01 November 2011

Amtrak Service and Fares - # 11 - Fares, unreserved coach

We'll begin our look at Amtrak fares with unreserved coach. Though unreserved coach pricing is rather basic, this chapter will be where we start looking at Amtrak fare and availability displays.  It's a good entry point to begin using tools you'll see throughout the series.

As previously described in the "Service" part of this series, unreserved coach is just that.  Amtrak does not actually keep a count of the number of seats sold on a particular train.  To the best extent possible, Amtrak tries to gauge the amount of business using historical models and then provide enough coaches, but there is in fact no guarantee of a seat when a passenger has an unreserved ticket.  At busy times such as over Thanksgiving, "standee" conditions can result, i.e. passengers without seats.

Tickets sold for unreserved trains do not actually show a specific date or train, but rather just the city-pair, for example: Los Angeles to San Diego.  A benefit of this for passengers is that if they decide they want to travel on a different unreserved train they can.  Because there is no actual reservation and the ticket merely shows the city pair, they can use it on a different date and/or different train without further ado.

Let's look at an Amtrak fare display for travel between Los Angeles and San Diego on 10 November.  It's a good example because all of the trains that operate here are sold as unreserved for coach travel.  (They also offer business class on most trains, but we'll get to that in subsequent chapters so what you're going to see is edited to keep the example clean.)

Remember that here we are merely looking at an Amtrak fare display; nothing appears showing availability or schedules of trains.

Two fares are shown in a vertical presentation, similar to how airline fares are displayed.  (To see an airline fare display, here is the relevant chapter in my Airline Fare School series.)

Let's use the first fare on line 1 as an example.

1          the line number - used when more detailed rules are required
UOB1   the fare basis code - always 4 characters)

From here on out, information appears under column headers.  Let's see what each column header references and then we'll  go back and look specifically at what is in the fare display above.

AMOUNT  self-explanatory
FT           fare-type
CL           class of service when selling space for a reservation
MAX         the maximum validity in number of days
LSTTVL    last date of travel
R             refundability
AR           advance purchase requirement

The foregoing is what the column headers symbolize.  Here is what usually appears in these columns, and what it means.

The fare type is always OW meaning one-way.  Amtrak used to publish both one-way and round-trip fares, but no longer does.  All point-to-point fares are one-way in nature, meaning you do not need to buy a round-trip in order to get a discount.  Amtrak also offers a couple of pass-type products, and what are called multi-ride tickets (meant for commuters), though these do not appear in travel agent displays and are not useful for most trips.  (We'll take a quick look at passes and multi-ride tickets near the end of the series.)

The class of service (inventory code, also called a "bucket") really applies for reserved trains and the different levels of coach fares offered.  In this instance it is empty, but when we look in the next chapter at reserved long-distance trains you will see this column contains a specific inventory code that must be reserved in order to get that price.

The maximum validity typically is 365 days (one year), unless it is a very short-term promotional fare.

The last date of travel is a dynamic response based on the travel date specified.  Because we asked for fares for travel on 10 November 2011, it calculated that the last valid date for travel would be 8 November 2012 based on a validity of 365 days.

Under the refundability column appears either a "Y" for yes (though with conditions), "N" for no, or "P" for prior to ticketing.  Most Amtrak fares are refundable, though usually with some very reasonable conditions.

The advance purchase requirement normally shows "0", because hardly any Amtrak fares have a rules-based advance purchase requirement, unlike most discounted airline fares.  As of the writing of this series, there is one significant exception to that in the Northeast Corridor where a 14 day advance purchase fare is in effect on Northeast Regional (non-Acela Express) trains.  Not to be confused with the rules-based advance purchase requirement for a specific published fare, is the ticketing deadline Amtrak assigns (typically 7 days unless travel is soon) to all reservations booked through ticket offices, its reservation call centers, and travel agencies.  (Reservations booked through Amtrak.com must be ticketed at the end of the transaction.  They cannot be simply held for purchase later.)  And certain passenger type discounts, AAA being the most common, require a minimum 3 days advance reservation.

Following the information that appears under the columns is free-form information that is useful to someone such as an Amtrak reservations or ticket agent, or a travel agent.  This is convenient, because it can save the chore of viewing the entire rules display.

Now let's look at the Los Angeles-San Diego fare display again.

Only two fares appear, the UOB1 at $36 and the UOF1 at $45.  Without having to look at a complete rule, the free-form information to the right of each fare makes clear what the difference is:

The UOB1 has blackout dates coming up of 22-24 November 2011 and again 26-28 November.  (Peak Thanksgiving dates, of course.)  Additional blackout dates will apply further out, which one could view if needed via the complete rules display.

The UOF1 on the other hand reads "no blackouts".  Keeping in mind the blackout dates for the UOB1, if you traveled in unreserved coach on 21 November you'd pay $36, but on the 22nd you'd pay the higher UOF1 fare of $45.  (In some markets including L.A.-San Diego, trains that normally are sold as unreserved operate as reserved trains during peak periods such as Thanksgiving in order to reduce the likelihood of standees.)

OK, let's look now at an availability display between Los Angeles and San Diego for 10 November.  (This is from the Sabre system.)

The first line of the availability is an Amtrak Thruway bus.

The second through fifth lines of availability are all trains.  (There are more that leave later in the day.)

Using line 4 for our example, here is what this represents.

4             line number that one would sell from in order to book space.
2V           Amtrak's carrier code, like AA is American, UA is United, etc. (Note 1)
566         train number
JU8         inventory code "JU" (business class), 8 or more seats available (Note 2)
U8           inventory code "U" (unreserved coach), 8 or more seats available  (Note 3)
LAXSAN   city-pair
830A       departure time
10NOV    departure date
1120A     the arrival time
RMB         codes that denote various services available ("B" means checked baggage)
TRN         train (vs. BUS or occasionally LCH for ferry/ship)
2.50        duration of trip (2 hours 50 minutes)
9             number of en route stops (9 is the most shown)

Note 1: Amtrak can book and ticket certain non-Amtrak services when it is contained in a PNR ("passenger name record", the travel industry term for a reservation) in conjunction with Amtrak rail space.  For example, Pacificoach, a bus service in British Columbia can be sold and ticketed through Arrow, as can service on the Victoria Clipper between Victoria, BC and Seattle.  It is very convenient.

Note 2: We'll look closely at business class fares in a subsequent chapter

Note 3: "U" for unreserved coach will always show 8, because Amtrak does not track the number of seats sold.  The only reason that the trains appear in availability is so that PNRs can be created for ticketing.  Even when a train segment is sold in U inventory, the customer does not truly have a reservation, and as noted earlier, the ticket will not show a specific train and may be used on other dates or trains.

We'll go ahead and sell one seat on the 8:30 a.m. departure (train 566), give it a name (Jonathan Test) and price it as one full adult fare.  This is how it looks in the Sabre system, which is almost identical to how it looks in Arrow.

Notice that it priced at the $36 UOB1 fare, because travel does not take place over the Thanksgiving blackout period.

Here' is exactly the same thing as a consumer would see it when using Amtrak.com.

Now look at a reservation for the very same train but for travel on 22 November, over the blackout period. See how it prices at the higher UOF1 fare of $45.

And below is the same thing at Amtrak.com.  The reason it prices the way it does is neither arbitrary nor as a result of yield management; rather it is because of rules that apply to fares for unreserved coach in this market over the busy Thanksgiving period.

The next chapter will look at Amtrak's long-distance trains, where a more complex system of yield management produces four different levels of coach fares.

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to # 10 - Fares, basic principles
Forward to # 12 - Fares, reserved coach

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