Review: Amtrak Acela First Class
I am a fairly frequent Amtrak rider between Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. I find that taking the train saves me time and the aggravation of having to deal with traffic through the I-95 corridor. Normally, I take the Northeast Regional, but last Friday I used a free upgrade and decided to check out the Acela’s First Class product. This post will discuss why I use Amtrak, what Acela offers, briefly discuss the Amtrak Rewards program, review the Acela First Class product, and finally opine on whether the cost of Acela is worth the upgraded service.
As I mentioned, I am a frequent Amtrak rider, most often taking the train round-trip between Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia on Friday afternoons and Monday mornings. As anyone who has spent time driving in/around DC can attest, the traffic is bad on a good day–and gets even worse on Friday afternoons! Rather than battle traffic during my commute back to Philadelphia, I choose to take Amtrak. As near as I can tell, Amtrak prices tickets on its NE Regional line based on supply and demand. So, when there are lots of seats available–months ahead of time or during off-peak times, for example–prices are relatively inexpensive. However, when purchasing last minute or during a peak time, prices can skyrocket. As an example, if I purchase tickets a month prior to travel on a Friday afternoon I can normally get a one-way ticket for about $50 from DC to Philly. If I wait until a few days prior to travel, that same ticket now will cost almost $100. Not surprisingly, I try to forecast my travel about a month ahead of time, and purchase tickets in advance.
If you take a look at the screen shots above, you can see that interspersed with the NE Regional is Amtrak’s Acela service. According to Amtrak’s website,
Acela offers hourly service downtown to downtown during peak morning and afternoon rush hours between New York, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other intermediate cities, as well as many convenient round-trips between New York and Boston.
What is Acela?
Acela is Amtrak’s version of high-speed rail and offers a faster alternative to the standard NE Regional with some more amenities designed to attract the business professional. Acela offers two levels of service, Business Class and First Class. These additional features are detailed below:
In addition to the amenities you’ll enjoy in the Business Class or First Class, your distinctive Acela Express experience features:
Even more enhanced accommodations and superior service await in Acela Express First Class:
I almost always opt for the standard NE Regional service for my commute. My reasoning is pretty simple, between DC and Philly, the Acela only is about 20-25 minutes faster and normally costs me about double the price. Paying double to save 20 minutes and get a few more amenities just does not make much sense for me personally. I have taken Acela twice prior to Friday–once was because the NE Regional was sold out (I was buying last minute tickets and needed to travel) and the other was because of a situation similar to the one I ran into on Friday, detailed below.
When does Acela make sense for me?
As I established above, I can normally purchase a one-way ticket on the NE Regional for around $50 (sometimes even cheaper), as long as I purchase about a month ahead of time. However, if my schedule or travel plans change at the last minute I have to change that ticket to a different train. The way this works is I get credit for the amount I paid for the ticket, but have to pay the difference (if any) for the new fare.
Last Friday I was planning on taking the 4:05pm NE Regional, and had purchased my ticket several weeks ago. However, some friends decided to get together on Friday afternoon after work and go out to eat and drink some beer. Since I wanted to hang out with them, I knew I would not be able to make the 4:05pm train and would have to change my ticket. Since I am now changing my ticket at the last minute, the tickets for the NE Regional have increased in price to around $100 unless I am willing to travel at very inconvenient times like midnight or 4am. However, the price for the Acela was also right around $100. Thus, it makes sense to change my ticket any take the Acela service for essentially the same price.
My friends and I really enjoyed catching up at Hooters (yes, apparently people still go there!), drinking beer, talking about work, etc. I was glad that I had decided to change my ticket and stay out and socialize.
Amtrak Guest Rewards
Amtrak has a rewards program, and as a mile addict, I am most certainly a member! Members of the Guest Rewards program earn 2 points for every $1 spent on Amtrak (i.e. a $50 ticket earns 100 points). A nice feature of the program is that you earn a minimum of 100 points on every trip, even if your ticket cost less than $50. Members who ride Acela earn 500 points with each qualifying Acela Business class trip or 750 points for each qualifying First class trip. Last year I earned enough points to qualify for Amtrak Select tier with a minimum of 5000 qualifying points earned in the calendar year.
To be completely honest, Select tier doesn’t really offer me any terribly exciting perks, but Amtrak did send me a couple of lounge passes and a couple of upgrade coupons when I made the jump to the Select Tier. Additionally, Amtrak sent me an additional upgrade coupon a couple of weeks ago in celebration of the 15th Anniversary of the program. The free upgrade coupon expired at the end of February, so I had to use it pretty quickly.
This was a perfect opportunity for me to use my free upgrade to check out Acela’s First Class, which was selling for $199 one-way, essentially giving me about $90 in theoretical value for this free upgrade.
Acela First Class Review
Since I was enjoying drinks with my friends, I was trying to maximize time with them and minimize time waiting at DC’s Union Station. Even though Acela First Class comes with complimentary Club Acela access, I knew that I wouldn’t have much time to check out the club. I left my friends around 7:15pm, so that I could take the Metro to Union Station and have a few minutes to spare before the Acela departed at 8pm. Luckily, the Metro was running on time and I made it to Union Station at 7:45pm. I had just a few minutes to check out Club Acela.
Unfortunately, I didn’t even need those few minutes. Club Acela was completely underwhelming and a very forgettable experience. When I walked in the entrance, I wasn’t even greeted or welcomed. The attendant, simply held out her had and grumpily said one word. “Ticket.” I provided her my ticket and asked if I could board the train from the lounge. In response she waved her hands in the direction of some doors near the back of the lounge. This was not service with a smile.
I did a quick tour of the lounge to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and I wasn’t. I didn’t even bother taking a picture since there really wasn’t anything to take a picture of. The lounge seemed dingy and dirty and didn’t really even compare to a bad domestic airline lounge. That being said, the lounge did offer free wifi and had ample comfortable seating, which is better than what non-lounge passengers get at Union Station. If my train was delayed for about an hour or more I would certainly appreciate the quiet place to sit down and surf the internet.
I decided to quickly head out to the Acela. The first class car ended up being the first car I came to (which was the last car on the train). All the other cars were business class configuration. When I entered the car the attendant was reminding everyone that “if they didn’t have a first class Acela ticket they were in the wrong car” and “business class is not the same as first class.” However, she was reminding everyone in the car by shouting it from about the half-way point down the aisle. I found this somewhat demeaning and rude–there were several people that made the mistake and just entered the first available car, it wasn’t extremely well marked. There is probably a better way to ensure your passengers are entering the right car and a less abrasive way to let them know they are in the wrong class of service. But, I digress.
She checked my ticket with a grunt, and I was allowed to stay. Soon I was handed a menu and a snack bag with some sort of pretzel mix after she dealt with a few more misshapen passengers who wandered into the wrong car.
The menu actually didn’t look too bad–decent food and drink selections.
I asked what kind of red wine was available and was told that they had “Cabernet.” I ordered a glass, but the attendant came back shortly thereafter and told me that they were out of the red wine. Instead I opted for a Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, one of my all-time favorite IPAs!
I ordered the Vegetable Pad Thai, preparing for something inedible. But, actually it tasted pretty decent. It was hot, had some good flavor, and was a step above a microwaved meal. Certainly beat my expectations.
I never did get the promised hot towel service that Amtrak advertises on its website, but I didn’t really miss it either. The car itself was laid out with single seat recliners down one side and dual seats with tables on the opposite side. There was plenty of room in the car, and overall the seats were comfortable. The power outlets were convenient (but all Amtrak trains have power outlets) and wifi was available.
Is Acela First Class worth the price?
I have already shared that for me, Acela is not really worth the price to save approximately 20 minutes between DC and Philly. However, if you are traveling from DC to New York, the time savings may be worth the added cost, especially if you are making a roundtrip on the same day. I used a free upgrade to check out first class, but if I had purchased the ticket I would have paid $199. While the food was decent and I drank several premium beers, I would place the added value of Acela first class at about $40 max. This assumes that I would have spent about $20 on dinner anyway, and another $20 for the beers. I personally don’t see much more value to Acela First Class than that. If I had my choice of riding in Acela business for around $100 one-way and purchasing some beer and food myself on board the train, I would personally take that option every time. Of course, I don’t like to even spend that much, since I can normally ride the “slow” NE Regional for less than $50 one-way.
Bottom line, Acela First Class was ok. The service–not great, the attitudes of the attendants–not great, Club Acela–not even close, the complimentary food–pretty decent, and the complimentary beverages–great. However, I think that by using a free upgrade, I still maximized the value of my trip given the circumstances.