Last July, I fulfilled a lifelong goal of mine by taking the Amtrak from Emeryville (just outside San Francisco) to Boston over five days (though it was supposed to be four), completing my journey back to my hometown of Boston from San Francisco, where I had the spent the past seven years. It was an absolutely amazing trip (which I’ll get to in a future post), but best of all, it was totally free.
A little later after I was done with my trip, a blog post went viral about how to go across the USA for $213, which was frequently shared by many of my friends on Facebook, to which I would furiously comment that it could be done for free, but with no avail.
As this blog is called Wicked Cheap Travel, not Wicked Cheap Flights, I wanted to use this post to talk about how to travel for free on Amtrak using Amtrak Guest Rewards.
Amtrak Guest Rewards
Like other airlines, hotels, and car rental companies, Amtrak also has its own loyalty program called Amtrak Guest Rewards. And like the majority of domestic airlines today (unfortunately), you can earn points based on the cost of your ticket (rather than distance traveled), at two points per dollar spent, with a 25% bonus for business class tickets and 50% bonus for Acela first class.
Redeeming points for reward tickets is also fairly straightforward. One Guest Reward point is worth roughly 2.9 cents, meaning you could get a $29 ticket (not unheard of for short distances outside of the East Coast, like Emeryville, CA to Davis, CA) for 1,000 points. And on top of that, if you take your first trip within 90 days of signing up for the program, you get a 500-point bonus!
So in order to take that $213 trip for free, all you need is 7,345 Amtrak Guest Reward points, or to spend $3,422.50 on Amtrak coach tickets (assuming you get the 500-point bonus). However, unless you’re a consultant on the East Coast who’s always on the road, you might not spend that much on Amtrak in your entire life.
This is where the magic of credit card points and bonuses comes in.
Using credit card(s) to get (a lot) more points
Last year, Amtrak switched its credit card partner from Chase to Bank of America, which offers two Amtrak co-branded credit cards: one with a 20,000-point bonus after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days and an annual fee of $79 (as well as three points per dollar spent on Amtrak travel, two on other travel, and one for other purchases), and one with a 12,000-point bonus after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days but no annual fee (as well as two points per dollar spent on Amtrak travel, and one for other purchases).
If you’re a frequent Amtrak rider who plans on using this as their primary card, it might not be bad to get the one with the annual fee, as it’s essentially a 3%+ cash back card when used on Amtrak (you also get 5% of your points back when redeeming), and it also gives you one club pass and one upgrade pass per year, as well as a fast-track to earning elite status.
But for most of you who aren’t hardcore Amtrak riders, the no annual fee one is probably the one worth considering; given that the signup bonus is worth over $350, it’s very rare to see a signup bonus this high before any card without an annual fee. After you spend $1,000, you could put it in your drawer by your bed and never have to use it again, and you’ll be 13,000 Amtrak points richer (assuming none of the $1,000 you spend to hit the bonus is on Amtrak). Of course, you shouldn’t get rid of it so that you can still build your length of credit to improve your credit score, as I discussed earlier.
Booking the Trip
This used to be a much more complicated process, but at the end of last year, Amtrak revamped their loyalty program and website to make it far easier. After you go to the Amtrak homepage, type in where you’re coming from, and going to, and the date. You’ll then get a page like this:
I haven’t figured out how Amtrak chooses the order it displays trips in, but for some reason, it chooses to display the most expensive ones requiring the most amount of transfers first. Select “POINTS” and scroll down until you find the one you want. As you can see here, this trip cost $231 normally, but just over 8,000 points!
The route above is the exact one I took last year, and it was everything I hoped for (the featured image in the post is a photo I took while passing through the red rocks of Utah), though it for sure was not without faults. As I mentioned earlier, I plan on putting this in a separate blog post that should hopefully be coming soon.
“I don’t want to open up another credit card, is there another way I can earn lots of Amtrak points if I’m not planning on spending a lot of money on Amtrak travel?”
Yes, though it may not be a good idea. Amtrak has a wide variety of earning partners, such as rental cars and hotels, though for almost all of them, you’re better off not crediting points to Amtrak, unless your primary travel goal is free Amtrak travel (you can even earn Amtrak points for United flights if you fly in/out of Newark and connect with Amtrak, but again, probably not a very good idea).
However, if you have more Starpoints (earned through staying at Starwood hotels) than you know what to do with, not only am I very jealous of you, but you can transfer them in 5,000-point increments to your Amtrak Guest Rewards account. But given Starpoints’ ability to be transferred 1:1 to nearly every major frequent flyer program, this isn’t a great use of them, as I would much rather transfer them to Alaska Airlines MileagePlan to book award flights on Emirates (which I’ll address later).
Did I miss something? Have your own Amtrak Guest Rewards experience to share? Feel free to post in the comments below, or e-mail me.