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.

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.