AP Photo/David Goldman

America’s passenger train switches to a fare-based redemption program in 2016.

If you’ve been an Amtrak Guest Rewards member for a fair number of years—and I count myself among this crowd—you’ve seen the program evolve to reflect the train’s increasing popularity, especially in the Northeast Corridor. Gone are the days when a one-way Regional train from Washington to New York cost members 3,000 points and all travelers had a decent shot at sitting alone. These days Amtrak Guest Rewards offers that trip for 4,000 points, with a blackout calendar as annoying as that ubiquitous passenger on the phone in the Quiet Car.

Such is the price of progress. Still, on the whole, the current redemption system has been a generous one. So long-time members might have felt some dismay when Amtrak announced that on January 24, 2016, it will replace its existing, fixed-point zone-based rewards program with one that fluctuates based on fares. (Baseline earning power stays the same, at 2 points per $1 spent on train travel.)

In other words, there’s no longer a set amount of points that earn members a free trip; instead, the point requirement rises and falls with passenger demand and ticket prices. That’s potentially bad news for people who tend to book late, since fares typically rise closer to departure times. But on the flipside Amtrak has eliminated blackout dates for the new system, and after digging into the new program I’ve found plenty of deals to be had for the savvy traveler in 2016.

Using Amtrak’s redemption calculator for the new system, I conducted a rewards comparison of the existing and future member programs for three upcoming travel dates. The fares were found on December 23 and are based on one-way travel between Washington and New York departing at roughly 9 a.m., noon, and 5 p.m. They reflect the cheapest available option for Northeast Regional and Acela trains eligible for redemption in 2016 (super low Saver fares don’t count), and assume regular Member status (higher tiers offer different benefits).

Sunday, December 27, 2015

If you try to redeem membership points for travel this Sunday, you immediately see the benefits of the new rewards program. Under the existing, soon-to-be-extinct system, December 27 is a blackout date; Joe Boardman himself couldn’t redeem free travel for all the points in the world. The new system lets you redeem any day, even high-demand holiday travel dates like this Sunday, provided you’re willing to pay in points.

Let’s take a look at the Regional (and Acela) fares:

9 a.m.: Sold Out ($189)
Old points: N/A (N/A)
New points: N/A (7,371)

Noon: $218 ($189)
Old points: N/A (N/A)
New points: 7,521 (7,371)

5 p.m.: $173 ($189)
Old points: N/A (N/A)
New points: 5,969 (7,371)

Again, under the old system, no one rides a Regional or Acela train for free this Sunday. With the new system, members would need 7,521 points for a noon Regional train (with only business class currently available), and 5,969 points for the 5 p.m. That’s technically worse than the old, non-blackout rate of 4,000 points for the Regional, but at least members have the option to redeem if they so desire. And Acela travelers actually get a deal over the old rates: 7,371 to 8,000 points (again, presuming no blackout, which there is).

Friday, January 8, 2016

Holiday travel is always an outlier. So let’s look at the first normal Friday after New Year’s as another data point.

A few things to consider with this date. It’s two weeks away, which is usually sufficient lead time to lock in lower fares. But it’s a Friday, so there’s generally higher travel demand relative to other weekdays. And under the old rewards system—but not the new—all weekday Acela travel before 9 a.m. or between 2 and 6 p.m. is blacked out.

Here’s the Regional (and Acela) one-way fares for January 8:

9 a.m.: $88 ($161)
Old points: 4,000 (8,000)
New points: 3,036 (6,279)

Noon: $88 ($161)
Old points: 4,000 (8,000)
New points: 3,036 (6,279)

5 p.m.: $88 ($217)
Old points: 4,000 (N/A)
New points: 3,036 (8,463)

In every case here, members benefit with the new redemption rules more than they would have with the old ones. Regional train travelers save nearly 1,000 points at all three travel times. Acela travelers, meanwhile, get a 1,700-point windfall at 9 and noon, and have the option of using points for the 5 p.m. train that would have been blacked out under the old rules. Wins across the Board(man).

Saturday, January 23, 2016

For good measure let’s try the final day of the old system, January 23, 2016. This is a Saturday, which generally means lower travel demand, and it’s a month out, which means the procrastination surcharge hasn’t yet kicked into effect. Let’s take a look at the Regional (and Acela) fares for January 23:

9 a.m.: $88 ($217)
Old points: 4,000 (8,000)
New points: 3,036 (8,463)

Noon: $88 ($161)
Old points: 4,000 (8,000)
New points: 3,036 (6,279)

5 p.m.: $88 ($161)
Old points: 4,000 (8,000)
New points: 3,036 (6,279)

This time around, the only rewards comparison that favors the old system is the 9 a.m. Acela, which costs 463 more points in 2016. In every other train configuration, members win out with the new system. The pattern is becoming clear: book far in advance, and reap the benefits.

It’s an admittedly small sample, and the new Amtrak rewards system won’t come out ahead of the old one all the time—particularly when passengers book at the last minute during busy travel periods. The precise tipping point is a $116 fare for Regional trains (now 4,002 points) and $206 for Acela (now 8,034 points). But it certainly seems to hold its own for the well-prepared traveler, and if nothing else the system is very transparent.

Head to the points calculator here to crunch the numbers yourself. Redeem wisely, my friends.

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