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.
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?
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