Amtrak’s New Revenue Based Program Details Revealed – Here’s What it Will Mean

Two weeks ago it was revealed that Amtrak would introduce a revenue-based program. The new program goes into effect January 24. Initial details are now available.

It’s a revenue-based program so there are going to be no more outsize values for redemptions. You’re going to be getting a fairly consistent redemption rate per point, which will make some awards (where ticket cost is low) cheaper and other awards (where ticket cost is high) more expensive. The best value redemptions in the program therefore go away. Last minute Northeast regional trains will be more expensive. Sleeper cabins across the country (not my cup of tea) will get astronomically so — they could run over 100,000 points.

Ultimately this isn’t as bad as I feared, but also removes much of the excitement and leverage from the program. It will still be strategically useful for some.

Some key elements of the new program:

  • Since they’re revenue-based there will be no more blackout dates. More expensive tickets will simply cost more points.

  • Points are worth 2.9 cents apiece for most travel; 2.56 cents apiece on Acela (it is ludicrous that in a revenue-based program the value of points is lower on Acela Express trains, those are more expensive and so point prices are more as well already).

  • There will be cash and points awards, with details to come closer to program launch.

  • Better point expiration rules: any activity in your account every 3 years will extend its validity – it’s no longer limited to train trips

  • Points-earning for train travel is based on fare, with no more 100 point minimums and no more fixed earning for Acela. You earn 2 points per dollar; a 25% bonus for business class and 50% bonus for Acela first class; plus elite bonuses which stay the same.

Basic Amtrak travel earns a 5.8% rebate (2 points per dollar spent each worth 2.9 cents). That’s low. Acela Express travel earns a 7.25% rebate as long as you don’t redeem for Acela (in which case it drops to a 6.4% rebate since points are worth less for Acela redemptions).

Here’s earn and redemption costs for a $50 ticket.

Here’s a $129 ticket:

And here’s a $300 Acela ticket.

Co-Brand Credit Card and Transfer Partner Details Not Yet Revealed

Two weeks ago we learned that Bank of America would become their new credit card issuer. That detail is still not public.

There’s also no official word yet on transfer partners, for instance whether Chase and Starwood points would still transfer to Guest Rewards. For some trips those points would become more valuable, e.g. booking off-peak Acela Express travel that can be cheap. Some folks will like to use their flexible points currencies for Amtrak trips, since they’ll be able to get almost 3 cents apiece in redemption value for trips that are conveniently taken by train in the Northeast corridor. So learning this will be key.

New Redemption Ticket Change/Cancel Rules

Change and cancellation fees are a 10% points penalty “on any fare difference returned to member” so I think that when there’s no reduction in points on an award there won’t be any change fee — except for changes to sleeper tickets within 14 days of departure and all other train travel within 24 hours of departure which will entail a close-in penalty of 10% of points redeemed and these will be collected, not withheld. (Amtrak Select Executive members have the close-in penalty waived.)

No show segments cancel subsequent train trips on the ticket, and also forfeit points. Cancel any trips you aren’t going to take in advance.

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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  1. […] Update on August 29, 2015: Guest Rewards is undergoing a major overhaul effective January 2016.  The price in points is based on a fixed value for points rather than the zone or class of service format discussed here.  Since points will be worth about 2.9 cents for non-Acela travel, some of the sleeping car accommodations will become a lot more expensive to purchase with points, though it’s possible that some shorter routes like Washington to Chicago that were expensive in terms of points because they were two zones may not be as bad as they were.  Presumably the multiple occupant for no additional points bonus will also be going away.  The silver lining is that some cheaper coach tickets, like those on the Northeast Corridor, will cost fewer points with the new format.  An overview of the new program can be viewed on View From the Wing: Amtrak’s New Revenue Based Program Details Revealed – Here’s What it Will Mean. […]

Comments

  1. I wanted to thank you for breaking this story a couple weeks ago. I had enough points in my account to book a bedroom from Chicago to Seattle, a lifetime bucket list item, for travel next week. The ticket price purchase would have been over $1,800. I’m glad that I was able to empty my account while the points still had good value.

  2. This is a better deal than what currently exists for Northeast Corridor riders. The cheapest ticket from PHL to NYC is $46.00 (If booked far in advance) so that is more than half off the current price of 4,000 points–Even acela tickets are cheaper (if not equal) and I can now see using acela to get from WAS to NYC Or BOS at these prices–especially if there aren’t any black out dates.

    Usually last minute tickets from Washington to New York are around $150, so if you think about it that way it’s only a minor devaluation. Plus, last minute regional rail is only marginally less expensive than the acela, so it might make sense to use the extra points.

    I primarily used Amtrak points to buy last minute tickets on the NEC and premium sleeper routers, so the best value is devalued on the NEC and obliterated on the sleeper routes.

    Thanks for the info

  3. Nice that they’re giving notice. I had booked bedrooms several times with the family and we enjoyed these trips; time to use up the remaining points (still have enough for 1-2 trips). Oh well, all outsized values must go…

  4. I benefited greatly living in Baltimore and traveling to and from DC on the Amtrak.. earning 100 points on tickets as low as $13. But with this change, I’ll stick to the commuter train MARC between the two cities (Trip only gets there 15 mins later on the commuter train).

    I will miss the fun trips on the bedrooms and roommettes.

  5. Agree with @Nathan that this isn’t a huge devaluation for those of us that travel the NEC and are used to the 4,000 point awards on the regular train. Under the new revenue based system, 4,000 points will allow for a ticket of $116, and if you plan ahead, you can usually get BOS-NYC and NYC-WAS tickets for less than that. In fact, with planning ahead, I’ve often had difficulty getting good value on the NEC because the peak travel days are often blacked out.

  6. I agree with Gary that the imputed rebate for Amtrak customers is low. When you look at airlines like Southwest or even Delta or United, they are offering around an effective 10% rebate.

  7. Soon it’s gonna take an astronomical # of points to get a family bedroom suite that runs $1700-2700 on some of the longer routes.

    Another one bites the dust.

  8. I’m writing this from an Amtrak train WAS-NYP that I purchased about 90 minutes ago for 4,000 points. The cash cost of this ticket would have been $123-149 (depending on which departure I took on the northeast regional) or $158 for the cheapest Acela. Because this particular departure was $123, I got 3.075 cents of value on this redemption. If I had redeemed on Acela, I would have paid 8,000 points for $158, a less-impressive 1.975 cents per point.

    Going from ~3.1 to 2.9 isn’t terrible, and for lower-cost tickets, as noted above, the value proposition actually increases. And on the Acela the value may actually increase. I realize this may be an anomaly — for example, the ‘second-tier’ tickets were still available last minute, and if only the ‘top-tier’, most expensive tickets were available, then the cents per point would be higher. But all in all this isn’t as bad as feared. In the past, I had used cash to buy cheap, plan-ahead northeast regional tickets for family travel; now, points may be a better option.

    The one valuable factor for me was that I was getting a direct savings on a ticket I’d otherwise buy with cash. I spent 160,000 UA miles on a LH F redemption last year, which cost $20,000 or whatever, but I didn’t really get 12.5 cents per point because I wouldn’t have paid $20k in cash. Here, I had to get from WAS to NYP and I would have paid $123, so I did get exactly 3.075 cents per point, and I will get 2.9 cents going forward.

  9. I use the points for the special routes which now are 1,500 point redemptions, 2,000 for business class. So this will mean a bit more planning on my part. 1,500 points now is $43.50. Tickets on the Wolverine train in Michigan can range from $20-70 depending on cities. In the past, I would wait until the day of travel and then just book a last minute trip with points. Now, I think I’ll book way in advance and then cancel if I decide not to go. This will actually end up as a cheaper redemption. The only downside will be if there’s a cancel penalty added. Business class tickets will now only be a better value if less than $58. Also, there’s a rebate that’s issued for redemptions which I believe is tied to the current credit card.
    I can understand devaluing sleepers, as there’s potentially a lot more revenue available by selling those at full fare, but earning points for coach travel is at a ridiculously low rate. If the new credit card still earns one point per dollar, a 2.9% consistent rebate is a pretty good value, especially for those who focus on domestic travel.

  10. So will Chase ultimate reward points be redeemable for travel at the old rate for say, bedrooms at 20,000 pts for each zone?

  11. The devastating thing about this change is not so much the loss in point value but the loss of fixed-value redemptions. With the old system, a one-way roomette from Minneapolis to Portland was 20,000 points. As long as there was a room available, it did not matter when you booked, it was always the same. An amazing deal for hassle-free travel plans. Under the new system, the same trip might range in cost from 12,000 to 48,000, depending on when you want to travel and when you book.

    I based those numbers on a handful of quick fare checks ranging from September to November. The price range was insane: from $370 to $1412 for the same accommodation! There are sweet spots, but they are based on the bucket fare system, which is crazy-making. The Amtrak site does not exactly make it easy to find the good fares. You have to check each individual date one by one. Maybe someone will make an app that churns through the Amtrak scheduler and puts together a calendar display (like ita.matrix).

  12. @Gary Any word on whether you’ll be able to use class upgrade coupons once award tickets are revenue based?

  13. @Sharon K I completely agree that high point value aspirational travel is now basically over for Amtrak. Last summer I got two first class, WIL-BOS round trip tickets where I got 6.25 cents per point in value. That trip would cost three times as many points soon and wouldn’t be worth it. I’ll be able to fly there in F for less points.

  14. I don’t see any indication what will happen to points we currently have. How will those be transferred to this new system–and at what rate?

  15. @Gary thanks for the response. Keep us updated if you hear anything. If they’re going to be allowed on awards now I may purchase a 5 pack or two while they’re still at the current point redemption price.

  16. What is happening with Auto train redemptions – currently 20,500 for one way? I went to their website the other day and there is no mention about them.

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