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Update: You can no longer transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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).
- The cheapest “saver” fares will NOT be eligible for award redemptions, according to this post on FlyerTalk from an Amtrak representative
- 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:
- Blue Water: Chicago – Kalamazoo – Battle Creek – Port Huron
- Capitol Corridor: Auburn – Sacramento – Emeryville (San Francisco) – Oakland – San Jose
- Carl Sandburg: Chicago – Quincy
- Cascades: Vancouver, Canada – Seattle – Tacoma – Portland – Salem – Eugene
- Downeaster: Brunswick, ME – Portland – Boston
- Heartland Flyer: Oklahoma City – Fort Worth
- Hiawatha: Chicago – Milwaukee
- Hoosier State: Chicago – Indianapolis
- Illini Service: Chicago – Carbondale
- Illinois Zephyr: Chicago – Quincy
- Lincoln Service: Chicago – St. Louis
- Missouri River Runner: St. Louis – Kansas City
- Pacific Surfliner: San Luis Obispo – Santa Barbara – Los Angeles – San Diego
- Pere Marquette: Chicago – Holland – Grand Rapids
- Piedmont: Charlotte – Raleigh
- Saluki: Chicago – Carbondale
- San Joaquin: San Francisco Bay Area / Sacramento – Bakersfield / Southern California
- Wolverine: Chicago – Detroit
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
In this case, a family of 4 would save lots of Amtrak points! They’d only pay 12,938 points for the same tickets.
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).
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.
If you book this trip after January 24, 2016, you’ll pay 52,406 points.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?