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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen takes an in-depth look at the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard, including its earning potential, redemption options, and unique features, to see whether it deserves a place in the pantheon of award travel credit cards.
Most of the content at TPG involves tips for maximizing free travel with award flights and hotel rooms. However, there are many other programs and credit cards out there that provide alternate routes to free travel. One such program is Amtrak Guest Rewards. While our train network here in the U.S. is nothing compared to those in Europe, Amtrak is still a viable way to travel in comfort and enjoy the scenery between two cities. Like most loyalty programs, Amtrak has a co-branded credit card, and in this post I’ll review the Guest Rewards MasterCard to see if it’s worth adding to your wallet.
Let’s start with the basics. Currently, the Guest Rewards MasterCard offers a sign-up bonus of 12,000 Guest Rewards points after spending $500 within the first three months of cardmembership, plus a free companion coupon valid for one year after issuance. You earn 2 points for every dollar spent on Amtrak purchases and 1 point per dollar everywhere else. The card has no annual fee, and it provides a 5% rebate to cardholders for Amtrak redemptions.
Of course, all of this is meaningless without considering the value of these points. Fortunately, Jason Steele wrote a nice overview of earning points and redeeming points through the Guest Rewards program back in 2012, and very little has changed. You still earn 2 points for every dollar spent on Amtrak travel (with a 100-point minimum on all tickets). For tickets booked on the Acela line between certain cities in the Northeast, you earn 500 points for business class tickets or 750 points for first class tickets. In addition, Amtrak is currently in the middle of its Double Days fall promotion, where you can earn 4 points/$ on all trips now through November 14, 2014.
The redemption rates have also remained unchanged. Amtrak uses a Zone Map to calculate how many points are required for a free ticket:
As you can see, there are three “official” zones: East, Central, and West (the Northeast is essentially a zone within a zone and has discounted rates). The table below shows the number of points required for one-way travel in the four different classes of service offered on standard Amtrak trains:
|Northeast||One Zone||Two Zone||Three Zone|
|Coach||4,000 points||5,500 points||8,000 points||10,500 points|
|Business||6,500 points||6,500 points||10,500 points||12,500 points|
|Roomette||15,000 points||15,000 points||20,000 points||35,000 points|
|Bedroom||20,000 points||25,000 points||40,000 points||60,000 points|
One of the interesting things about these zones is that certain cities (like Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Denver) actually “straddle” two zones, which means that you can choose which zone they are in to price your journey accordingly. In other words, Denver to San Francisco is treated as a one-zone redemption, but Denver to Chicago is as well, since Denver is either in the Central or West Zone.
There are a few exceptions to the above chart. Acela Express trains have their own rates: 8,000 for one-way business class and 12,000 for one-way first class. In addition, there are some “special routes” that have discounted rates of 1,500 points for coach class or 2,000 points for business class. These include the Cascades (Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver), the Pacific Surfliner (between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, CA), and the Heartland Flyer (between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City).
Finally, Amtrak does allow you to redeem points for any unsold seat or bedroom, so no need to suffer through looking for “Saver” inventory like you would with an airline. However, there are blackout dates that mainly fall on or around the holidays, so be sure to check those out as you plan your trip. (Select Plus and Select Executive members can get around those blackout dates by using “Rule Buster” rates that are ~75% higher.) In addition, no one can redeem points on Acela trains on weekdays before 9 am or from 2-6 pm.
Amtrak Guest Rewards also has many other redemption options, including gift cards to various retailers and restaurants as well as car rental certificates for Hertz. You can view all of these options here. However, as Jason Steele found, the best bang for your buck comes in redeeming for train travel, as the vast majority of other redemption options are at or below 1 cent per point in value.
To focus on travel, I’ll consider the sign-up bonus in the context of Amtrak redemptions. 12,000 points would be enough for any of the following:
- Six one-way business class redemptions on the “special routes” mentioned above: Tickets between Portland, OR and Seattle, WA on a range of dates this fall cost $52 to $69, giving you 2.6 – 3.45 cents/point.
- Three one-way coach class redemptions in the Northeast: Tickets between Washington and Boston on a range of dates this fall cost $76 to $199, giving you 1.9 – 5 cents/point.
- A single one-way first class redemption on the Acela Express: Tickets between Boston and Washington on a range of dates this fall cost $360 to $420, giving you 3 – 3.5 cents/point.
These values seem to be consistent with Jason’s findings from a couple of years ago, with average redemption values right around 3.2 cents/point. Keep in mind that these values tend to drop if you make reservations far in advance, as lower fares (in the “Saver” or “Value” categories) are more likely to be available. At the end of the day, your 1.9 cents/point redemption or 5 cents/point redemption will get you the same seat on the same train.
In addition to the 12,000 points from the sign-up bonus, the Guest Rewards MasterCard gives you a free companion coupon valid for one free companion fare when traveling on a paid ticket (regular adult, senior citizen, or disabled adult). The coupon is valid for a year after qualification, and is subject to the same blackout dates linked above (for a full list, please visit this link and scroll down to footnote #3). While it isn’t valid on award redemptions, it can still be a compelling discount if you have a trip coming up. The companion coupon is also a great option for business travelers whose travels are paid for by their company, since the companion coupon allows you to bring your companion for free regardless of who is footing the bill.
Another interesting thing about this credit card is that it offers cardholders 5% back on all Amtrak redemptions. This functions much like 10% travel rebate on the Barclaycard Arrival Plus in that it is credited automatically; as soon as you redeem your points for an Amtrak ticket, you’ll be recognized as a Guest Rewards MasterCard holder, and will be refunded 5% of the points you spent.
There is one final aspect of the card and Guest Rewards program worth mentioning. If you browse through the redeem page of the program, you’ll see two other options that may be useful to award travelers:
- Redeem 5,000 Guest Rewards points for 15,000 Choice Hotels Privileges Points
- Redeem 5,000 Guest Rewards points for 10,000 Hilton HHonors Points
You can also redeem Guest Rewards for Starwood Preferred Guest one-night stay certificates, though the redemption rates aren’t very good. These options claim to only be available to elite travelers (Select status or higher); however, they’re also available to Guest Rewards MasterCard holders who spend $200 per calendar year on Amtrak purchases. Since these must be transferred in increments of 5,000 points, you could transfer 10,000 points from the sign-up bonus to get 30,000 Choice Privileges Points or 20,000 Hilton HHonors Points. The latter would be worth at least $100 according to TPG’s most recent monthly valuations, though you may be able to find higher values for specific properties and/or dates. The same goes for Choice Privileges, as Jason Steele demonstrated in his recent trip to Rome, where he redeemed for more than 3 cents/point in value.
So, is the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard worth having for the vast majority of us? My verdict is no. There are a number of factors here:
- The only bonus category on the card is Amtrak. You may be thinking that this would be great for those of us who consistently travel on Amtrak. However, 2 points/$ is the exact same earning ratio that you would receive on the Chase Sapphire Preferred (since Amtrak purchases are classified as travel expenses). You could then transfer those points to Amtrak at a 1:1 ratio, so every Amtrak dollar charged to the Sapphire Preferred would earn you the same number of Guest Rewards points. However, the benefit of using the Sapphire Preferred is that it offers you flexibility. You’re not locked into Amtrak Guest Rewards points; instead, you could transfer your points to any of 10 other partners (including United, British Airways, and Hyatt).
- The best redemption values are for longer distances. I would venture a guess that most of those who frequent Amtrak do so on shorter routes (like Boston to New York or Washington to Philadelphia). These routes tend to have relatively inexpensive fares, but require the same amount of points as longer trips (e.g., Philadelphia to New York, a trip that takes about 90 minutes, requires the same number of points as a train from Washington to Boston, a 7-8 hour journey). As a result, the points become a little less useful, especially when redeemed in advance. Remember that the Barclaycard Arrival Plus offers 2 points/$ on everything and gives you 10% back on all travel redemptions. You can thus book train tickets using the Arrival Plus, still earn points in the Guest Rewards program, and then get 2.2 cents/point of value by covering the cost of the ticket with Arrival points.
- Applying for the card would “use up” a Chase account. There’s no question that Chase has a huge variety of credit card options with incredible earning and redemption potential. While there isn’t a known limit to how many you can have, there are many other Chase cards that I would recommend long before this one, and you would hate to be turned down for one of the more valuable cards later because you opened this account. Of course, Chase is great about shuffling around credit lines to get new cards approved, but I would still be hesitant to “waste” a hard inquiry on this card.
That being said, there are some situations where it might make sense to have the card:
- If you have an upcoming trip for which you would like to bring along a companion.
- If you are a VERY frequent traveler on Amtrak and would benefit from the 5% rebate.
- If you frequently book last-minute tickets where the revenue cost can be very high (but the points required remain the same).
Other than that, I wouldn’t recommend it.
However, there are some very simple things that would make this a much more valuable offering than it currently is. In no particular order:
- Include elite status. Many cards out there offer elite status with their co-branded credit card, including the Hyatt Credit Card (Platinum) and Citi Hilton Reserve (Gold). Amtrak’s lowest level of status, Select, doesn’t offer a boatload of benefits, but the 25% earning bonus and priority customer service line would be a nice deal sweetener that could convince a somewhat regular Amtrak traveler to open the card.
- Up the Amtrak earning ratio to at least 3 points/dollar. Right now, the math just doesn’t make sense. There’s no incentive to earn 2 Guest Rewards points/dollar when I can earn 2 Ultimate Rewards points/dollar and then convert them into Guest Rewards points when it suits me. If they upped the earning ratio to 3 points/$ (like Chase offers with their Hyatt Visa card) or even 5 points/$ (like the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card), this would make the card much more attractive for potential applicants.
What do you think? Do you have the Guest Reward MasterCard, or are you thinking of getting it? Please share your thoughts and personal experiences in the comments section below!