Planning your next Amtrak adventure before its too late

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Given the upcoming changes to Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program, I thought it would be fun to point out some sweet spots in their current award chart and give examples of a few potentially awesome routes. Plus, I’ll throw out some tips for stretching your points even further.

Amtrak Adventure

First, a little background…

Background

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.

In addition to overhauling their rewards program, Amtrak has discontinued their relationship with Chase bank.  They’re now in bed, instead, with Bank of America (see: Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card review).  Unfortunately, this also means that the ability to transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards will soon end as well.  Via Flyertalk, an Amtrak representative announced that December 7th 2015 will be the last day to make these point transfers.  Beginning December 8th, the best options for obtaining Amtrak points quickly will be point transfers from SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest), Amtrak credit card transfer bonuses, and shopping through the Amtrak shopping portal.

Amtrak awards booked now through January 23rd

With Amtrak’s current zone based system, most awards are priced per zone. The country is divided into four zones: western, central, eastern, and northeast.  This map shows the zone boundaries:

Amtrak Zone Map Amtrak adventure

When using points to book Amtrak travel, point prices depend on how many zones you will travel through.  Prices are one-way and do not include stop-overs.  Here are most of the current award prices (A complete list of award prices can be found on the Amtrak Guest Rewards website):

One Zone:

  • Coach: 5,500 points (4,000 points in northeast zone)
  • Business class: 6,500 points
  • Roomette: 15,000 points
  • Bedroom: 25,000 points (20,000 points in northeast zone)

Two Zones:

  • Coach: 8,000 points
  • Business class: 10,500 points
  • Roomette: 20,000 points
  • Bedroom: 40,000 points

Three Zones:

  • Coach: 10,500 points
  • Business class: 12,500 points
  • Roomette: 35,000 points
  • Bedroom: 60,000 points

Special Routes:

  • Coach: 1,500 points
  • Business class: 2,000 points

Special Routes include the following: Blue Water®, Wolverine®, Cascades®, Pacific Surfliner®, Capitol Corridor®, San Joaquin®, Hiawatha®, Downeaster®, The Lincoln Service®, Illini Service®, The Carl Sandburg®, Missouri River Runner, The Illinois Zephyr®, The Saluki®, The Hoosier State®, The Pere Marquette®, The Piedmont®, and The Heartland Flyer®.

Amtrak awards travel through December 23, 2016

I called Amtrak Guest Rewards to find out how far in advance we can book awards.  The answer: 11 months.  You can lock in current award prices by booking your award anytime before January 24th 2016.  That means that January 23rd 2016 will be the last day to book zone based awards.  On that day, it should be possible to book travel that completes by December 23rd 2016, or earlier.  Note: you will not be able to book a train that departs on December 23rd and arrives a day or more later.  Your arrival date must be December 23rd or earlier.

Of course, unless you actually want to travel on December 23rd 2016, you should book earlier than January 23rd since things could go wrong.

With the new program we’ll be able to redeem awards online.  For now, though, you’ll have to call:

Amtrak Guest Rewards

1-800-307-5000

5 a.m. – midnight, Eastern Time, 7 days a week

Maximizing 1 Zone

If your goal is to maximize bedroom time on Amtrak for the least points, you could book a single 1 zone award that travels throughout most of that zone.  One example would be to travel from Denver to Emeryville, CA (near San Francisco) to Seattle to Glacier National Park, Montana:

Amtrak Western Zone Amtrak adventure

Or, Albuquerque to Chicago to New Orleans:

Amtrak Central Zone Amtrak adventure

Personally, while I enjoyed my Amtrak trip west from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Green River, Utah, I thought that one night and two days on trains was enough.  I like to get out and explore.  Unfortunately, when booking a single award, you can’t include stopovers.  So, while others may enjoy trips like those suggested above, I’m not too interested.

Crossing Zones

When you book a single one-way trip that crosses zones, the total number of points required is less than the cost of booking two separate single-zone awards.  For example, bedroom awards increase from 25,000 points for one zone to 40,000 points for two zones.  In that case, the second zone increases your point cost by 60% over a single zone award.  Here are a few tips for saving points when crossing zones:

Book roomettes for 2 Zone awards

One two zone outlier worth pointing out is with Roomette awards.  A single zone roomette costs 15,000 points and a two-zone roomette costs 20,000 points.  That’s an increase of only 33%.  So, when planning two-zone awards, consider roomette’s over bedrooms.  You will have considerably less space and you’ll have to use shared bathroom facilities, but the difference in price is huge: 40,000 points for a bedroom vs. only 20,000 points for a roomette.  Either way, all meals are included.

Book two awards (with caveats)

In some cases, you can save by splitting your award into separate bookings.  For example, consider my recent trip to Utah on the California Zephyr.  Since we traveled through two zones, we paid 40,000 points per bedroom and 20,000 points per roomette.  The overnight part of our trip was entirely contained within the Central Zone.

We could have split up the tickets by booking bedrooms to the far west end of the Central Zone (Denver), and then booked separate one-zone tickets for the daytime ride to Utah.  We spent most of the Denver to Utah part of the trip in the viewing car anyway, so the experience could have been similar.  Here’s how the prices would have turned out had we split up the trip:

  • 1 zone bedroom + 1 zone coach: 30,500
  • 1 zone roomette + 1 zone coach: 20,500 (don’t do this one unless you plan on stopping over in Denver!)

Had we broken up the trip as described, we would have saved 9,500 points per bedroom.  On the other hand, we would have also spent an extra 500 points per roomette.  This underscores again how good of a deal the 2 zone roomette option is.

Pros:

  • Ability to save points when booking bedrooms
  • Ability to stop-over at zone border cities.  For example, had we broken up the award we could have spent a couple of days in Denver before moving on.

Cons:

  1. Meals are included for roomette and bedroom passengers, but not for coach and business class passengers.  In the scenario above, we would have had to have paid for all meals once we moved to coach seating.
  2. It would be necessary to pack up your stuff before the end of the trip to free up the bedroom.

Business class for 3 zones

Another outlier on the reward chart is the ability to travel through 3 zones in business class for only 12,500 points.  At only 2,000 points more than 2 zone business class, that’s extremely cheap.  On the other hand, business class seats do not lie flat.  And, meals are not included.  You couldn’t pay me to do this.

Daytime trips

Many cool Amtrak routes go from point A to point B during the day (except, of course, when those trains are massively delayed).  These routes can be terrific for weekend jaunts or to tag onto a vacation.

Special Routes

A number of routes are mysteriously (to me) labeled as “special routes”.  For these, Amtrak currently charges just 1,500 points one way (or 2,000 points for business class).  One great example that I’ve ridden is the scenic Cascades route from Seattle to Vancouver.  The train hugs the coastline most of the way, and bald eagles fly around majestically.

Amtrak Cascades Amtrak adventure

Here is a complete list of Special Routes (borrowed from this Travel Codex post):

Note that the above routes do not have bedroom options.  Note also that prices for these routes are usually quite reasonable and so these routes will often continue to be great options (and sometimes even cheaper) under the new Amtrak plan.

Bedrooms by day

Sleeper car trains often have segments that run entirely during the day.  A good example is the California Zephyr from Denver to Salt Lake City with fantastic views of the Rockies along the way.  Pickup in Denver is in the morning, and drop-off in Utah is in the evening.  When going the other direction, you might prefer to get on the train further east than Salt Lake City (to avoid the 3:30 am –ish departure).

If you’re planning one of these daytime routes, consider booking a roomette.

Let’s look at award prices again for one zone:

  • Coach: 5,500 points (4,000 points in northeast zone)
  • Business class: 6,500 points
  • Roomette: 15,000 points (7,500 points per person, for two people)

Coach and business class awards are per person.  Roomette awards cover two people.  Plus, roomette awards include meals.  So, when traveling with two people you could go cheap and spend 11,000 points to travel in coach, or spend just 4,000 points more for a private roomette plus free meals.  I’d opt for the latter every time.

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