OUCH: Amtrak’s New Revenue-Based Program Will Be Much Worse Than We First Thought

Amtrak announced their new revenue-based program which goes into effect January 24.

And they laid out details that suggest points will be worth 2.56 apiece (Acela trains) or 2.9 cents apiece (all other service).

It seemed, then, that the best value redemptions would go away from the program but there would still be a strong average redemption value. As a result, the announcement of the new revenue-based program seemed not nearly as bad as feared.

It turns out that the value of points presented is not true at all.

The first reason is relatively minor. When you’re buying tickets you can apply discounts, like the 10% AAA discount. So on paid tickets where you could have applied 10% off, but points are based on the pre-discounted price, your points are worth about 10% less.

The second reason is huge. The lowest (“Saver”) fares will not qualify for redemption. That means the points price of a trip will frequently be based on a price that’s much higher than the lowest fare. (HT: Ryan in the comments)

I took a random day just over two weeks into the future, and the first two trains that showed up (since I can display those in a graphic easily with the ‘saver’ and ‘value’ headers).

These trains would cost $52 if you purchased an economy ticket.

But the points price would be based off of the ‘value’ fare. So you’d pay 2967 points.

Which gives you a redemption value of just $0.0175 cents per point. That’s a far cry from the 2.9 cents initially advertised.

So whether or not Amtrak remains a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers partner I’m not sure I’d care.

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. If I followed the calculation correctly, you can get about $116 fare for the 4000 points WAS to NYP has been. Previously I would not burn points for a $49 or $52 fare, but on a Sunday night, it could go over $120, that was a satisfying deal. Sometimes burning a small # of points, like around 4000 is more satisfying than putting out $80-$100 or so in cash.
    If you are good at accumulating points, like on UR, sometimes you need to let go of the decimals and enjoy the free ride.

  2. Not so bad.

    Those ‘Saver’ fares are only on the Northeast regionals

    Acela doesn’t have them.

    Nor do any of the biz / first class redemptions

  3. I suspected that’s what Amtrak meant when they said, “not all fares will qualify for point earning and redeeming.” But, to be fair, under the old system, it was never a good value to redeem for trips planned far in advance anyways. This just compounds the bizarre logic at hand: the NEC is where premium train traffic is genuinely competing against shuttle flights but the NEC suffers the greatest loss of value with agr 2.0.

  4. screw Amtrak…I debated using points for a sleeper car trip up the scenic west coast, but everytime I started initial planning, there would be a story on the news of some horrific Amtrak crash. Amtrak has safety problems, security problems, personnel problems and now is gutting their points program….they were one step above Greyhound for transportation in my book, now they can join them as 2 ways I will never travel again.

  5. That’s so disappointing. I’ve only been in this hobby a little over a year, but Amtrak and some cross country train trips had been on the list for the next couple of years. Back to the planes, I guess.

  6. I agree that this isn’t so bad. For example, the route my GF’s college-age son travels frequently is between Oregon and the San Francisco area. I’m happy to pay cash when the saver fare ($65) is available, and can still get 2.9 cents/point when the train is nearly sold out and I would have to pay the “flexible” fare ($165).

  7. Please explain to me why you fail to point out that this one way ticket would cost 2967 points instead of the fixed 4000 currently required? How exactly is that worse?

    It is, of course, true that last minute travel will be much more expensive in points now than previously. That said, if you plan far enough in advance, this is actually an improvement for a number of routes / individuals.

  8. You mean either $0.0175 per point, OR (same value expressed in cents) 1.75 cents per point. NOT “$0.0175 cents per point.”

  9. Gary,

    Respectfully, you excoriate Amtrak for not presenting all of the facts, but that’s exactly what you do in your article.

    First (relatively minor, but still important), you fail to mention that Amtrak’s AAA discount comes with a whole host of exclusions and conditions, the most important of which is a three-day advance purchase requirement.

    Second (most significantly) you don’t mention that your “random” selection of fares from your screen grab “over two weeks” out is not random at all. As you know (or should know), saver fares are only available if you book 14 days out or greater.

    Truth be told, for many of the Amtrak passengers who are booking trains last minute, or within the three-day AAA-window, the opinions expressed in your article are wholly inapplicable. Sure, when your plans are set 14 days out or more, points redemptions no longer make sense, but what % of people are planning train travel two weeks out compared to the sheer number of people that use points to travel the heavily-trafficked NEC on a daily/weekly basis?

    For those people, they have a choice–if they can use the AAA discount, they should pay in cash; if they can’t, they should use points. They’ll be hard pressed to find 2.9 cents per point value so easily in transferring their Chase URs to many other programs given all of the recent devaluations. This is very useful advice they are not receiving from you and many other bloggers.

    For me and many others who travel from NYP-PHL, or NYP-WAS and can’t plan that travel in advance, we will often be spending fewer than 4,000 points in the future–a net win from what we currently have to spend.

  10. This is not necessarily a huge problem. I sometimes redeem Amtrak points for travel in the Northeast Corridor, particularly when booking relatively last-minute or at busy times of year since the current fixed price and minimal capacity controls on awards means that it is most valuable to redeem points when the cash price is high. So, I don’t think I’ve ever redeemed points for a saver fare, and trains that I’ve redeemed on have had only value or sometimes even flexible fares as the lowest fare available.

    Granted, it means that going forward, there is not a new opportunity to redeem for saver fares for very small numbers of points, as had been implied by the new system. But in terms of consistency with what one can do now, it’s actually about the same.

  11. My point is not that there aren’t some better deals than there used to be with Amtrak — it’s that point values may be substantially lower on some redemptions and not the fixed value that Amtrak has portrayed.

    I do not make every single point in this one post, I have covered Amtrak’s changes fairly extensively already.

    Northeast corridor has the most frequent service and is the engine that may actually financial break even for Amtrak so it’s especially relevant.

  12. I just spent quite a while pricing tickets on routes I actually travel. I concluded that my points will be worth about the same as they were before, but it will be MUCH more complicated and time-consuming to use them. If you can plan well in advance and spend hours poring over the insane “bucket pricing,” it is entirely possible to get deals on sleeper cars that are WAY BETTER than the old predictable award structure. On the other hand, if you wait until the last minute, you are screwed.

    In July, my husband and I booked a 1-way roomette from Portland to MSP for 20,000 points. That same itinerary under bucket pricing varies from $463 to $796 for next July. That’s about 16K to 27K points. A bedroom on that same PDX-MSP run varies from 23,259 points (a steal!) to 58,741 (ouch). Under the old system it would have been a flat 40,000.

    So… I think I’ll transfer 30,000 UR points to Amtrak proactively. With family in Portland, I’m pretty sure we’ll use them. And it’s hard to beat a value of 2.9 cents/point.

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