The welcome bonus you get with an Amtrak credit card might be your best shot at free train travel. Here's how I used mine.
Disclaimer: I AM not being paid by Amtrak. I'm just a big train nerd… like Joe Biden, ever heard of him?
Do you remember where you were when Covid lockdowns were announced?
I was on an Amtrak train.
Yes, I was sealed in an enclosed vehicle, sharing an air supply with dozens of traveling strangers. Spoiler alert, I didn't catch the 'vid.
Pandemic weirdness aside, the trip was fantastic. In a span of just 33 hours — the amount of time it takes for Amtrak to get from Emeryville, CA to Denver, CO — I got to see the sun rise over the desert and watch snow fall on a frozen lake in the Rockies. There were views so beautiful they quite literally moved me to tears. But I digress…
One of the best things about my trip is that I paid for most of it with credit card points. So my train fare, including four meals and a private sleeper car, were deeply discounted. I mean sure, you can buy an Amtrak ticket from CA to CO for hundreds of dollars, but I like free stuff better.
Here's how it's done:
View overlooking the San Francisco bay from Amtrak's California Zephyr
How much does a cross-country Amtrak ticket cost?
The cost of an Amtrak ticket can be genuinely outrageous! At least when compared to plane travel (and of course, train fare in countries that support public transit).
Going just one way — which entails about 80 hours of train travel — you can pay anywhere from $300 to $700 for coach seats, and it will probably be the most miserable 3.3 days of your life. To upgrade to a private roomette, which includes complimentary meals, you'll pay around $1,700 or more.
Alternatively, you can buy a one-way, trip coach for around 12,300 points, or use roughly 72,000 for a private roomette.
View from the observation car as we approached Colorado's Red Rock Canyon
How can I take Amtrak across the U.S. for free?
There's no such thing as a free lunch... or a free Amtrak trip. But you can potentially book a leg of your Amtrak trip with credit card points.
Amtrak offers a 20,000-point welcome bonus for its Amtrak Guest Rewards Preferred Mastercard. To earn the points, you'll have to spend $1,000 within three months of account opening. You'll also have to pay the $99 annual fee on the card.
That's definitely not enough points to book an entire cross-country trip, but it's enough to cover part of the trip, or to get you a cool overnight ride like the one I took. If you want to cover the rest of your long with points, you can try earning more by using the card. It rewards you with:
3 points per dollar spent on Amtrak
2 points on dining, travel, transit and rideshare
1 point on everything else
Somewhere between the Sierra Nevada and Reno
Is it worth taking Amtrak across the country?
Listen, flying is vastly more affordable and convenient than taking the train. If your goal is to get to the opposite end of the U.S. fast, you might be better off hitchhiking than taking Amtrak.
But if you want to see the country and meet weird and fascinating strangers, or just stare longingly out of a train window for hours on end, Amtrak is a solid choice.
You might cry from the beauty
You might make a new group of friends and start a book club that meets on Amtrak once a year (it almost happened to me).
Lots of complimentary food. Seriously, the meals just keep coming, and you can have them delivered to your room if you want.
You get to eat in a restaurant on a train. It's quaint and old-timey AF.
(I've experienced each of these first-hand, although not all on the overnight trip.)
No on-off privileges
Inconvenience (trains are slow and get stuck sometimes)
You might meet some weirdos
What's included in the ticket?
If you buy a coach ticket on Amtrak, all you get is a seat. If you book a private room, you may get three complimentary meals per day (with one adult beverage per meal) in the train's dining car or delivered to your room. Meal details depend on the train. Check out sample Amtrak menus here.
Other questions you probably have (FAQ):
Can I get on and off the train?
Yes and no. You can get on and off Amtrak for short breaks at designated stops, but you cannot get off of one train and on a different train. In other words, don't plan to stay over in any of the cities you pass through.
How big are the sleeper cars on Amtrak?
Amtrak roomettes have two stow-away beds, arranged bunk-bed style, and the rooms are roughly 6'6" by 3'6". When the beds are folded up, two people can sit inside, facing each other (with their knees touching), next to their private window. When the beds are folded down, they basically touch all four walls.
Amtrak also has larger rooms, some of which include fold out sofas and private bathrooms.
My bed, folded down for the nighttime leg of the journey.
Are the complimentary meals good on Amtrak?
One of my chef friends accurately described Amtrak's dining menu as "aggressively average." All of the meals are stored and prepared on the train, so freshness isn't a key ingredient. With that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the dining experience, wasn't disgusted by any of the food, and found that there was often too much to eat.
At each meal, you'll have several options to choose from, including anything from steak to vegetarian pasta, chili and sandwiches. Plus, you get an adult beverage and dinner comes with dessert.