Riding the rails has never been easier – and more fun – with Amtrak Guest Rewards. Resident travel writer Stephanie Zito combined her love of points with her love of trains – and here’s how you can do the same.
After a few weeks of post-holiday recovery at home, my travel bug started to itch. Since my first big trip of 2020 isn’t planned until the end of the month, I did what any sane (or insane) rewards traveler who has been home too long would do: I grabbed a ride-share to the train station and hopped on the first Amtrak headed north to Seattle for a weekend getaway.
As my train chugged passed Puget Sound, I caught myself smiling in my reflection in the window. I love train travel. Yet, on this trip, it occurred to me that I’ve never written about using your award points in the U.S. for free domestic trips on Amtrak.
I often travel on trains when I’m in other countries. I’ve trained in China, India, Thailand, Japan, England and all across Europe. Last year, I even spent a whole week crossing the vast frozen mass of Siberia on the BAM line of the Trans-Siberian.
While Amtrak certainly isn’t the fastest or fanciest of the world’s train systems, a train can often be an easy and more relaxing choice than car or air travel.
Trains let flyers skip the airport chaos and TSA lines, and allow drivers to skip the traffic, gas stops and parking challenges once you get to your destination. I know people who opt for trains over planes because of flight fears, and a growing number of individuals who are choosing trains when possible to decrease their impact on the environment from travel.
Whether you’re just hopping to another city, want to explore crossing the country by rail or just interested in exploring the idea of slow travel by train, there are options here in the U.S. – especially if you live in or near a city that has railroad service. And, of course, there are rewards points you can earn to pay for your train adventures, too!
See related: How to strategically plan for travel in the new year
How I organized my weekend in Seattle by train
Getting from Portland to Seattle by train is nearly as easy as getting a good espresso in either of these famous coffee towns. From Portland’s Union Station, Amtrak runs at least five daily train services to Seattle’s King Street station with one-way fares starting from $27 to $56 (economy and business respectively).
While I could have used my 1,242 Amtrak Guest Rewards points to pay for my train ticket, you can’t beat the value of a $27 saver ticket. I’m pretty sure gas to drive the 180 miles between the two cities would have cost more (especially since I was traveling alone). I booked a return, paying cash both ways.
For accommodation, the Hyatt Regency Seattle was my headquarters for the weekend. It’s a gorgeous hotel with friendly staff, amazing views and a great value at 15,000 World of Hyatt points per night.
The travel cost totaled up to $54 for train tickets, two free nights of accommodation (with free breakfast in their gorgeous club lounge) and $0 for two quick ride-shares to and from the train station that were covered by the $15 per month Uber credit that I get as a benefit on The Platinum Card® from American Express.
Earning – and using – rewards points for train travel
If you’re on board to experience some U.S. train travel for yourself, the Amtrak Guest Rewards program is easy to navigate. Earning and redeeming in the program is similar to most of the airline loyalty programs you’re already used to.
Just like all your favorite airlines and hotels, Amtrak currently has two co-branded credit cards that allow you to earn points (and sign-up bonuses) in the Amtrak Guest Rewards program. Both the Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard and the Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum Mastercard are issued by Bank of America.
Another option is to transfer points to Amtrak from one of their partner programs. Choice Privileges points, Hertz Gold Points, Hilton Honors points, and Wyndham Rewards points all transfer to Amtrak at different rates.
If you don’t have points in a partner program (and aren’t going to do enough train travel to warrant a new credit card), you could also use a cash back travel card to pay for your train ticket and use your cash back redemptions to credit the cost.
The cost of rewards travel on Amtrak is calculated on a fare basis – i.e. you’ll pay more points for an expensive fare than you would for a cheaper fare, and points fares aren’t offered on discount prices.
For example, you’ll get the most value out of your Amtrak reward points if you’re using points for booking a more expensive journey like the Acela Express between Washington D.C. and New York’s Penn Station, which runs around $150 compared to my $27 Portland to Seattle trip of a similar distance.
You can easily search for reward tickets on the Amtrak website. Redemptions start as low as 800 points for shorter commuter routes. But if you’re looking for a real train travel adventure, you might want to consider one of these more radical rail-based itineraries:
- Seattle to San Diego: 39 hours (4,830 points in economy/5,629 points in sleeper)
- New York City to Miami: 31 hours (5,589 points in economy/16,077 points in sleeper)
- Chicago to San Francisco (Emeryville): 52 hours (6,072 points in economy/18,872 points in sleeper)
- San Antonio to Los Angeles: 29 hours (5,417 points in economy/19,148 points in sleeper)
- Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon: 79 hours (This itinerary is so complex, you can’t price it online!)
Using your points to take a trip like one of these gives a whole new meaning to getting on the credit card rewards train!