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.
CL class of service when selling space for a reservation
MAX the maximum validity in number of days
LSTTVL last date of travel
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.
Backward to # 10 - Fares, basic principles
Forward to # 12 - Fares, reserved coach