Train travel is experiencing its own version of the 'RV effect'

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An Amtrak sleeper car. Amtrak Vacations said it has seen a dramatic increase in new customers booking train trips with private sleeper cars.
An Amtrak sleeper car. Amtrak Vacations said it has seen a dramatic increase in new customers booking train trips with private sleeper cars.

As travelers seek close-to-home and private options to travel in the pandemic, Amtrak Vacations said it has seen a dramatic rise in new-to-rail-vacation customers.

Although train travel, like most tourism-related sectors, has been down this year compared to 2019, Frank Marini, president of Amtrak Vacations parent company Yankee Leisure Group, said they are seeing a surge akin to the "RV effect" that has boosted recreational vehicle rentals for road trips.

A difference with train travel, he said, is that passengers can choose to book private sleeper cars that keep them socially distanced but avoids the hassle of driving and having to learn the ropes of hooking up an RV.

"Customers are not traveling to Europe. They can't cruise. But we really are seeing an uptick in new customers," Marini said. "Ninety-three percent of those booking and traveling with us this year and next are new to us, which is amazing. And I know it's [likely] they never would have considered us before. They want to get out of the house and book something different."

About 70% of the bookings, he said, are for trips to national parks, but he's also seeing customers looking to check a cross-country trip off their bucket list.

A full 95% of this year's bookings are for private sleeper cars, up slightly from the average 90%. Since the onset of the pandemic, the private compartments come with free delivery of meals.

Feedback from new customers has been great, Marini said, and he hopes to turn some of those guests into repeat clients.

"That's the goal," he said. "I think people are pleasantly surprised. The feedback we are getting is, 'We never would have thought of this, but we have nowhere else to go, and this is kind of cool. We never realized you can actually get there by train. And the things you can see by train!' So we've really benefited from this."

Amtrak Vacations, Marini said, has myriad options for train and hotel packages to and from 500 Amtrak stations around the country.

Yankee Leisure Group's European arm, Railbookers, is also seeing new business from the pandemic as people are looking to extend river cruise trips they had to push off until next year, Marini said.

"Train travel is like the sleeping giant," he added. "It follows certain trends, both good or bad trends. In the U.S., with the pandemic, it's what's available. And with agents rebooking river cruises in Europe, all of a sudden here comes demand with add-ons or variations that we haven't seen before." 

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