By: Laurie Wilson
The number of people traveling on vacation is off the rails this summer—but getting there isn’t necessarily half the fun. All aboard—thanks, in part, to steep gas prices and unpredictable flying scenarios with delays and cancellations, train travel is on track with huge ridership numbers.
“Domestic travel on Amtrak Vacations is at the highest level in the brand’s history,” says Frank Marini, CEO of Amtrak Vacations, the National Tour Operator of Amtrak.
“This is a combination of pent-up demand to travel, domestic traveling still on rocket growth, as well as people looking for alternatives and bucket list experiences. We know gas prices are helping support this as well, as we hear that on the calls, but it was way up before gas prices took off.”
Marini says the company surpassed 2021 total revenue and tax (which was the best year in the company’s history) at the end of February 2022 for 2022 travel.
“Also, the amount of last-minute bookings we are seeing is incredible as last week alone we had almost 200 bookings come in and book to travel in June/July of this year,” says Marini. “With Amtrak Vacations, a travel advisor can call in for their customer today, book today, and depart today,” he says. “Last-minute bookings are huge, take advantage,” says Marini, adding that normally the average booking date to departure is 62 days.
The most popular routes: Glacier National Park Getaway, Grand Canyon Getaway, Northern Rail Experience, Grand National Parks of the Southwest—Bryce, and Zion to the Grand Canyon. Also trending in popularity says Marini, are itineraries for the New Orleans Getaway and Denver Rocky Mountain Getaway. And train travel to cities, including Washington DC, Chicago, and Charleston, is also popular this season.
Bus and train booking platform Wanderu has also seen a marked increase in travelers’ interest in train travel.
“In a sample of three weeks in June this year, we have seen a 25 percent increase in the number of U.S. train tickets purchased on Wanderu, compared to the same weeks in June 2021,” says Bryn Culbert, budget travel expert at Wanderu. “In other words, we expect 25 percent more people to travel by train this summer than last year. This increased demand will make it harder to find a good deal on train tickets, but it’s not impossible.”
Small town U.S. and regional trips by train are also expected to exceed expectations this summer.
“So many people are getting back on board whether it is by long-distance on Amtrak or regional rail,” says Madison Butler, communications manager for the Rail Passengers Association. “We are expecting more travelers and traffic to smaller towns by families pursuing more affordable vacations,” says Butler. “Many of these towns are excited to have folks coming to historic bed and breakfasts, museums, festivals, and campgrounds.”
And, Butler notes, given how important supporting local business is, as vaccinated travelers begin getting back on board, spending money and time in smaller communities makes a huge positive impact on those mom-and-pop destinations affected by the pandemic.
The scenic CapeFLYER train, which runs from Boston to Cape Cod on weekends, is celebrating its tenth season this summer.
“We feel very strongly that the ridership will definitely increase due to the high gas prices, and no projections that they will be coming back down anytime soon,” says Tom Cahir, administrator at the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority Administrator. “The airlines having such difficulty with staffing shortages and frequent cancellations will also be a factor as people will gravitate toward a reliable service for a weekend or day trip or longer.”
There is a bicycle-car onboard the CapeFLYER, with bike stands and tool kits for passengers to work on their bikes as they travel to the Cape, says Cahir, and a concession car to purchase light fare, beer, wine, and cocktails.
The train arrives at the Hyannis Transportation Center—walkable to Main Street with shops, restaurants, and the JFK Hyannis Museum, as well as Hyannis Harbor. Passengers can also disembark and hop the bus and/or Steamship bus to get to their desired destination or use the Hyannis Trolley.
They say timing is everything in life. The soon-to-debut Berkshires Flyer train will launch on July 8, and tickets just went on sale. It is being launched by Amtrak on its Northeast corridor from New York City to the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
Amtrak officials have been evaluating a possible route from New York to the Berkshires since 2018, and the Berkshire Flyer’s launch comes as the train company is seeing increasing demand from passengers. The Berkshire Flyer will run on a trial basis in 2022 and 2023; if the route seems lucrative enough, Amtrak will operate it permanently each summer.
“We are already seeing passenger volume this summer that is exceeding expectations,” says Eddie Sporn, Berkshire Flyer ambassador. “We think it is because people are looking for local destinations and trains that are a great alternative with rising gas prices.”
The new train service will run on weekends during the summer months from New York Penn-Moynihan Station in New York to Pittsfield, Massachusetts—along the Hudson River Valley and through the Catskills with several New York State stops, including Albany-Rensselaer before arriving in Pittsfield.
Bonus: Passengers can pre-order bicycles before their trip. “They will be able to pick up and return rented bikes right at the station,” says Sporn.
Travelers from New York will not only save on gas and avoid the horrific New York City summer weekend traffic, they will enjoy a train journey up the Hudson River that many consider one of the most scenic in America, says Sporn. “No car ride matches that view.”
And Westchester is a popular summer getaway to the north for New Yorkers. “Westchester County is easily accessible, with 43 station stops across three train lines, which is especially appealing this summer given the rise of gas prices,” says Natasha Caputo, director of Westchester County Tourism & Film. “Westchester County Tourism has a longstanding partnership with Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and with the launch of MTA Away, it’s even easier to find deals and packages to inspire regional travel.”