Amtrak 101

Amtrak trains are the best!

During our time traveling from New York to Boston this past August, we decided to redeem some of our Sapphire Ultimate Reward points for a train ride between the two cities. When I really began looking at how to redeem the points, I was shocked that the same 24,000 points for a $300 hotel in New York could be spent on (approximately) $428 worth of train tickets! Obviously, I was interested in getting the most value out of my points, so we went with train tickets.

Here's my story:

Back in June (Father's Day to be exact), Justin's parents informed us that they were taking a quick trip up to NYC to see Justin's aunt and then to Boston to see Justin's great uncle sometime in August. Not wanting to be left behind, I jumped onboard (with Justin's permission, of course) with the planning! There was no way I was going to miss out on traveling to one of my favorite cities in the world!

We began by finding flights and using Hopper, an app that compares and uses data from previous years to tell you when the best time to purchase flights is. Almost immediately Hopper informed us that flights would increase in price if we didn't book before July 4th. So we did. I used Google Flights to compare prices and even Airfarewatchdog to see if prices would decrease in the last few days before July 4th. When they didn't, we got permission from Justin's parents and booked both sets of flights (theirs and ours). I chose an early departure time from ATL so that we would arrive in NYC early that Thursday, in preparation for a long weekend, and a late departure time from NYC on Sunday night so that we would have as much time as possible to enjoy all that New York had to offer before heading home.

Next up came hotel planning. I downloaded Pana, a concierge travel app with two months of free usage, to help me pick hotels. Being unfamiliar with both cities, I knew I wanted hotels near attractions, within our price range, and in a safe neighborhood. Plus, how was I going to review Pana if I didn't actually use it? (Review to come soon. I promise!)

After picking one of the three hotels suggested to me by Pana for each city, I began looking into making reservations. This is when I discovered the point difference. Justin's parents weren't too keen about taking the train to Boston, but I was thrilled with the prospect, so we offered to cover their portion of the train just so that I could have the experience (and Justin could have beer during the ride up!).

I love the Chase Sapphire rewards credit card!

Transferring & Redeeming Ultimate Reward Points

While the train ride itself was enjoyable, relaxing, quiet, and comfortable, I have to say that I did get frustrated when attempting to book the travel. Amtrak has 2 different sign in options – and amtrak rewards. Honestly, even after a google search, I have no idea what is what, but I did see you could link the two accounts which may solve the problem I ran into. Anyway, I researched how many awards I would need when traveling between New York City and Boston and discovered it was about 4,000 per person since we were booking normal economy train tickets (as opposed to acela express) within the northeast. (See here for map and here for current redemption values). We then easily transferred the points from our Sapphire account and I attempted booking.

Lesson 1: When booking, check and double check that you are signed in. As for me, I checked and double checked that I had the correct train and times. Then, somehow, I ended up signed into either Amtrak or Amtrak Rewards but not both. I clicked book and reloaded my non-responsive page. All of a sudden, my points were gone AND I didn't have a train ticket!

Lesson 2: After transferring points, just call and book with an Amtrak agent. I had to wait an hour for my points to show back up in my account and there was nothing any of the Amtrak agents could do to speed along the process.  The Amtrak agent I spoke with told me that once my points showed up in my account I could either try again online or I could call and have her book my route for free. Guess you know what I did? ;)

At about this point, I thought we were in the free and clear. All we had to do was show up and ride Amtrak. Only I forgot to print the tickets before we left for New York City. So Friday morning Justin went running down to the business center at The Roosevelt to try and print the tickets. Except they didn't have any ink or paper or something… So we decided to wing it and visit the ticket counter to see if they could help us. They told us that our e-mailed tickets would work just fine, so we relaxed with a bagel while waiting for our train information to show up on the board at Penn Station.

Waiting for a sign that your train has arrived…

Tips for Boarding the Train

• Make friendly with Amtrak agents that are positioned around the waiting area. They will find out first which track your train will be on and can give you a heads up.

• Take the stairs down to your track rather than waiting on the escalator to be turned around. (It's going the opposite way until your train begins boarding.) As soon as the train information is up on the board and the escalator is turned around, everyone will rush to go down. There are no real lines and people are pushy. Keep your hand on anybody you are traveling with. Amtrak employees standing at the top of the escalator will verify your ticket and not let anyone go down without the rest of their group.

• Before making your way down to the train platform, if you did not print your tickets, do a printscreen on your phone so that you have your tickets even without internet. This will be important after the train leaves the station since Amtrak employees will check for your tickets yet again.

After getting through the mad chaos that is riding the escalator down and finding a seat aboard the train, you can more or less relax.

Noah's ark seating! 2x2x2x2… :)

Tips for riding the train:

• If you are riding from New York to Boston, choose the left side (when facing forward to the train's front) for views of the city and the right side for views of the ocean.

• The food car is very simple. You are paying a lot of money for very cheap snacks. Think Sabra hummus and pretzels, Welch's fruit snacks, Swiss Miss hot chocolate, Little Debbie cakes, etc… You will not find a hot homemade meal here.

• Use headphones and keep noise to a minimum. Unlike restaurants, train cars tend to be very quiet even if you aren't in the designated "quiet car".

• If you change seats, be certain to move your tag (that the ticket checker puts over your seat) to your new seat. It can cause confusion if you don't.

• Please, please, please do not recline your seat unless there is no one sitting in the seat behind you. There is very little legroom and even the tiniest of reclining takes up a lot of that space. At the very least, un-recline when you get up to go somewhere (to the bathroom, walk around, get food, etc…).

My Experience

Overall, my first experience riding the Amtrak from New York City to Boston was a positive one. I loved that the phone agents were willing to help me with what I needed without charging me extra. I liked that I could present my e-mailed tickets rather than printing them. The seats weren't uncomfortable and the view (even on the left side of the train) wasn't bad. I was even able to get some sleep (when I wasn't looking out the window feeling giddy with excitement at seeing the east coast pass me by)! I would definitely take Amtrak again especially for some of the more interesting routes like the fall foliage New England route or taking the train down the California coast. Clearly Amtrak offers some awesome exploration activities for a fairly cheap price that are worthy of taking advantage of in the future.

What do you think about Amtrak travel? Do you love it? Or hate it? Have you done any ultimate rewards points transfers to take advantage of this unique way of traveling?

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