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NEWS, TIPS & BARGAINS | THE INTERNET TRAVELER

The low-cost route to riding the rails starts by surfing the Net

March 28, 2004|James Gilden | Special to The Times

More travelers than ever are starting their old-fashioned train trips on the new-fangled Web. Not only do they find reliable current information about routes, destinations and fares, but they also can find bargains if they know where to look.

About 28 million people visited Amtrak's site (www.amtrak.com) in fiscal 2003. Bookings on the site accounted for a quarter of all Amtrak revenue, an increase of more than 50% from 2002, said Dan Stessel, an Amtrak spokesman.

Amtrak receives about 500 e-mails a day from its site with information requests; 80% are answered within four hours, and all are answered within 24 hours, said Kathleen Gordon, senior director of e-commerce at Amtrak.

Amtrak sells online only through its website, which prevents the online pricing fragmentation that has occurred in much of the travel industry.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 04, 2004 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
The Internet Traveler -- The March 28 Internet Traveler column incorrectly stated that a 5% discount on fares booked online at Amtrak.com was the same as its Rail Sale feature. They are different.

"The consumer is, from our perspective, better off getting one message from Amtrak," Gordon said. "They're not going to get different prices all over the place."

You often can find deals by booking at Amtrak.com instead of calling or using a travel agent. For example, fares are 5% off the regular price when booked online through May 15. This feature, called "Rail Sale," designed to encourage people to use the Internet, offers discount fares on select routes and is updated weekly. It's a bit hidden on the home page, to the left side of "Promotions" under "Press Room," but it can be worth the effort to find it.

In early March, for instance, a Rail Sale fare of $71 each way was offered from Los Angeles to Chicago; the regular booking engine had a one-way fare of $122. Check Rail Sale first because those fares are not included in the booking engine's search.

If Europe is on your itinerary, you can book your train travel in advance on the Web.

Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com), which is the official North American representative for 60 European railroads and offers Eurailpasses, is a one-stop booking site.

Last year, 200,000 travelers used its website to book their train travel, accounting for 30% of all bookings, said Roman Godzich, vice president of e-business for Rail Europe.

European train fares through Rail Europe are the same price this year as they were in 2003, despite the weakness of the U.S. dollar against European currencies. Godzich noted that "2003 was a bad year for travel to Europe," and European railroads "realize that they need to do whatever they can to offer incentives to Americans."

RailEurope.com has traveler-friendly features such as maps that, with one click, show all of a country's rail routes and destinations, as well as experts available to field e-mail questions.

"We have a team answering 100 e-mails a day," Godzich said.

Some European train sites allow you to book only their trains or in the local currency. Eurail (www.eurail.com) lets you book Eurail Passes, which do not include such popular trains as the Eurostar from London to Paris. Eurail.com has a page with useful links to the train and tourism websites of the countries served by Eurail.

Among other websites:

* www.viarail.ca: the official site for booking VIA Rail Canada travel.

* www.railserve.com/Tourist/NorthAmerica: Links to scenic railroads and museums in North America.

* www.indianrail.gov.in: Official site for booking Indian Railways, offering second-class accommodations from Delhi to Jaipur for less than $4.

James Gilden can be contacted through www.theinternettraveler.com.

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