Amtrak Switching To Revenue Based Redemptions. Book Now!

Assuming you like riding trains, the Amtrak Guest Rewards program offers some exceptional values. Amtrak currently has a zone-based system, and as Amtrak is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards it’s easy to accrue point in the program even if you’re not a frequent train rider.

I am definitely not an expert at Amtrak Guest Rewards, and have actually only ridden Amtrak once in my life as part of a really cool Amtrak Adventure for my parents a little over a year ago. In the process of booking that trip, I read just about everything I could find on the loyalty program (and the trains in general), and found it fascinating. It was like a whole new world had been opened up to me, a world which I had hoped to explore more in the coming years.

Well, that world is about to cease to exist. 

A presentation was leaked last week indicating that Amtrak Guest Rewards will implement a revenue based redemption scheme in 2016. Instead, we’ll probably end up with something akin to Southwest Rapid Rewards where every point is worth 1-2 cents toward paid Amtrak tickets. Of course, it’s all being done in the name of simplifying the customer experience and opening up redemption opportunities to the masses. Or some garbage like that.

So if you want to go back in time and experience how people traveled across the country 100 years ago — and I highly recommend it at least once — you need to act quickly if you want to do so using a modest amount of Ultimate Rewards points.

train canyon

The California Zephyr somewhere in western Colorado

How Amtrak Guest Rewards Works Today

The current system divides the US into three zones, roughly the west, the central, and the east. You can travel anywhere within a zone for the same amount of points. Or within two zones for a little more. Or all three, well, you get the idea.

You can basically book an award ticket for any legal routing, meaning that if the ticket is for sale for cash, you can book it on points. And the amount of points is simply dependent upon the starting and ending stations.

A cool feature of the zone system is that certain cities straddle two zones. Denver, for example, is in both the west and central. That means that you can go anywhere in the west or central zones while still paying single zone prices.

Amtrak zones

1 country. 3 zones. How can it get much more simple?

Premium Cabin Redemptions Are The Real Value

The cheapest option when redeeming points is a seat in coach. But you can also redeem for roomettes, bedrooms, and family bedrooms. Just like with frequent flyer programs, the incremental cost in points of the premium accommodations is relatively low, meaning that’s where the value is.

If you think that a flat bed is nice on a 10 hour flight, imagine how much you’d value it on a 40 hour train ride! 

Aside from a place to lay down and sleep, the other huge benefit of booking a sleeper is that sleeper cars include meals in the dining car for everyone booked in the room. That means breakfast, lunch, and dinner for you and your companions. I’m not saying that the food is great, but I enjoyed it, probably more so than a lot of meals I’ve had in business or first class on a plane.

amtrak steak

Not sure it’s worth $25, but the Amtrak steak dinner is pretty good

Depending on who you ask — and trust me, it’s complicated — family bedrooms can hold up to five people, though three of them are sort of assumed to be kids. That means that your meals in the dining car for the whole family are included. The food on the train isn’t cheap, so it’s not hard to average $100 per meal for a family of five. That’s $300 of value per day.

My Amtrak Experience

I planned and booked an Amtrak adventure for my Mom and Dad to celebrate one of his “round” birthdays. Just as I try to maximize the value of my miles when flying, I wanted to try to squeeze in the most value for them on the rails. In this case I was trying for:

  • the most time on the train
  • the best scenery
  • the best accommodations

And all for the fewest points.

I ended up booking a trip from Denver to Glacier National Park, which would allow them to ride three of the most famous Amtrak routes. They took the California Zephyr from Denver to Sacramento, which arguably includes the best scenery in the entire network, transferred to the Coastal Starlight up to Seattle, and then rode the Empire Builder over to Glacier.

Amtrak-Map

The final routing covered a lot of territory

Since that trip was entirely within the western zone, this only cost 25,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points for a Family Bedroom (which I transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards.)

That’s about 72 hours in a premium cabin for only 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points. I forget the retail cost of the trip, but I think it was somewhere close to $2,500.

We actually joined them for the Denver to Salt Lake City portion, and really enjoyed hanging out in taking over their family bedroom. It was a blast.

nap time in familiy bedroom

Family bedrooms sleep four or five, depending on who you ask

(Note that it may not be possible to book that exact routing anymore — the Coast Starlight to Empire Builder connection became illegal at some point due to scheduling issues. Again, Amtrak and Amtrak Guest Rewards is a bit quirky.)

What We Think We Know

It seems that Amtrak Guest Rewards will implement a revenue-based scheme come 2016. At that point, exceptional values like the trip I booked for my folks will be a thing of the past. Presumably, a $2,500 ticket such as that will cost somewhere between 125,000 and 250,000 points. Ouch.

But that’s not all.

Amtrak is also rolling out a new credit card, and it’s not from Chase. Therefore it is also speculated that Amtrak may cease to be a transfer partner of Chase soon, possibly as early as mid September. That means that if you want to ride the rails in luxury, you need to transfer in some Ultimate Rewards points and book a trip quickly.

The sight seer car is the place to be for the climb out of Denver

The sightseeing car is the place to be for the climb out of Denver

I’m Seriously Bummed

Warning:  Rant coming!

I know this sounds crazy, but this devaluation actually depresses me more than some of the others. Perhaps one of the reasons is that as a family of four (soon to be five), the Family Bedroom award is just perfect for us. I could pay one flat rate and move my family, albeit somewhat slowly, to anywhere within about 2/3 of the country.

Now it’s true that we’ve sort of only done one trip on Amtrak, so why do I really care? Well, I think maybe I viewed it as a safe haven — the airlines are all run by a bunch of money-grubbing bankers and layers who just think about their next bonus and that don’t really care about the rest of us (yes, I said it.) But Amtrak is a kind-of sort-of government subsidized entity. Shouldn’t they be kinder and nicer?

Oh, and since when does Amtrak care about making money? Or losing less of it? I mean, it’s not like that has mattered for the past thirty or so years.

I can’t imagine that more than a few of us have ever redeemed for an Amtrak long-haul award. Heck, I don’t even think most Americans know that it’s still possible to ride a train all the way from Chicago to San Francisco. Even fewer of them realize that Amtrak has a frequent rider program, and if they do, they probably commute between Boston and New York City, and would never dream of taking an overnight trip on the Southwest Chief.

My point is that there just aren’t that many people with boatloads of Ultimate Rewards points and a desire to see the country by train. But apparently some bean counter decided that if Amtrak was to compete with the airlines — and I’m sure they think they do — they ought to go revenue based. Because hey, it’s what the cool kids are doing.

amtrak train

Slightly different view than boarding a plane

Conclusion

Amtrak Guest Rewards is probably going revenue based at the start of 2016. If you’re looking for an aspirational or premium cabin redemption, you want to book now under the current zone-based system.

Transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards may end this fall, so if you’re planning on moving points to Amtrak Guest Rewards, you’ll want to do that sooner rather than later.

Essentially, if you want to go back in time and travel by train across the country — which I highly recommend — act quickly.

Has anyone redeemed points for an Amtrak trip? What was your experience?

About Travis

Travis has been playing in the world of miles and points for over a decade. At one time or another he has held status on just about every major domestic airline and hotel program. He has visited all 50 US states and over 50 countries. Nowadays he travels almost exclusively with his wife and three young children.

More articles by Travis »

Comments

  1. I have no intention of taking a train across the country (or at least across this country) any time soon, but I’m still sad about this development since even for those traveling on short-haul trips within the Northeast, the current Amtrak Guest Rewards program can offer some great values. You can easily get 4 cents per UR point or more on redemptions for routes like NY-Boston or NY-DC at busy times of year.

  2. I’ve been wanting to take a cross country train ride for a while now. Is Chicago to Seattle considered two zones?

  3. The bottom line is, Amtrak is dying. This is partly due to the way it was set up, not owning any of their own track, and just leasing access for their rolling stock. The problem is, passenger rail and freight needs are somewhat mutually exclusive: freight lines want huge consists [Remember counting the cars in a train at railroad x-ings as a kid? You didn’t know it, but you were tallying the consist…] and since the bulk of the fuel is spent getting the train up to speed, they don’t want to stop or slow down, but don’t really care much how fast they go, as long as they keep it rolling.
    Passenger rail OTOH, requires speed: back in the old days, they called them “express” lines because they were expressly for passengers [maybe a mail car] and focused on speed. The essence of what we call “light rail” today. But since Amtrak doesn’t own the rail on their routes, they’re always shunted aside for freight trains [which take priority, since guess who owns the rails?] and keep losing more passengers year after year. They’re on the far side of the Laffer curve for pricing, when I can find a 1-way fare on a flight from SoCal to the Bay area for less than what a ticket that requires at least 5x the time spent traveling if I chose to travel by train [& bus, since Amtrak doesn’t have direct rail to the Bay.] And its cheaper & faster to travel by car.

    I love rail travel in Europe, where the govt. gives the system massive subsidies and passenger rail gets priority right-of-way. But stateside it is a bit of a disappointment, with the same issues of airline travel [too many seats crammed into too small of a space for average size people: only smalls & children can be comfortable: “Do not get on this ride if you are over this height.”], inconvenient scheduling and delays [it takes about 1/2 the time to drive to Santa Barbara from Orange County as it does to take the train, and gas costs are ~ = the tickets] and one big advantage on many routes: free wifi [if only it worked consistently!]

    Amtrak was a stop gap measure instituted to prevent the rapid [& harmfully so] elimination of passenger rail transport in this country at a time when the U.S. was transitioning to primarily an air-travel model. Unfortunately, the long view of what they needed to do wasn’t taken early on, or they would have already built their own rail lines serving their primary passenger routes, and Amtrak & the freight carriers could go their own separate ways. It’s sad to see, but it may be time for Amtrak to go away. Or else join forces with Elon Musk and take a huge technological leap forward.

  4. I ride the train far more frequently than I do airplanes. I am based out of Charlotte, NC and almost all of my travel between Charlotte and NYC is train based, sometimes twice a month. I did once take a train from Charlotte to Boston, but NYC is about my limit on length unless it involves a sleeping car or is for a vacation. With that said, the 2 main reasons I do the east coast by train are: 1) The Crescent leaves at 1AM from Charlotte and arrives in NYC in the afternoon, which allows me to waste about the same amount of daylight hours as a comparable flight to Newark or LaGuardia; 2) Washington Union and New York Penn stations are conveniently located in the downtown. So when the train arrives I just walk out of the station and in most cases walk to where I need to be. My main points accumulation for travel is for train rather than airplane. I have been averaging 4-5 tickets per year free for travel on Amtrak plus a couple of bedroom upgrades for leisure travel. Another perk is that you can buy passes for the lounge in Washington and New York, basically the equivalent to the perk for airlines at the airport. Bag storage at Washington Union is a racket and is costly, no coin operated lockers there. Probably the most interesting thing that I have done is that over the 9 or so years I have been commuting between NYC and Charlotte regularly I have managed to see just about all of the sights in Washington DC by creatively working in a layover coming or going. One thing that I will say about train travel is that you can break up your stops much easier and cheaply if you want to visit places along the way as opposed to airline travel. I like to use different forms of transportation as much as I can, it can be a fun and interesting way to add to an otherwise mundane trip. In 2007, for example, I flew from Charlotte to London, then London to Paris via EuroStar (Chunnel Train), ferry from Calais to Dover, QE2 from Southampton to NYC, train from NYC to Charlotte.

    I suspect part of the change with Amtrak is two-fold: 1) Some rationalization of the costs and benefits of the various programs like the Rewards, Dining, etc. Rail service for most routes is usually a joint effort between ticket revenues, federal funding, and state funding. North Carolina, for example, heavily subsidizes the Carolinian (which runs from Charlotte to NYC), and the Piedmont (which runs from Charlotte to Raleigh); 2) Capacity constraints which I am sure play into the scheme of things with airlines and award space availability. Rising fuel prices has caused more people to look into trains for travel. Since Amtrak has only been able to add capacity slowly (trains are not easy to build and most of the current operating units are quite old – there are carriages that are probably older than most people that read this blog) yields have begun to max out. 10 years ago it was almost unheard of to sell out a train outside of the commuters between Washington and NYC, but now, almost every train is 90% full for most of its travel time. Like at the airlines, people at Amtrak have begun to get more “careful” with space allocation.

    Probably a final reason that I ride trains is I tend to find the other riders more approachable and friendly. Almost every trip that I take I end up exchanging contact information with someone some of whom I have stayed in touch with for years. Something that hasn’t happened on an airplane in many years. Unfortunately, IMO, airline travel is starting to approach bus travel in terms of atmosphere and congeniality of fellow travelers.

  5. Living between DC and NYC I ride the amtrak all the time for both work and for pleasure. Just past June i took my family on the Silver Star bedroom and 2 roommettes to Florida. It was fun for the 6 of us for 55k points. The cost of that trip in cash would have been almost $2000. I would never pay that much in cash for that trip but i will pay 55k points.

    I don’t see too many people forking over that kind of cash for the train experience. Maybe once or twice but not all the time. So i suppose Amtrak would rather make those rooms go empty than points redemption?

    IMHO i think redemption could have beeen either distance based or just the increase the points needed. 4000 points from DC to NYC was a convenient redemption. As a Amtrak Select member for past 4 years… This is very disappointing.

  6. Amtrak had a problem that they had very few blackout dates or other rules and thus people could book awards at will, even on full routes. They had two choices: manage inventory to limit awards to space that would otherwise be unfilled or devalue the currency (fixed redemption value). They probably picked the latter since it was easier to manage. They just picked the lazy route.

    Bloggers get all excited about the potential for transfers from AGR to hotel points. I wonder if those will continue.

  7. Just another way Amtrak is being made the same as airline hassles and travel, which is disgusting. Don’t you hate the “demand” pricing on the airlines? Why can’t amtrak be different? I mean a seat is $50 or whatever no matter when you buy it. Don’t become like the airlines, my beloved Amtrak! Or just a prison bus (Greyhound) on steel wheels. The sleepers are almost always sold out, how come Amtrak doesn’t buy any more of them and make more money?

  8. Even for regular coach seats, one can get good value from the current program. For example, for travel between San Jose to Salem, OR (a delightful 18 hour overnight which my GF’s college-age son is crazy enough to take several times a year), the points cost is fixed at 5500, but revenue rates vary from $65 (on lightly loaded trains) to $170 (when the train is nearly sold out). So, on nearly full trains, I’m able to get over 3 cents/point value with the current program. Sad to have it go away, but not the end of the world….

  9. Miami to NYC takes 3 hours longer TODAY then in the 1950s. The California zephyr has massive delays in the mid west. Super inconvenient time tables. If you are not near a terminus ( like the 1am train)

  10. I am following your “One Mile at at Time” plan expressly for an Amtrak trip to D.C. next summer with my family. I already had Amtrak partnership through Hilton (will that remain?) and got the Chase card for the same reason.

    Thank you for the ‘heads up.’ I will need to book sooner than later . . .

  11. I frequently travel on the Pacific Surfliner between San Diego and LA. Even just 5 years ago the trains typically had lots of empty seats. More recently, however, they are packed, often standing-room-only in coach (which has prompted me to more frequently upgrade to business class seats just so I can count on being able to sit for the trip).

    Maybe Amtrak is emboldened by the apparent increased ridership.

  12. Hi, I searched quite a lot of routes but only find at most two options “Reserved Coach Seat” or “Lower Level Coach Seat”. Does Amtrak block the premier class?

  13. Last year I redeemed points (transferred from Chase) for a Roomette from DC to Chicago to Emeryville, CA. It was a great experience, but not something I’d do frequently. However, as others have pointed out, redeeming points for the Northeast Corridor is one of the best travel values out there, and I’ll be sad to see a devaluation for that (especially since it’s a profitable route for Amtrak that, in a sense, subsidizes much of the rest of their network). That said, I’m all for Amtrak doing what it can to make train travel more economically viable, especially if it results in more options and improved service.

  14. I totally agree that this is a bigger devaluation than anyone would make it out to be. I took a trip from California to Chicago and it was an awesome ride. Did it have some downsides? Yes. Did it take a long time? Yes. But I and my family had a really great time and we enjoyed it all. And we were able to do it really cheaply thanks to my combination of Amtrak points and Chase points. Would we book that trip again if it cost three times as much cash? Probably not.

    The other really downside is for those trying to travel in the northeast between Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC. The 4,000 point redemption with no cancellation penalty was awesome. I usually preferred to purchase my tickets and earn points, but if I didn’t plan well (those tickets are really expensive on the day of due to business travelers) it was nice to be able to redeem points for a comfortable ride.

    Moving to revenue based system will make me less likely to convert my Chase points to Amtrak and less likely to purchase Amtrak fares to earn the points. The big competitor for most people in the northeast are buses and I also liked to argue that comfort, convenience, lack of traffic, and Amtrak points system made paying more for the train worth it. But eliminating one of those benefits will push more people to the buses and I thought that was the point of Amtrak, to get more people off the road.

  15. My family have done 4 long-distance trips in various configurations, all in the West Coast, on points transferred from Continental a week before their program merged with United. Longest was L.A. to mid-Montana through Portland about two years ago, when the Coast Starlight to Empire Builder was still a legal connection. We still have points for one or two trips (depending on zones), so thanks for the tip, we’ll try to book soon.

    Incidentally, service has deteriorated somewhat in the 4 years since we started riding; most disappointing for the children is that the dining car no longer serves pizza!

  16. I am bummed about this coming change (despite not having information on how it will change yet). My wife and I have taken several trips on Amtrak in the last several years using points (always in sleeping cars). It is quite easy to get enough points when putting most of the daily household spending on the Amtrak credit card. I would estimate that we take a trip on points every other year.

    To “Generic” who said that Amtrak is dying and losing passengers: Amtrak has had record ridership in 11 of the last 12 years. Delays due to freight traffic is a problem (especially on the long distance routes), but so is high demand. I would love to see the long distance routes get two round trips/day which would allow places that now have service only in the dead of night to have daytime service as well. People will ride trains if it makes sense for them and if they do not need to rearrange their entire day or trip around the (sometimes unreliable) schedule. Amtrak needs to be looking into buying more locomotives and railcars, but inconsistent, year-to-year funding rather than a dedicated revenue source (like the Highway Trust Fund) make that difficult.

  17. What a bunch of ripoffery. I know all rewards programs legally can change their terms, but as far as I am concerned, when they tell you that if you spend money with them over time and you will eventually get a reward, and then they say, “Just kidding!” they are committing fraud. I have ridden Amtrak since I was 12, but I will wash my hands of them if they liquidate the value of the points I have at present.

  18. I have loved this program for years, though haven’t got a ton of use out of it. The fixed price for any part of the Amtrak Cascades route from Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver is 1500 for coach or 2000 for business. When booking last minute you are redeeming at about 5cpm, which is an excellent value. They sell the miles directly for 2.7cpm with the current bonus and 3.8cpm normally.

  19. After transferring UR points to AMTRAK ,
    When will be the final day to book under the
    Old point value program ?

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