In-Depth with Amtrak

Amtrak, Posts, Ultimate Rewards
In-Depth with Amtrak
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We’ve spoken at length in the past about Chase Ultimate Rewards. As you probably know, it’s our favorite points program thanks to the versatility of 1:1 transfers to a variety of airlines and hotel chains, the ability to combine points earned on multiple Chase cards and the ability to accelerate earnings by making purchases through the Ultimate Rewards Mall.

One transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards, however, doesn’t receive as much attention as the others, and we think it’s time that changed. We’re talking about none other than Amtrak Guest Rewards. Yes, Amtrak!

Overlooked as an option for most travelers outside of the Northeast, Amtrak offers some significant value not just to travelers in that densely packed region but also for those that believe the journey is the adventure.

Earning Points & Elite Status

Like other Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, cardholders of Chase Sapphire Preferred, and Chase Ink can transfer points to Amtrak Guest Rewards at a 1:1 ratio in increments of 1,000 points. Transfers are typically instant, though the terms and conditions do state that in limited cases transfers may take up to a week to be completed.

An Amtrak branded credit card is available as well, with a bonus of 12,000 points after $500 in spending. However, Sapphire Preferred and Ink offer much better value and much more flexibility thanks to their transfer capability, so we would not recommend it for most travelers.

When riding Amtrak on paid fares, travelers earn a guaranteed 2 Tier Qualifying Points per $1, and a minimum of 100 points per trip no matter the cost of the ticket. Travelers on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela service in the Northeast earn 500 points per trip in Business Class between most city pairs serviced by Acela, while travelers in First Class Acela earn 750 points per trip.

Amtrak offers 25% bonus points for travelers that earn Select status, which kicks in after just 5,000 Tier Qualifying Points. This is increased to a 50% bonus for Select Plus status, which is awarded after earning 10,000 Tier Qualifying Points, and to a full 100% bonus for Select Executive status, earned after accruing 20,000 Tier Qualifying Points. Select Plus and Executive members gain access to not just Amtrak Lounges, but also to United Clubs.

Amtrak also offers its own shopping portal, which in some cases may offer more earnings per dollar in spending than the Ultimate Rewards Mall. However, remember that Amtrak points won’t transfer out to other programs the way Ultimate Rewards will!

Travelers can also earn Amtrak points on car rentals with Budget, Enterprise or Hertz and have a limited ability to earn points on United flights out of Newark when coupled with train travel to or from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Stamford or New Haven from Newark International.

Buying, Sharing and Transferring Points

Members with no status may purchase up to 10,000 points per year and share up to 100,000 points per year. This holds true for Select and Select Plus status holders as well, who also gain the option to transfer up to 50,000 points annually from – but not to – various hotel programs. There are no limits on sharing, transferring or purchasing points for Select Executive members, who also receive an upgrade credit to the next class of service for every 3,000 points earned on purchased fares.

Points may be purchased up to the annual limit for 2.75¢ a piece in increments of 500. Amtrak regularly holds promotions that offer up to 30% bonuses on points purchases, so this can lower the effective cost to a more reasonable 1.925¢ per point. Points may be shared with friends or family in increments of 1,000, but a transaction fee of 1¢ per point applies.

Transfers of points to hotel programs come with no fee, but the transfer ratios are not advantageous unless you absolutely must top off your balance in order to score an Amtrak award you’ve set your sights on. For example, 10,000 HHonors points turn into just 1,500 Amtrak points and 32,000 Choice Privileges points turn into just 5,000 Amtrak points. Hyatt points transfer 2.5:1 to Amtrak and SPG points may be transferred 1:1 with a minimum of 5,000 points, making these options more palatable but still not appetizing for most travelers.

Redeeming Points

Amtrak’s redemption rules are actually pretty easy to wrap your head around, and certainly less complicated than many airline programs. Amtrak splits the country into three zones, with a special sub-zone in the Northeast. Redemptions are based on class of ticket and the number of zones travelled. Many major cities sit on the border between two zones, and count toward travel within either zone. For example, travel from San Francisco or Chicago to Denver both count as a one zone redemption. Travel exclusively within the Northeast zone comes in at a discounted rate as opposed to travel to destinations elsewhere within the Eastern zone. Certain special routes, such as those from outlying towns in Illinois to Chicago, come in at even lower redemption costs.

There are 20 total blackout dates interspersed throughout the year on which points cannot be redeemed on Amtrak. These are mostly congregated around holidays, such as the few days before and after Thanksgiving and Easter. Select Plus and Executive members, however, are allowed to redeem awards on these blackout dates. Awards are not offered on Acela trains between the start of service and 8:59AM, and between 2PM and 5:59PM, on weekdays. This limit applies regardless of status.

Depending on how you look at it, Amtrak’s redemption chart can offer fair to excellent value:

Class of Travel Special Routes Northeast Subzone One Zone Two Zones Three Zones
Coach Seat 1,500 4,000 5,500 8,000 10,500
Business Class 2,000 6,500 6,500 10,500 12,500
Roomette (1-2 Passengers) 15,000 15,000 20,000 35,000
Bedroom (1-4 Passengers) 25,000 40,000 60,000
Motorcycle Add-On (Auto Train) 10,000
Vehicle Add-On (Auto Train) 15,000

Coach redemptions offer a very affordable method to use points to get from place to place within the same zone. Travel from as far as Miami to New York, for example, can be had for only 5,500 points. This would be a very long journey, typically more than 26 hours. This ticket regularly goes for about $141, which would yield about 2.5¢ per point in value. Given the length of the trip and comparative price of airline travel, coach awards are probably a more palatable option for shorter trips, even though they may offer less cash value.

The same applies to Business Class travel: at just 1,000 points more than Economy redemptions for one zone trips, this step up can result in a much more comfortable trip for a few points more.

The Auto Train, an I-95 substitute running from Orlando to Washington, DC, allows you to take your vehicle with you. This may be a compelling option for families or if you happen to be moving to or from the Northeast/Florida, and can be booked as an award.

The Real Value of Amtrak

Where Amtrak starts to shine is on its redemptions for roomettes and bedrooms. Starting at 15,000 points for a one-zone roomette trip or 25,000 for a one-zone bedroom, these redemptions are for the full room! Better still, these rooms include all meals during the trip for each passenger.

Roomette redemptions are allowed for up to two travelers and bedrooms are good for up to four travelers, so this can offer tremendous value for some trips for travelers that aren’t in a hurry. Miami to New York in a roomette for 2 travelers for 15,000 points is a far more palatable option than two coach redemptions for 5,500 points each, for example. Here’s a look inside a typical roomette that we found:

A critical aspect to Amtrak’s award program is that it’s also good for last-seat travel. That means unlike many airline programs that limit the availability of award redemptions, Amtrak awards are always allowed so long as they follow a valid, published route and paid fare availability for the requested class of travel remains.

In a sample check, a roomette from Miami to New York cost $623 for next day travel as opposed to $452 a month later, but either can be redeemed for the same 15,000 points.

However, these East Coast routes pale in comparison to the true treasure Amtrak has to offer. Historic routes with grand names, like Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight provide opportunities to see vast tracts of America in a comfortable environment.

Empire Builder, for example, starts in Chicago and largely follows the path of explorers Lewis and Clark across the Mississippi, through the Twin Cities, across North Dakota and Montana, through Glacier National Park and on to Portland or Seattle.

The California Zephyr departs Chicago for a trip across the American Midwest, climbing through the Rocky Mountains and looking down on mile-high Denver, Colorado en route to San Francisco. The train winds its way through breathtaking mountains and painted canyons.

The Coast Starlight takes travelers from Los Angeles to Seattle, traveling along the coast and valleys of California through Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Sacramento and Portland on its way.

Amtrak partners with the National Park Service to provide educational programs on historic routes like this, with experts detailing the history, geology and ecology of the American wilderness.

Better still, it’s possible to weave together many of these routes. For example, riding the Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Los Angeles and transferring to the Coast Starlight for continuing service up to Seattle comes in at the same points cost as the Coast Starlight alone, thanks to Amtrak’s zone-based redemption system.
Hitching a ride south from Seattle to San Francisco, then heading east to Chicago on the California Zephyr would be another exciting possibility. These kind of routings regularly yield 4-5¢+ per point in value, similar to many upper class airline awards in value.

With meals included, private restrooms, shower facilities available in each sleeping car, freedom to walk from car to car, Wi-Fi on most routes and large windows from which passengers can enjoy the view, Amtrak’s best redemptions come not for those looking for transport, but for those seeking travel. Approaching these trips like cruises over land is a much better way to look at the effectiveness of awards. For those looking to recapture some old-school magic in their travels, rather than simply hopping from place to place as quickly as possible, Amtrak redemptions can offer unique value!

Images courtesy: Amtrak
 
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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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