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How much did that free trip cost?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon,  Aug. 23, 2009 - I’m still trying to determine how much I overpaid for my free ticket from a frequent traveler awards program. They’re called loyalty programs in the travel industry, and I became an indentured servant. It took eight years, 47 train trips, a new credit card and participation in innumerable come-on promotions, but I finally scored the gratis ride I had wanted from Amtrak Guest Rewards.

You can’t be in a hurry when you take the train, they say, and I wasn’t. When I signed up for the rewards program in 2001, I had my dream trip already in mind: a sleeper car journey aboard the Seattle-to-Chicago Empire Builder, one of Amtrak’s most popular and scenic routes. This would require much patience and many points.

Like the airlines’ frequent-flyer programs, Amtrak’s Guest Rewards has several redemption levels. You can cash in a few thousand points for a coach seat on a milk run to Jefferson City or 50,000 points for a full bedroom on a transcontinental splurge from New York to Los Angeles. The Empire Builder trip, which featured a modest roomette and six meals, had a price tag of 20,000 points. It was going to be a long haul.

I opened my account with almost 3,000 points from a train vacation to Tucson, Ariz. Over the years, I pumped up the total with vacations to Montreal and Salt Lake City. But my basic strategy was to grind it out with occasional, affordable hops to Chicago and Kansas City, which didn’t do much for the account at two points per ticket dollar spent.

This wasn’t the express route to a free ticket.

So, I started looking into the “bonus” offers: Sign up for an Amtrak credit card and receive 500 points. Purchase Amtrak tickets with the card and get extra credit. Sign up for Amtrak e-mail and earn 500 points.

Here a bonus, there a bonus, everywhere a bonus-bonus.

Still, the points weren’t piling up fast enough. Could I get somewhere quicker on an airplane? In a moment of weakness in 2005, I opted for the pie in the sky and swapped 5,000 points from my Amtrak account to an airline frequent flyer program. Not once, but twice. Then Amtrak and my credit card, a major source of points, parted company.

I continued to indulge my train habit with short trips to Little Rock to visit relatives or Springfield, Ill., for an outing to the Lincoln Museum, but the Empire Builder trip was fading in the distance.

It was here that marketing trumped discouragement. Amtrak kept teasing me with bonus offers: quadruple points, 100-point minimum awards, spring promotions, fall promotions. What could I do but fire up the engines and make another run at it?

I began tallying my points again. I signed up for new promotions. I made sure I traveled somewhere every May on National Train Day. (Four times the points!)

I even engineered a reverse swap of points from the airline program to Amtrak’s. Suddenly, there was light at the end of the tunnel, and – happily – it was an on-coming train.

An Amtrak e-mail last spring gave me the final boost I needed. I could purchase reward points in increments of 500 for the low, low price of $13.75. One unit was all I needed to put me over the top. My ticket for the Empire Builder finally had been punched.

Some will insist that train travel isn’t for everyone, especially on Amtrak, where timetables are for amusement only.

For me, however, it’s the journey, not the destination. Travel on the cross-country trains -- with their sleepers, café cars, lounge cars and interaction with fellow travelers – has always seemed like summer camp with privileges at a nice restaurant. You have the adventure of sleeping on bunk beds and showering in tiny, rocking stalls, but you also have the unique experience of dining and conversing with fellow travelers as the ambiance -- outside your window -- constantly changes.

Relax. You get there when you get there.

I was reminded of all the good things about train travel this past June when my wife and I flew to Seattle to claim my long-sought Guest Reward.

The Empire Builder was a 46-hour land cruise through mountains, prairies and seven states, exactly as I had pictured. We rolled over and by rocky streams just beginning their long descent to sea level, through wilderness forests, past vertigo-inducing cliffs and even the occasional junkyard with character.

We saw how life goes on in tiny towns like Wolf Point and Cut Bank, Mont., and listened over an unhurried meal to proud Westerners describe their long, cold winters. We watched the 1930s-style limousines line up for visitors at the Glacier National Park stop, fishermen wade into the not-yet-so-mighty Mississippi River in Minnesota and families try to buy some fun in the commercialized Wisconsin Dells.

We ate omelets, steak, seafood and cheesecake, and read and napped and took in the nature’s spectacle all the way to Chicago.(Amtrak booked us through to St. Louis on another train, business-class no less, a surprise bonus.)

A two-person sleeper compartment such as ours with meals included, Seattle to Chicago, can cost close to $1,000 during the peak summer season. This experience had come at no charge … except for the 47 previous train trips (about 24 round trips), thousands of dollars in credit card charges and eight years of give-up and start-over frustration.

The bottom line: There’s no free train ride. Even so, I believe this one was worth it.

Ray Jordan is a free-lance writer.