AH Part II: First-Class on Amtrak from Coast-to-Coast for $0

Amtrak Hacks with Nathan Agin

Welcome to the SECOND in a series of posts on legally hacking train travel. Part I covered how to immediately save 76% and Part III covers why Trains beat Planes & Automobiles!

These posts are also a way to share how I, not being wealthy, travel as much as I do – this is something available to just about everyone. 


Earlier this year, I was in Massachusetts and had plans to be in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington) for the summer.

A flight would be quick, but I was looking for a way to really experience the whole country as I made my journey.

Why not take my time?

The train had always been a way of travel I’d done on small trips (usually to/from New York), but this would be something altogether different: sleeping cars, meals, and multiple states – oh my!

I looked into it and discovered, to my surprise, that I could do ALL of this for FREE.


How is this possible?

Here’s the simple answer: two credit cards and spending as little as possible.

Would you like to know more? Good…


The PERKS of traveling First Class on Amtrak:

  • Personal and private car with seat, table, electricity, closet and more
  • Private restroom/shower facilities (some options are in-room)
  • Dedicated Porter
  • All meals included in the dining car (breakfast, lunch, dinner – whatever is offered)
  • Fresh linens and towels
  • Daily newspaper and bottled water
  • Access to First Class Station Lounges


One of the BEST parts of booking travel through Amtrak is that there are absolutely no fees or taxes. So, when you redeem a trip with points, all you need are your points.

The only money you’ll probably spend is in tipping the waitstaff and porters!


How to do this…

In the way I’ll show you (and what I did), you just need to get the Amtrak and Continental credit cards, which are both first-purchase cards, meaning that once you make a first purchase, you get your points. There is no minimum needed to spend – you could buy a tea at a local cafe on the card, and the points will be sent your way.


The big coup with this deal is that you can currently transfer points between Amtrak and Continental at a rate of 1:1 – points can go in either direction. There has not been any information released on how the Continental/United merger will affect all this, so if you can, get those Continental points and move them to Amtrak while this deal is still in place!

There are a couple conditions to transfer points, but they’re pretty easy to satisfy. You’ll need to actually call on the phone to make the transfer happen.

Good news (while it lasts): you can even earn points when you book combined Amtrak/Continental trips.


Why is this such a great deal?

Most people know free = awesome, but just to give you a basis of comparison…

When I was on the train, I learned from one passenger that he paid close to $2000 for his first-class coast-to-coast trip. (I couldn’t bring myself to share my travel hacking tale and possibly break his heart.)

I’m not sure when he booked this, but when I looked into what it might cost, it was at least going to be $1000, so that’s the kind of money we’re talking about saving.


And this is easy – it took me maybe three hours total to put this whole trip together!


How to Get from A to B!

Amtrak has broken up the country into three zones: Western, Central, and Eastern.

So, coast-to-coast travel is across three zones.

amtrak zone map

You have four choices on how to get from one side of the country to the other:

  • Roomette (how I traveled) – good for 1-2 people: 35,000 points
    • Includes two seats that convert to a bed, and a pull-down bed (see picture below)
  • Bedroom Suite – good for 3-4 people/families: 50,000 points
  • Coach Class – a seat: 10,500 points
  • Business Class – a nicer seat: 12,500 points

(all points are for one-way travel)

I’ll say that the upgrade from Coach to Business would make this a no-brainer, but honestly – do you want to spend 3 nights/4 days in a chair? Probably not.

For me, anytime there is overnight travel involved, I want the opportunity to lie down comfortably and sleep.

Plus, on the Chicago-Portland route I was on, there was a 10-hour delay due to rains in North Dakota! Thankfully, it made no difference to me since I could retire to my private room and sleep, but I’m surprised mutiny didn’t happen in coach!

In case you’re interested (or are taking a similar itinerary), I took the Lake Shore Limited from Boston-Chicago, and then connected with the Empire Builder from Chicago-Portland (which also can go to Seattle).


amtrak roomette

Roomette on Amtrak


How to Rack up the Points

As you’ll notice above, a one-way Roomette from coast-to-coast requires 35,000 points.

You’re in luck, because there are two VERY SIMPLE credit cards that offer a combined 37,000 bonus points upon sign-up.

There is no fee for the first year, and each card only requires you to make a first purchase (which could be ANY amount) to receive the points. So we’re talking just pennies here!!!

More information and links to apply are below.

By the way, always cool to be reminded of Dicky Barrett from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (check out the name on the cards :-)


Amtrak Guest Rewards Chase Mastercard

Amtrak Mastercard

  • 12,ooo points bonus
  • No annual fee
  • Just make a first purchase to receive the points
  • Earn 2 points for each $1 spent on Amtrak travel using the card (1 point for all other purchases)
  • Receive a 5% rebate on all trips booked using Amtrak points


Continental OnePass Plus Chase Mastercard

Continental Mastercard

  • 25,000 points bonus
  • $95 annual fee waived for the first year
  • Just make a first purchase to receive the points
  • Receive an additional 5000 points for adding another person to your account (fyi – their credit file gets hit, too)
  • Receive an additional 10,000 points for spending $25,000 each calendar year
  • Earn 2 points for $1 spent on Continental or United travel using the card (1 point for all other purchases)

Apply for the Continental Credit Card

FYI – there are additional Continental Credit Cards that may be a better fit for you based on your travel and business preferences – this is usually the best card for personal travelers.

**I couldn’t find any information online about this, but when I applied, Chase offered me a $50 credit upon my first purchase using the Continental card, so I actually bought micro-loans with Kiva. The total was less than $50, so Chase paid for the loans, someone got the financial help they needed, and I got free points! Win-win-win! :-)



Often these cards run promotions for even more bonus points upon sign-up: Amtrak recently offered 32,000 points (an additional 20K), and Continental offered 50,000 points (an additional 25K). Imagine what you could do with 82,000 Amtrak (or Continental) points! :-)

These promotional deals may be available when you go to sign up; if you’re intent to catch these, check out sites like Flyer Talk Forum for the latest. You can also always apply, get the points, cancel the card, and then re-apply when the promotion comes around.


What ELSE you can do with 37,000 points?

What if you don’t want to go coast-to-coast in first class? No problem! Lots of other options…

  • One round-trip Roomette within the Northeast
  • Two round-trip Business Class seats within One Zone
  • Three round-trip Coach Class seats within One Zone
  • 37 Coach Class tickets or 24 Business Class tickets on the Special Lines (covered in Part I)
  • Redeem for points in other programs like Hilton Honors, SPG, or Hertz
  • You could even transfer all your points to Continental Airlines – 37K is more than enough for a round-trip domestic flight!

Check out ALL the possibilities here.


Getting around the Credit Card “Decline”

Both of these credit cards are offered by Chase Bank.

So… applying to more than one card at the same time with the same institution may trigger a decline. Or, if you have other cards with Chase (like the British Airways VISA), you may not receive an immediate approval for these cards.

But fear not! There is something you can do!

You just need to call up the credit card company and ask for a reconsideration.

When you apply for a credit card online and are automatically declined, or if they cannot process your application and send you a letter in the mail 7-10 days later with the decline, know that it’s a computer behind it all. No actual thought went into this decision, so don’t take it personally!


While there are usually links from the carrier to the credit card, they don’t handle any of the credit issues, so you need to contact the bank directly. That is, you’ll want to contact Chase Bank, and not Amtrak or Continental, about the reconsideration.


To find the correct number and department, call the general customer service number for the credit card and ask for a “reconsideration.”

The process is actually quite painless: you’ll speak with a representative who may ask you to verify a few simple questions (like monthly income, rent, etc.), they’ll place you on hold, and often they will come back with an immediate answer.

I’ll share that each time I’ve been declined for a card and gone the reconsideration route, I’ve been approved!


nathan on amtrak

check out my sweet first-class car - can you spot me? :-)

Just a reminder: this is the SECOND in a series of posts on train travel – if you’d like to be the first to know when the others are published, just subscribe below.

To Sum Up – and Steps to Follow:

  1. Sign up (for FREE) with both Amtrak Guest Rewards and Continental OnePass loyalty programs
  2. Apply for both of the credit cards mentioned above
  3. Once approved and you receive them, make a first purchase – the smaller the better
  4. Wait for the points to post
  5. Transfer the Continental points to your Amtrak account
  6. Redeem for the trip of your dreams
  7. Don’t forget to pay off your credit card balance!


What trip are you going to plan with all these free points?


I’d love to hear your answer along with any other comments you have below. Hope to see you on the train!

Until next time,


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roomette photo