Fred Frailey Blog

The funny numbers of Amtrak Guest Rewards

  • Comments 13

There are bragging rights for we Amtrak customers, and for years the gold standard has been achieving Select Plus status with Amtrak Guest Rewards. To get there, you must amass 10,000 “tier qualifying points,” two points being awarded for every $1 spent on Amtrak tickets (but there’s a 100-point minimum per trip, no matter how short or cheap). In other words, you must spend as much as $5,000 on Amtrak tickets. For that, you get upgrade coupons, companion passes, 50 percent point bonuses when you buy tickets, and admittance to Amtrak’s first class lounges in the major cities.

It’s a neat status symbol, and I’ve gone out of my way the past two years to achieve it.

As you’re probably aware, Amtrak Guest Rewards just raised the bar. Select (5,000 tier qualifying points) and Select Plus status still produce the same benefits as always. But now to be an overachiever you need to be a Select Executive member, and that requires 20,000 tier qualifying points. You get all sorts of rewards, but primarily 100 percent point bonuses on Amtrak ticket purchases.

So far in 2013, I’ve amassed 200 rail points. I am 1 percent of the way there.

But it got me to thinking: Who in the world is Amtrak targeting with Select Executive? On the face of it, it sure as heck isn’t me, who struggles to make the Select Plus benchmark every year and doesn’t always succeed. And that got me in touch with Michael Blakey, senior director of loyalty marketing for Amtrak.

You need to understand that Amtrak knows a lot about its nearly 4 million Guest Rewards members. And one thing its research uncovered was that many of the top-tier members of Select Plus were topping out at more than 10,000 rail point well before the middle of each year. And when they did, they rode Amtrak trains less. Blakey calls this “a loss of wallet-share.” Cute, eh? Amtrak needed something to keep these people coming back, and Select Executive was the answer.

I asked Michael where these 20,000-plus tier-qualifying-point customers live. Every single one of them, he replied, lives along the Northeast Corridor. Not even one Californian? No. Chicagoan? No. Frequent New York-Florida customer? No.

These folks are probably daily commuters. Imagine riding Amtrak each day from Trenton, N.J., to New York’s Penn Station, a 60-minute trip. You could take New Jersey Transit, but Amtrak is faster and far more comfortable, plus the coffee wakes you up in morning and the cocktails level you off in the evening. A monthly ticket costs $1,044, but let’s say you’re worth it (I think you are). You, sir and madam, are by definition a Select Executive candidate.

It works even better between Newark and Penn Station. A 10-ride ticket costs $312. but you earn a minimum of 100 rail points for each one-way ride. Ten rides a week for 48 weeks comes to 48,000 rail points. Gee, that’s enough for you and for me to become Select Executive, if rail points were sharable (which they are not).

Or take my neck of the woods, Alexandria, Va., to Washington, D.C., about a 15-minute trip. A 10-ride ticket is $176, or $17.60 per ride, but you amass 1,000 rail points. Twenty 10-ride tickets cost about $3,500, but you’re Select Executive at the end of it all, at barely one-third the expected cost. You’re probably a candidate for institutionalization, too. You may call this gaming the system. I call it reading the fine print.

See how deep into the weeds I go on this subject? Wanna bet whether I reach for the stars in 2013?—Fred W. Frailey

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  • Sounds like a good New Year's resolution!

  • Fred, Amtrak's award system certainly can be gamed by frequent short trips and this does not sit well with me since all my points are garnered via long distance sleeper travel which does not seem to rack up an appropriate number of points for my contribution to Amtrak's bottom line. But, little is fair in life, so I just suck it up and occasionally cash in awards toward another cross country jaunt. Thanks for pointing out the weirdness of the system!

  • Fred --  shame on you if I was in your position would I do the same thing ?  You bet I would !!

  • Why would a sane person pay $17.60 each way form Alex to WAS when you could ride Metro for abt $4.00 even in rush hour??

  • Railrod, you are missing the point entirely. How many Amtrak Guest Reward points do you get riding Metro to DC for $1.40? The answer of course is none at all. Regards,

    Fred

  • So, using existing capacity, Amtrak gets $17.60 per trip they would not get without the rail points. Dumb like a fox!

  • So, using existing capacity, Amtrak gets $17.60 per trip they would not get without the rail points. Dumb like a fox!

  • Railrod may miss the point on the rewards points, but, unless you are really hot on the trail of getting the points, it seems cost ineffective to do that. Take Newark-NY. That's a $31.20 ticket one way between the two places. You could make the argument that it ain't worth $31 to go to Newark, but at $5 a ride on NJ Transit, you could pay for a pretty good trip on Amtrak in a year's time saving $26 a ride, probably better than you could get with the points at that inflated price.

  • Great post, Fred! However, I would like to offer one small correction. Please note that 10 ride passes from amtrak do not earn 100 points per ride. Instead, they get 2 points for every dollar spent on the total value of the 10 ride pass, just like a monthly pass. So with a 10 ride pass that cost $176, one would earn 352 AGR points (tier-qualifying).

    If one really wanted to maximize their AGR points, they would be best served by buying daily tickets pretty far in advance. This way one could get the 25% discounted NEC fares, which are often cheaper than one right on a ten ride ticket. Plus you would get more AGR points, too.

  • Hey?  What happened?  Did the heavy hand of censorship get to Fred Frailey's column?  

    Or do I detect the heavy AND hapless hands of Amtrak?

    This column USED to include a paragraph that read:

    > Now, I know someone who lives in California who earned the new status

    > without setting foot on an NEC train. If I know one person, there

    > must be lots of others who made the new status with no or minimal NEC

    > travel. What amazes me is that the head of AGR does not know the

    > demographics of his own customer base and is so willing to promote

    > the program as solely NEC related. It certainly reinforces the notion

    > that Amtrak means NEC, and the rest is fluff.

    And now, it's gone.  Did the truth of the statement: "Amtrak means NEC, and the

    rest is fluff" prove to be just too much?  Remember, the truth never hurt anybody.

    Now, see how long THIS comment stays here.

  • I'd suggest that Mr. Blakey familiarizes himself with his Select Executive membership roster before conducting further interviews. I am a Californian Select Executive member who earned SE exclusively through long distance train travel outside the NEC. I'm disappointed in Michael Blakey tonight.

  • I live in St. Louis MO, and I can ride from STL to Alton and return; 45 minutes each way, with a 7 minute layover in Alton, for a round trip price of $5.00.  I get two hundred points for those $5.00 and it's a great time to study quietly while I work on my PhD homework.  For the 100 trips, or $500 investment, I get a two zone bedroom roundtrip once each year, and my homework gets done.  Any cross country trips I take just redices the number of $5.00 trips I need to take to reach Executive status. Anyone want to join me?

  • HighSpeedRepublican, the economics of your round trips to Alton are as good as it will ever get. Congratulations on living in St. Louis, I guess I should say.

    FWF

The funny numbers of Amtrak Guest Rewards