Getting to Europe via Flexible Rewards and Airline Miles

My recent post announcing I’m going to Europe mentioned I will be flying business class on Brussels Airlines. I booked that flight with Membership Rewards (MR) points I earned from sign-up bonuses. However, that flight is from the East Coast and I live on the West Coast of the USA.

Getting to New York could have been done multiple ways:  a long road trip; flying an early morning, direct flight from SMF to BWI then taking a bus or Amtrak to New York; swimming through the Panama Cannel; and many others. I wanted to keep things simple, and comfortable, so I chose to fly Delta from Sacramento (SMF) to New York (JFK) with a stop in Minneapolis (MSP). This splits the cross-country flight into two 3-hour flights in economy, something more bearable for someone with long legs.

However, I could have picked a flight with American Airlines using the points from the sign-up bonuses from the Aviator Red and AAdvantage Platinum cards. We would have flown into a different airport, but still in the same area a day early so it would have worked out.

Or we could have used United miles from either the United MileagePlus Explorer card or Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United’s program from the Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP). Another option could have been transferring my MR points to Alitalia and flown from SFO to Amsterdam for 80,000 points roundtrip.

What I’m getting at is there are so many options. And there are probably more than 1 that will be a great choice for any one trip.

The biggest reason I chose to fly Brussels Airlines from the East Coast is because I didn’t want to be on a flight for half a day if I flew out of California. I also wanted to try out a few different “products.” “Products” meaning the type of airplane, seating arrangement, seats, and in-flight service offered by an airline.

Flying Delta from Sacramento to Minneapolis to New York (SMF-MSP-JFK) allows me to be more comfortable flying cross-country and trans-Atlantic, while experiencing lounges (which can reduce my cost of food) in MSP, JFK, and Brussels (BRU).

My reasons for not flying American Airlines to get to New York include not being able to visit a lounge in my layover (or not having a layover), and saving my AA miles for another big trip, either with both of my parents or a solo trip in a business or first class cabin to Asia.

The biggest take-away anyone should get from this is that regardless of what points (or how much cash) you have, there are countless options, including some you may never have heard of yet.

I always check Google Flights for cash prices, and I track prices for a flight to be notified if a flight increases or decreases in price. It also gives me the flexibility to search several Departure airports and multiple arrival airports to find the cheapest flight for a trip.

Amtrak in California – The Variations

I’ve written about the Amtrak credit cards from Bank of America so I think it’s time I talk about options for riding Amtrak. Specifically, I will be discussing the routes for Amtrak found throughout my home state of California.

Amtrak has 8 routes which travel through at least some part of California. These 8 routes are the:

  • California Zephyr;
  • Capitol Corridor;
  • Coast Starlight;
  • Pacific Surfliner;
  • San Joaquins;
  • Southwest Chief;
  • Sunset Limited; and
  • Texas Eagle

Most of my travel is on the Capitol Corridor and every now and then I take the Coast Starlight. This is because I travel on Amtrak between my home town and university, Sacramento and San Jose.

Without further ado, “Where do these routes go?” The major cities served by each route listed on Amtrak’s website and duration from end to end are:

  • California Zephyr – 51 hours 20 minutes
    • Chicago
    • Denver
    • Glenwood Springs
    • Sacramento
    • Emeryville (San Francisco connection)
  • Capitol Corridor – 3 hours 15 minutes
    • Auburn (mostly by thruway bus)
    • Sacramento
    • Emeryville
    • Oakland
    • San Jose
  • Coast Starlight – 35 hours
    • Seattle
    • Portland
    • Sacramento
    • San Francisco Bay Area
    • Los Angeles
  • Pacific Surfliner – 5 hours 45 minutes
    • San Luis Obispo
    • Santa Barbara
    • Los Angeles
    • San Diego
  • San Joaquins – 6 hours 15 minutes
    • San Francisco Bay Area
    • Sacramento
    • Bakersfield
    • Southern California
  • Southwest Chief – 40+ hours
    • Chicago
    • Albuquerque
    • Los Angeles
  • Sunset Limited – 48 hours
    • New Orleans
    • San Antonio
    • Tucson
    • Phoenix
    • Los Angeles
  • Texas Eagle – 32 hours 25 minutes (Chicago to San Antonio) 65 hours 20 minutes (Chicago to Los Angeles)
    • Chicago
    • St. Louis
    • Dallas
    • San Antonio
    • Los Angeles

These travel time are slower than driving (San Jose to Sacramento is only 2 hours without congested traffic) and much slower than flying. However, there’s no need to worry about going through security like TSA at an airport, riding a train can be more scenic without as much trouble with changing pressure messing with your eardrums, and it can be cheaper than flying.

But there are times where time cannot be spared. In the end, how you travel really depends on what your preferences, needs, and options are.

Action Cameras and YouTube Videos

I am joining the world of action camera videography. With a couple GoPro cameras in hand, I will be cataloging my traveling, races and training on YouTube.

There will be separate channels for travel and races and another for full length recordings of me training.

On the travel and races channel, I have uploaded a time lapse of my recent trip on Amtrak to San Jose. And I have begun uploading my run workouts as I prepare for the Rock ‘N’ Roll San Diego race weekend.

I already have several videos planned for this summer with the first coming from my weekend of racing in San Diego. The majority of my planned videos will be from my trip to Europe in July. These will include time lapses of the flights going to and coming back from Europe, and train rides throughout Europe.

A couple more videos I will be creating will be a follow up to my blog about my TomTom Spark and a brand new blog post about my newest phone, the OnePlus 3T.


Museums On Us by Bank of America

I wrote about the Amtrak cards from Bank of America and explained the benefits and value easily obtained from the card. One thing I neglected to mention in that post was the Museums on Us by Bank of America. Anyone with either a BoA credit or debit card can get free admission to certain museums during the first full weekend of each month. The full list of museums by state can be found by clicking this link.

As mentioned in the BoA Amtrak cards post, I am from Sacramento and attend school in San Jose. Downtown San Jose has South First Fridays on the first Friday of every month, which sometimes occurs the night before the first full weekend when museums are on Bank of America’s dime. The timing of these two events could be a great reason to visit San Jose for a weekend.

I have visited both of the San Jose museums, The Tech Museum of Innovation and the San Jose Museum of Art. Each of these are about a 5 minute drive from the San Jose Diridon Station. Sacramento is home of the Crocker Art Museum at 216 O St in downtown Sacramento, a 5 minute drive from the Sacramento Amtrak station.

My brother wants to visit me around the beginning of April but if I visited him to do a 5k together, for old times sake, that first weekend of April, I could get free entrance to the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Or we could visit one of the two museums in Wilmington, DE, or one of the three museums in Maryland.

This perk from Bank of America is small but not insignificant. This offers BoA customers a chance to broaden their horizons and learn something new each month.

The Amtrak Credit Cards from Bank of America

Bank of America offers two Amtrak credit cards, the Amtrak Platinum and Amtrak World Elite. Their sign-up bonuses are 12,000 and 20,000 points each respectively with the Platinum having no annual fee and the World Elite having a $79 annual fee.  The World Elite comes with other benefits but right now I want to point out that the extra 8,000 points from the sign-up bonus are easily worth $200 in regular Amtrak tickets.

First, let me give a quick summary of the benefits of the two credit cards:

Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum MasterCard

  • 12,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards (AGR) points after spending $1,000 or more in the first 3 months
  • Earn AGR points
    • 2 points/$ on Amtrak travel and on-board purchases
    • 1 point/$ on everything else
  • 5% rebate of points when booking tickets with points
  • No annual fee or foreign transaction fees

Amtrak Guest Rewards World Elite MasterCard

  • 20,000 AGR after spending at least $1,000 in the first 3 months
  • Earn AGR points
    • 3 points/$ on Amtrak travel and on-board purchases
    • 2 points/$ on other travel
    • 1 points/$ on everything else
  • Earn 1,000 Tier Qualifying Points (TQP) for each $5,000 spent annually (max of 4,000 TQP annually)
  • Annually, 1 complimentary:
    • Companion Coupon
    • One-Class Upgrade
  • Single-day Club Acela pass to access
    • ClubAcela,
    • Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge, or
    • First class lounge
  • $79 annual fee, not waived the first year
  • No foreign transaction fees

I’m from Sacramento and attend San Jose State so taking Amtrak to go home for a school break could not have been more convenient with Sacramento and San Jose being end points on 2 lines Amtrak runs. This also means I have almost no use for the World Elite version unless I plan to ride Amtrak on the East Coast, or to earn extra points on Amtrak or other travel related expenses.

A round trip ticket from San Jose (SJC) to Sacramento (SAC) was $80 or $68 with a student discount. For an award ticket, the cost is 2760 Amtrak Guest Rewards (AGR) points. This puts the value of AGR points between 2.46 and 2.89 cents/point ($0.0246-.0289/point) for me, and the 8,000 extra AGR from the $79 World Elite credit card for $231.20.

The AGR program awards 2 points/$ on tickets with a minimum of 100 points earned at once. Tickets being no more than $40 each way means I could earn 100 points for each one-way ticket and a total of 200 combined from each one-way ticket, instead of 160 points for buying the $80 round-trip at once. Adding the points earned using my Amtrak credit card I could earn 2x or 3x/$ plus the 100 points for each 1-way, rounding out to a total of 360 or 440 points for the two $40 tickets.

Using another travel rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Premier I would have still earned the 200 AGR points but forfeited the extra 160-240 AGR points. Instead, I would have earned either 3x/$ Ultimate Rewards (UR) or 3x ThankYou Points (TYP) which can be more flexible than AGR. Your personal travel needs or wants and how much you value AGR, UR, and TYP will determine which credit card is right for you to use.