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Tip: For even more scenic sampling, board the Coast Starlight in San Francisco and head for the wineries of Paso Robles.

Seniors (ages 62+) and students save 15% on select California routes, including the Surfliner. Traveling with the family? One child ages 2-12 is eligible for a 50% discount on the lowest available adult rail fare and one child under the age of two may ride free on Surfliner with each fare-paying adult (age 18+).

Another approach to the Grand Canyon

There are so many ways to see the Grand Canyon, ranging from low effort (park, walk a bit, peer over the edge) to high effort (packrafting or hiking several days to ooh and ahh from the bottom). However, Amtrak offers another option -- the Southwest Chief. The route runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles. Disembark at Flagstaff, Arizona, and catch the Grand Canyon Railway for a trip to the South Rim of the canyon.

Visit during the winter and you’ll encounter fewer crowds yet still enjoy all the elements of the trip on the century-old Grand Canyon Railway, including entertainment by cowboys, musicians and an early-1900s-style "train robbery." Other highlights of the route include the pink cliffs of Sedona, Arizona, and cruising through the Painted Desert. National Park Service guides are also on board the Southwest Chief to talk about the history and natural beauty of the landscape.

The Grand Canyon Railway train at the Grand Canyon terminus. (Photo by Glenb van der Knijff/Getty Images)
The Grand Canyon Railway train at the Grand Canyon terminus. (Photo by Glenb van der Knijff/Getty Images)

This is not a fly-by trip: Make it a true adventure and book the Grand Canyon Railway Rails to the Rim which includes travel on both train, hotel accommodations, tours and more.

Bottom line

You can transfer your points from Amtrak partners and other loyalty programs into your Amtrak Guest Rewards® account and vice versa. Partners include Choice Privileges®, Hertz Gold Plus Rewards, Hilton Honors and Wyndham Rewards. Exchange rates, participating programs and transfer details vary.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto