Ed Perkins On Travel

Fall rail round-up

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Although Amtrak is relatively quiet, the Canadians and Europeans are offering some good deals on rail travel.

ViaRail Canada. Depending on where you read this, you might still be able to get in on ViaRail's 50 percent off sale. Buy through October 9; travel October 16 through December 12. The discount applies to most long-haul trains, in economy class only. Sample one-way fares range from $C78 for Montreal to Toronto, $C119 for Montreal to Halifax and $C296 for Toronto to Vancouver.

But ViaRail's purchase windows are often pretty short: This sale was just announced on October 4. If you're interested in Canadian rail travel, you should probably keep tabs on the website at viarail.ca/en.

Fortunately, Canada's best rail promotions are the ongoing "Express Deals" that generally repeat every month for travel within that month. Fares are typically at least half off; often more. Current deals include $C315 for Toronto to Vancouver in economy or — even better — $C823 for a single or double private-room sleeper cabin, including all meals, for North America's best "land cruise" four-night rail trip; the regular rate is $C2,057.

Europe. For better or worse — maybe better and worse — European railroads these days are tending to imitate airline pricing with advance-purchase, capacity-controlled fares much lower than last-minute rates. Also, contrary to conventional wisdom, city-to-city rail fares are often higher than early-purchase airfares on EasyJet, Ryanair and other low-fare airlines. But when you factor in the various airline fees and the high costs of getting to some airports ($37 from London to Stansted, for example) and the hassles of airport access and security, those rail fares look pretty good.

RailEurope (raileurope.com) continues to feature a range of promotions and discounts for travel within Europe. Typically, they provide either an extra day of validity on a railpass or special fares in first class. Among the current offers:

Eurostar discount. Get 20 percent off Eurostar "Standard Premier" or Comfort Class tickets linking London with Brussels or Paris. Buy through October 24, travel October 15 through February 14, with some blackouts. Standard Premier is the option that provides first-class seating, but without all the other first-class bells and whistles. It's often a good alternative to economy even when it isn't on sale; the extra 20 percent off makes it an almost irresistible choice.

British Rail discount. Get 15 percent off first-class tickets in Britain. Buy through October 24, travel through February 14 with some blackouts; enter booking code "BRITFIRST15." Even at 15 percent off, first class is still more expensive than standard (economy) class, but the discount narrows the gap enough to make first class attractive for a longer trip.

Trenitalia discounts. Get 20 percent off Trenitalia (the main national operator) first-class tickets. Buy through October 28; cutoff travel date 60 to 90 days, depending on the train. The deal applies to all trains, including high-speed Frecciarossa and Frecciargento trains (but not the competitive high-speed trains on the "open access" operator Italia). With the discount, the upgrade is attractive on long trips.

German railpass discount. Get 20 percent off German railpasses for unlimited rail travel on any seven, eight, none, or 10 days out of a one-month period. This deal applies to first- and second-class passes, including passes for children and youth. Buy by December 5; travel through January 31.

Rail Europe seems to feature these promotions more than other agencies. But you might also check railpass.com and the ACP websites (britrail.com and eurail.com).

There's one item of bad news for European train travelers: After 140 years of publication, Thomas Cook decided to discontinue its long-time printed schedule reference, the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. Industry sources say that some of the folks involved in compiling the schedules are trying to set up a separate company to keep publishing, but nothing has been announced yet. Meanwhile, Rail Europe, Britrail and Eurail all provide for buying individual tickets and checking schedules. But many long-time European rail travelers prefer the German rail site (reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/en) for checking schedules and journey details, not just in Germany but across much of Europe.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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