Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program

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Update:  You can no longer transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak.

Last month, rumors were flying about changes to Amtrak Guest Rewards.

Now Amtrak has confirmed they’re moving to a revenue-based award program, beginning January 24, 2016.

There are a few welcome surprises I’ll tell you about, along with negative changes to booking Amtrak bedrooms.

Also, existing Chase Amtrak cardholders will have their cards switched to a Chase Freedom card after September 30, 2015.

But so far, you’ll still be able to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to Amtrak.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Amtrak Has Confirmed Changes to Their Guest Rewards Program

Depending on how you use Amtrak points, the new rules could be good or bad.  Let’s look at how it will impact you.

What’s the Deal?

Link:   Amtrak Guest Rewards Changes

Link:   Transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards Points to Amtrak for Big Travel

Amtrak has officially shared details explaining many of the changes to their award program.

In short, here’s what I like about Amtrak’s new award program:

  • Inexpensive tickets will cost fewer Amtrak points than before (as little as 800 points for a 1-way ticket!)
  • Children’s tickets will cost fewer Amtrak points
  • No more blackout dates

Here’s what I do NOT like:

  • Comfortable & expensive Amtrak sleeper roomettes and bedrooms will usually cost more points than before
  • You can NOT book “Saver” fares with points
  • Award ticket changes or cancellations will be charged a 10% (or more) points penalty

Some of the fine print will be released at a later date.  But here’s what we know so far.

The Biggest Change – Redeeming Points

Currently, award travel on Amtrak is zone-based, which means you’ll pay a set number of Amtrak points depending on how many zones your trip crosses.

Amtrak will switch to a revenue-based system on January 24, 2016.  So the number of Amtrak points required for an award ticket will depend on the cash price of the ticket.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Award Pricing Based on the Number of Zones You Cross Will Go Away in January 2016

How Many Points Will You Need?

Amtrak points will be worth:

  • ~2.9 cents each for most award tickets
  • ~2.56 cents each for travel on the high-speed Acela Express

You can easily see how many points an award ticket will cost using the Amtrak 2016 Points Estimator.  Enter the type of fare (coach, Business Class, Acela, or sleeping car) and the price of the ticket to see the number of points required.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Use the Amtrak Points Estimator to See What Award Tickets Will Cost Under the New Rules

It also shows the number of points you’ll earn on a paid ticket.  And if you have Amtrak elite status, you can see what your earning bonus will be as well.

In many cases, it’s still a good (or even better!) deal to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak If you don’t mind traveling at a more leisurely pace, you can save thousands of points compared to booking airline award tickets between the same cities!

Overall, Amtrak’s changes could be good or bad news depending on how you use your points!

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Amtrak’s New Redemption Rules Will Be Good for Some Folks, but Bad for Others

And there are other rules to keep in mind:

  • For regular travel, there’s a minimum 800-point redemption for an award ticket.  So if a ticket costs less than ~$23, it’s better to pay cash.  (~$23 price of ticket / ~2.9 cents per point = ~800 points).
  • Travel on the Acela Express requires a minimum redemption of 4,000 points.  If the fare costs less than ~$102, you’ll do better paying for a ticket (~$102 price of ticket / ~2.56 cents per point = ~4,000 points).
  • Children’s pricing (typically half the adult fare) WILL apply for award redemptions, but you won’t be able to redeem points for other discounted fares, like seniors or AAA
  • There will no longer be blackout dates on award travel, but keep in mind trains during popular times, like holidays and spring break, may be much more expensive

Folks who book award tickets that are typically inexpensive should save Amtrak points under the new system.

But if you like to use points for long-distance travel in sleeper accommodations, like roomettes or bedrooms, your award tickets may cost MANY more points!

Let’s look at a few examples.

1.   Short-Haul “Special Routes”

You can currently book a 1-way coach ticket on Amtrak’s special routes (short-haul trains between some major cities) for 1,500 Amtrak points.

Special routes include:

After the changes take effect, the cost of an award ticket will depend on the paid fare.  Sometimes tickets on these routes are very cheap!

For example, a 1-way coach seat in May 2016 between San Diego and Los Angeles on the Pacific Surfliner costs $37.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Tickets on Special Routes Like the Pacific Coastliner Are Often Inexpensive

At ~2.9 cents per Amtrak point, the same fare would cost ~1,277 Amtrak points.  That’s cheaper than the current 1,500 point redemption!

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Amtrak Has a Handy Calculator to See What Your Ticket Will Cost in Points After the Changes Take Effect

So in this case, you’d save 223 Amtrak points (1,500 current point cost – 1,277 point cost under new system).

But if the ticket costs more than ~$44, you’ll be paying more with the new rules (~$44 ticket cost / ~2.9 cents per point = ~1,500 points).

2.   Northeast Zone Tickets

Under the old rules, travel in 1 zone costs:

  • Coach Class – 5,500 points
  • Business Class – 6,500 points
  • Roomette (for up to 2 people) – 15,000 total points
  • Bedroom (for up to 3 people) – 25,000 total points

But there’s a special zone (within the Eastern Zone) called the Northeast Zone.  Currently, award tickets within this zone only cost:

  • Coach Class – 4,000 points
  • Business Class – 6,500 points
  • Roomette (for up to 2 people) – 15,000 total points
  • Bedroom (for up to 3 people) – 20,000 total points

For example, a 1-way award ticket between Buffalo and New York City currently costs 4,000 points in coach, or 6,500 points in Business Class.

I checked the prices for paid tickets in March 2016.  Coach tickets are $63, and the Business Class fare is $95.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Travel Between Northeast Cities Like Buffalo and New York City Is Also Relatively Inexpensive

Under the new rules, you’d pay 2,174 points for the same $63 coach ticket.  That’s a much better deal – you’d save 1,826 points! (4,000 points old cost of ticket – 2,174 points new cost of ticket).

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
The New System Is a Better Deal in This Case!

And the $95 Business Class ticket, which costs 6,500 points under the old rules, will now cost 3,278 points.  That’s an even bigger savings of 3,222 points (6,000 points old cost of ticket – 3,278 points new cost of ticket).

So in the Northeast Zone, as long as your ticket costs less than:

  • ~$116 for coach tickets (~$116 / 2.9 cents per point = ~4,000 points)
  • ~$189 for Business Class tickets (~$189 / 2.9 cents per point = 6,500 points)

You’ll spend fewer points with the new rules.

3.   Family Travel

Many folks enjoy booking Amtrak award tickets for family trips.  It’s a low-key and relaxing way to travel, especially with children.

And over long distances, roomettes, bedrooms, and family bedrooms are great fun for kids and adults alike.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Going by Train Is a Fun Way to Travel With Kids!

Folks who book coach or Business Class seats for their family will generally do much better with Amtrak’s changes.  But if you prefer sleeper accommodations, you’ll likely pay MUCH more for your award tickets!

Example:  Coach Seats for a Family of 4, 1 Zone

A 1-zone coach ticket currently costs 5,500 points per person, regardless if the passenger is an adult or child.

For example, a family of 4 (2 adults, 2 kids) would pay 22,000 points for award tickets between Chicago and Dallas under the old rules.

I checked the prices on this route in May 2016.  Kids ages 2 to 12 pay half the adult fare, so the paid price for this family is $375.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Children Pay Half the Adult Fare on Amtrak, and That Applies to Award Redemptions Too!

In this case, a family of 4 would save lots of Amtrak points!  They’d only pay 12,938 points for the same tickets.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Great Savings! The New Rules Make Award Tickets Much Cheaper for a Family in This Case

They’d save 9,062 points in this example (22,000 points old cost of tickets – 12,938 points new cost of tickets).

Note:  Amtrak allows 2 discounted child fares per adult paid fare.  So if a parent and 3 children are traveling, 1 of the kids must pay the adult fare.
Example:  Family Bedroom, 2 Zones

A family bedroom (on Superliner trains only) sleeps 2 adults and 2 children, and includes all meals.

Right now, you’ll pay the same number of points for sleeper accommodations, regardless of the number of folks occupying the room (up to the maximum recommended number).

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Bedrooms on Amtrak Have Typically Been a Super Deal – but That’s Changing

After January, you’ll be charged the fare (and equivalent points) for each passenger.

Between 2 zones, you’ll currently pay 40,000 points for a family bedroom.  That’s for all passengers.

Under the new system, you’ll usually pay MORE for sleeping accommodations.

For example, I checked the price of a paid ticket between Chicago and Salt Lake City in a family bedroom.  You’d pay $1,519 for 2 adults and 2 children.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Family Bedrooms Are Fun – but Expensive!

If you book this trip after January 24, 2016, you’ll pay 52,406 points.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
If You Plan to Book Travel in Sleeper Accommodations, You Should Generally Book Before the Changes Take Effect

That’s 12,406 more points than before! (52,406 points new cost of tickets – 40,000 points old cost of tickets).

If you’ve been saving up for a special trip in sleeper accommodations, you’ll likely pay fewer points if you book before the new rules start.

That said, if you enjoy traveling on sleeper trains, transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak is still a good deal compared to booking airline award tickets.

To compare, a 1-way award flight for a family of 4 between Chicago and Salt Lake City would cost:

  • 40,000 British Airways Avios points for award flights on their partners, American Airlines or US Airways
  • 50,000 United Airlines miles for award flights on United Airlines

You’d get there much more quickly, but remember the train includes a night’s accommodation plus all meals.  So if you’d otherwise pay for an extra night’s hotel and food, Amtrak could still be a bargain!

As always, do the math to see which is a better deal for your trip.

Other Amtrak Award Program Changes

1.   Earning Points

Starting January 24, 2016, you’ll continue to earn 2 Amtrak points per $1 you spend on most Amtrak fares.  But there will no longer be a 100-point minimum per trip.

And folks who book Business Class seats will earn a 25% points bonus.  Acela Express First Class passengers will earn a 50% bonus.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
Traveling First Class on the High-Speed Acela Express? You’ll Earn a 50% Bonus

Earning bonuses for elite members will NOT change.

2.   Cash and Points

Amtrak says they’ll be introducing a cash and points option for booking award travel.

Best Amtrak Deals Using Their New Award Program
A Cash Co-Pay Will Reduce the Number of Points Required for an Award Ticket – but We Don’t Know Yet by How Much

So far, they haven’t released details on how this will work.  I’m looking forward to seeing what these award tickets will cost!

I’ll update you as soon as I hear more.

3.   New Change and Cancel Rules

After January 24, 2016, you’ll pay a 10% points penalty if you change your award ticket to a lower fare, or cancel your ticket altogether.

And if you change or cancel close to the date of travel (within 24 hours for a non-sleeper ticket, or 14 days for a sleeper ticket) there’s an additional 10% penalty.

4.   Amtrak Credit Card

According to an Amtrak representative on FlyerTalk, Chase Amtrak (no longer available) account holders will have their cards switched to the Chase Freedom after September 30, 2015.

The partnership between Amtrak Guest Rewards® and Chase will end as of September 30, 2015.  If you have the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard® credit card from Chase, you can continue to use your card and will continue to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points until September 30, 2015.  After September 30, your account will be replaced with a Chase Freedom card and you will begin to earn points on your Chase Freedom Account.

A new Amtrak credit card is rumored to be coming this month from Bank of America, but there are no firm details available yet.

The good news is, Amtrak also says:

If you have an eligible Chase Card with Ultimate Rewards, you can continue to transfer points to Amtrak Guest Rewards until further notice.

So folks who also have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Plus, or Chase Ink Bold (no longer offered) cards will be able to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak.

That said, given that Amtrak and Chase are discontinuing their relationship, it’s possible Chase Ultimate Rewards point transfers to Amtrak could end in the near future.

And I’m not sure how much notice we’d receive, if any.

If you have definite Amtrak travel plans, I’d transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak now.  I’ll post as soon as I hear more information.

Bottom Line

Amtrak has confirmed changes to its award program.  Starting January 24, 2016, they’ll switch to a revenue-based system.

That means the price of an award seat will depend on the cash price of the ticket.  But there will no longer be blackout dates, and in some cases (traveling with children, for example) award tickets will cost much less.

Folks who book inexpensive, short-haul tickets might do very well with the changes!  But if you like booking pricey Amtrak roomettes or bedrooms with your points, you’ll likely pay more points.

Current Chase Amtrak credit card holders will have their cards converted to a Chase Freedom on September 30, 2015.  But there are no changes to Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers to Amtrak as yet.

I’ll update you when we have more details!

How will these changes impact your award travel on Amtrak?   Have you found any excellent deals under the new system?

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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