The funny numbers of Amtrak Guest Rewards

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, January 28, 2013

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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