To Big Sur on Amtrak. One Family’s Vacation With the Help of Miles and Points (With Photos)

Update: Some readers have emailed me and said that photos were not showing up. I don’t know what I did wrong, I’m a bit technically challenged ( a lot, actually!) They were showing up on the blog just fine. My apologies! I went ahead and  re-published the post.

Few weeks ago, my reader Leticia has told me about taking an epic vacation with her family this summer. The part that intrigued me was the fact that they were able to redeem Ultimate Rewards points for a sleeper family cabin on Amtrak. So, I asked her to write a short trip report and she graciously agreed. This is quite timely, as Amtrak program will be revamped next year and may no longer be a Chase partner (more on this later). But for now, I would like to feature a story of one family, and how miles and points allowed them to do things they never dreamed were possible. Enjoy!

This summer, I decided to do something different with our family of three. I had 40K points that I obtained via sign-up bonus on Chase Sapphire Preferred and got inspired by a comment on a blog on how to use them for an Amtrak redemption. That’s how we booked a family room for our trip to California. We used 40K points for a value of around $1900. We departed Saint Paul, Minnesota at 10:00 pm and arrived in Oakland, California on a Thursday at around noon. I was scared about the horror stories about delays on Amtrak, but we were only a few hours late, which for a 3-day trip is not much.

Panoramic car.
The sleeper room, called a family bedroom  can technically be used to sleep 5 people: 2 in a full length lower bunk bed, one in a full length top bunk bed, and there is another short set of bunks for children, however, it would be pretty crowded. The space in the room really only allows one person to stand up and get dressed when the beds are out, the others have to wait on their beds. When the beds are up, which hopefully your room attendant will do for you, there’s more wiggle room. There are bathrooms in the sleeper car and even a shower. My notes: See this page for more info on sleeping accommodations as well as 3D tour.
A great perk for me was the three complimentary meals  (when you book a family room or roomette) that are served in the restaurant car. There is a hot breakfast and three course meals for lunch and dinner with soft drinks included. The train ride, which lasted almost three days, was a mini-vacation within our vacation. I loved the fact that I didn’t have to cook or clean. We just had to keep our 6 year old entertained either by playing with other children or with different games we brought. Our trip included a change of trains in Portland, from the Empire Builder to the Coast Starlight.
The Coast Starlight has a movie theatre car which our daughter enjoyed while my husband and I savored a glass of wine during the wine tasting hour.
Including the train trip, we spent 2 weeks in California. I would love to say that I got all of my vacation expenses paid with points, but that didn’t happen. I did pay the most important expenses with miles and points: the one-way train ticket, the flight back from San Francisco to Minneapolis, for which I used my Southwest miles and companion pass, a value of $ 750. I also covered the car rental with my miles from Capital One, a $ 289 value.
 Beautiful Highway 1
 I utilized  bidding on Priceline and got a good discount. I also used $76 worth of Barclay’s Arrival points to pay for one of our hotels. I really regretted not having any hotel points for our 3-day stay in San Francisco as decent hotels in that city are very expensive. We ended up spending $450 booking our hotel room a few hours before arriving, via express deals on Priceline.
We are a camping family, so we spent three nights in Big Sur camping. I know it’s not an option for a lot of miles and points enthusiasts, but I have to say that camping was the part that my daugther enjoyed the most.
I am really thankful for all the advice that I’ve found in the miles and points blogosphere. At this point in our lives, we could have never spent over $3K on a family vacation.

Back to yours truly

First of all, thanks so much to Leticia for writing this wonderful trip report. Don’t you just love the photos? It honestly makes me want to do something similar. My son is a train fanatic and would go bananas for a super long train ride.

Now, on to the bad news. Starting next January, Amtrak program will be revenue-based. I believe Frequent Miler reported on it first. That means that it will most likely no longer be possible to redeem 40K points for $1,900 worth of accommodations. See this page for current rewards structure. Note that there are some blackout dates during popular holidays. Update: New program details have now been announced.

One of the best deals is redeeming 60K points for a  trip from east to west coast. Talk about epic train ride! Hmm, I have 60K Ultimate Rewards points which transfer instantly 1:1 to Amtrak program. But can four of us survive in a confined space for a week? Honestly, if we didn’t have our cruise to Alaska scheduled for next summer, I would be very tempted to pull the trigger.

Also, according to Doctor of Credit blog, Amtrak co-branded cards will no longer be issued by Chase, but Bank of America, starting September 12th. Does it mean that Amtrak will no longer partner with Ultimate Rewards program? Only Chase knows, and it ain’t talking. It might pay to transfer your points before September 12th in case you were thinking about redeeming your points on Amtrak. My guess is that Chase will give a few months’ notice before discontinuing this partnership, but it’s just a  guess.

If that materializes, you still have time to sign up for a card like Chase Sapphire Preferred. Assuming that Ultimate Rewards will still partner with Amtrak for a few months, it will give you enough time to collect the bonus and transfer it to that program. Like I’ve said before, CSP card is the answer to every problem under the sun. And if someone is thinking about applying for it, my answer is always Yes.

All joking aside, even if your Amtrak plans fall through, UR points are extremely valuable and can be transferred to a number of programs. Not to mention, you can always redeem them for cash, so it’s a no-risk scenario. Getting approved for CSP can be a challenge, though, especially if you got more than 5 cards in the last 24 months (from all issuers). You are eligible for the sign-up bonus as long as you haven’t previously received it in the last 24 months.

Amtrak points also transfer from SPG on 1:1 basis, so this may be a good time to consider getting Amex SPG card while the bonus is increased. Both Amex SPG and CSP pay me commission, and of course, you can refer your friend or a spouse if you have either of these cards.

If you have a ton of UR or SPG points that you planned to use on Amtrak and have been procrastinating, now is the time, comrade. And if this trip report doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will!

P.S. If you would like to submit your own family’s trip report, I will be happy to feature it. I view this blog as a community project rather than “one crazy broad” freak show.

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2 thoughts on “To Big Sur on Amtrak. One Family’s Vacation With the Help of Miles and Points (With Photos)

  1. Cool trip! Thanks for sharing. You are not alone Leticia in your mixing points and camping. We plan to do that for our trip to glacier and Yellowstone., mixed with staying at the historic lodges (paid with rewards hopefully).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Should You Consider Transferring Ultimate Rewards to Amtrak Program? | Miles For Family

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