After my Parade cover story on America’s Greatest Train Rides came out, both Parade.com and I received a lot of emails from readers upset that they wanted to take the ride from Chicago to LA that we made sound like so much fun–but were unable to book it for fares anywhere near like the ones we had printed. We published, and Amtrak confirmed before publication, $909 for a couple traveling in a private bedroom with “shoilet” (as Diane calls the shower/commode combo), and $944 for a family of four traveling in a “family bedroom” that sleeps four (but is shoilet-free.) When the article came out on March 28, many people tried to book the trip and were e-quoted prices often double that. They were not e-lated.

When asked, Amtrak released a statement saying “fares will vary by time of year, date of purchase and choice of sleeping accommodations. The article … used an off-peak travel season as a starting point.” The truth is, we didn’t consciously use the off-season–we just happened to write and edit the article during the off-season, so those were the fares coming up on Amtrak’s web reservation service.

But the real answer to the fare question is much more complex. Since the Parade article came out just as we were about to take another ride on the Chief ourselves–for the One Nation Under Fred tour–I wasn’t able to immediately look into this further. But now I have. I just had a long talk with Marc Magliari, Amtrak’s Midwest Media Relations Manager (a good guy with a big voice with has helped us in the past).

And I can now explain the entire complicated situation to you–and help you book your trip the smartest and cheapest way possible.

First, I must confess I am something of an Amtrak.com geek. Because I ride the train from Philly to New York to teach at Columbia, and book online each week, I am very sensitive to every little change in fares on the Amtrak site. They don’t always announce these ticket-tweaks, but you can figure them out–recently, for example, out of nowhere, the lowest price between NY and Philly dropped from $47 to $35–ostensibly because of increased competition from buses. Finding that fare isn’t easy (and you can’t use your AAA discount on it) but it is worth pursuing.

But, back to the Chief. It turns out that at any given time there are four different possible fares for a seat on the Chief between Chicago and LA, and five different fares for the bedroom-plus-shoilet accommodations–anywhere from $617 to $1393 (and, if you pay for the bedroom, you automatically get the cheapest seat fares–which is why they both go quickly.) These shift based on the time of year and the demand. At any time of year, your best chance of getting the cheapest far is to book a departure leaving on a Tuesday or Wednesday. But the times Amtrak considers the most “off-season”–and sets fares accordingly–are mid-September through mid-October and mid-January through early March. There are times near then when you can still get the lowest rates, but the closer you get to any holiday or the summer, the worst your chances. And, for many dates, the bedrooms sell out–and, trust me, you want your own shoilet. (Don’t forget your shoiletries.)

Anyway, I hope this explains the wide variability in Southwest Chief fares. And if you were worried that the fare we printed would never be available again, don’t fret–I just went up on the site, chose the most obscure date possible, and got those fares we printed. So they do exist. Whoo-whoo!

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My cover story in Parade on America’s Greatest Train Rides got a huge response on parade.com and continues to spur lively trainiac debate. Several things are clear. I absolutely should have included the Empire Builder on the list of major Amtrak routes (and now, after so many readers have suggested it, Diane and I really want to make that trip.) And, while Amtrak insists that the rates for the Southwest Chief that we printed are accurate (and I know they were at publication time, because I tried to book the trip on Amtrak’s site at that rate and it let me), clearly the availability of those “best-available” rates has changed, and it is hard to get them. Most are finding the website quoting them rates twice as high, which stinks. I think the piece just happened to run when Amtrak re-did a lot of its rates: I’ve found that the train I take to NY each week to teach at Columbia now has an even lower “best-available” rate, but the tickets at that rate run out so quickly you usually end up paying more than ever. And I suspect that’s happening across the sytem–mostly to get people to reserve earlier.

But, back to greatest train rides–what is your favorite? I ask this as Diane and I prepare to depart for the train book tour for Appetite for America, which kicks off at the Chicago History Museum on April 5, and then we’ll be on the train to St. Louis April 6.

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Jane and Michael Stern just posted their very kind New York Times review of the book on their excellent blog roadfooddigest.com, along with a great picture of the kinds of double rainbows that draw all of us to the Southwest–which is where my wife and I first discovered Fred. Check it out.

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Some of you have already seen my cover story in Parade magazine on America’s Greatest Train Rides and have offered questions, comments, and outrage over worthy trains overlooked. I share your pain concerning the missing lines–Parade stories are short, and they always have to cut for space. A number of the railroads, like the Cumbres & Toltec in Chalma, NM, and the Branson Scenic Railway were in my original draft but ended up on the cutting room floor. But you can hear about them, and talk about them, here.

In fact, I’ll start with a photo sent from reader Bill Seager in Germantown, TN, a Cumbres fan who couldn’t believe I had overlooked it. Here’s his shot of the highest point on the train’s run.

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