Marvel at the majesty of the northern United States as you travel over mountain passes, through alpine valleys and past 7,000-year-old glaciers. Glide by buttes and bluffs, along mountain streams and across the Mighty Mississippi.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder traverses the US from Chicago to Seattle and Portlane, OR. One of its biggest draws is that it runs through Glacier National Park. With two stops in in Glacier, it’s one of the most popular methods of accessing this remote destination. As with all Amtrak trains west of Chicago, the Empire Builder has a domed lounge car in addition to sleeper service.
It’s on our list because neither of us have been to the Pacific Northwest, nor have we taken a sleeper car. Plus the scenery looks great. At 45+ hours total travel time, it should let us know if we like the experience enough to attempt a week on the Trans-Siberian route.
Service / Route
The route taken by the Empire Builder begins in Chicago, IL and travels for over 2,000 miles, traversing Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington / Oregon. In Spokane, in Eastern Washington, the routes of the Seattle- and Portland-bound trains diverge and each arrives separately at its destination.
Schedule / Cost / How to Book
As of February 2021, the Empire Builder offers service 3 times per week, Westbound on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. It was a daily service prior to COVID-related service reductions and will hopefully be again in the near future.
A brief search has sleeping accommodations for the 46-hour trip starting at $527 / 18k AGR points for a single-occupancy roomette or $772 for double-occupancy. This rate includes all meals and access to the station lounge. Bedrooms, with in-suite restroom, sink, and shower, start at $2215.
Update (Sept 2021): Sadly, Pullman Rail Journeys’ site is down and it appears service has been suspended. Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, however, still runs daily with sleeper accommodations.
Imagine coasting your way down from the Great Lakes to the Gulf coast on a day-long train voyage in your own private cabin with four-star service. Seventy years ago this hotel-like choice of conveyance was commonplace, though it was soon to be replaced by air travel. Luckily, this more leisurely paced and gravity-bound first-class experience has been resurrected. (more…)
Time for some train travel talk. Dollar-for-dollar, Amtrak’s Guest Rewards (AGR) program remains one of the best redemption deals in travel rewards.
AGR has undergone some changes recently that have shifted, and in most cases improved its value for those looking to redeem. At 2.9 cents of value per point earned, its eclipses most airline miles, which are worth ~1-2 cents per point, can take you from coast-to-coast, with a few sweet spots, such as travel in the Northeast, that make it well worth your while.
I’ve been saving up Amtrak Guest Rewards points since I first signed up for the old AGR MasterCard many years ago. Chase Sapphire recently discontinued their relationship with AGR, though the Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx card still offers 1:1 transfers. With low redemption thresholds, you’ll be earning reward travel after as little as one month.
Redeeming Points, Before
Formerly, Amtrak tickets were redeemable on a zone-based system.
This zone system rewarded buying tickets at the last minute, as the redemption was based on geography and not on price. The best redemption value was within the Northeast Corridor (NEC), roughly from Buffalo to Boston and Montreal through Washington, DC and down to Virginia Beach. It was also a great deal for certain high-priced redemptions, such as coast-to-coast sleeper car travel. However, it had blackout dates around all major holidays and was an exceedingly bad deal for inexpensive trips.
Redeeming Points, Now
As of January 24, 2016, the new redemption system is in effect. Now allowed: redemption of points at any time (no blackouts) and for any route, based on price, with a minimum redemption of 800 points per ticket.
For most trips, especially those booked in advance, it represents a significant savings. For trips within the Northeast Corridor, tickets are from 20-50% less points, on average.
To figure out whether the redemption rate has improved, refer to the following chart I’ve created below. When a ticket is priced on Amtrak.com at less than the price below and greater than the minimum ticket price of $23.20, that trip is now cheaper under the new scheme:
Rating the New Points Redemption
To test the value of the new system, I’ve made some ticket price calculations using Amtrak.com which I present below. Note: Saver fares are not valid for reward travel, and Acela (2.5 cents per point) has been left out of these calculations.
Within the NEC, a round-trip for 2 from New York Penn Station (NYP) to Boston (BOS) formerly cost 16,000 points ($464 at 2.9 cents per point) in the zone system. It now costs 10,207 points ($296) at the Value ticket level, for a savings of 36%. A round-trip for 2 from New York to Philadelphia (PHL) now costs $220 or 7,586 points, for a savings of 53%!
Outside the Northeast, Los Angeles (LOS) to San Diego (SAN) has dropped -15%, Miami (MIA) to Savannah (SAV) -50% and Denver (DEN) to Salt Lake City (SLC) -49% in points needed for redemption, all significant improvements.
For long-distance sleeper travel, the new rates are much more of a mixed bag, with a few declines and many steep increases in points needed for redemption. The more cramped roomette accommodations on the California Zephyr from Chicago (CHI) to San Francisco (SFW) have increased significantly (+30%) for a two-person room, while the nicer bedroom accommodations have increased only slightly (+7%). Roomette trips from Seattle (SEA) to San Francisco have actually decreased in points needed for redemption (-9%).
If you’re in the Northeast or plan to travel often by train, Amtrak Guest Reward points offer great value and flexibility. You can sign up and view their redemption guidelines at http://www.amtrakguestrewards.com.
Note: There have been reports that certain itineraries at high-demand times carry a points redemption penalty. This has not generally been true on the routes referenced above.