Q. Our family of five (children aged 11, nine and four) are going to California in the summer. We would prefer to travel long distances by train rather than rent a car or fly, but it seems difficult to get reasonable fares. Is there anything like a family railcard in the States?
A. Modern America was created by the railroad. The train remains the most civilised form of travel in the US, taking you through grand vistas and forgotten towns at the ideal pace. But along the track, America seems to have lost the plot.
The trains in the North East, connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, are fast and frequent, with "Saver" fares offering excellent deals for passengers who book well in advance. Elsewhere, though, rail travel is mostly a minority sport, with ponderously slow trains and little or no creative pricing to attract passengers.
Take the journey between Los Angeles and San Diego – a 120-mile trip, equivalent to Bristol to London. It takes nearly three hours. And even if you book several months ahead, the same fare applies for every train. The total of $129.50 (£85) for your family group is about twice as much as you might pay for an advance-booking trip of the same distance in Britain. It's also double what a rental car for a day would cost in California, even taking into account the drop-off fee and a few gallons of "gas".
Between Oakland (for San Francisco) and Los Angeles, the 12-hour rail journey costs about the same as an 80-minute flight.
The closest thing to a Family & Friends Railcard is family membership of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (narprail.org). Unfortunately, the £30 annual fee buys only a 10 per cent discount, compared with at least one-third off in the UK. So wait until shortly before you travel to buy the tickets at Amtrak.com; the national train operator offers deeply discounted "Smart Fares" on a random selection of routes up to three weeks ahead. There's a reasonable chance that some of these may suit your plans. And if they don't, bite the bullet, pay the annoyingly unyielding fares, sit back and enjoy the ride.