My race to the top

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Move aside, people, or I will miss the train. This year I will qualify for Select Plus status with Amtrak Guest Rewards.
There was a time, when I was a hotshot magazine editor, that I could count on business travel by train getting me over the top, that is, amass 10,000 “rail points” in a calendar year. You earn two rail points for every dollar spent on Amtrak travel, and more than that aboard an Acela train.
Now I am but a lowly freelance writer, and sad to say, the Kalmbach expense account is a pale shadow of the Kiplinger expense account. So the past two years it’s been all I could do to achieve 5,000 rail points and qualify as a Select member of Guest Rewards.
Why should I care? You earn a 25 percent point bonus for future free travel with Select, 50 percent with Select Plus. For example, if you spent $100 to ride an Amtrak train, the ordinary Guest Rewards member gets 200 points. The Select member gets 250 and the Select Plus member 300. Both Select and Select Plus members get a couple of one-class upgrade coupons, which are valuable in the Northeast Corridor because you can ride Acela first class for the price of a business-class ticket. I recall that more upgrade coupons trickled down during the year during my Select Plus days. Select Plus members can use the Club Acela, Metropolitan, and first class lounges, which means that in Washington, I’ll have what’s close to a private waiting room at Union Station.
Best of all, as a Select Plus member, you get bragging rights. Let’s say you get in a dispute with the editor of TRAINS, for example, over the placement of a comma. Ultimately, as a writer, you have to give way to the will of the editor. But not if you’re Select Plus! “Look here, Jim Wrinn,” you can say, “if you had brains and drive, you’d be Select Plus like me. I won’t bend to your petty dictums.” And watch Jim Wrinn retreat.

Here’s the rub: How am I going to get 10,000 rail points? That’s $5,000 worth of travel. Then a friend gave me a tip: Once a week, take a round trip between Alexandria, Va., and neighboring Washington, across the Potomac River. It costs just a few bucks, but I’d qualify anyway for the minimum 100 points each way. Do that 50 times and you’ve got 10,000 rail points.
So that’s what I did this week, but I doubled up. On Tuesday, I left Alexandria at 9:02 a.m. on train 174 from Richmond, Va., and returned at 9:55 a.m. on train 79, the Palmetto, from New York City. Bingo, 200 rail points. I was so encouraged that I drove back to Alexandria after lunch, jumped on train 94 from Newport News, Va., at 1 p.m., and train 95 from Boston at 2:30 p.m. Another 200 points. Friday I did the same morning round trip from Alexandria, but in the afternoon went from Washington to BWI Airport south of Baltimore, Md., and returned on the next train a few minutes later. That's 800 rail points for the week, at a cost of $128. At this rate, I’ll qualify for Select Plus in 2012 by the end of next month.

See what might work in your area. Chicago to Hammond-Whiting, Ind., for example, is a $12 ticket. New York Penn Station to Newark, N.J., is $24. And you get to ride a railroad at work.

And this advice to all Guest Rewards members: Always save your passenger receipt that the conductor hands back to you. On the bottom, it contains the ticket number, which is the key piece of information you need if Amtrak never posts your trip, as happens all too often to me. — Fred W. Frailey

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