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Despite several changes over the last year, Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program offers some great value. Now that Bank of America is offering a co-branded Amtrak credit card, you may be wondering whether it’s a good option for you. To help you decide, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen takes a look at this product’s top perks.
Last summer and fall were busy seasons for Amtrak and its Guest Rewards loyalty program. First came the significant shift to a revenue-based structure for earning and redeeming points (which kicked in January 24, 2016) followed shortly thereafter by an end to its partnership with Chase on a co-branded credit card (as of September 30) and the removal of the ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Guest Rewards (as of December 8). However, there are still ways to get some great value out of the program, and today I want to go through the top reasons to get the new Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard.
1. The sign-up bonus
One of the best things about the new Amtrak credit card is the sign-up bonus, as you’ll earn 20,000 bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases with your new card within 90 days of account opening. This haul is worth $500 based on TPG’s most recent valuations, but could actually be worth more if you regularly redeem points for non-Acela trains, since those tickets will generally give you a value of ~2.9 cents per point.
However, keep in mind that redemptions on Amtrak trains only apply to the “Value” category of tickets when calculating the value you’ll get on the award ticket. These are oftentimes quite a bit more expensive than the “Saver” tickets, so if your desired train has a Saver ticket available, your true redemption value will be much lower.
Here’s a quick example. Let’s say you needed to take a morning train from Washington, D.C. to New York City on Sunday, May 8. There are quite a few options on Northeast Regional trains:
However, notice what happens when I switch the page to view fares in points rather than dollars:
As you can see, the first two trains require the same number of points for a coach redemption (3,036), while the later train is a bit pricier (3,864 points) given the higher revenue rate. All three of these redemptions give you the same value of 2.9 cents per point when you look at the “Value” fare column, and you’ll get the same value redeeming your points for a business-class ticket.
However, since the first train (Northeast Regional 152) still has a “Saver” ticket available at the time of writing, your actual redemption value drops to 1.61 cents per point, since your choice is to pay $49 or redeem 3,036 points for the reserved coach seat.
Despite this nuance, the sign-up bonus can be quite a nice haul of Amtrak Guest Rewards points and can keep a decent amount of money in your pocket the next time you’re looking to hit the rails.
2. The bonus categories
The second reason this card offers a compelling value proposition is the set of bonus categories. Here’s a breakdown of those two categories (and the return you’d get based on TPG’s valuations):
- 3 Amtrak Guest Rewards Points for every dollar you spend with Amtrak, including travel and onboard purchases (7.5% return)
- 2 points per dollar spent on other qualifying travel purchases (5%)
The first one is straightforward and applies to both the purchase of tickets on Amtrak as well as any food or beverages purchased onboard. This is also in addition to any points you’d earn from the actual ticket (starting at 2 points per dollar).
The second category applies to non-Amtrak travel purchases, and the terms and conditions of the card’s application page defines this to include “airlines, car rental agencies, hotels, motels, inns, and resorts, steamship/cruise lines, and travel agencies.” This may not be the broadest category definition for travel purchases but it’s still nice to earn a bonus with other travel providers.
Most significantly, both of these categories represent some solid value when compared to other cards like the Citi ThankYou Premier Card (4.8%) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (4.2%). Of course, the biggest drawback to this card is that you’re locked into earning Amtrak Guest Rewards points rather than more flexible transferable points like ThankYou points or Ultimate Rewards points. Nevertheless, this card is clearly best for Amtrak purchases and may very well offer the best value for many travel purchases.
3. The 5% redemption rebate
Another terrific perk on the Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard is the 5% rebate when you redeem your points for an Amtrak ticket. This rebate will post back to your Guest Rewards account automatically and is uncapped (in sharp contrast to the 10% mileage rebate on cards like the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard). This actually raises the redemption value for your points to just over 3 cents apiece.
Let’s take the same example from above. If you redeem 3,036 points for the 9:25am Northeast Regional train as a non-cardholder, you’d get the standard 2.9 cents per point. However, as a holder of the Amtrak MasterCard, you’d get 152 points back into your Guest Rewards account, bringing your effective redemption amount down to 2,884 points. With a revenue ticket costing $88, your redemption value jumps to ~3.05 cents per point.
Keep in mind that you must have enough points in your account to cover the full redemption, as the rebate happens after you book the award ticket. You also must have your MasterCard account open and in good standing, and you must have completed your first purchase at the time of fulfillment.
4. Perks at account opening
In addition to the sign-up bonus, you’ll also enjoy three additional perks when you open your account:
- Complimentary Companion Coupon: Valid for a free companion rail fare with the purchase of a regular adult rail fare.
- One-Class Upgrade: Valid for one space-available, one-way, one-class upgrade from coach to business class, or from Acela Business class to Acela First class, on a single travel segment or leg.
- Single-day ClubAcela pass: Valid for bearer and one guest, or bearer’s spouse/domestic partner and children under the age of 21.
The complimentary companion coupon is arguably the most valuable of the three, as it’s basically a buy one, get one free offer. It’s also valid on both one-way and round-trip tickets, though there are some important restrictions. For starters, there are several travel blackout days for the rest of 2016: May 27 and 30; July 1 and 4; September 2 and 5; October 10; November 22-23 and 26-28; and December 21-24 and 26-30. In addition, recent reports indicate that Saver fares are not counted as “full fare” tickets, despite earlier assertions from company representatives on FlyerTalk. This also doesn’t apply to other discounts like AAA and senior fares.
The upgrade certificate can be a nice perk as well, especially for a longer train trip. However, this upgrade is subject to the same blackout dates as the companion coupon and is also not valid for an upgrade to sleeping car accommodations.
Finally, the ClubAcela lounge pass will get you access to the ClubAcela lounge (locations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.), Metropolitan Lounge (locations in Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland, OR) or First Class Lounge (locations in St. Paul/Minneapolis, St. Louis, New Orleans and Raleigh). The pass will be mailed to your home address within two weeks of opening your account.
However, two of these three perks are not just one-time use…
5. Annual perks
As a cardholder, you’ll actually get a companion coupon and upgrade certificate every year when you renew your account. By utilizing both of these benefits, you can easily cover the $79 annual fee. Let’s stick with the example from above. As a non-cardholder, if you were considering the 9:25am train from Washington to New York and were traveling with a companion, you have two options:
- Redeem 6,072 Guest Rewards points for two award tickets
- Pay $176 for two revenue coach tickets
However, if you have the Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard, you could actually purchase one $88 ticket for you and bring a companion along for free. A single one-way ticket, and you’ve already covered your annual fee. Keep in mind that you can also use this for round-trip travel, potentially doubling the discount you’d receive.
You can also reap similar value from the one-class upgrade. The terms and conditions of this benefit don’t exclude Saver fares, so you should (in theory) be allowed to upgrade from coach to business on the 8:07am train in the example above. This results in a savings of $84, once again covering the annual fee on the card.
6. The card issuer
The final reason to consider this card is the fact that it’s issued by Bank of America. I don’t think any points and miles enthusiast would dispute that Bank of America lags far behind its main competitors (Chase, Citi and American Express) when it comes to top travel rewards cards. While I am a big fan of the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card thanks to the companion fare benefit it offers, most of the rest of the cards offered by Bank of America aren’t anything to write home about.
However, this actually represents an opportunity for many hobbyists. As I wrote about last year, the major issuers have some important restrictions when it comes to credit card applications and accounts, and most will impose a limit on the number of card accounts or total credit line they extend to you. As a result, you may have reached your limit with another issuer but likely aren’t anywhere close with Bank of America. The Amtrak MasterCard thus represents a valuable option with an issuer that you’ve probably under-utilized and are thus more likely to gain approval.
As you can see, the Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard can offer a compelling value proposition thanks to the array of benefits it offers. While there are many redemptions that no longer make sense with the program’s new revenue-based model, you can still get some great value out of the program, and you may find that many routes still beat flying. Hopefully this post has highlighted the value you can get out of the card, especially if you’re planning on hitting the rails in 2016.
What are your thoughts on the new Amtrak credit card?