The Secret Amtrak Fare

Ian RuderAfter 20 minutes of frantically pressing buttons and shouting my answers into my phone, I’m beginning to think Amtrak is holding out on me. All I want is to sign up for the special $25,000 wheelchair ticket I’ve been reading so much about, and Julie, Amtrak’s automated agent, isn’t being helpful.

We had no problem finding the train and time I wanted, but when it comes to choosing what type of ticket I want she refuses to offer me the $25K wheelchair special. I figured Amtrak might not want to publicize something this pricey and elite, but this is getting ridiculous.

I’ve tried asking about custom fares. I’ve requested more information on how they calculate fares. I’ve asked for fare details. I honestly feel like I could prob¬ably write the Amtrak fare guide after listening to Julie repeatedly explain the unwavering minutiae of their policy.

My immediate frustration is tempered by my growing respect for Adam Ballard. Ballard is the Chicago policy analyst/ railroad sleuth who discovered Amtrak’s secret fare when he tried to book a January trip from Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois. Instead of the regular $16 coach fare or the $35 business class fare, Amtrak hooked him up with the $25K wheelchair special.

My mind begins to wander as I dream about the secret luxuries that must come with such an exorbitant price. Amtrak said the fare simply reflects the cost of taking a train out of service to remove regular seating and create space for a wheelchair. They’re not fooling me.

Nobody charges that kind of upgrade fee simply to take something out. For $25K, I’m expecting the lap of luxury: bottle service, caviar, massages — think first-class international travel, only fancier.

I get that Ballard was pissed about an unexpected $25K bill, but I’ve got a plan. I just opened up an Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard and I have a code for a 20% discount. That code knocks $5,000 off the cost, and with the card I’ll be getting triple points on every dollar of the $20,000 — plus 20,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days.

On top of that, my card comes with one complimentary companion coupon, meaning a friend can experience the high life alongside me. By my count, that’s $30,000 in savings, not even considering how loaded my new card will be with rewards.

“I’m sorry,” Julie’s friendly automated voice snaps me out of my daydream, “but I couldn’t understand what you said.”

Yeah, right. Julie understands me. I’ve told her everything I can and punched in every code possible. She’s no dummy. She’s just holding out.

I wonder how Ballard got Julie to give it up. Is there a secret option I’m missing? Did he sweet talk her with just the right words when she asked him to say his answer? Is there a password we wheelies have to drop to unlock the premium options?

I’m beginning to think Amtrak may be discriminating against us …

** This post was originally published on

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