An Introduction to Amtrak

Compared to European trains, Amtrak isn’t a perfect option.  Not every train schedule is ideal and Amtrak fares can be far more expensive than taking a bus.  However, when I needed to book a last-minute trip to New York City, Amtrak was the best option: it was 80% cheaper than flying and more comfortable and convenient than MegaBus (and especially Greyhound).

A lot has changed since when I was a frequent Amtrak customer, so here are a few basic things everyone should know about Amtrak and their rewards program.

amtrak train information

You’ll Find Good Seats Even in Economy

Everyone gets an aisle or a window, meaning the train is already an improvement (at least in seating) over a flight.  You’ll have leg room that’s comparable to the first class seat on your domestic flight, and there will be room for your carry-on luggage (although checking a bag will be free if you prefer).  Throw in an electrical outlet at your seat, free wifi on many routes, and huge windows, and you should be comfy enough for the duration of your flight.  No, there’s no drink service, but you can head to the cafe car for a snack or even a sit-down meal on some routes.

Schedules are a Guideline, Not The Gospel

I love traveling by rail in Europe, where service is speedy, frequent, and punctual.  Amtrak is an entirely different story.  The United States just doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to offer the same type of service, and as such the posted departure/arrival times are about as accurate as an airline’s.  Yes, many routes are punctual on a consistent basis, but others are subject to delays.  If you have somewhere to be at a specific time, make sure to account for potential delays – just in case.

Almost All Tickets are Flexible

I love that Amtrak tickets offer so much flexibility.  As long as you haven’t printed your ticket yet, it’s really easy to change to a different departure time or even train route.  You can do it all online, and there are no fees for doing so (though you will have to pay the difference in the fare).  Rather cancel your ticket?  No problem.  Just head online to cancel your ticket.  With a few exceptions (i.e. sleeper service), you’ll get a full refund in the form of an e-voucher, and if you’d rather have cash, you can get it (subject to a 10% fee with a minimum of $5 and maximum of $100).  You can even use this cancellation policy to grab price drops; just cancel and rebook online to claim your credit.

Rewards Are Reasonably Priced, but Come with Strings Attached

You’ll earn 2 points for every dollar spent on travel through the Amtrak Guest Rewards program, so if you’re traveling by train you may as well grab those rewards.  Free tickets start at just 1,500 points on select routes (including the very scenic Cascades train from Portland, OR to Vancouver, BC) and top out at 60,000 points for a cross-country ticket including a private bedroom on the train for your multi-day journey.  The downside?  There are black-out dates around every bank holiday in the USA.

You Can Get a Headstart on Guest Rewards Points

If you’re actually planning on riding the rails, you can get 500 points just by joining and riding within 90 days.  I’d be happy to refer you (just shoot me an email) and then you can continue to earn points by referring all your friends and family to the program as well.  However, one of the easier ways to get a free ticket is to transfer Ultimate Rewards points into your Amtrak Guest Rewards account, meaning you can get a free trip even if you’ve never been on Amtrak before.

The Bottom Line

If train times work for you, Amtrak is worth looking into.

Have you ever traveled by train?  Where did you go?

The following two tabs change content below.

Becky

Editor and Lead Author at The Girl and Globe
Becky loves hiking and the outdoors, reading a good book on a rainy day, practicing yoga with friends, cooking with Sinatra in the background, relaxing with her husband and a good glass of wine, and above all: travel. Read more about Becky.

Comments

  1. Kay says

    I love Amtrak! The train’s way more comfortable than an airplane, and many of the routes are “destinations” in and of themselves. New York to Montreal is particularly scenic. Yes, the delays are annoying, but so are airline delays. I just wish Amtrak had more frequent service, and more overnight trains. I’ve tried to plan a few trips using Amtrak as my mode of transportation, but it’s hard to make them work out with limited schedules.

  2. michael belisle says

    last december I took amtrak from los angeles to washington dc. took 3 days to get there since took southwest chief and coming back took the longer 4 day train. interesting experience. might go again sometime. food is expensive. brought some of my own both ways

  3. Vicente says

    Amtrak is unfairly ignored and looked down upon by many. No security hassles! I love travelling by train and just wish we didn’t have a rail network the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

  4. says

    As an update, you can make changes now on tickets you’ve printed since Amtrak introduced eticketing for just about all tickets last week. I use it from Michiagn to travel to Chicago since flights there are much cheaper than my home airport. It’s often a $200-300 difference and worth the few extra hours.

  5. Joel says

    The possible delays on Amtrak is enough to make me consider the extra cost of flying or driving.

    For example, on my trip from Seattle to Los Angeles, there were four delays. One of those delays was four and a half hours long. The conductor and other Amtrak employees didn’t tell us anything. We found out about the delay through word of mouth from other passengers. And then the buses came. Without explanation, we were given a small bottled water and crackers, and told to get on the cramped charter bus, which was a five hour drive to Sacramento, the next station. I asked the conductor what time we would be scheduled to arrive in LA from Sacramento, and he said to figure it out myself with the schedule. After verifying that the delay was going to be five hours (or more, if there were any more delays), I decided to book a flight to LA, arriving much earlier but on time.

  6. says

    @Kay, there are definitely times when the train is just as convenient (or inconvenient, as the case may be) as flying. Usually anything under 6 hours, and the train is the best choice for me.

    @Michael, I always bring my own snacks – even on airplanes!

    @Vicente, I wish we had a better rail network, but I guess I’ll have to move to Europe to grab the type of system I’d want :)

    @JJ, thanks for the tip!

    @Joel, that’s quite a horror story. Glad you were flexible enough to make a change, but I’m truly sorry you had an experience like that. Did Amtrak ever apologize and make things right?

  7. Joel says

    Thankfully I am an AA Platinum; otherwise there would have been a booking fee for the $230 373 mile one-way ticket.

    Amtrak never contacted me with an apology. Instead, months later I received a survey in the mail. This prompted me to call their customer service line. The representative was rude, but he ended up giving me what he said was the largest possible compensation, a $200 Amtrak voucher that’s good for a year from the travel date.

  8. kodoma says

    I cannot imagine getting to NYC or Stamford CT by anything but train. Fortunately for me the NE Regional routes tend to run on schedule. From Baltimore its any easy trip and I just use the business class on the Regional. Love it!

  9. Kay says

    @Joel – That sounds terrible experience, but I don’t think Amtrak is any worse than the airlines. I spent a couple of hours at the the airport this weekend trying to get home – and ended up giving up and taking an overnight bus instead.

  10. says

    I first took Amtrak back in college, traveling home to Long Island from upstate New York. Much better than driving.

    For work, I used to travel to DC once a month regularly. After taking Delta Shuttle for a while I switched my travel to the Acela. Gate to Gate it was almost the same time to travel. I never had a terrible delay, only once they had to not travel at high-speed due to a heatwave and rails banding.

    Just yesterday in fact, I traveled with my 2 year old son from Boston to NY Penn Station. Got two coach class tickets using AGR points and paid the $35/ticket upgrade to business class on the regional. Large seats so he could lie down for nap time, use his coloring books and also change his doll’s diaper. He had a fantastic journey during the 4.5hr trip. His comfort and a smooth trip was well worth that small fee. I’d never get anything like that out of an airline.

    I always recommend Amtrak!

  11. Seth Alterman says

    As an Avid Amtrak traveler and a future Employee of Amtrak! I can’t Imagine any better way of traveling. A few personal friends of mine are Amtrak Conductors that work out of Albany, NY. I very frequently travel to Montreal on the Adirondack to visit my grandparents who live there. So for anyone that has traveled on the New York to Montreal Adirondack Train. chances are you’ve probably seen me a time or two with the other conductors.

  12. Jaye bird says

    I love riding on AMTRAK, When I go to visist my granddaughters, for me it’s the only way to travel, and when I send for them, they don’t want to fly, they want to ride AMTRAK. I usually get a delux room, which gives me lots of privacy, I can eat in my room or go to the diner.. I also bring along snacks for the times I get the munchies and don’t want to go to the snack car…….I love the scenery and the fact that they have designated stops where you can get off and get a breath of fresh air if you want or you are a smoker………can’t wait to take my next trip,

  13. Seth Alterman says

    Or if you’ve heard really good, thorough and proper announcements over the trains PA. It was probably me. Another thing to note with traveling on Amtrak. If your traveling to Canada. Just count on there being a delay with Customs and Immigrations. In my experience, the border stop can range from 25 minutes to 3 and a half hours or longer.

  14. rogers55 says

    You forgot to mention the Amtrak MasterCard. It is the best way to build up your guest rewards points. I put everything I can on the card and then, hopefully, pay it off at months end. We take an annual L.A. to NY cross country trip in a roomette sleeper every year on the points.

    • says

      @rogers55, I actually prefer the Sapphire Preferred. You’ll earn 2.14 points per dollar spent on Amtrak (compared to 2 on the Amtrak card) and 1.07 points on everything else, so that’s a bit of a bonus. Plus it offers the flexibility to redeem for things other than rail travel (such as airfare at hotels) if you change your mind on what type of reward you need.

      Two reasons why the Amtrak card is better are:
      1. No annual fee
      2. 5% rebate when you redeem on Amtrak travel, which could add up!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>