Day 1: Starting out – I almost missed my train.
Getting to Alaska from Florida without flying is not an easy trip to plan. That’s why this all-too-familiar scenario plays like a broken record.
As do most of my long-haul trips, getting to Alaska from Florida also began with Amtrak. All I had to do was a one-hour drive plus a couple of local errands along the way to reach the Winter Park, Florida Amtrak station. Sounded simple to me.
Getting to Alaska from Florida almost didn’t happen.
The first problem was the result of a phone call to the Avis/Budget car rental place. For the last almost-twenty years, the guy who ran the conveniently located Avis place would drive me to the Amtrak station, about one mile away.
Two years ago, the Avis location changed. So did the employees. The new place is in the heart of Winter Park crazytown – a horn-honking, aggressive-driver locale sandwiched between Whole Foods, a Regal Cinema and a WaWa.
The woman who answered the phone said, no, she wouldn’t/couldn’t drive me over. Next, I asked for directions to their new place; landmarks to look for so I’d know where and when to turn. No such luck.
While the street address was on the main drag, the entrance to the rental place was actually on a side street. Could she tell me simply to pass the WaWa and make a left turn at the light, nooooo. Make a U-turn, she said, after you fill up at the WaWa. Huh? Not once did she mention to turn left AFTER the WaWa, which is exactly what I needed to do.
Two hours allotted for a one-hour drive over to Orlando plus a couple of stops along the way just didn’t work. Saturday in Winter Park and everyone and their uncle was out and about. Crazytown at its worst.
After nervously circling the block for 10 precious minutes and yet my third phone call, still no one told me to turn left at the light. I could feel my blood pressure skyrocketing.
Repeatedly, I checked the Amtrak app for my train status. Due in a 1:52, it was still on-time. The train first stops in Orlando and it always seems to take forever to board all the theme park people. So I was hoping that the train would be delayed.
To recap, the first hiccup was that no one at Avis would give me a lift to the train station. Followed by the second hiccup…not getting intelligent directions to their new facility. And the third…
Getting to the Amtrak station
Racing into the Avis place, doing all I could not to scream at the counter person, my car was checked in and I ended up paying $10 gallon because a trip into WaWa would have put me through the roof. The instant I parked the little white Mazda, I practically jumped into the Uber app and ordered my car.
Still a wreck because I thought I only had 18 minutes to get to the station. Pepe pulled up, helped me with my luggage and off we went. Despite his driving at a snail’s pace and reassurance that I’d not miss my train, I knew that if I did, this whole getting to Alaska from Florida idea would tumble like dominoes. Fixable…but costly.
And then there’s the good news
Wouldn’t you know it? The Orlando Amtrak station did not let me down, nor did the hords of theme park people who boarded. By the time Pepe dropped me off, the train was a fabulous 25 minutes late. I had time to check my bag and sit and try to decompress. Getting to Alaska from Florida just got a bit easier.
So now I’m happily ensconced in my teeny tiny roomette aboard Amtrak Silver Meteor, with a bag of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, an ice-cold ginger ale and my laptop fully charged. I’m waiting for my 7:15pm dinner reservation. When called, I’ll carefully make my way two cars forward in this 11-car train and wait to be seated. With whom I’ll dine is a total mystery.
Read more: My 29 best tips for an overnight Amtrak trip
I’ve always met interesting, quirky and fellow train enthusiasts in the Amtrak dining car. We’d rather spend days and nights chugging across America, sleep in train cars that are at least 30 years old, than zoom through the skies in a metal tube.
There’s only a short layover at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station from the Silver Meteor to the Capitol Limited for Chicago. This beautifully re-done art deco station is the district’s major transportation hub, bustling with people hurrying to catch their commuter trains. With a sleeping compartment, you can relax in the Acela Lounge. Simply check in at the desk, stow your luggage in the closet and explore Union Station.
Because the new CEO at Amtrak decided to remove the dining car on the Capitol Limited, I picked up my own meal to have in my compartment. On this train and the famous Lake Shore Limited, rather than a dining car for complimentary meals for sleeping car passengers, you receive a preservative-filled, hot or cold meal box, almost too gross to comprehend let alone eat. IMO.
Anyway, we boarded around 5PM and I settled in, waiting for my room attendant to introduce himself and hand me a compensatory bottle of wine. Tomorrow I’d begin four days in my hometown of Chicago, catching up with family and friends. Before I knew it, I’d be back on the train for a two-day ride across the great plains, Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges to Sacramento. All of this to get to the Alaska ferry to begin my journey on the Inside Passage.
Alaska Trip Report: Explaining the Alaska Marine Highway – and north to the Last Frontier.