Amtrak has gone through a bit of a credit-card rewards slump this past year. First, Chase axed its Amtrak rewards card in 2015. Then, near the end of 2015, Chase announced that it would no longer allow Ultimate Rewards transfers to Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program.
But Bank of America picked up the mantle in 2016 and launched its own co-branded Amtrak rewards cards – the Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard ($79 annual fee) and the Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum MasterCard (no annual fee). The card is an improvement over the previous product and rewards those who commute or travel frequently with Amtrak.
Both cards are offering a sign-up bonus right now. For the Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard ($79 annual fee), you can get 20,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on the card in the first 90 days. For the Platinum MasterCard version ($0 annual fee), you get 12,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days.
Beyond that, you’ll earn rewards as follows:
|Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard ($79 annual fee)||Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum MasterCard|
|Amtrak travel and onboard purchases||3 points/$1||2 points/$1|
|Other travel purchases (airlines, car rental agencies, hotels, motels, inns, resorts, cruises, travel agencies)||2 points/$1||N/A|
|Other purchases||1 point/$1||1 point/$1|
Note that you will also be earning the regularly rewarded points that come from being a member of Amtrak Guest Rewards — 2 points per dollar spent on tickets (with bonuses for Business and First-Class travel).
We like travel rewards cards that allow you to earn rewards in categories other than the co-branded partner – and the World MasterCard version allows you to do just that. However, if you’re playing the credit-card rewards game, you probably have another dedicated travel rewards card you’re using for travel purchases.
If that’s the case, the no-annual fee version of the card may be a better fit (especially if you’re not going to use any of the other World MasterCard benefits, which we’ll get to in a moment).
The Platinum version allows you to rack up points with Amtrak at a rate of just 1 fewer point per dollar than the World MasterCard. That means, with the no-annual-fee Platinum version, you don’t have to fret about recouping an annual fee and can just use your rewards whenever it’s convenient.
Amtrak’s rewards program gives the following redemption options:
Amtrak travel: You can reliably get 2 cents per point with this option, but your value varies, depending on the fare.
For example, say you’re traveling from Chicago to New York. Here’s the cash cost of one route:
And here’s the cost in rewards:
If you book the Saver rate (worth $85), you’re getting a value of 2.3 cents per point. If you book the room, your value goes up to 2.9 cents per point.
Gift certificates and points toward other travel: You can redeem for Hertz gift cards and cruise gift cards (for a value of nearly 1 cent per point to slightly more than 1 cent per point). You can also redeem for Starwood stays (starting at 10,000 points for one night at a Category 1 hotel).
Retailer, restaurant and movie theater gift cards: The redemption value varies but maxes out at 1 cent per point. For example, you can get a $100 Regal Entertainment Group gift card for 10,000 points (a 1-cent-per-point value) and a $50 Olive Garden gift card for 6,000 points (a 0.8-cents-per-point value) as of April 2016.
Our analysis: No surprise here — your best bet is to redeem for Amtrak travel, and a value of 2 cents per point is competitive among travel rewards cards. The other options fetch a smaller value. However, in other travel rewards programs, gift card redemption values =can be much lower (sometimes as low as half a cent per point). So, if you can’t redeem for Amtrak tickets, you at least have other options.
The following benefits might make the World MasterCard version worth the annual fee:
|Amtrak Guest Rewards card benefits|
|Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard||Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum MasterCard|
|Redemption bonus||5 percent rebate when you redeem for Amtrak travel|
|Elite status benefits||1,000 Tier Qualifying Points toward status each time you reach $5,000 in eligible spending in a calendar year (up to 4,000 TQPs per year)||N/A|
|Companion ticket||Complimentary companion coupon upon account opening and annually after you renew your card membership. Blackout dates apply.||N/A|
|Upgrades||A one-class upgrade upon account opening and annually after you renew your card membership. Not valid for sleeping card upgrades. Blackout dates apply.||N/A|
|Lounge access||Single-day ClubAcela pass, upon account opening. This gets you into lounges at stations that have them (including CubAcela, Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge or First Class lounges)||N/A|
Our analysis: If you travel with Amtrak frequently, these perks could make the $79 annual fee worth it. In fact, the companion ticket alone could cancel out the annual fee, assuming the fare is more than $79.
The value of the upgrade and lounge perks are harder to quantify. The lounge pass is a one-time thing (you don’t get it every year), but it could make a long transfer more comfortable (assuming the station has a lounge).
As for the annual upgrade perk, not all trains have business or first class. But, if you frequently use a route that offers the possibility of upgrades, it can help justify the annual fee. For example, upgrading from coach to business when traveling from Washington, D.C. to New York is worth $45 on a regional train. And upgrading from business to first on an Acela Express train is worth $123:
The bottom line
It’s a shame that Amtrak is no longer an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. If you don’t use Amtrak for regular daily and business commutes (or don’t live in an area well served by Amtrak), train travel probably isn’t something you do that often. Having Amtrak in the Ultimate Rewards transfer family allowed you to transfer in UR points when you needed to – and use them for a variety of other travel programs in the meantime.
Now that UR transfers are no longer possible, the co-branded Amtrak card is a compelling option. However, getting any co-branded card requires committing to the associated program. Assuming Amtrak travel is in your future, which version of the card to get depends on your level of commitment:
- If you plan to take Amtrak for the occasional vacation or commute (as a back-up to flying), the no-annual-fee card is likely your best bet. You’d be hard pressed to use the benefits that justify the annual fee (especially considering Amtrak’s blackout dates). Plus, if you put your travel spending on another travel card, the only other “advantage” of the World MasterCard is the 1 extra point you get per dollar on Amtrak purchases.
- If you are a hard-core Amtrak business commuter or spend your vacations traversing the country by rail, the annual-fee card may be worth it, especially if you don’t travel alone; just one use of the companion pass can knock out the annual fee.
If you’re looking for a more generalized, flexible rewards card that allows you to earn and redeem rewards on Amtrak (albeit at a lesser per-point value) and other travel purchases, consider one of the following travel rewards cards: