One of the biggest benefits of Chase Ultimate Rewards points are their flexibility. Transfers to most partners happen instantly and you can transfer in increments of 1,000 points, giving you the ability to top off accounts to achieve your next redemption. I usually focus on airline mile transfers for my Ultimate Rewards stash. I’ve never actually transferred them to a hotel program though I’ve considered it. I manage to generate enough hotel points from my travel and credit card spend with Hyatt and SPG. It was an odd set of circumstances that led me to the decision to transfer some points to Amtrak. And, then not transfer them. And, then ultimately transfer them and book a ticket.
I had originally priced out Amtrak tickets for an upcoming trip a while back but I hadn’t settled on the final dates so was waiting to book. Alas, the fares that were under $200 total were now $400. And, the more expensive Acela train was $800 for the four of us. Amtrak sells tickets in fare buckets like the airlines but generally doesn’t discount as they get closer to travel dates except through some small weekly promos. My route didn’t show up on the promo and I had resigned myself to paying cash when I remembered Amtrak was an Ultimate Rewards partner.
I only found one type of award for passengers, no separate “child’s fare” award. A child award might seem odd given the normal structure for the airlines, but Amtrak will sell you a half-price child’s ticket for every full-price adult ticket you buy. I thought it was at least worth calling to clarify. I spoke with a very nice lady on the phone who confirmed that there was only one type of award.
I was left to ponder whether it was better to redeem 32,000 UR points for 4 Acela tickets or go half-price and redeem 16,000 points for 4 tickets on the Northeast Regional. The Northeast Regional takes about 30 minutes longer to get there so I was leaning Acela. In the meantime, about 30 minutes later I received an e-mail from Amtrak Guest Rewards. I was pretty sure it was a request to complete a survey about my telephone call but I read it anyway. Good thing I did! Apparently, because I already had an Amtrak Guest Rewards account, I couldn’t actually transfer points:
We are contacting you regarding a phone conversation you had with one of our Service Representatives on today. You were informed that you could transfer points to your Amtrak Guest Rewards account from one of our partners. Though this information is correct, upon completion of the phone call, our Service Representative noticed that you had recently had points expire from your Amtrak Guest Rewards membership account. As a result we are requesting that you do not transfer points from our partner until you have had paid Amtrak travel posted to your membership account.
Since you have not had paid Amtrak travel posted to your membership account within the past 36 months, any points posted to your membership account, whether they are from purchasing, partner or any other means will expire each time our system makes a sweep until you have qualifying travel points post to your membership account.
Huh, what? I was glad I got distracted and didn’t transfer my Ultimate Rewards points right away. I hopped on the phone again just to confirm the e-mail was correct. I have to admit I was pretty shocked to get an e-mail less than 30 minutes after I hung up with Amtrak. There aren’t too many travel providers I can think of where I’ve ever had that experience (none come to mind, actually). The person I spoke to confirmed it was correct. I politely pushed back a bit, trying to figure out if there was anything that could be done. He confirmed it had been well over a year since I had Amtrak points expire and more than 3 years since I had any paid travel on Amtrak. I don’t actually think that’s correct, but it wasn’t like I had the data to substantiate it at the moment and I wasn’t sure how likely it was I could quickly find an Amtrak ticket receipt from 2 or 3 years ago.
I asked him if this was policy or a software issue. He said, “It’s a frequent travel program. If you don’t buy tickets, you’re not a frequent traveler.” Fair enough. I asked if it would be permissible to set up an account for my wife and transfer Ultimate Rewards points to her account. He said that absolutely I could do that, since it was a new account. It didn’t matter that my wife hadn’t traveled on Amtrak in the past 3 years. It was the potential of her new account that she might. He also insisted more than once in the conversation that if I transferred points from Chase they would disappear.
I asked him if I could speak with a supervisor to confirm whether it was a policy or software issue, as he seemed to be avoiding the question and I wanted to draft a blog post to report back on the situation. He put me on hold for about 5 minutes and then came back and said that they had agreed to make a one-time exception in my case and that I would be allowed to transfer points in and book an award. I thanked him for that, especially since that wasn’t what I had asked (I just figured I would start a new account for my wife and transfer the points there). I also asked if he could send an e-mail the way the last agent/supervisor did. He told me he couldn’t. I asked if his supervisor could. He said they had no ability to send e-mail whatsoever. Strange, I noted, as I just received one. He said he didn’t know how that was possible.
He offered to give me his name and employee number, which I took. The whole conversation was fairly pleasant, I just found it a bit strange. My guess is that this is more policy than something hard-coded into the software and that they run sweeps from time to time and use a script that zeroes any account without activity in 3 years. I hung up still not knowing for sure, and also not knowing whether award travel would “reset the counter”. I found this reference in the T&C which strongly indicates only paid travel keeps your account active:
I figured the chances that I transferred points and they disappeared into thin air were pretty low, so I took a shot and transferred. The transfer was instant and I booked my ticket shortly thereafter. It’s important to note that you can search for award inventory on the Amtrak site by logging into an Amtrak Guest Rewards account and plugging in your travel details. However, the system won’t display how much the award will cost.
Instead, you can view a full award chart and map here. This makes it a bit tricky, as you may need to go back and forth between the reward map and the booking engine a couple times to figure out if you’re getting the right value for points and confirming that award seats are available for your chosen train. And, you have to be logged into two separate systems in two separate browser windows to see revenue seats and award seats.
As a side note, Deal Mommy reports on a trick to still get those half-priced kids tickets when redeeming for an award. It’s a solid argument that’s what I should have done myself, but given the uncertainty of the policy and the fact that I didn’t have anything in writing, I decided to just book 4 award seats. That reduced my effective redemption from just over 3 cents a piece to 2.5 cents a piece. It’s probably one of my lower value Ultimate Rewards redemptions but still above 2 cents where I strongly recommend you redeem.
Bottom Line It For Me, Ed
As I read their T&C, as soon as you open an Amtrak Guest Rewards account the clock starts ticking on your 36-month window to be able to redeem awards. With no paid travel, award redemption will not reset that clock. My suggestion here if you don’t plan frequent redemptions is to not sign up both you and your significant other/traveling companion on a redemption since you won’t earn points on it anyway. This effectively gets you 6 years to transfer Ultimate Rewards points, as I can still sign my wife up for an account and start her clock running. I could also buy an Amtrak ticket as well, which I likely would have done here if I had gotten my act together sooner. Lesson learned!
Amtrak Guest Rewards can be a solid redemption partner for Chase Ultimate Rewards. I don’t see folks getting 6 or 7 cents a point as on air travel, but 3 cents and above is perfectly reasonable to expect.
ETA: dhammer reminded me that I hadn’t mentioned the Chase Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard. If you have the card, your Amtrak points will never expire. I don’t travel Amtrak a lot so I don’t have a use for this credit card. But, in a perverse way, Amtrak is implicitly saying I shouldn’t apply for the card until I think I might have another redemption opportunity. After studying the card for a bit yesterday, I did find some value for folks living in the Northeast. The card offers:
- A 12,000 point sign-up bonus
- No annual fee
- Double points on Amtrak purchases
- A 5% rebate on Amtrak reward redemptions
I still don’t love the card since you’re locking up points in the Amtrak program and reducing flexibility. But, as dhammer said, 12,000 points gets you 3 one-way tickets between Washington and New York.
I don’t earn any commission off this card, just figured there are at least some folks who may find it useful.