Maximizing Amtrak Guest Rewards: Earning Points

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TPG Contributor Jason Steele used the occasion of a family train vacation to delve into Amtrak’s Guest Rewards loyalty program. Today he begins with how to maximize your Amtrak Guest Rewards earning potential.

Most people think of points and miles solely in terms of airline and hotel awards, but Amtrak also has a loyalty points program with some valuable travel redemptions and partnerships that make it worth a closer look.

Earning Amtrak Guest Rewards
Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program that is more similar to a hotel loyalty program than an airline frequent flier program in that normally, passengers earn points for each dollar spent on train tickets (though obviously that’s how Virgin America, Southwest and JetBlue’s programs work as well). Paid tickets earn two points for each dollar spent, with a 100-point minimum regardless of the price paid. Additionally, the Acela high-speed trains in the northeast corridor earn 500 points (750 in First Class) for trips between select city pairs such as New York-Washington and Boston-Newark.

Note: Amtrak just announced its fall “Double Days” promo offering passengers double points on all train travel between September 5 – November 16, 2012, essentially awarding them 4 points per dollar spent on fares instead of the normal 2. Members must include their membership number when making reservations for travel to qualify. Limit of two qualifying one-way trips per day. Amtrak Guest Rewards points will not be awarded for cancelled or refunded reservations or tickets. Be sure to register here before booking any travel.

Points can also be earned through hotel, rental car, and online shopping partners. Additional point bonuses are available when travelers earn Select and Select Plus elite status by earning 5,000 and 10,000 tier-qualifying points respectively within a calendar year. Like airline elite qualifying miles, Amtrak passengers only earn tier qualifying through paid travel, not through partner points.

There are several other ways to earn Amtrak travel with credit cards. Points can be transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio in 1,000-point increments. The Starwood Preferred Guest program also allows you to transfer points at a 1:1 ratio, but only in 5,000-point increments – and there is no bonus equivalent to the 5,000-point bonus for transferring 20,000 Starpoints to airline miles.

American Express Membership Rewards points also transfer to Amtrak gift cards at the rate of one cent per point, in 5,000-, 10,000-, and 30,000-point increments. However, this option offers substantially less value per point than transfers to airline miles.

Finally, Chase and Amtrak offer a co-branded Guest Rewards Mastercard.  The current sign-up bonus is 12,000 points after spending $500 in the first 3 months, 2 points per dollar spent on Amtrak, and one point per dollar on everything else. Since there are several other Chase cards that earn more than one Ultimate Rewards point per dollar spent on various categories, this card offers little value beyond those other Chase products. Its only real benefit is that it grants Amtrak Guest Rewards users the ability to transfer points to hotel programs.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how Amtrak’s travel redemptions work, its various partners and how to get the most value out of the Amtrak Guest Rewards points you earn.

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