Why I’m (temporarily) switching my loyalty to Amtrak

Jul 27, 2020

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When I lived in Washington, D.C., I often took advantage of cheap Megabus or FlixBus tickets between New York and my hometown in southern Virginia. And if I needed to travel longer distances on the East Coast for work, I would fly. 

The novel coronavirus has fundamentally altered how we all think about travel, myself included. I likely won’t step foot on a plane again this year given inconsistent social distancing policies, and bus travel is entirely out of the question. 

But as coronavirus restrictions begin to relax in certain states, I am considering taking a weekend getaway in the next few months, or visiting family for the holidays if it’s safe to do so. I’m considering taking a mode of transportation I don’t often take – Amtrak

Amtrak appears to be on the right path in preventing virus transmission by requiring face coverings and potentially banning customers who don’t comply. It has made several customer-friendly changes in recent months, including extending elite status and the expiration date on Amtrak Guest Rewards points.

With cheap cash fares, points promotions and how easy it is to earn Amtrak points, it may be my preferred mode of transportation for the rest of the year. Here’s why Amtrak will get my business this year.

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In This Post

Space matters

Last week, I reported that Amtrak said it may remove customers from trains or ban them from future travel if they don’t comply with face mask requirements. 

Here’s the thing: a train ride may seem less risky than airplanes, buses or cruise ships, but it depends on several factors. Whether social distancing is effective will depend on the number of other passengers, how close everyone is sitting and how seriously other passengers take social distancing.

Amtrak says its limiting bookings on reserved trains (like the Northeast Regional) to allow for more social distancing in seating areas. That means if I’m traveling alone (which I will be), I can use the seat next to me to store my personal belongings. 

Amtrak passengers lining up at New York Penn Station. (Photo by Amtrak/Doug Riddell)
Amtrak passengers lining up at New York Penn Station. (Photo by Amtrak/Doug Riddell)

Amtrak is stopping priority boarding and changing its boarding methods in stations like Washington and New York Penn Station, which is notorious for overcrowding. Amtrak says it cleans high-touch surfaces frequently, provides hand sanitizer for customers and will close Penn Station between midnight and 5:00 a.m. for complete disinfection.

Knowing how seriously Amtrak appears to be taking the pandemic, I’d rather try my luck with Amtrak than on a commercial airliner.

While U.S. airlines have required face masks onboard and throughout the airport – even going as far as banning unruly passengers – they have been inconsistent about blocking middle seats to encourage social distancing.

Spirit and Allegiant have been selling all seats when possible and aren’t blocking middle seats. United Airlines never capped capacity on any of its flights and its chief communications officer even called the move a “PR strategy.” On short-haul flights on smaller jets, which I’m more likely to fly given that I don’t plan to leave the East Coast, the likelihood of social distancing is slim.

Cheap promotions

I’ve never given much thought to Amtrak’s loyalty program, Amtrak Guest Rewards. I have typically booked trips up and down the East Coast in cash, taking advantage of numerous deals. But I’m finding that I have several thousand Amtrak points in my account from travel between New York, Washington and Boston last year. 

Related: Your ultimate guide to Amtrak Guest Rewards

Amtrak has several promotions that I’m pretty excited about. The first is cash fares that drop coach tickets to $29 or Acela tickets to $69 along the Northeast corridor. If it becomes safer to travel, I’d love to spend a weekend in Philadelphia or Boston to escape the stuffiness of New York, where I’ve been quarantining since March.

We’ve also seen some points promos in recent weeks that drop one-way trips between Washington and Richmond to 1,050 points.

Acela tickets between New York and Philadelphia appear to be pretty affordable as well, starting at just 4,000 points each way.

With an easy-to-understand change and cancellation policy, including reservations booked with points, I feel secure booking train travel right now.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Amtrak shopping portal 

If you find yourself frequently traveling on Amtrak, you might want to consider applying for one of its two co-branded credit cards issued by Bank of America. 

The Amtrak Guest Rewards® World Mastercard® is currently offering an elevated welcome bonus of 20,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days of account opening. The no-annual-fee Amtrak Guest Rewards® Platinum Mastercard® is offering 20,000 bonus points plus a $100 statement credit after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days of account opening. We value Amtrak points at 2.5 cents each, making each bonus worth $500.

The information for the Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard and Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

I don’t anticipate opening an Amtrak card, but I plan to shift some of my spending to the shopping portal to earn points for future travel quickly. 

Airlines and Amtrak have shopping portals that allow you to earn bonus points, miles or cash back at hundreds of online retailers. All you have to do is start at the portal and then click through to the retailer’s site (rather than going to the merchant directly). 

The portal offers up to 36 Guest Rewards points per dollar spent at select merchants. I can easily put my average spending like Postmates (714 points), Macy’s (4x) or Bed Bath & Beyond (2x) for the next few months. As I said earlier, one-way tickets between select East Coast cities start around 1,000 points. If I purchased a Disney+ bundle through Amtrak’s shopping portal, I’d earn nearly 1,100 points, which would cover the fare entirely.

Related: Maximizing shopping portals for your online purchases

Bottom line

The American rail system pales in comparison to those in many European and Asian countries. But during the pandemic, Amtrak can still offer a convenient alternative to long security lines and even longer taxi times at some of the country’s most congested airports. 

I don’t see myself becoming an Amtrak loyalist long-term. Still, I’ve had enjoyable experiences with Amtrak in the past and look forward to (possibly) exploring the East Coast on the ground instead of the sky.

Featured photo by Paul Hennessy/Nur Photo / Getty Images

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