The travesty of Amtrak’s program changes without warning

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) covered Amtrak’s abrupt end to transferring Guest Rewards points into United Mileage Plus miles.

    One of the best deals in the world of frequent-flier programs recently disappeared, a reminder to travelers that the good bargains in the world of loyalty don’t last forever.


    For several years, in the tight-knit community of frequent travelers, Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program developed a cult-like following. Reason: The program could be used as a clearinghouse for unwanted frequent-flier miles from Continental Airlines, which has developed a reputation for being stingy with the free seats on its airplanes. Using a three-way swap that is rare among loyalty programs, Amtrak members would transfer Continental miles into Amtrak points — then take the points and turn them into United miles. They did this because they believed it would be easier to redeem United Airlines miles for free tickets than cashing in their Continental miles. Continental officials declined to comment.


    The program became popular with deal seekers looking to milk every last drop of value out of loyalty programs with generous terms.


    All that ended Jan. 1, when, without warning and without posting a notice, Amtrak removed United from its list of partners on its Web site.

The article observes that this isn’t the first time Amtrak has made unannounced changes to these transfers:

    Mark Beattie, an information technology manager in London, where there are no Amtrak trains, moved 300,000 miles from Continental into Amtrak’s program a few years ago. Right after he did — and before he turned the Amtrak points into United miles — Amtrak imposed a 25,000-point annual cap on the number of miles or points that could be transferred out of the program. Amtrak made this change without warning, leaving Mr. Beattie with a massive Amtrak points balance that he couldn’t use for train travel.

And the piece provides Amtrak’s lame excuse for their failure to provide notice to Guest Rewards members, ” the number of people who redeemed its points for United miles was so small, far less than 1% of its 860,000 or so members, that it didn’t think it was necessary.”

Of course, the vast majority of its members aren’t active or don’t yet have enough points to claim the rewards they want anyway, so using the total number of members that have ever signed up for the program is a poor basis for comparison. Besides, 1% of that figure is still 8600 and that’s 8600 of the members with meaningful point balances.

Amtrak’s response basically says that things of interest to less than 10,000 of their members aren’t important enough to warrant basic courtesy of notice (a simple email) or advance warning.

Some programs can be trusted more than others, at least based on their past behavior. Amtrak’s behavior indicates that it isn’t to be trusted, and its public statements back up that judgment.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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