What the New York Times got wrong about long-haul Amtrak travel

Last week’s New York Times Magazine featured a long article about long-haul Amtrak travel that somehow managed to get almost everything wrong about the advantages and disadvantages of train travel. As a life-long enthusiast of train travel, I thought it might be helpful to correct some of the more common and absurd myths perpetuated in the article.

Myth #1: Amtrak travel is expensive

Behold the feigned horror the Times Magazine author imputes to her hypothetical friends:

“Depending how you slice it — time or money — there are either 61 or 960 immediate reasons not to travel by Amtrak trains from New York City to Los Angeles. Those are the extra hours and dollars, respectively, that you might reasonably expect to forfeit if you forgo a six-hour $129 nonstop flight and opt instead for an Amtrak sleeper car. Covering the interjacent 2,448.8 miles can easily consume some 67 hours for a mind-boggling $1,089.”

Unfortunately for the Times Magazine, these numbers are easily checked. For non-stop flights between New York City and Los Angeles 6 months from now, I actually found slightly cheaper economy flights than the ones that Weaver reports, starting at just $127:

But the identical Amtrak route she took between New York City’s Penn Station and Los Angeles’s Union Station doesn’t cost $1,089. It costs just $232:

Why the difference? Because Weaver is comparing Amtrak’s sleeper car accommodation to American Airlines’s economy cabin (I actually found sleeper car accommodation on the same date in October not at $1,089 but at $914 — Weaver should start booking further in advance!):

The deliberate confusion of economy-class airline fares with sleeper car Amtrak fares is journalistic malpractice, but that doesn’t stop us from untangling it a little bit more.

First, let’s take note that an economy-class airfare between New York City and Los Angeles International Airport requires you to travel to one of New York City’s regional airports from your residence, and from LAX to your final destination in Southern California. I don’t live in New York City or in Los Angeles, so I’m not going to pretend to venture a guess at that final cost, besides spitballing that it’s in the high 2 figures, depending on your origin and final destination. Remember you’re only working with $105 in “profit“ to begin with by flying instead of taking Amtrak.

Second, what do you get for your fare in each case? In the case of the airfare, you get the convenience of same-day arrival. In the case of Amtrak travel, you also get 3 nights of accommodation on board the train. If we insist on only comparing airfares and Amtrak fares, that leaves you paying $35 per night for a place to sleep (assuming in each case that your flight and your train arrive on time — no sure thing). Amtrak also includes free checked bags and much more in-cabin storage space than the typical US airline, a potential additional source of savings.

Of course, I don’t recommend traveling on long-haul Amtrak routes in coach. The sleeper cars are far preferable! That brings us to the third piece of the cost puzzle: sleeper car accommodations include the same 3 nights of sleep, but on what an airline blogger would insist on calling “lay-flat seats,” plus 9 cooked-to-order meals in the Amtrak dining car (dinner on day of departure, 6 meals en route, breakfast and lunch on day of arrival).

For a single traveler between New York City and Los Angeles, we can finally make a clear comparison: $127 is the underlying cost of transportation, with the option to pay $262 per night for three hot meals per day and private sleeping quarters.

Is that a good deal or a bad deal? Well, that depends on how much you planned to pay for room and board in New York City and Los Angeles, which I’m in no place to judge. But the math changes a final time when you book a sleeper car with multiple people, as intended.

That’s because when you travel on Amtrak, you pay a fixed price for each sleeper car room, up to the maximum number of passengers that room type accommodates. The cheapest roomettes on this route accommodate two passengers, which means two people can buy 3 nights of room and board for a total of $892, or $446 each, $149 per day (remember we’ve assigned an underlying value to the transportation itself of $127 per person):

Suddenly it become clear that when used as intended, Amtrak long-haul travel isn’t outrageously expensive. Booked far enough in advance, it starts to look like a steal.

Myth #2: Amtrak travel is inconvenient

Weaver gave herself a bit of an unfair advantage by selecting a particularly illogical route to go by train: between two cities served by multiple airports and multiple airlines, but only an awkward train connection. Personally, I would not book an Amtrak trip with just a 5-hour connection window, as hers does in Chicago. In the waning days of the old Amtrak Guest Rewards program I booked an itinerary from Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief, connecting to the Coast Starlight. Over the next 3 days the train was predictably delayed, we missed our Coast Starlight connection, and had to be rerouted by bus and regional rail upstate to where the Coast Starlight ultimately caught up to us.

But there are lots of routes where Amtrak is not only convenient, but indispensable. Someone living in Seattle or Portland who wants to take a New Year’s ski vacation at Whitefish Mountain Resort, near Whitefish, MT, can sit down on New Year’s Day on the Empire Builder at 4:40 pm and arrive in Whitefish the next morning at 7:21 am for $77; they could be on the slopes by 9 am. The next best alternative I found is a $139 Alaska flight, not to Whitefish but to Kalispell, arriving at midnight (requiring another night of lodging), and a 15 mile car or shuttle to Whitefish. Which do you think is more convenient?

Now head the other direction: 6 months out, you can book a 7 hour, 47 minute flight from Chicago to Wolf Point, MT, for $381 per person, with (pretty tight) connections in both Denver and Billings. Or you can sit down on the Empire Builder at 2:15 pm and arrive in Wolf Point around noon the next day for $110. Which do you think is more convenient?

Let’s do one more fun one. If you want to get from Mattoon, IL, to McComb, MS, you can drive 2 hours to Indianapolis International Airport, pay $94 to fly to New Orleans, connecting in Atlanta, then drive another 2 hours or so to McComb. Or you can sit down on the City of New Orleans in Mattoon and step off in downtown McComb 13-and-a-half hours later for $111. Which do you think is more convenient?

You can see from these examples the obvious convenience of Amtrak, and train travel in general: it makes the intermediate stops that other forms of long-haul transportation don’t. To put it another way, Amtrak is only inconvenient if you aren’t using it as intended. For folks without impaired mobility, It’s incredibly inconvenient to ride a municipal bus two blocks. You have to find the right stop, figure out whether a bus is a local or express, wait for it to come, then it might drop you off on the wrong end of your destination block. How inconvenient! But that’s because you’re using it wrong, not because municipal buses are an outdated or unnecessary form of transportation.

Myth #3: There is No Reason to Cross the U.S. by Train

Near the beginning of her article, Weaver notes in passing:

“The most unifying characteristic of my fellow passengers was not age (although, as a rule, the sleeping cars skewed retired), race (very mixed), income (while sleepers are astronomically priced, coach seats can be downright economical for shorter segments) or even fear of flying (no one I spoke to had it).”

This is best understood as a passive-aggressive swipe at a 2013 Times article about Amtrak travel, which explains perfectly clearly why people take Amtrak: if you have a fear of flying, you have a fear of flying no matter how much longer train travel takes. If you’re unable to fly for medical reasons, you’re unable to fly no matter how much cheaper it would be. If you’re undocumented, you’re unable to fly (and often unable to drive) no matter how much more convenient it would be. Train travel doesn’t serve those populations as a “backup” option; it serves those populations as the only option.

Conclusion: if you don’t like train travel, don’t travel by train. But don’t tell me there’s something wrong with trains

I’m perfectly aware of confirmation bias, and the fact that I love train travel obviously makes me seek out the most convincing arguments in favor of train travel. If you think train travel is a poor substitute for flying or driving, then you won’t find these arguments convincing.

Writing this post, I was reminded of my notorious screed about Galveston, TX, where I wrote extensively about how hard it is to get there, and reader stvr commented, “Do you not have a driver's license?” To stvr, renting a car for a weekend is a totally normal and good way to get around, whereas to me it’s an almost unfathomably annoying prospect.

Whether it’s flying, car rental, or train travel, issues where people have strong feelings are opportunities for disagreement, but also a chance to exercise some epistemic humility. I hate renting cars, but I’m not crusading for the destruction of the car rental industry; I know that many people believe it serves a useful function, and I’m not willing to say with certainty that those people are wrong. Likewise, even if you hate traveling by train, before destroying America’s passenger rail network once and for all, do me a favor and take the opportunity to step back and ask how certain you really are that all of us who love it are wrong.

Transfer Starpoints to Amtrak Guest Rewards before August 1, 2018

For many years I was a booster of Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers to Amtrak Guest Rewards, due to their zone-based redemption system which made it possible to get 3 or more (possibly much more) cents per point when redeeming Amtrak Guest Rewards for transcontinental sleeper accommodations.

Unfortunately, in December, 2015, Ultimate Rewards points could no longer be transferred to Amtrak Guest Rewards, and in January, 2016, Amtrak moved from a zone-based to a fixed-value redemption scheme.

However, those fixed-value points are still quite valuable!

Refresher: the value of Amtrak Guest Rewards points

Amtrak Guest Rewards points are similar to Southwest Rapid Rewards points in that they have fixed values, but the value they're fixed at depends on the redemption in question. For example:

  • a coach seat on the Northeast Regional from Washington to Boston costs $79 or 3,830 points, for 2.06 cents per points;
  • a business class seat on the Acela Express between the same cities costs $138 or 7,176 points, for 1.92 cents per point;
  • a first class seat on the Acela Express costs $282 or 10,998 points, for 2.56 cents per point;
  • a coach seat between Chicago and Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief costs $142 or 6,107 points, for 2.33 cents per point;
  • a Superliner Roomette costs $794 or 27,393 points, for 2.9 cents per point;
  • a Family Bedroom costs $1,158 or 39,951 points, for 2.9 cents per point;
  • a Superliner Bedroom costs $1,606 or 55,407 points, for 2.9 cents per point.

Starpoints can be transferred to Amtrak Guest Rewards through July 31, 2018

Starwood has announced that transfers to Amtrak Guest Rewards will end with the introduction of the new Marriott Rewards program on August 1, 2018, although it's fair to speculate whether Marriott will arrive at their own accommodation with Amtrak after that date.

Amtrak redemptions are good and you should consider speculatively transferring points

Amtrak Guest Rewards points aren't very valuable if you want to do anything but take train trips, but if you do want to take train trips, they're quite valuable. Earning 2.9% in value on unbonused spend with the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card on unbonused spend puts it solidly up there with the most lucrative cashback credit cards.

If you have an upcoming trip you might consider buying points

I earn virtually all of my miles and points through manufactured spend, but I'm perfectly aware that periodic opportunities to pay cash for miles and points can offers discounts off cash rates under certain circumstances. As Frequent Miler explains, there's currently a Starwood Preferred Guest promotion to purchase points for 2.275 cents each, which would offer a discount of 21.6% off the long-haul Amtrak Guest Rewards redemptions I mentioned above.

That's not a huge discount in absolute travel hacking terms, but if you have an upcoming Amtrak trip planned and you'd otherwise pay cash for it, it would be silly not to instead pay 21.6% less for the same trip.

Speculatively transfer points skeptically

I like trains, so I'd happily transfer an almost unlimited number of Starpoints to Amtrak if I were certain they would maintain their current redemption system. Unfortunately, I'm certain they won't, and I wouldn't recommend anyone transfer Starpoints to Amtrak Guest Rewards for train trips they plan to take more than one or two years in the future.


The Starwood-Marriott merger has created a lot of one-time opportunities we'll all be talking about leading up to and after August 1, 2018. The opportunity to transfer Starpoints to Amtrak Guest Rewards is one that anyone with a large Starpoint balance and an interest in Amtrak travel should consider.

Sleeping the rails

As some readers may know, in a former life I worked as an English language teacher in Russia. At that time, it was typical for expats to arrive on a business visa, which as a rule only allowed you to be present in the country for 91 out of every 180 days. The idea was, you'd arrive on a business visa, get a job, and then switch over to the appropriate visa at some later date (I think of this whenever I hear about unauthorized immigrants who "overstay" their visas to the United States — that was me and most of my friends, and it was simply the way things were done).

In the winter of 2007-2008, rumors started to spread that the Russian Foreign Ministry had issued a new decree that visas could only be issued in the home country of foreign passport holders. While previously people had hopped over the border to the Baltic states, those Russian embassies were refusing to issue visas to third-country passport holders. However, we were hearing reports that the Russian Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, was still issuing visas to third-country passport holders — for now.

With that in mind, my company bundled me off to Kiev to spend the Christmas vacation waiting for a visa. The embassy was no longer issuing one-day visas, so I would have to spend 10 days in the country while my visa was prepared. In Kiev, the hostel I ended up in was owned and operated by a fanatically racist Englishman (this is a common problem in expat communities), and after a day or two I decided I couldn't stay there any longer. But where to stay? Having just gotten off an overnight train ride, I quickly arrived at a solution. Here's a map of Ukraine:

Glancing at this map, you can immediately see there are four cities located roughly equidistant from one another: Kiev, Lviv, Odessa, and Dnipro (still called Dnepropetrovsk while I was there). Not only are they roughly equidistant, but they're also all about 7-9 hours apart by train. The solution to my housing problem was obvious: I'd board a train about midnight each night, sleep on the train, and arrive in a new city around 8 am. I could spend the day exploring the city and get back on the train that evening.

I eventually got back to Kiev, got my visa, and headed back to Russia. But that adventure has always left me wondering: could it work here?

Using Amtrak for both housing and transportation

Trying the same thing in the United States poses several difficulties:

  • our trains are far less frequent than trains in Eastern Europe, often passing through a given community as rarely as once a day;
  • our trains are more expensive than trains in Eastern Europe (although often less expensive than you think, and very often less expensive than flying);
  • and our network of train stations is more limited, with routes that typically either feature very frequent stops or very infrequent stops.

So, I decided to investigate if it's possible to replicate something like what I did in Ukraine, and if so, at what cost?

Back and forth

Due to less frequent US train schedules, the easiest way to do what I'm describing is simply to go back and forth on the same route. Head north, south, east, or west one night, and head back the next night.

For example:

  • Northeast Regional 65/67 southbound from Boston to Richmond, leaving 9:30 pm and arriving 9:29 am, and Northeast Regional 66 northbound from Richmond to Boston, leaving 7:00 pm and arriving 7:58 am, roundtrip (2 nights) from $166;
  • or City of New Orleans 59 southbound from Chicago to Jackson, MS, returning on City of New Orleans 58, roundtrip from $196.

This is, obviously, a pretty boring way to travel since you'd be bouncing back and forth between the same cities. It is cheaper than a typical downtown hotel, though, at less than $100 per night.

Hub and spokes

A more interesting way to sleep the rails would be starting at an Amtrak hub and taking individual routes out and back each day. This would give you the benefit of a little variety in your site-seeing. Amtrak, unfortunately, is a little short on hubs, with the only ones I can think of worth mentioning being Chicago (11 routes), Los Angeles (5 routes), and New York (14 routes). New Orleans is another possible option with 3 routes.

I think all three hubs are fairly promising, depending on the part of the country you want to see. For example, from Chicago you can overnight to Denver on the California Zephyr ($97), Pittsburgh on the Capitol Limited ($57), West Virginia on the Cardinal ($62), Memphis or Jackson on the City of New Orleans ($86), North Dakota on the Empire Builder ($102), Buffalo or Rochester on the Lake Shore Limited ($59), Colorado on the Southwest Chief ($102), or Texas on the Texas Eagle ($98).

Circle the country

To circle back to my original anecdote: is it possible to spend time around the country while spending every night on a train, instead of in a hotel?

The short answer is no: long-haul train schedules are too infrequent in the United States to give people the opportunity to arrive in the morning and leave the same night on most routes. Here's one option I found that illustrates the network's limitations:

  • Empire Builder westbound from Chicago, leaving 2:15 pm and arriving in Portland 10:10 am 2 days later;
  • Coast Starlight southbound from Portland, leaving 1:50 pm and arriving Los Angeles 9:00 pm one day later;
  • Sunset Limited eastbound from Los Angeles, leaving 10:00 pm and arriving in New Orleans at 9:40 pm two days later;
  • Overnight in New Orleans;
  • City of New Orleans northbound from New Orleans, leaving 1:45 pm and arriving in Chicago at 9:00 am the next day.

The route described above would cost, if booked sufficiently far in advance, about $483, and would take 7 nights to complete, from beginning to end, although you'd be on the hook for one night in New Orleans. That would give you a cost per night spent in the coach car of a train of $80.50. Not a bad deal, and a much better set of views than a roach motel in Chicago (I've seen my fair share).

Don't forget Amtrak unreliability

Of course, the stylized route above assumes that four different Amtrak trains all run on schedule. This will not happen, because Amtrak trains don't run on schedule. On most versions of this run you would end up spending many more nights on trains than I indicated, which would drive down your per-night cost of sleeping on Amtrak trains.


Unfortunately, American cities and Amtrak routes aren't very accommodating to the kind of tour I was able to take of Ukraine. Only rarely are cities served by the kind of morning and evening trains that are typical in Eastern Europe. But if you have to spend 10 days in the United States waiting for a consular official to stamp a visa in your passport, remember that we do have trains, and you can see a lot of the country in 10 days without spending very much money.

Hey look the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard raised their signup bonus

I saw at Miles to Memories yesterday morning that the Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard had raised its signup bonus from 20,000 to 30,000 Guest Rewards points after spending $1,000 within 3 months.

While I don't chase signup bonuses, I'm not a lunatic: if you want to get a card, you're better off getting it when the signup bonus is higher rather than when the signup bonus is lower!

And the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard is a pretty good card, if you travel on Amtrak regularly and pay for your own tickets.

Amtrak Guest Rewards points are pretty valuable

Amtrak Guest Rewards points are now redeemable for between 1.71 cents each (on certain Acela fares) and 2.9 cents each (on certain close-in Value fares), meaning a 30,000-point signup bonus is worth between $513 and $870, if you pay for your own Amtrak tickets out of pocket.

Note that this is not true if all of your Amtrak travel is reimbursed by an employer! If that's the case you should be putting your Amtrak purchases on the most lucrative card in your wallet for unbonused spend or travel purchases.

But if you just like taking trains (trains are great) then you can save a lot of money on train travel with this signup bonus.

Additionally, under certain circumstances it's possible to make large transfers of Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges points. Choice has a fairly confusing loyalty program but if you are able to take advantage of their properties you can get a lot of value from relatively few points.

Amtrak Guest Rewards points aren't that easy to earn

Since Chase Ultimate Rewards removed Amtrak Guest Rewards as a transfer partner, the only ways I know of to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points are:

  • Paid travel on Amtrak. If you commute on Amtrak, or if you have your Amtrak travel reimbursed, this is the most seamless way to earn Guest Rewards points.
  • Shopping through the Amtrak Guest Rewards portal. If you're a reseller who's able to direct your online purchases through the portal of your choosing, you can use Amtrak's and not muck around with credit cards or manufactured spend.
  • Transfers from Starwood Preferred Guest and Diners Club. If you have a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express or Diners Club credit card (either from the long long ago or during the brief period when cards were available to new applicants) then you can already earn one Amtrak Guest Rewards point per dollar spent at unbonused merchants.
  • The Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard. Of course, some people don't have access to American Express credit cards for one reason or another, and almost nobody has access to Diners Club credit cards. That means if you are interested in earning Amtrak Guest Rewards points, don't have paid travel on Amtrak, don't do a lot of online shopping, and don't have a Starwood Preferred Guest or Diners Club credit card, well, you're going to need an Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard.

A few other benefits

The Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard isn't exclusively for folks who redeem points for Amtrak travel: the annual roundtrip companion ticket, even with its numerous restrictions, is the kind of thing that folks who frequently buy paid Amtrak tickets can take advantage of so that a partner or family member can come along on business trips. That's the kind of thing business folks seem to enjoy.

There's also an annual lounge pass. Amtrak lounges are pretty bad, so I'd ordinarily say to just show up right before your train leaves, but given Amtrak delays maybe a lounge pass is more valuable than I'm giving it credit for.


I won't personally be applying for the current increased signup bonus because I have about 9 credit cards that are higher priorities for my applications right now. But if you don't have anything better on deck, I think the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard is a pretty good card with a better-than-usual signup bonus.

Quick hit: things I've learned about German trains

On our trip to Italy in 2015, I reserved all our train tickets in advance, thinking by analogy to airline tickets and hotel rooms that I was locking in the best prices ahead of time. That turned out to be totally unnecessary, as Italian train tickets seemed to cost the same whether you book 6 months in advance or just walk up to the ticket counter on the day of travel.

Having learned from that experience, on last month's trip to Europe I didn't book any of our train tickets in advance, planning to maintain flexibility in case we wanted to spend more or less time in a particular city. That worked great until we got to Germany.

Buy at least a day in advance

Unlike the Hungarian and Slovak trains we took, the German national railway service Deutsche Bahn offers multiple fare types on many of their trains. The price differences aren't always very large, but if you don't know about them you might find yourself overpaying. Here are the fare options for a non-stop train from Vienna to Berlin:

Here's the train we actually took from Vienna to Regensburg to visit my partner's relatives in Bavaria:

And here's the train we took from Schwandorf to Berlin:

While the fares are reasonably close, the fixed-date and fixed-routing tickets purchased in advance would save 36.50 Euro per ticket on our routing, or 28.50 Euro per ticket on the nonstop routing.

So if it's at all possible, buy German Deutsche Bahn train tickets in advance!

Reserved seats

Like coach class tickets on Amtrak, second class tickets on Deutsche Bahn do not come with assigned seats. However, for an extremely modest charge (4.50 Euro on a sample trip), you can request a reserved seat.

You can decide whether or not this is confusing (we were extremely confused), but reserved seats on Deutsche Bahn trains are indicated by a pair of cities listed above each pair of seats. For example, seat 65 on this train is reserved by someone boarding in Leipzig and leaving the train in Hamburg:

In other words, if you are departing the train before Leipzig, or boarding after Hamburg, you're free to sit there. If you are sitting there between Leipzig and Hamburg, you'll have an irate German standing by your seat angrily gesturing at his ticket and at the digital panel above your seat.

Going by train

I've now travelled on a substantial minority of long-haul Amtrak routes, depending on your definition:

  • Empire Builder (entire route, both directions)
  • Coast Starlight (entire route, both directions)
  • Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles)
  • City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans)
  • California Zephyr (Chicago to Emeryville)
  • Acela Express (Providence to New York City)
  • Northeast Regional (all over the place)

This doesn't make me anything close to an expert in Amtrak train travel, but it's given me a lot of experience. Here's what I've learned.

If you can't get to an Amtrak station, Amtrak will probably take you

I've written about this before in the context of Amtrak thruway bus cabotage, but the overall point is that Amtrak contracts with a wide range of local bus carriers in order to ferry people from cities and towns that aren't served by Amtrak to cities and towns that are serviced by Amtrak.

The one thing you need to know about Amtrak sleeping accommodations

There are three (primary) types of Amtrak sleeping accommodations: roomettes, bedrooms, and family bedrooms.

These are basically ordered by size, with roomettes being the smallest (a tiny room with two fold-down beds), bedrooms having some room to stretch, and family bedrooms being the largest, capable of accommodating up to 2 adults and 2 children.

That's all academic: the key thing to know is that only bedrooms (the middle category) have en suite toilets and showers.

Now, maybe that's a big deal for you or maybe it isn't. But either way, it's the primary difference between the room types (besides square footage).

If you choose a room type without en suite toilets and showers, you can use the toilets and showers downstairs in each sleeping car.

The food is pretty good, with limitations

As a sleeper car passenger on an Amtrak train, everyone in your compartment is entitled to breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining car.

These meals are pretty epic. You can order anything off each menu, and each menu has very elaborate offerings: omelettes, french toast, or pancakes for breakfast, burgers and sandwiches for lunch, and steaks, pasta, or specialty items for supper.

Of course, since you're confined to a train for anywhere from 24 to 70 hours, you should definitely not be eating that much food.

Did I mention dessert is served with both lunch and dinner?

Basically, your best move is to pick a few entrees you'd like to try over the course of a long-haul trip, and order one per day. Other than that, eat salad.

The views are completely unique

This is where you accuse me of burying the lede. Traveling by train gives you a view of the terrain of the United States that you literally can't get anywhere else.

These train routes are carved through landscapes that don't have any roads, sidewalks, or even hiking paths.

You will never see this view of the Colorado River anywhere except on an Amtrak train:

That's because there's a mountain on one side and train tracks on the other. If you're not on the train, you're out of luck.

Conclusion: go by train, while you can

Long-haul train routes in the United States are an endangered species. Some of them are subsidized by local governments seeking tourism revenue, some are subsidized by Congress, and others are subsidized by redirecting revenue from the few profitable routes, primarily on the coasts.

But that's a far cry from suggesting that such long-haul passenger train routes are "a waste." They're remarkable and unique ways to view parts of this remarkable country which are inaccessible by any other means of transportation.

Anatomy of an Award Trip: Spring Break in San Francisco

If you follow me on Twitter (as you should!) you know I spent last week in San Francisco. It was only upon returning that I realized I hadn't posted an anatomy of the award trip. Better late then never!

Getting there: Amtrak's California Zephyr

This was my last long-haul Amtrak sleeper cabin redemption before the December 8, 2015, revenue-based Amtrak Guest Rewards devaluation. I transferred 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak Guest Rewards points for a 2-zone bedroom reservation between Chicago and San Francisco on the California Zephyr.

Total cost: 40,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points, transferred from Ultimate Rewards. Total value: $1,246. Value per point: 3.12 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

Staying there: Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf

As a newly minted Hyatt Diamond, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about and booked a 5-night Points + Cash reservation at the Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf, and applied one of my 2015 Suite Upgrade Awards.

Total cost: 37,500 Hyatt Gold Passport points and $582.25. Total value: $1,769.96. Value per point: 3.17 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

I then earned 3,250 of those points back, bringing my final value per point to 3.47 cents per Ultimate Rewards point. Note that this value is based on an ordinary room reservation, not a suite reservation, since I could have applied a Suite Upgrade Award to either type of reservation.

Getting back: Delta first class tickets

To get back, I employed a strategy I use increasingly often: I booked my partner on an award ticket and myself on a paid ticket using a Delta voluntary denied boarding voucher. My partner doesn't play the game at all (besides traveling with me) so I don't make any attempt to get her elite status or earn bonus miles in her accounts.

Total cost: 37,500 Delta SkyMiles and $5.60, plus $729.10 in voluntary denied boarding compensation. Total value: $1,458.20. Value per point: 1.93 cents per SkyMile.


From my point of view, this award trip was quite close to ideal: I redeemed points I earned extremely cheaply for relatively expensive reservations.

In the case of Ultimate Rewards points redeemed at 3 cents or more per point, I earned close to 15% back on spend I manufactured with Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards in their 5-points-per-dollar bonus categories.

In the case of Delta SkyMiles earned at 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar spent with my American Express Delta SkyMiles Platinum credit card, I earned roughly 2.7% back when redeeming those miles for my partner's first class ticket, which is quite strong for unbonused manufactured spend.

And of course when redeeming Delta voluntary denied boarding vouchers for my own travel, I came out ahead simply by being able to redeem it at face value.

Tune in tomorrow for some reflections on the train ride, hotel stay, and my impressions of a 5-day visit to the bay area!

Amtrak thruway bus cabotage

I just got back from a long weekend in Galveston, Texas, which had a surprising effect on me. I don't enjoy reading, let alone writing, trip reports, but I had enough interesting impressions while there that I plan to write up a few key lessons I learned during the trip. So look forward to more Galveston-related content soon; in the meantime, here's a quick tip on Amtrak thruway bus cabotage.

Amtrak is prohibited from providing intercity bus transportation

Cabotage, strictly speaking, is the act of carrying goods or passengers by a carrier registered in one country between two points in another country, and is prohibited except at the discretion of the second country.

But a similar principle is at work in the delivery of passenger bus and rail transportation in the United States. In my primitive understanding, Amtrak, the American passenger rail service, is allowed to provide bus transportation from cities that are not served by passenger rail to its passenger rail stations, but only on the condition that passengers have an onward passenger rail connection.

This is basically a shameless sop to passenger bus companies, who don't want to compete against a loss-making quasi-governmental train company. Interestingly, most of these so-called "thruway" bus routes are in fact operated by private passenger bus companies, from whom Amtrak contracts to provide transportation to their passenger rail stations. 

Amtrak tickets are quite cheap (and they have a rewards program)

While considering our various options to travel back from Galveston to Houston (I'll cover travel to Galveston in a future post), I stumbled across the interesting fact that the only passenger bus service from Galveston to Houston is operated by Lone Star Coaches, as a thruway bus service connecting to Amtrak's Sunset Limited service between Louisiana and California.

Of course, Amtrak is prohibited from selling thruway bus tickets between Galveston and Houston.

But they aren't prohibited from selling tickets from Galveston to San Antonio (one stop West of Houston). And those tickets are not very expensive.

Here's a ticket from Galveston to San Antonio (available Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday):

That's the second-cheapest price I could find for transportation from Galveston to Houston (spoiler alert: the cheapest is Galveston Express, but they seem to operate only when the cruise ships are in port).


I began looking into this option as a way to save money on our return from Galveston, but the same principle operates in markets all across the country: even if you can't find passenger bus service between two points, Amtrak may run a thruway bus between them, which only requires a train ticket to the next station down the line.