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All aboard! For the entire month of September at The Points Guy, we’ll be exploring the world of train travel with reviews, features, deals and tips for maximizing your trip by rail.
While the American train system pales in comparison to that of many European and Asian countries, it can still offer a convenient alternative that lets you bypass long security lines and even longer taxi times at some of the country’s most congested airports. Amtrak, which operates the majority of the medium- and long-haul passenger trains in the US, offers its own loyalty program to reward frequent customers and help you earn free rides. Today, we’re going to take a look at everything you need to know to maximize the Amtrak Guest Rewards program.
Earning Amtrak Points
If you find yourself frequently traveling on Amtrak, you might want to consider applying for one of its two cobranded credit cards issued by Bank of America. The Amtrak Guest Rewards© World Mastercard® is currently offering an elevated welcome bonus of 40,000 points after spending $2,500 in the first 90 days of account opening, while the no-annual-fee Amtrak Guest Rewards® Platinum Mastercard® is offering 12,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days of account opening. TPG values Amtrak points at 2.5 cents each, making these bonuses worth $1,000 and $300 respectively.
The Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard comes with a $79 annual fee, and earns 3x points per dollar on Amtrak purchases, 2x on other travel purchases and 1x everywhere else. Cardholders will receive a 20% rebate for onboard purchases. Meanwhile the Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum Mastercard earns 2x on Amtrak purchases and 1x everywhere else. Both cards also include a complimentary companion certificate upon account opening and each year you renew your account, a one class upgrade, a 5% rebate when redeeming Amtrak points for travel and more.
If you’re a less-frequent Amtrak customer, you can still earn points from your paid train tickets. Members earn 2x points per dollar spent, plus a 25% bonus for business-class travel and a 50% bonus for Acela first class. You can also earn a 500-point bonus for referring a new friend to the Amtrak Guest Rewards program.
While Amtrak doesn’t partner with any of the major transferable points currencies like Chase or Amex, you can still transfer points from the following programs into your Amtrak Guest Rewards account:
|Hertz Gold Plus Rewards||600:500|
|Wyndham Rewards||5:1 (6,000:1,200)|
Amtrak also has a number of retail and commercial partners that let you earn bonus points on hotels, car rentals and more. You can earn 1,000 points and a 15% discount when shopping for new Samsonite luggage, and TPG’s Zach Honig even earned Amtrak points on a Vinesse wine club order. In addition to partnerships with Choice Privileges and Wyndham Rewards, Amtrak members can earn up to 10,000 points when booking hotels through Amtrak Hotels & Cars or Rocketmiles.
Redeeming Amtrak Points
With redemptions starting as low as 800 points, Amtrak makes it very easy to search for award redemptions on its website; simply select points instead of dollars when searching for a train. Amtrak doesn’t use a fixed award chart anymore. Much like Southwest or JetBlue, the reward prices are roughly tied to the cash cost of the ticket. In order to get the best value from your points, you’ll want to use them on trips when the cheapest saver-level tickets are sold out.
Take the popular route from Washington D.C. to New York as an example. Looking at a sample date in March, the standard Northeast Regional train costs 3,312 points for a coach “value” fare seat or 3,692 points for a business-class seat. This corresponds to cash prices of $96 and $107 respectively, giving you redemption values of 2.89 cents per point in either case. Note that the cheapest coach “saver” seats aren’t eligible for points redemption.
If we look instead at the Acela — Amtrak’s higher speed express train generally geared at business travelers — we see redemption rates of 10,121 points for a business-class seat or 16,439 points for a first-class seat. With cash prices of $173 and $281, this gives us a redemption value of 1.7 cents per point for both tickets.
Amtrak runs dozens of trains on this route each day, and the price depending on what type of train it is (Acela vs. Northeast Regional), what class of ticket is for sale (value, flexible, etc.) and simply which departure times are more sought after. On a sample date in September, the 7:15 am Northeast Regional and 7:50 am Acela are more expensive than the early morning departures. Cash prices on the Northeast Regional went up by 30% to $125 for the coach ticket, and award rates also climbed by 30% to 4,313 points keeping the valuation intact. The same thing happened with the Acela, which saw an 18% increase in both the cash and award rates.
You can even use your points to book a sleeper room on some of Amtrak’s longer and more-scenic routes, like the 46-hour journey from Chicago to Seattle. A sleeper compartment on this nonstop journey costs just over 15,000 points, versus $447 cash.
If you’re curious about what 45 hours in a train feels like, make sure to check out Katie Genter’s review of the “Superliner Roomette” from Chicago to Portland. Katie booked the tickets on sale for $448 per person for the one-way trip, and other than the subpar dining experience, she enjoyed the scenic journey (though admits that spending that long in a train certainly won’t be for everyone).
Amtrak also gives you the option to redeem your points for other travel experiences, such as hotels, rental cars and cruises. The options are fairly limited, but a $100 gift card to Budget, Disney or Celebrity Cruises will set you back 12,000 points. That means Amtrak is valuing your points at .83 cents each for this redemption, which is a terrible value. You’ll get roughly the same rate if you opt for dining or entertainment gift cards instead (like Applebees, AMC or Regal). Select retail partners offer a redemption rate of 1 cent per point, meaning you can get a $100 gift card to Bed Bath and Beyond, GAP or Lowes for only 10,000 points, but the $50 denomination cards still cost a full 6,000 points.
Amtrak Guest Rewards offers three tiers of elite status which include benefits like bonus points, upgrades, and even access to United Club locations. Qualification is based on your yearly total of Tier Qualifying Points. Members earn 2x Tier Qualifying Points per dollar spent, plus a 25% bonus for business-class tickets and a 50% bonus for Acela first-class tickets. Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard cardholders can earn up to 4,000 TQPs a year — 1,000 for every $5,000 spent on their card.
|Select||Select Plus||Select Executive|
|Tier Qualifying Points needed||5,000||10,000||20,000|
|Tier status points bonus||25%||50%||100%|
|One class upgrades||2||4||4 (plus one more with every additional 3,000 TQP)|
|Access to ClubAcela and Metropolitan Lounge||2 single visit passes||Yes||Yes|
|Access to United Club locations||N/A||Yes||Yes|
The partnership between Amtrak and United is also quite nice, giving Amtrak elites access to United Club locations. Amtrak does not normally allow status matching, but they will occasionally send out targeted offers allowing members to upgrade their status after completing a certain number of trips.
Amtrak’s reputation has slipped over the last couple of years following a number of serious accidents and derailments, but the company is working on turning that around and restoring reliable service throughout the US. For many short trips especially up and down the coast, Amtrak is a great alternative to lengthy airport security lines and air traffic delays. Amtrak points can be incredibly valuable, especially for trips where the cheapest tickets are already sold out.
Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy
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NEW INCREASED OFFER: 60,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees