“Amtrak and Amtrak Vacations are really like the sleeping giant,” said Frank Marini, an escorted tour operator veteran who was tapped as president of Yankee Leisure Group this year. Yankee Leisure Group operates the Amtrak Vacations brand.
He said that travelers are increasingly opting to take the train over other modes of transportation and said Amtrak Vacations is hoping to carry that trend into the leisure travel market.
For 2013, Amtrak Vacations has more than doubled the number of departure dates for its escorted rail journeys and is offering triple the amount of product for its independent packages.
The company has added about 20% more product to its rail getaways, which are individual city trips, and has introduced a new partnership with Celebrity Cruises for two rail-and-sail itineraries.
While rail trips often take longer than flying, Marini noted that rail is clearly benefiting from the perception that air travel is becoming more of a hassle, as well as from the rising cost of gas.
Amtrak carried a record 31.2 million passengers in fiscal year 2012, a 3.5% increase over 2011. Amtrak has experienced annual ridership growth in nine of the last 10 years.
And the country’s rail network is starting to beat air along certain popular rail routes. Between New York and Washington, for instance, 75% of travelers now go by train, compared with just 38% about 11 years ago, according to David Lim, chief marketing officer for Amtrak.
Amtrak Vacations builds packages around existing Amtrak inventory. And while Amtrak’s ridership is growing steadily year over year, Lim said he doesn’t see the vacation product competing for space with other riders.
Lim said that while Amtrak will have to eventually add capacity to accommodate a greater number of riders overall, and has begun placing orders for additional equipment to be delivered in the coming years, for the time being Amtrak Vacations can grow without hesitation.
“We have a good problem in that capacity has become an issue [for Amtrak], but that would not prevent us from growing Amtrak Vacations,” Lim said.
The main reason Lim isn’t concerned about growing Amtrak Vacations too aggressively is because Amtrak Vacations still accounts for a very small percentage of Amtrak’s overall ridership.
But Marini is hoping to change that.
“For us, this year was a banner year, partly because Europe and other places were soft, so domestic travel really took off,” said Marini, adding that Amtrak Vacations has seen the most success with itineraries that included the country’s national parks.
He added that travelers are increasingly coming to realize that train travel is an appealing way to see the country. “When you’re on a train you really see America going by,” he said. “It might not be as fast, but that’s kind of the point.”
Amtrak’s escorted rail journeys are multi-day tours with a tour guide who travels with the groups. The groups average 22 people in size, with a maximum of 28 people per group.
There are five escorted programs, including a nine-day Glacier National Park Discovery trip from Chicago to Seattle on which travelers will overnight onboard a sleeper car between Chicago and Glacier National Park and again between Glacier and Seattle.
Another example is the eight-day Jazz, Blues and Rock ’N’ Roll itinerary from Chicago to Memphis and down to New Orleans.
The independent rail journeys are set itineraries with set pricing that travelers can do on their own. There are now 28 independent rail packages travelers can choose from, spanning the U.S. and into Canada.
There are suggested dates in the brochure, but Marini said these independent trips can be booked almost any day of the year, as long as there is space available on the trains.
For 2013, there are also 14 rail getaways to cities including New York, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, San Antonio, Seattle, Toronto and Montreal, as well as to the Grand Canyon and to Glacier National Park.
The rail-and-sail packages combine a New York tour with a Bermuda cruise aboard the Celebrity Summit, and a Seattle tour with an Alaska cruise aboard the Celebrity Solstice.
Most of the packages offer a moderate and deluxe hotel and pricing option.
Amtrak Vacations recently created a new online booking engine for agents
The country’s renewed thirst for rail and domestic travel has given Amtrak Vacations the confidence to significantly increase its capacity and product offerings for 2013 in the hopes that U.S. travelers are poised to rediscover the lost practice of leisure rail travel.