Amtrak Guest Rewards 2016 — Better than expected. My take and recommendations.

Last week, I travelled with family and friends to a number of national parks: Arches, Bryce, Grand Canyon, and Zion.  We used Amtrak points (transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards) to make the journey west from Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The first leg of our trip was in business class on the Wolverine route to Chicago.  The next leg was aboard the California Zephyr where we enjoyed private sleeper cars — all meals included.  We detrained in Utah and visited the parks by way of rental cars before finally flying home from Las Vegas.

Amtrak Guest Rewards 2016 California Zephyr

I’ll follow-up soon with more details about the trip, but since it’s relevant, here’s a short review of the train ride: great.  It was a fantastic low-stress way to travel west and to see the sights along the way.  Even the food was pretty good.

Coincidentally, we were still enjoying our trip when I received an email from Amtrak:

Subject: Gregory, we’re making updates to the Amtrak Guest Rewards program

Amtrak Guest Rewards 2016

We’re making the Amtrak Guest Rewards program even better

We’re updating our Amtrak Guest Rewards® program because we want to make the Amtrak® experience even more rewarding for our most loyal customers. Beginning in January 2016, earning points will be simpler, building them up will be surer and redeeming them will be easier with lower redemption minimums—starting at just 800 points. In short, it’s everything you’ve always loved, only better engineered to fit your life. You can see all the details about the 2016 Amtrak Guest Rewards program here.

Thank you for being a valued Amtrak Guest Rewards member. We look forward to seeing you on board soon.

Upon clicking the link to learn more, I found the following details of Amtrak’s 2016 Guest Rewards program, which begins January 24 2016:

  • Passengers will earn 2 points per dollar
  • Passengers will no longer earn a minimum of 100 points per trip.  This means that the days of rail running will soon be behind us.  See: Rail running: pursuing Amtrak status to save on hotels.
  • Those who pay for business or first class will earn additional points: 25% for Business class and 50% for Acela® First class.
  • Point prices will be determined by ticket prices.  That is, more expensive tickets will require more points.  We already knew this was coming.  See: Amtrak revenue based: Amtrak to tie award prices to ticket prices.
  • Points will be worth 2.9 cents each with the exception of Acela routes where points will be worth closer to 2.6 cents each.
  • Awards start at 800 points, so you’ll get less value for points with cheap fares.  When fares are less than $23, consider paying cash instead.
  • Acela route awards start at 4000 points.  When Acela fares are less than $100, consider paying cash instead.
  • Amtrak will eliminate blackout dates for awards.
  • Amtrak will make it easier to keep points from expiring. Going forward, all account activity (both earning and using points) will count to reset the clock for 36 months.
  • Points & Cash redemptions will be available.
  • Point rebates due to cancelations or changes to lower fare routes will result in a 10% points penalty.  For example, if you cancel a trip that cost 10,000 points, you will receive only 9,000 points back.
  • Amtrak will add close-in change penalties: “If modifying a non-sleeper ticket within 24 hours prior to departure, or a sleeper ticket within 14 days prior to departure, an additional “close-in” penalty of 10% of the points redeemed will be collected (waived for Select Executive).”

My take

When we previously learned that Amtrak was going to tie award prices to ticket prices, I figured that the game was over.  I assumed that Amtrak would massively devalue their points.  Instead, they shocked me (in a good way) with their award calculator that seems to value points for most awards at 2.9 cents each.  For a fixed value program, that’s excellent.

With Amtrak’s current zone based award scheme, point values for awards vary tremendously from one situation to another.  With some awards you can get much more than 2.9 cents per point value, whereas with others you may get much less.  With the trip I took last week, I spent 40,000 points per room rather than paying the cash ticket price of $1,591.  In other words, my points were worth just shy of 4 cents each for this award ($1,591 / 40,000).  If we had ended our trip in Denver, we would have paid just 25,000 points, for a ticket priced at $1,315.  Had we done that, our points would have been worth 5.3 cents each, but we also would have missed the best part of the trip (or we could have booked a coach award from Denver to Utah for the final daytime journey, but it was great to have bedroom access all day and three additional included meals).

Despite the fact that the current scheme sometimes allows for better redemption opportunities, I’m pretty happy with the new program.  Under the 2016 program, it will no longer be necessary to cherry pick certain routes for awards.  In the future, getting good value from your points will be easy and automatic.  As long as the ticket price is $23 or more ($100 or more for Acela routes), you’ll get fixed, decent value from your points.

NOTE: View from the Wing points out two scenarios in which point values will be less than expected under the new program: 1) With paid fares, it’s possible to apply AAA and other discounts. With award redemptions, apparently, you will not be able to apply those discounts; and 2) Saver fares will not qualify for redemption.  Both seem like fairly minor points to me: 1) A 10% discount brings the point value for regular routes down to 2.6 cents per point — still a good deal. And, in my experience, sleeper cars are discounted by far less than 10% so the point value will be closer to 2.9 cents in those cases; and 2) I’ve never encountered Saver fares in my regular use of Amtrak pricing.  Saver fares are non-refundable and appear to be limited to certain routes and to coach seats.  For some, that could indeed be a problem, but my guess is that most people won’t encounter that limitation often.

Recommendation: Consider transferring now

Currently, it’s possible to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak points 1 to 1 as long as you have a premium card such as Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus.  If you know that you’ll be riding Amtrak in the future, you should consider transferring points to Amtrak prospectively.  Since it appears that Amtrak has moved its credit card partnership from Chase to Bank of America, its very likely that Chase will soon stop allowing transfers to Amtrak.  I’m not saying that you should definitely make the transfer, just that you should consider it.  Whether it makes sense for you depends on how likely it is that you’ll use the Amtrak points and how you might have used your Chase points otherwise.

Recommendation: Consider booking future trips now

If you’re considering a 2016 Amtrak trip, it makes sense to price out the award now.  If the current award price is less than the expected future price, then book now.  Otherwise, if possible, wait until January 24 2016 to book.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Pingbacks

  1. […] Next year, the Amtrak Guest Rewards program will change dramatically.  They’re moving from a fixed zone-based redemption system to a revenue based system.  Starting January 24th 2016, award prices will be tied to ticket prices.  The result is that very expensive train rides (typically bedrooms and last minute holiday bookings) will become significantly more expensive to book with points.  On the plus side, Amtrak is offering unexpectedly high per-point values (2.6 to 2.9 cents per point).  And, blackout dates will be removed.  A full analysis of the new rewards program can be found here: Amtrak Guest Rewards 2016 — Better than expected. My take and recommendations. […]

Comments

  1. Never been on Amtrak before but would like to . I live in Los Angeles area. Which route would you recommend for a great value and scenic?

    • Yeah, I’m with Gary there. As someone who frequently uses points from BOS-PHL, saver awards are a pretty big deal. And I’d assume NE Corridor is a pretty good percentage of Amtrak traffic.

      • I agree with Gary when he says that Amtrak isn’t rewarding their best passengers, but for those who get points in other ways, the new redemption scheme is very good. So, you can’t get best value from a non-refundable coach ticket on certain popular routes. OK. But, I expect that lots of people would want to spend their points on vacation travel in sleeper cars, or at least business class. In those cases, the Saver fare restriction isn’t relevant.

    • I also found them on Toledo to Chicago so I think they’re more widespread than that. All that means is that there are situations with Amtrak where spending cash may make more sense than using points. That’s true of many programs. I’m not saying its good, just that I don’t think its nearly a big enough deal to then say that the whole new scheme is a bust.

  2. I’ll be interested in reading your trip report. Using points, I took the Zephyr to SFO this summer, too. My train was 17 1/2 hours late — which meant we missed all the good scenery (we passed through at night). The sleeper accommodations are OK, and the food is OK, too. Anyone who thinks this will be a “fantastic” trip is overselling it, unless they are a certified train nut. Honestly, the best reason to do it is that it’s unusual, and pleasant enough for anyone with the time and patience for long distance train travel.

      • You were lucky: my understanding is that the Zephyr has suffered from outrageous delays all summer.

        The good news is that, if you write in and complain, Amtrak is quick to offer restitution — even on award tickets. We got $500 to spend on future Amtrak travel for our woes. That’s about what I “paid” for the trip (on points), so I guess we essentially went for nothing, but I would have preferred to be on time and see the scenery we signed up for.

  3. It all sounds great except for the fact that its Amtrak. After riding on lots of trains (save for India Train travel) Amtrak sucks horribly. Glad to hear you had a good trip but I cant put alot of faith in that system.

  4. Getting rid of blackout dates is a HUGE deal.
    I’m not thrilled about fixed value redemptions, but pegging them at about 2.9c/pt is pretty awesome for a fixed value system.
    Those of us who would like changes to the Amtrak train system itself will have to “call your member of Congress”, as it is basically a government run program. I’ve enjoyed it, but there is definitely a lot left to be desired. I had huge delays on the Coast Starlight (but then again, there had been high rains and mudslides damaging tracks that caused the delays, mostly). I’ve had no delays on the trips I’ve taken from Chicago to St Louis.
    Still, I’m going to look into planning that trip from Chicago to NOLA on the City of New Orleans. We will just make sure we aren’t counting on arriving on time 😉

  5. In the diner I was finding more and more people playing the points game for their sleeping car redemptions. So this move was inevitable. Unfortunately this new scheme values earning points through credit card spend over earning points through actually riding the train. It’s fairly trivial to MS points at one cent per point, so I will be switching from paying cash for corridor trips and redeeming on sleepers to redeeming for all corridor trips instead, especially since status is going to be much harder to earn with the elimination of the 100 point minimum.

  6. I’ve taken Amtrak a couple of times on short-iesh trips for work and I too founded it low stress and comfortable, plus the plug & play capabilities for computers and other devices. This was a few years ago on the Northeast segments, hope they’ve improved things since.

    For the frequent Amtrak travelers, does the experience (quality of cars, service) on Amtrak differ across the country (where they have service), and if so how?

    • Personally, the only real and consistently stressful part of an Amtrak trip is boarding. Especially at NYP. When the gate is announced, there is a (mad) rush to line up at the escalator; it’s hell, quite frankly, when travelling with family/children. Other stations aren’t as bad since the gates are usually listed much further ahead of departure, e.g., Philadelphia and Washington.

  7. you seem to be pre-writing your posts more and more. This one came across as a bit tone deaf in light of Gary’s more real time reporting. In CA, the Pacific Surfliner and the Capitol Corridor were only 1500 points and had plenty of Saver fares. This is a huge deval for those people (surprised Ben isn’t writing about it). At this point on a lot of those routes the Greyhound makes more sense.

    • I just took a quick look at the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to LA. I didn’t see Saver prices available, but regular prices are $37. That would be just 1277 points under the new system so you would save a bit in the new system vs. the old (if you traveled that route). Seems like a win to me. Business class would come out to just under 2000 points so its about break even there.
      .
      Where you lose on the new system is last minute increased fares used to have the same fixed award price. Now the award prices will increase along with the fares.

      • The Capitol Corridor and Surfliner have fixed fares (since they are unreserved trains), but discount using the “saver fare” or have coupon code promotions or multiple riders promotions like the recent $5 companion deal on the Capitol. The San Joaquin governing board has been complaining about the high fares on the train, and has asked Amtrak to review having more tickets available at lower buckets. Some members have even asked for the San Joaquin to go back to being unreserved, which TPITB at Amtrak have said results in overcrowding on the weekend.

  8. Are stopovers allowed?

    And when you book a bedroom at 25,000 points for 1 zone, does it book into Superliner Bedroom, Superliner Bedroom Suite or Superliner Family Bedroom?

  9. @M Stopovers are not allowed.

    I took a trip last summer from Denver to Sacramento (California Zephyr) to Portland (Coast Starlight) to Wolf Point (Empire Builder) in a roomette for 15,000 points. Beautiful scenery and great value at 8 cents per point, but the horrific delays made it a “one and done” experience.

  10. One way to be eligible to transfer Amtrak points to Choice points at the rate of 1 to 3 is by having an Amtrak credit card and buy a ticket that costs more than $200. A couple of questions regarding eligibility to do this in 2016:
    1) Can a trip that costs over $200 be purchased in 2015 but for the travel dates in 2016? and
    2) Does one need to have an Amtrak credit card at the time of booking or at the time of traveling?

    • 1) I believe so, yes
      2) At the time of booking
      Overall, since the Amtrak credit card will be dropped at the end of this month I don’t know if it is still possible to do the Choice points transfer if you haven’t previously spend $200 on Amtrak. I may try it just to see what happens.

      • The answer is no, you cannot do the Amtrak to Choice transfer without spending $200 on Amtrak travel, and even when you spend $200, you may have to call in or wait another cycle before the option is permitted.

  11. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for the old vs. the new redemption guidelines here: https://hopstrainsbackpacks.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/amtrak-guest-rewards-best-deal-in-travel-gets-better-for-most/

    As expected, most sleeper car arrangements cost much more in points with a few exceptions, while travel in the Northeast Corridor is even a better deal. This takes away some of the incentive to save for a cross-country trip, but it makes the points much more useful for day-to-day and short trips.

    Also noted, Chase has ended their relationship with Amtrak though Starwood (through AmEx) still allows 1:1 point transfers.

  12. new system stinks
    I will probably never have enough points to enjoy the trips I took on the zone system; often the train had empty seats what a waste
    I will miss my train trips

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