Amtrak has been in the travel hacking news a lot lately. Earlier this year, they announced Amtrak Guest Rewards 2.0, which was a pretty big devaluation. Then they announced that Bank of America was going to be the new issuer of their credit card, which meant that the relationship between Chase and Amtrak was ending.
In fact Monday the 7th was the last day to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to Amtrak. I transferred over 29,000 points on Saturday to give me 40,000 points which I used to book a 2 zone family bedroom trip.
Amtrak points for sleeper travel is DEAD… or is it?
The conventional wisdom has said that with AGR 2.0 it would be the end of using points to take long-haul Amtrak travel in sleeper cars. Here are a few posts from other people suggesting that if you wanted to take a sleeper car, you better do it now
- Mile Cards – Who Needs To Transfer Ultimate Rewards To Amtrak Points Now
- Frequent Miler – Should you transfer Chase points to Amtrak?
Under the old scheme, it was possible to get out-sized value from your points – here’s how we turned 100,000 points into a $6,540 Amtrak trip (6.5 cents per point). Under AGR 2.0, that would not be possible, as points have a fixed value, between 2.5 and 2.9 cents per point. So it seems like redeeming points for long-haul sleeper travel is pretty much dead.
But… as viewers of the Princess Bride well know, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead!
The concept of Amtrak “fare buckets”
Longtime Amtrak riders know that there are “fare buckets” for each given train / fare type. In the old world, us points guys didn’t really need to care about that, since there was a fixed point cost for each fare type, and as long as there was ANY availability on the train, you could book it with Amtrak Guest Rewards points
It’s generally believed that there are up to 5 “fare buckets” for a given train, though not all of them are used for each train / fare type. And now that Amtrak Guest Rewards redemptions are tied to the actual fare cost, now we DO need to pay attention to these fare buckets.
You can think of them as the difference between a SAAver fare and a AAnytime award on American, or the Wanna Get Away vs. Business Select fares on Southwest.
Some of these prices compare pretty favorably to the existing flat rates, if you can book far ahead in advance and find a date with availability in the lowest fare bucket
Pricing out the “new” sleeper travel
Amtrak has a calculator where you can input the cost of a fare and it will tell you the number of Amtrak Guest Rewards points required.
Keep in mind that the new Amtrak Guest Rewards values don’t start until January 24th, 2016, so you still have a month or so to book under the old award chart (READ: Maximizing your route on the Amtrak Zone Map)
Here’s Chicago to Los Angeles, for 4 people in 2 roomettes
That’s a 2 zone trip, so 2 roomettes would be 40,000 points under the current system. Plugging our fare of $1218 into the Amtrak points estimator, we get
Hey wait -that’s pretty similar! I thought Amtrak sleeper car travel was dead!
Now, to be fair, not all travel is going to work out – certainly some of the really great redemptions (like Los Angeles to Seattle all in one zone) will no longer be as great. And you do have to be able to find a date that has a lower fare bucket – on other dates, those two Chicago to Los Angeles roomettes cost $1871, or nearly 65,000 points.
Another thing to keep in mind is that “maximizing” occupancy becomes more important. Your cheapest redemptions are going to be 2 people in a roomette, or 4 people in a family bedroom. The way that Amtrak calculates fares is that every person is charged the “train fare”, and then there is an additional charge for the roomette or bedroom, regardless of how many people are booked into it.
Mixing fare types
Another option to consider is mixing fare types. For example, when we were planning our trip from Cincinnati to Seattle, we realized that it wasn’t as important for us to have sleeper car service on the shorter leg from Cincinnati to Chicago (though the early hour makes it more annoying).
So we just took 4 coach seats on that leg and the family bedroom on the longer (46 HOUR!) ride to Seattle, which, when compared to just booking a bedroom for the entire trip, saved us about $450, or NEARLY 15,000 POINTS under the new system. We booked this particular trip actually paying cash from vouchers that we got for our 13 hour Amtrak delay on our last trip
I think the tricky part is going to be that with no Ultimate Rewards transfers, it’s a lot harder to get a lot of Amtrak points. There’s the credit card – the current signup bonus is 20,000 points and you could do some MS on it to get points. With Citi joining American Express and Chase as having their own points “currency”, I am hoping that Bank of America also offers some way to get transferable points
What do you think? Could you see yourself booking another Amtrak sleeper ride?
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