Hi, I'm one of those guys who makes a living doing things like saying "all aboard" and punching little holes in pieces of paper. Let me tell you how this onboard upgrade thing actually goes down when you're on my train.
1. You pull me aside and ask about it. Ideally, this is during a mundane activity like inventorying the coaches. If I'm in the middle of something fairly urgent, I will make a note of your car and seat number and come back to you. Otherwise, let's talk.
2. I ask how far you are going, and look at my paperwork to get a preliminary
idea of what's open. (I always carry the sleeper lists with me - it's only a few pages. Your mileage with other trainmen may vary - worst case, they need to wander up to the crew car to check.)
3. I let you know that I may
have a room available but I need to make sure. Give a quick look/tour, only if you ask.
4. I call up just to make sure that the room in question has not been sold by anyone else yet.
5. If it is indeed still open, I go talk to the sleeper attendant to make sure he knows about this potential new arrival, and is willing to accomodate.
6. If we've made it this far, then and only then will I come back to you with good news. If I haven't given you a price quote yet, I'll do so now.
7. I'll usually wait until you're settled into your room before "taking care of business". However, it would be nice if you could play along for a moment at the coach seat and start trying to pull out the cash/card, just so I know you're good for it.
8. I help you get moved along with your baggage, collect payment, and call up to finalize the transaction in the system.
Some of you have posted about calling up Julie, or stations, or whomever else, and then using your new-found knowledge to try and get the upper hand on me. Please do not do this; it is very rude. If you give me an accusatory statement like "well I know
that room X is open", then I will not be very inclined to help you out. Here's how the system works. Every trip, a few hours before departure, someone (or some bot) will look at the train's sleeper load. If it is very light, then a certain number of the open rooms (not all) will be tagged as "Conductor-Sale." Then, and ONLY then, is when I am actually obligated
to try and sell those spaces. On the other hand, if the train is reasonably well patronized on that day, and there are only a few rooms left, then they will not be 'tagged.' In this case, I am still able to sell them, but I am not obligated to - in fact, Amtrak would probably rather that I not, because a free room represents not only a safety net in case of a bad-order but also a potential last-minute high-ticket sale at a station down line. BUT, if you are nice to me, and hold off on the "matter of fact" attitude, then I will absolutely invite you to buy one of those very-limited rooms. The Golden Rule, folks, that's all it is. If you come across a less savory trainman who you think is being lazy and BSing you, don't always assume that this is the case. It might be, but you don't know for sure. And hey, no one's going to stop you from asking the other trainman on the crew, or one of the next guys after the crews change hands.
And just to get the matter straight on the rate. When upgrading on board, you always pay the lowest bucket available for the applicable accomodation. There are no discounts (senior, military, etc.) on upgrade fees. You pay the fee from the train's current location (if between stations, round up to one station in the future) to your destination station. You do not pay for the portion of the trip that is already complete (likewise, if you have already paid for any meals, you are not reimbursed for them). If you are upgrading from a roomette to a bedroom, you only pay the difference between the low-bucket bedroom and the amount already paid for the roomette (regardless of bucket) - or $50.00, whichever is greater. So in essence, 50 bucks is the absolute lowest you should ever pay for any onboard upgrade, and the only way that can happen is if you have a high-bucket roomette booked on a full train, and you manage to get into a vacant bedroom that cancelled or no-showed.
Finally, folks, I wouldn't recommend relying on the onboard upgrade method as a means to save money, unless you really do your homework or are a seasoned rider. If you think you know when the slow times of the year are for your particular train, then it may make sense for you to take the chance. But remember that these trains are more popular than ever, and as such are filling up faster than in years past. So if you REALLY need that sleeper, without any shadow of a doubt, then please book as far ahead as possible!