IT'S a long way from Los Angeles to Chicago in a coach seat, especially if that coach seat is on Amtrak's Southwest Chief.
The train journey takes 42 hours, winding through Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois, but an upgrade to a more comfortable and private sleeper can be prohibitively expensive -- unless you know the ropes.
As a frequent flier fan (or, some would say, fanatic), I can play the airline upgrade game with the best of them.
I know all the secrets of using my hard-earned frequent-flier miles or upgrade coupons to get a better seat. But Amtrak was a new venue, and I was clueless.
My ticket from L.A. to Chicago cost me $158 one way. My upgrade to a sleepette (which included meals in the dining car worth about $100) cost $575 more when I made the request three days before my trip last month.
But, I later learned from my fellow passengers, my trip needn't have been as expensive.
In Amtrak speak, a "sleepette" is a small private room that occupies only the space required for two seats facing each other next to a big picture window. There is about a foot of space between the seats and the door to the room.
Sliding the door closed and drawing the curtains gave me complete privacy. The two chairs folded out to a bed that measured about 6 feet 6 inches, a measurement I confirmed by noting the inch of clearance at my head and foot when I laid my 6-foot-4-inch frame down to sleep. (An upper bunk folds down from the ceiling for a second person.)
I decided the extra cost was worth the comfort of stretching out. But then I started chatting with my fellow passengers.
A woman, who was traveling from California to Santa Fe, N.M., said she had received a call from Amtrak a couple of days before her trip offering her an upgrade for $100.
Other passengers told of getting similar deals at the ticket window before boarding. Others got the deal from the conductor once on board.
It wasn't, it turned out, just idle chatter.
"I have seen some cases where people have upgraded to a sleeper where it's almost break-even with paying for meals in the dining car," said Steve Grande, vice president of Trainweb.com, a popular website for all things train.
"Once the train departs with the empty rooms, you can usually upgrade right on board at the very lowest cost," said Grande, who has traveled nearly 250,000 miles on trains in the U.S.
Fewer than half the sleepettes on my car were filled during my midweek, non-holiday journey. Had I known about last-minute upgrades, I might easily have scored one.
In fact, I paid the highest price because I requested the upgrade within three days of departure.
"The closer it gets to the travel date, the higher the price, even though the train might actually depart with empty rooms," Grande said.
Amtrak's website doesn't talk about its last-minute upgrade offerings, but officials acknowledge that they exist.
"Amtrak, like airlines, has a 'distressed inventory' program in which, on occasion, last-minute offers are made at a reduced rate to sell upgrades to space that would otherwise go unused or empty," said Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell.
"This is not predictable nor is it done every day on the same trains -- simply when there is space available passengers may be called or asked on board if they would like to upgrade to sleeping accommodations."
So how can you increase the likelihood of getting an upgrade on the cheap?
First, travel during off-peak periods such as mid-week and non-holiday times, Grande suggested.
Second, check online at www.amtrak.com. You can purchase an upgrade and see what room you are assigned. If it is a single-digit number, it's likely sleepers are available on that train; Amtrak assigns rooms starting with the lowest numbers first, Grande said. Then you can cancel the upgrade and take your chances at the station or onboard.
"Naturally, one is taking a big risk that there will be any rooms at all," said Grande, who prefers to book in advance despite the higher cost.
If you absolutely must have a room, make your reservations well in advance to get the best price.
"If a passenger knows they want sleeping accommodations, it is best to book them in advance [because] there is not always unsold space available," said Amtrak's Connell.
Contact James Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.