Rail Running: Boston Edition

So.  Here’s my new experiment.

Rail running.

The Goal

I’ve heard of it a few times before, but check out FrequentMiler’s post from a while back for more information on the idea.  I’m going to do my best to apply similar principles to my own Amtrak stations in Boston.

Chasing status is a lot more common on airlines, and if you’re familiar with airline status, you get the idea.  Basically, you’ll be riding Amtrak with the exclusive goal of earning status with the rail company.  Obviously, you need to earn Amtrak’s Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) to earn status.  Amtrak has three levels of status:  Select, Select Plus, and Select Executive.

They really need to talk to their marketing department about flashier names…

Select Status

Accomplished by earning 5,000 TQPs, Amtrak Select Status entitles you to a 25% point bonus on paid Amtrak travel, 2 one-class upgrade coupons, 2 single visit ClubAcela passes, and a few other fringe benefits.  It’s not much, but you only need 5,000 points to get there.  The real addition here is the bonus on Amtrak travel, the upgrades, and the ClubAcela passes.

Select Plus Status

Earn another 5,000 TQPs (10,000 total), and you’ll get a 50% bonus on Amtrak travel, 4 one-class upgrade coupons, 2 companion coupons, unlimited access to ClubAcela and the Metropolitan Lounges.  You’ll also be able to take advantage of Amtrak’s partnership with United Airlines, and stop by any United Club Lounges in the airports you frequent.

Select Executive Status

After that, Select Executive’s benefits are marginal at best.  For 20,000 Tier Qualifying Points, you’ll get 100% bonus points on Amtrak travel, all the benefits of Select Plus, and a additional upgrade coupon for every additional 3,000 TQPs earned.  Personally, I can’t see Select Executive Status ever being worth chasing, but I could make a case for Select or Select Plus status.

Amtrak Status Tiers

So, the goal here is to use short and inexpensive Amtrak trips to your advantage.  On a cheaper Amtrak ride, you’ll earn a minimum of 100 points.  Since a regular train ride earns you 2 Amtrak points/dollar spent, logically, the minimum only applies to trips that cost $50 or under.

Ok, cool!  So we’ll take a bunch of cheap trips to earn some status!  Now, according to Amtrak’s terms and conditions, you can only do 4 qualifying one ways per day, and they have to be booked as separate one ways (not on the same train).  I’ll be leaving some time at the stations between each one way, to ensure I don’t run into any issues with overzealous conductors or on the Amtrak booking system.

Double Days Email Promo

So, what prompted me t0 start this challenge?  I received an email a few days ago about Amtrak’s Double Days promotion!  Double Days = double the points.  This is active from March 20th to May 20th, so I have 2 full months to get these rides on the books.  Theoretically, status should take half as long to reach.  I like being the guinea pig for my own experiments, so I figured I’d sign this up for this one too!  (By the way, I owe you an update on that one…didn’t go as planned.  But this one did!)

Planning

First, I researched all available routes into and out of Boston.  We  have two major Amtrak stations in the area:  Boston South Station (BOS) and Boston North Station (BON).  A third station, Boston Back Bay Station (BBY), is located a bit further west of the city center, but it’s almost like an extension of BOS.  We also have a station at Route 128 in Westwood (RTE), but this would be pretty far out of the way for me.  The advantage of South Station, North Station, and Back Bay, is that they’re all connected to the local transit, the MBTA.  Getting home after my rail running will be much easier from one of those three stations.

I used AmSnag to find some information on dates, routes, and prices.  AmSnag is a great tool, which I’ll be adding to the Resources page.  Swing by there and take a look the next time you need to book an Amtrak ticket.  If your dates have some flexibility, AmSnag will help you find the cheapest option.

Amsnag.png

Amsnag’s interface is very straightforward, but it has all the information you need.

I looked at quite a few routes.  Using AmSnag, I chose a start date of 3/20 (the start of the Double Points Promo) and searched for trains within the next 30 days.  Here were the lowest prices I found for short trips:

  • BON-HHL (Haverhill) for $10, HHL-BON for $10, very open
  • HHL-EXR (Exeter, New Hampshire) for $8, same price on the return, tons of availability
  • BOS-EXR and EXR-BOS for $11 plenty of open tickets
  • BOS-PVD (Providence, Rhode Island) $12 if booked at least 2 weeks out, same on the return trip
  • BBY-PVD is priced the same as above ($12 both ways)
  • RTE (Route 128 Westwood)-PVD is also priced at $12 both ways
Station Radius

Typically, shorter Amtrak rides will be less expensive.  You can see 50 mile radii from Boston North Station and Exeter station in New Hampshire here.

With all this data, I then took a look at the routes and timetables.  The trains out of North Station seemed to make the most sense, given their cheaper price and shorter distance.  The route to Providence is more expensive, and doesn’t have any good stops.  I actually know a few people that live in Providence, and commute to Boston for work on the Amtrak.  I’m not surprised that it’s a bit more expensive, given the populations centers in each city, relative to the rest of New England.

Back to North Station.  The absolute best case would be riding the Amtrak Downeaster BON-HHL, stopping in Haverhill, then HHL-EXR, hanging out in Exeter for a bit, then turning home on an EXR-HHL train, stopping in Haverhill again, and then catching a train HHL-BON.  That way, I’m taking my 4 one-way trips in one evening.  Unfortunately, the trains wouldn’t quite line up that way.

Downeaster Schedule.png

Downeaster service just isn’t frequent enough to let me stop off at each station in between every single ride.  Especially on the weekends.  Trains are an hour apart or longer on the weekend…just not worth the time and hassle.  After I studied the time tables a bit more, I came up with the following itinerary.

Haverhill Station Area

Luckily, I’ll be able to find a bite to eat while I’m waiting for my next train – the Haverhill station area looks very walkable.

Mon-Fri:

Downeaster 685 BON 1700 – HHL 1748 (48 minutes)

(1 hour 15 min layover)

Downeaster 687 HHL 1902 – EXR 1922 (19 minutes)

(13 min layover)

Downeaster 688 1935 – BON 2045 (1 hour, 10 minutes)

The total trip time for this is 3 hours 45 minutes, with a total cost of around $29.  I’ll spend 2 hours and 17 minutes on the trains, and 1 hour 28 minutes waiting around.  I should earn 300 Tier Qualifying Points, which means I’m paying about 9.7 cents per TQP.  I should be able to leave work a bit early so that I can make that 5PM train out of North Station, and then I can accomplish the whole trip in one worknight, and still get home in time for bed!

To earn the full 5,ooo points required for Select Status, I’d need 17 trips (really 16.6).  This would take me 17 days and at least $493.

Cue Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards World MasterCard.  One of the benefits of this card is its ability to earn Amtrak Tier Qualifying Points.  Admittedly, I didn’t think I’d ever use this feature, but it’ll come in handy for rail running!  You can earn 1,000 TQPs for every $5,000 in spend on the card, up to a maximum of 4,000 TQPs (for $20,000 in spending).  That’s a lot of money.  So, let’s assume I split it up evenly.  To earn 5,000 Tier Qualifying Points, I’ll try and get 3,000 TQPs from spend on my BoA card, and 2,000 from actual Amtrak rides.

I’ll need to spend $15,000 on the Amtrak card (a little manufactured spending never hurt anybody, right?).  I’ve already almost reached my first 1,000 TQPs from the credit card this year!  Next, I’ll need to take 20 rides worth 100 Amtrak points.  With the double days promotion going on, it should cut that requirement in half – 10 rides.  Now we’re talking.

That’ll be 4 roundtrips.  Each round trip consists of 3 one-ways (BON-HHL, HHL-EXR, EXR-BON):

4 trips x 3 one-ways x 100 TQP minimum

12 one-ways x 200 TQP/one-way

2,400 Tier Qualifying Points

These 4 trips will cost me total of $116.  Is it worth it?  I have no  idea yet.  It really depends on how much use I get out of the Upgrade Coupons and the ClubAcela Passes.  Remember, we’re just experimenting this time around.

Add a little more spend on that credit card, and I’ll be good to go!

Alright, let’s do this!

Downeaster Logo

I’ll be shooting for 3,000 TQPs from spending and 2,400 TQPs from rail running during the promo days (BON-HHL, HHL-EXR, EXR-BON).  I should end up with over 5,000 TQPs, qualifying me for Select Status.  As I said before, I don’t think Select Plus Status is particularly worth it, but who knows, if this goes well I might shoot for that United Club Access!

I already have my first trip booked.  Boston-Haverhill-Exeter and back on March 22nd, right after the double points days start later this month!

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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