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I get travel inspiration when I hear folks share stories of their adventures. So here’s the next installment of our weekly series where Million Mile Secrets team members shares their travel successes (and failures) with you!
Jason: When it comes to booking Big Travel with Small Money most folks in the miles & points hobby focus on earning rewards to use for flights, hotels, or cash back.
But I rarely hear the miles & points community talk about a surprisingly valuable way to use points − train travel.
I recently helped my parents and aunt & uncle book a cross-country train trip. And they did it almost entirely with points!
I’ll tell you about my experience using points for an Amtrak trip. And help you decide if it’s worth consider train travel for your next vacation!
What to Consider When Looking Into Train Travel
Whenever I hear about “train travel,” I often think it’s something reserved for when you’re traveling in Europe. Because other than commuter railways in major US cities, the only option for train travel between cities in the US is Amtrak. And Amtrak serves a LOT less cities than airlines do.
But if you’re looking for a relaxing vacation where the journey is the destination, train travel might be for you!
Why Amtrak Is the Way to Go!
Train travel is MUCH simpler than flying. You can just show up at the station and walk onto your train without having to go through security. It’s even quicker than TSA Pre-Check! 😉
And in some cases, you do NOT even have to purchase your ticket before boarding. But you’ll typically get a better price if you purchase your tickets ahead of time. And certain tickets require advance purchase, like like Acela Express First Class or a Superliner Roomette.
My uncle absolutely loves traveling with Amtrak because of the people he meets. He’s particularly fond of the dining car. In general, dining with Amtrak is a more communal experience and is a great way to meet the other travelers. Million Mile Secrets team member Jesse had a great experience talking with folks in the dining car on a recent Amtrak trip.
Most folks are in less of a rush when they’re riding a train because they aren’t expecting to get to their destination quickly. And it can be a more pleasant experience because it’s less cramped and you have more freedom to get up and move around.
Million Mile Secrets team member Jasmin took her 3 kids on an Amtrak trip a few years ago between Rochester, New York, and New York City. She says it was very comfortable and an easy ride on the Empire Service train. So much so that her kids thought they were in Business Class!
Unique Travel Situations Can Make an Amtrak Trip a Great Option
I was able to use points for 4 train tickets from Pennsylvania to Seattle and California to Pennsylvania in Superliner Roomettes (comfortable seats that convert to beds). I booked the trip ~6 months in advance and there were plenty of seats available.
Amtrak trains sell out far less frequently than flights. So it can be a great option if you have a large family or are traveling as a group. I likely would have struggled to find a good deal or available award seats for 4 round-trip Business Class award flights on a similar route.
And if you’re planning a cycling trip, Amtrak can be a fantastic option because most rail cars are equipped with bike racks.
And there is even Auto Train service from Virginia to Florida. So you can take your car along with you on vacation! It’s also a good option for folks relocation from the Northeast to Florida.
It costs ~$300 one-way to bring a vehicle on the Auto Train. Depending on your travel plans, it might not be cheaper than a rental car. But it’s great for folks who need a specialty car and don’t want to drive a long distance.
For example, my dad builds kitchens and was working on a project in Florida. He needed to bring his work van with his tools. And for him, the train was a more relaxing option than driving.
Amtrak Travel Is NOT for Everyone!
There is a good reason why most passenger train travel has gone the way of the dinosaur. It takes MUCH longer! So you probably won’t travel by train unless the train trip is part of the vacation.
For example, you could take a 3-day one-way Amtrak ride from New York to Los Angeles for $250 to $350 one-way in coach, which is only a bit less than a one-way coach flight between the 2 cities! But the flight only takes ~6.5 hours! It’s easy to see why train travel is NOT practical for most folks.
Also, unless you’re traveling in First Class, a sleeping accommodation and meals are typically not included in the price of your ticket. So that’s an extra cost you’ll have to add in when you’re budgeting for your trip. Keep in mind, you are allowed to bring food and beverages onto the train, so you could save some cash that way.
Depending on where you’re going, Amtrak might be cheaper than flying, especially in the Northeast. And if you’re traveling on a multi-day trip you’ll probably want to book a room or roomette so you can get some decent sleep, which will cost more. So even though it seems like a budget form of traveling, that isn’t always the case, especially when compared to flying.
I have also found that if you’re commuting into a bigger city for an event or work, taking public transportation is usually cheaper than Amtrak. For example, you could park in New Jersey and take the Amtrak train to New York, but you’ll pay almost half the price if you take the New Jersey Transit train instead.
How to Earn Amtrak Points
- Audience Rewards at a 1:1 ratio
- Choice Hotels at a 32:5 ratio
- Hertz at a 6:5 ratio
- Hilton at a 10:1.5 ratio
- La Quinta at a 6:1 ratio
- Starwood at a 1:1 ratio
- Wyndham at a 5:1 ratio
One of the better ways to collect Amtrak points is with one of the Bank of America Amtrak credit cards.
There are 2 versions of the card. With the Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards® World Mastercard®, you can earn 20,000 Amtrak points after spending $1,000 within the first 90 days of account opening.
You’ll also get:
- 3 Amtrak points per $1 spent on Amtrak
- 2 Amtrak points per $1 spent on travel purchases including airlines, car rental agencies, hotels, motels, inns, and resorts, cruise lines, and travel agencies
- 1 Amtrak point per $1 on all other purchases
- Annual companion coupon
- Annual upgrade coupon valid for one class upgrade (not including sleeper car accommodations) restrictions apply
- Single-visit Station Lounge Pass upon account opening (not annually)
- 5% Amtrak points rebate on award tickets
- 1,000 Tier Qualifying Points per $5,000 spent (up to 4,000 TQPs per calendar year)
- No foreign transaction fees
The card has a $79 annual fee, which is NOT waived the first year. The 5% Amtrak points rebate is extremely useful because it typically posts almost instantly. So the points can easily be applied to your next award.
I found the companion coupon easy to use as well. But it’s only valid for coach fare and blackout dates do apply.
And with the Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards® Platinum Mastercard, you can earn 12,000 Amtrak points after spending $1,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.
Cardholders also get:
- 2 Amtrak points per $1 spent on Amtrak
- 1 Amtrak point per $1 spent on all other purchases
- 5% Amtrak points rebate on award tickets
- No foreign transaction fees
- No annual fee
Or you could earn Starwood points with the AMEX Starwood cards and transfer them directly to Amtrak at a 1:1 ratio. The personal and business versions of the card currently offer these sign-up bonuses:
- Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express – 25,000 Starwood points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of opening your account (terms apply)
- Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express – 25,000 Starwood points after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of opening your account (terms apply)
When you’re collecting miles & points for your next dream vacation it’s easy to forget about Amtrak train travel. Because it’s typically not as convenient as driving and it takes much longer than flying.
But if you’re looking to take a relaxing journey, taking the the train can be worth considering. You won’t deal with lines of travelers trying to get somewhere quickly. And most folks find train travel a friendlier experience than flying.
Amtrak also has a surprisingly great loyalty program. There are no blackout dates or booking fees! And you can collect the Amtrak points directly with the Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards® World Mastercard®. Or you can transfer Starwood points directly to Amtrak at a 1:1 ratio!
Have you taken an Amtrak trip? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!