The Travel Troubleshooter: Help, my Amtrak tickets were accidentally canceled

Question: I’ve been trying to resolve a problem with Amtrak, and have spent hours on “hold.” I need your help.

I recently purchased Amtrak tickets to Reno, Nev., on my American Express card. I paid $156 for the roundtrip ticket and in return, I received 11,000 rewards points, which allowed me to buy another roundtrip ticket.

There was a misunderstanding when I booked the second ticket, and my first ticket was somehow canceled.

I didn’t find out about the cancellation until I went to the train station in Emeryville to get my tickets. An Amtrak agent said I would have to spend another $236 for a ticket.

Since then, I’ve spent countless hours on the phone, including a three-way call between Amex, Amtrak and myself, to try to get this sorted out. They’ve asked me to mail proof of payment and proof that I’ve taken the trip, which I have done.

I just received a message from Amtrak that they will not refund the ticket. I have disputed the charge with American Express. Now what? — Mel Jung, San Rafael, Calif.

Answer: When the erroneous cancellation was discovered, Amtrak should have found a way to reinstate them at the same price. That would have fixed the problem and prevented you from having to spend half an eternity on the phone to chase down a refund (your time is more valuable than that).

In reviewing your case, it’s difficult to know exactly where the fault lies. I contacted Amtrak on your behalf, but it didn’t respond to me. It did, however, address your case. I’ll get to that in a moment. It could have also been a problem with American Express, or with you.

I have a few thoughts on how this might have been avoided, though. It appears that the reason one reservation got canceled is that you made two bookings at once. That may have confused the agent with whom you spoke. Maybe making one reservation per call would have solved that.

Then again – and I think this is far more likely – an agent might have just hit the wrong button and wiped out one of your reservation.

When a ticket is canceled, you should receive some kind of confirmation in the form of an email or letter. I’m surprised that no one sent you a confirmation.

Clearly, something went very wrong here.

I’m less concerned with this error than the way it was addressed by all of the parties. Mistakes happen, after all. They’re what make us human, and they can be instructive. From what I can tell, Amtrak wasn’t eager to fix this mistake or learn from it. American Express didn’t exactly come to your rescue, either. Instead, you spent more time than you should have on the phone.

After I contracted Amtrak, you received a note from American Express saying that you’d received a refund for the ticket.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Tom

    In European countries, railroads are an important part of the transporation infrastructure. In the United States, Amtrak is a jobs program. Customer service is a very low priority. The main customer — the only customer — is the Congressional appropriations committee.

  • Brooklyn

    Amtrak is a disaster – on a trip from Chicago to New York, my friend arrived 12 hours late and another friend was 13 hours late on an Amtrak trip from New York to Rochester, within the same state! European trains aren’t what they used to be, especially now that they’ve adopted many of the bad habits of the airlines (making it impossible to change your return journey once you’ve left on the first part of the trip, charging for small animals in carriers, etc.) but they’re better than what we have. Train travel is often more expensive than flying, but with the TSA on our backs we may need to use it. In this case, Amtrak caved but still didn’t apologize – if I were the OP, I’d forward the whole case to my representatives in Congress and publicize it widely online, not for myself but in the public interest.

  • philpm

    Unfortunately, outside of the Atlantic Coast/Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has to lease tracks from the rail freight carriers, and the freight gets top priority always, so most trains end up running late.  Even here in Missouri, a 3 hour trip between Kansas City and St. Louis can take up to 6 hours (have personal experience with this) because of freight traffic.  The only way we’ll ever be able to improve that part of the equation is for Amtrak to have dedicated lines, but with the political situation in this country, the chances of that happening are slim to none.

  • Nancy Marine Dickinson

    It was bound to happen with the government getting involved in Amtrak.  Reason number one why I don’t want them managing my healthcare…  they can muck anything up given enough time and money.

  • Guest

    The trains must run a lot faster in MO than I thought: it’s 248 miles between the two cities you mentioned, requiring an average speed of at least 80 mph to make it in 3 hours.

  • PoBoy

    Amtrak is still around????

  • philpm

    I just looked at the schedule, and it is actually closer to 5 1/2 hours, but the delays can still easily add 2 hours on to that.

  • philpm

    Amtrak as it is has always been run by the government.  They were established to provide passenger rail service when the railroads stopped offering it.  I see this less as a problem of government inefficiency than a result of many years of it being used as a political football.

  • Bodega

    If I am reading this correctly, the OP make two separately reservations, at different times.  The first one earned him more points that gave him enough for a second reservation.  Now the confusion could have come with the Amtrak agent if the OP had the Amtrak agent pull up the first reservation to duplicate it and had the second reservation put in his name, causing the first one to cancel due to now having duplicated reservations under one name.  That will happen.  There is no mention of a second passenger in this post only of a second reservation.  So if this isn’t correct, Chris needs to get clarification. 

  • Clare

    I’ve had experience with Amtrak’s brilliant personnel in Washington, DC, that make this story totally credible to me.  I bought a ticket in advance, in person, at the counter in Washington for a specific train returning from Penn Station.  The genius listened carefully and then handed me a ticket for a different, LATER train. (Yes, okay, I should’ve doublechecked everything he did, I know.  But it wasn’t exactly rocket-science, what I was asking him to do!  And he was nodding his head, very accomodating and agreeable… so I had this stupid idea that he did what I asked him to. Silly me!) 
    I only discovered the mistake while boarding my train in NYC–and had to race to the ticket-machine with my ccard to buy a new one before I missed it! 

    Back in DC, I took the bad ticket to some alleged “customer-service rep,” who immediately informed me that since she hadn’t been there at the time, she didn’t know whether I was telling her the truth, so she’d just forward it all to their HQ and “see whether they’ll refund it or not.”  Nice, eh?  Amtrak’s motto: “The customer is always wrong.  Or he’s a liar.” 

    Note that I had requested, and I took, an EARLIER train.  So there’s no possibility that I had missed the train the ticket was for, and concocted a bogus story in order to get another one free…  In any case, if Amtrak had a no-refunds policy (which they didn’t), the CSR could have explained that to me.  Her immediate reaction, though, was simply to refuse to believe me.

    The whole issue disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole, as Chris describes in this case… until I disputed the charge on my ccard–and won.  

    Ever after that, when I’ve had to travel between DC and NY, I’ve taken the Chinatown bus, which is much cheaper anyway.  Pat yourselves on the back, Amtrak!  You’ve lost a frequent customer forever–which, judging from the way you treat them, appears to be your determined goal. 

    In Italy, where I live now, the trains have been privatized by the govt.  No, they aren’t perfect–but they’re generally quite good, and definitely light-years better than Amtrak.  Stand back, I feel a logical conclusion coming on…

  • Bodega

    When a reservation with Amtrak is made, it only shows the first name.  Most likely the reservation was cancelled was because the computer showed two reservations, for the same train, date and time in the same name.  You need to know all the facts before writing your Rep as this is how most reservations systems operate.  Duplicate bookings get cancelled. 

    My air trip was 10 hours late in arriving.  Things happen and it is a pain. You could be delayed on the highway, too. 

  • Wiseword

    I assume that the agent who couldn’t write two tickets  also can’t  walk and chew gum at the same time. 

  • Bodega

    Tickets aren’t handwritten any longer.  It was an error and an easy one to make when not paying close attention.  The agent made a mistake and the passenger made one, too, in not looking at what was handed to her.  Now how the second agents customer service abilities could be improved upson.

  • DReinig

    I recently spent 3 years traveling Amtrak almost weekly between NJ to Washington and later Baltimore. Train travel is so much better than flying. I never had cancellations, and the Acela especially, is rarely delayed. As for having two reservations for the same day in the same name, Amtrak will contact you if you book two reservations in one day, asking you to cancel one or else they will do it for you (I learned this one the hard way). I always received email confirmations of my purchases and cancellations. Best way to book is online, not by phone. I am now commuting by plane and would take Amtrak over flying any day.

  • Robby

    If the government weren’t involved with Amtrak, it wouldn’t be around at all… Just saying.

  • Brooklyn

    And yet in Europe, the government runs both the trains and the healthcare system and they both run OK.  Both public transport and healthcare should be run by the government and funded out of taxpayers’ pockets, but we have to make sure it’s done right and so far, all we do is fight about it.

  • Geographer

    We are regular users of the trains in France, operated by SNCF (the one time state railway).   Yes, they have adopted some bad habits of the airlines – one being the price you pay for a ticket can vary a lot depending on when you buy it (usually how far in advance).   But in defense of the SNCF, their web site sells tickets, lets you guarantee the price for a 7 day hold, allows you to print the ticket at home, and if you cancel the reservation, they will refund your bank account almost immediately – and this up to the last moment.  I find the system extremely flexible and easy to work – I use it in French, not sure if it is just as flexible in the English language version.   No reason why Amtrak, if it has a sophisticated computer system, could not do the same.

  • Brooklyn

    Yes, but it’s really annoying that you have to know before you leave exactly when you’ll want to come back – flexibility used to be one big reason for taking the train!  I miss the old couchettes…. I still like the SNCF better than the Deutsche Bahn, though; German trains are so expensive that a 45-minute local round-trip can easily be 55 euros!

  • Mike_jarman2002

    Amtrak has long been known for delays and not being customer friendly.  In Europe they could learn a few things.  Being on time is the norm, not the exception like it is here.  First class tickets are not much more expensive and worth the price.  They WANT the customers to be happy.  Most recently I took a train from Praque to Budapest and it was reasonably priced, on time, and had great service.

  • cjr001

    The problem for Amtrak is that these “things” happen often. And once they happen – especially on the cross-country routes such as the California Zephyr – then there is NO alternative.

  • Clare

    I agree with all you say, except that first-class tix are not much more expensive.  Eurostar tix can be extremely expensive, compared to regional ones–BUT at least in Italy, if the train is more than an hour late (it used to be only 30 minutes; they just recently upped the cutoff), you get a refund.  Now how’s THAT for motivation?! 

  • Bodega

    I have never had a train ticket cancelled and if this happens regularly, then perhaps how it is booked should be elvaluated.  The same name on the same train, on the same date shouldn’t be booked that way, period.  It isn’t clear in the post why he did this or if he meant to get one ticket for a second traveler.  It there are two people in a family with the same name, we add Sr., Jr, I, II or something to distingush the two, plus we put in an OSI message.