Greyhound is underrated

If you’re like me and you consider getting the best possible price and route on trip tickets is a kind of game to “win”, then let me introduce you to the most undervalued choice on the travel market: Greyhound.

Greyhound. I know, the name conjures up dingy bus stations, panhandlers, and slow rides shared with dozens of strangers. I can’t promise to get around the “dozens of strangers” part, which is also part of air and train travel, though I can promise you won’t miss the security line or ride to and from the airport.

Greyhound’s negative brand equity is what has led to the boom of curbside bus operators like Megabus, Bolt Bus, and even the Chinatown bus. Bolt Bus, arguably the best-run curbside service, is in fact a rebranded joint venture with Greyhound and Peter Pan. But the ‘Hound has reformed, and in fact offers many overlooked advantages, including price.

This is not to say that I won’t take other services if they offer a great fare or convenient pick-up or drop-off location. My point is, all else equal, I’ll take Greyhound, and if the price is better which it often is, I’ll do so happily.

Back-up buses and drivers

If you’ve ever broken down in a Megabus or a Chinatown bus, I’m sorry. I’ve heard the stories of being stranded in a rest stop in New Jersey because the Chinatown bus broke down. About the worst I’ve fared is stopping in Jersey as the driver filled the tank with $120 of gas.

Greyhound has bus pools and spare drivers across the country. Other bus companies keep their prices low by skimping on this infrastructure.

Experienced drivers

You know the stereotype of the middle-aged bus driver with his sweater vest and moustache? Given the choice, it’s great that my driver has 20+ years of experience and a union contract that requires rest breaks.

Extensive routes

Ever need to go to Cortland, NY from New York City? Me either, but I’m glad that Greyhound offers service to less in-demand cities, should I ever decide to go there.

In-person customer service

Figuring out why discount bus carriers are late is a mess. They give you an 800 number to call if there is an issue. Greyhound has a ticket desk, where at least if they are unable to help, they can tell you face-to-face.

Indoor stations

This one has its pluses and minuses, as I mentioned the sad state of many bus stations is what scared many people off Greyhound in the first place. It is, however, really nice to wait for your bus indoors when its snowing or raining.

A truly great rewards program

The Road Rewards program, which rolled out last year, offers 20% off coupons, companion fares, food discounts, and even free tickets, all based on the number of trips you’ve taken. To date, I’ve earned and used two companion fares, one to go round-trip for two to Syracuse for $80, and the other to go to Montreal for $120 for two, with an upcoming trip for two over Thanksgiving for $99.

As other travel rewards plans devalue their points, Greyhound has added value. The companion vouchers used to be ineligible for redemption within New York State and to/from New York City, but the policy has recently changed to include all stations, New York included.

Well-maintained buses

Has your bus company ever been shut down (twice) by a federal safety investigation? While they may not always have the promised wi-fi or plugs, they are often quite nice, usually with leather seats. 

Conclusion

On price, convenience, and safety, consider Greyhound next time you’re comparing your trip options. Quick, before the secret is out!

How I got 21% back towards travel (Really)

I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred (referral link) card this past year to take advantage of the 50,000-point sign-up bonus, plus an additional 5,000 for adding an authorized user ($1155 at 2.1 cents per point !). It’s a good card that I use on a daily basis for most purchases, and it gives you 2x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on dining and travel, plus a host of other benefits, like no foreign transaction fees, rental car damage waiver and extended warranty protection, all of which I’ve used successfully. It has a $95 annual fee which is waived the first year.

Meanwhile, my old Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard was discontinued and converted into a Chase Freedom card, which is free. This card offers 5x point bonuses on rotating quarterly categories and 15,000 points ($150) for signing up. Currently (Q1 2016) the bonus category is local travel, including subways and taxis. Last quarter (Q4 2015) it was 10x (double the usual) on Amazon and Zappos, which was perfect for the Christmas season.

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Chase Freedom bonus categories for 2016 (Source: chase.com)

These both being Chase cards, they accrue Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Points can be combined between accounts and can even be pooled between you and your spouse. Now here’s the good part:

While the Freedom card only lets you redeem points for cash, the Sapphire card allows redemption at 1.25 cents for travel (cash value through Ultimate Rewards portal), as well as a 1:1 transfer to United Airlines (valued at 1.5 cents), British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and more. Having the Sapphire card lets you in on the benefits for all your Chase Ultimate Rewards cards (Freedom, Ink, Sapphire, etc.)

Thus with the 10x points earned during the Christmas season from Amazon mentioned earlier, each dollar spent gave us 21 cents (21%) back towards redemptions via Chase Sapphire and 15 cents (15%) on United Airlines in particular.

We’ll definitely be planning some flights this year. Happy travels!

Amtrak Guest Rewards, Best Deal in Travel, Gets Better (for Most)

Photo: Amtrak’s California Zephyr (Source: EbgundyOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

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Amtrak’s old zone-based redemption map (Source: Amtrak.com)

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.

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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:

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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.

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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%).

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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.