Friday, January 18, 2013

Cheap Chicago 2013: Riding the Rails

A few posts ago, I mentioned our upcoming trip to Chicago.  Our goal is to spend almost no cash, and preferably not a lot of points and miles.  Today I'll cover transportation.

Last year, my wife and I took Amtrak to Chicago using points and miles.  Our hometown is on one of Amtrak's special routes, which used to allow for 1,000 point one-way redemptions to Chicago -- an incredible deal.  Since then, the redemption rate has gone up to 1,500 points, still an incredible deal.

I really wanted to try something a bit different this year, and started to explore MegaBus.  MegaBus directly competes with Amtrak in my city.  They even leave directly from the same corner as the Amtrak station, and arrive at Chicago's Union Station.  The trip takes an hour less than Amtrak, and they leave at more convenient times.  Their fares come in at about half of what Amtrak is charging.  They were also running a promotion giving away free tickets for my route, but the free tickets were only available on weekdays, so they wouldn't do any good for our weekend trip.

A revenue ticket?  Oh, the shame!
I suppose it would have been easy to spend the points on a free Amtrak ticket or pony up for a cheap Megabus fare, but there was one additional consideration -- hitting a $200 minimum Amtrak spend on my Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card.  $200 in annual Amtrak spend triggers a lot of additional transfer opportunities, such as the ability to convert 5000 Amtrak miles to 15,000 choice rewards points.  While there are ways to game the system by booking a refundable fare and canceling later, I feel at least somewhat obligated to play by the rules.  After all, I'm a big fan of Amtrak and I want them to keep offering great transfer opportunities.

$170 later, I had two round-trip Amtrak tickets in hand.  The tickets are cheaper than driving, but still more than I wanted to spend.  Amtrak's tickets go up in price as fare buckets are sold out, and rarely go back down, so purchasing late didn't really help matters.  By the way, there's a great site called AmSnag that will show the lowest fares over a series of dates -- it was painful!

This evening, I went back out to Amtrak's site just to check the current fares.  To my surprise, the fare had actually dropped by $20, and the friendly Amtrak phone agent explained that a large group had probably canceled and the fare buckets had reset.  She said in her 6 years working as a phone agent, she had only seen this happen one other time.  Apparently it's my lucky day!

CTA Pass for $9 on Groupon -- Excellent!
Next up, we needed a way to get around Chicago.  While Chicago Greeter is the easiest way to get a free CTA day pass, we took advantage of the opportunity last year, and I didn't want to book another greeter tour so soon.  A rare Groupon for a $9 CTA 3-day pass was a nice find, though, so I bought a couple.  After all, how often can you find coupons for public transportation passes?

So, that sums it up.  Admittedly, the price of transportation this year is a bit high, but I'm well on my way to opening new transfer opportunities from Amtrak Guest Rewards.  In this case, I feel the extra Amtrak spend is well worth it.

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