Keeping “Track” of Amtrak's Guest Rewards

Banner photo by Bob Wright.

Exploring the national parks units via Amtrak is in some instances, occasionally more convenient than doing so by plane/rental car. Overall, Parks and Points has found Amtrak to be a helpful mode of transportation, though arrival times can be variable.

Amtrak has a reputable rewards program called Guest Rewards. Unfortunately, they recently moved to a revenue-based model for redemptions, as opposed to their previous arrangement of point redemption by distance/zones traveled. Now, Guest Rewards points are redeemed based upon how much the ticket costs. Though the value has lessened somewhat from where it once was, there are still great ways to maximize the value of the program.

Guest Rewards has always had revenue-based earnings, where you earn points based on your ticket cost, receiving a fixed number of points per the money spent. Currently, the basic breakdown of earnings is 2 Guest Rewards points/ $1 spent,with 25% bonus for Business Class tickets and 50% bonus for Acela First Class; thus, a $100 ticket in Acela Business Class would earn a base level 200 points, with 100 bonus points.

Redemptions are easy, and you usually get 2.9 cents off your ticket price for each point you use. Additionally, there are no discrete blackout dates with Amtrak, although “peak” travel dates do cost more points; you can, however, use a combination of points and cash, which is great if you don’t have enough points for the full ticket cost. You can also cancel an award ticket at any point up until the scheduled boarding time and only pay a 10% penalty — quite the contrast to traveling via airline.

Amtrak Guest Rewards often runs 2x or 3x bonus offers throughout the season; do sign up for their emails to be alerted. At 2.9 cents, the value of these points is on the higher side of travel rewards. The co-branded credit cards with Bank of America can be a good card to use for everyday purchases, as these offer a 5% rebate on all Guest Rewards points redemptions.
So, now… where to go with your Guest Rewards points?

2016 map of Amtrak routes and stops.

2016 map of Amtrak routes and stops.

Again, the travel times are a little trickier as trains depart at early a.m. hours; for example, we departed for a New Mexico trip from our parents home in Kansas at 12:30 a.m. But not all routes require passengers to be night owls! Some destination cities proximal to national parks that are otherwise quite far from major airports are:  

Grand Junction, CO [Colorado National Monument]
Williston, ND [Theodore Roosevelt National Park]
Chemult, OR [Crater Lake National Park]
Stauton VA [Shenandoah National Park]

You can’t get much closer via airline, that is unless…the train took you right into the park! In one instance it does. Awesomely, Amtrak goes right to East Glacier and West Glacier, Montana, and the train drops you off inside Glacier National Park!

Another amazing deal is available for those with plans to camp or lodge inside Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks. There are no train stations to either of these parks, but Amtrak will bus you RIGHT into the park. Thus, you can get by a car rental as you can use the free shuttle systems inside all three of these parks!

Photo by Derek Wright.

Photo by Derek Wright.

For relentless train travelers, we should point out that it’s possible to go from Grand Canyon to Yosemite via Amtrak. The train is a great way to see lots of amazing scenery and while it is slower than traveling by plane or car, that slowness can be rewarding in sighting herds of elk, having conversations with people on the train, having morning coffee in the observation car, or dinner among new friends at night in the dining car. As of publication, the price between Grand Canyon and Yosemite was listed at $155 or 5,300 points one way. The journey is a full 24 hours day, requiring an overnight. However, if you are adept at falling asleep on the train, you are spared a very long drive and need for a hotel room. The seats are basically the same as an old school business class airline seat, not lay-flat though they do recline amply, and the ride is actually pretty comfortable. You can book a private room (with bed) on the train, usually for about 2x the price of a seat.

Given the consistent value of Amtrak Guest Rewards points, we will be keeping “track” of this program closely, with an eye on accessibility to park sites. ;-)