Orlando To Arlington: One Night On The Amtrak Auto Train

When it came to the logistics of how to move to Virginia, I gave it a great deal of thought.  I had movers carry the furniture, but there was still a bunch that traveled with me- things I wouldn’t entrust to a mover or things I knew I would need right away before the movers would get to my destination.    I considered three ways to do this:

  • Fly up and have some auto transporter move my car.  This would be the most expensive option, of course.
  • Drive up.  It’s about 850 miles between Orlando and Arlington, which means at least twelve hours of I-95 driving.  While this is theoretically the least expensive option, there’s gas to consider, and very probably a hotel in the middle.  Also, I hate driving more than a few hours.
  • Take the Auto Train. Amtrak’s Auto Train runs every day in both directions between Sanford, Florida (just north of Orlando) to Lorton, Virginia (just south of Arlington).  I didn’t even know this existed until I started researching ways to get up to Virginia for the move.  A one-way ticket for both me and my car cost a little more than five hundred dollars.  As you might have guessed based on the title of the post, I chose this option.

On Thursday, August 6th, it was finally time to move to Virginia.  I woke up, checked out of my final Orlando hotel, had a quick I-Hop breakfast, and drove my packed-up car to the Auto Train station in Sanford.

I foolishly let the little mapping robot in my car tell me how to get to the station instead of just following the signs.  I took a really winding backroads path to the Auto Train station, but at least I finally found it.

When you arrive, you follow the markings on the pavement to the first check-in.  The special rail cars on the left side are called autoracks, and that’s where the cars go.  I’ll talk more about those later.   The train on the right side is the passenger compartment-  they’re separated in Sanford because they need to load the cars and passengers separately, but they get linked up before we depart.

When you get to the first check-in, the attendant will scan your printed ticket.  I paid a small extra fee to be one of the first thirty cars unloaded when we got to Virginia, so the door of my car got a magnet slapped on the driver’s side door with a priority number.

One really cool thing about the Auto Train is that you can pack up your car like a giant checked bag.  You won’t have access to your car during the trip, but it’s still a good way to carry a lot of stuff.  I packed the things I would need for one night in a smaller bag, including my laptop and some sleep clothing, and left the rest in the car.

After the first check-in, you pull up to a canopy where vehicles are being taken in different lanes.  This is where I said goodbye to my car for the duration- they have you take your carry-on bag for the train and leave the keys in the car.

I’ll focus for a moment on the car’s journey-  there’s a dedicated staff at the Amtrak station that functions sort of like valet parking, except that in this case, they’re parking your car in the autoracks.

The autoracks are really neat.  They’re bi-level, which is why you can see some ramps going up into them while the closest car in this photo is driving down a ramp into the lower part.    I watched them take my car in, and it was on the lower level for the duration.  Auto Train consists are reportedly nearly three-fourths of a mile long and can transport over three hundred cars per trip.

A quick aside for the linguistically minded among you:  Prior to reading about autoracks, I had never heard the term consist as it applies to trains.  Considering how much time I’ve spent on trains, that’s kind of amazing.   A consist is a set of railroad vehicles forming a complete train-  in other words, the engine plus the passenger cars plus the diner car and lounge plus all the autoracks together are a consist.      New words are fun!

Here’s a short video of the crew driving someone’s vehicle onto the autoracks.  I watched a bunch of these because I’m a huge nerd and it was fascinating to me.

Let’s move on to the passenger experience.  Both the Sanford and Lorton stations have a fairly large waiting area for pre-boarding.   In the case of the Sanford location, there’s a shuttle that runs every twenty minutes to downtown Sanford a few miles away, for anyone who wants to kill time before departure.  I elected to stay put.  (Although with Hollerbach’s just two miles away, it was very tempting.)

There’s a check-in counter where I checked in and was given a compartment assignment.  I’ll talk more about that a little further on.

I mentioned earlier that the Auto Train consist is nearly three-fourths of a mile long- this is not an exaggeration.  This is only the passenger compartments and dining car, and only part of that.  Getting the entire train into one photo would not be possible from this close.

This is the hallway near my little sleeping compartment.  Some of the larger sleeping compartments had a different hallway along one side of the train with the compartments being all to one side, but this area was all “Roomettes.”

A Roomette, in Amtrak terms, is a small enclosed compartment with two seats facing each other and a small fold-down table in the middle.  There’s a knob for temperature control, a power outlet, a light switch, and curtains for privacy during sleep time.   Also, the door latches from the inside, which is reassuring.

At night, the two seats can be pushed flat to make one bed, and a separate bunk pulls down from the ceiling.  When it was time to sleep, I actually chose to use the upper bunk instead of the lower, even though I was alone and could have done either one.

Our departure was at 4pm, so they rolled the passenger compartment forward, coupled the autoracks, and then we were off.  While they were coupling us and getting us ready, an engineer somewhere on the train gave us some raw statistics:  Our Auto Train had 182 passengers, 14 crew members, and four engineers/conductors.   111 people were in sleeping compartments, and our train was carrying 101 four-wheeled vehicles and three two-wheelers.

The first few hours of the train ride were all Florida, but I still saw a few pretty things out of my window.   There were lots and lots of cows, for a start.

And waterways, weather, little boats…

…and some neat smokestacks.

My sleeping-compartment ticket included a dinner and a small continental breakfast.  When I checked in back in Sanford, I was given a small flyer with my dinner choices.  Normally, you would be assigned a dinner slot and you would go to the dining car for this.  These aren’t normal times, however, so all meals were taken in the sleeping compartments.

Technically I can say that I had dinner in Jacksonville, but I was just passing through.

Here were the selections for dinner:

The flyer was actually not correct about everything, but they were pretty close.  For example, here’s the “first glass of wine” mentioned above.  You can tell it’s a red because the cup has an ‘R‘ Sharpied onto the lid.

Presentation aside, the food was great.  I chose the flatiron steak.  I wasn’t really expecting much from an Amtrak steak, but it was deliciousThe veggies, mashed potato, and bread were also excellent and I cleaned my plate.

Dessert was a chocolate cake.  It was delicious and moist.  It was most definitely not a lie.

After dinner, I resumed staring out the window at all the passing landscape.  There were parts of the journey that seemed like it was 97% trees and rusted out El Caminos.   I’m only half-joking.  I’ve never seen so many El Caminos in one day before, and ALL of them were abandoned in wooded areas.

Soon after we crossed into Georgia, we passed the distinct water tower of Folkston.  I didn’t get a good shot of the tower, so I yoinked this one off the web to illustrate.

Pretty soon after that, it became too dark to really see much outside of the train, aside from the occasional gas station or Wal-Mart in the distance.    The attendant asked me during boarding what time I wanted him to configure the bed.  I had him come by at around ten.  I played some zoom trivia for a bit, but my connection wasn’t very stable so it was not very successful.  Amtrak technically has wi-fi but they don’t support video chats or streaming of any kind, so I was tethered to my phone and it was a little wonky.

The Auto Train makes only one stop in between endpoints, and it’s not for passengers.   The train makes a brief halt in Florence, South Carolina to change engineers, refuel, and refill the water tanks.    I was still awake when we made this stop, but I was exhausted.  After a time, I climbed into the upper bunk and slept fitfully.

When I woke up, we were already in Virginia, cruising through Richmond.  I was awake enough to see Squash-A-Penny Junction Antiques when we rolled past, and I rather wish I’d had the camera out.  Set near the junction of two major rail lines, it was originally built in the 1860s as a general store.  Now it’s an eclectic antique shop, and it just looks neat.   I definitely want to double back to see it at some later point.

Right after we passed the Squash-A-Penny in Doswell, the attendant brought my “continental breakfast,” which was a banana, a crumb cake, some milk, a juice cup-  not really a very heavy breakfast, but that’s ok because we were less than two hours from arrival.

Naturally, I started looking out the window again after breakfast, and just outside of Fredericksburg, we passed a big stone pyramid in an otherwise open grass field.  I can’t pass up the opportunity to find out why a monument might be out in a field, so I looked it up later.  Here’s what I learned:

This field is actually part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  The pyramid, composed of granite stones and standing 23 feet tall, was erected in 1903 after a request during the late 1800s by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society.   This American Civial War monument marks the point where General George G. Meade’s Union division penetrated a gap in ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s lines on December 13, 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Over the years it has become known as the Meade Pyramid.   The more you know… 

Toward the very end of the journey, the Auto Train spent a lot of time hugging the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, with Maryland across the way.

Finally, after a little more than sixteen hours on the rails, we made a slightly-early arrival at Lorton Station in Virginia.    They uncoupled the autoracks first and started to offload the cars while the passengers deboarded.   I have read that the entire Auto Train can offload all of the cars in a little more than an hour, but my car was pulled up almost as soon as I reached the front door of the station.

Ten minutes after I stepped down from the passenger compartment, I was back on the road, driving the last eighteen miles or so to my new apartment in Arlington.

Have you ever traveled by Auto Train?

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Air Travel Lessons from the Pandemic

When it comes to my trips, I’m a planner. I’ve gone on at length in other posts about the way that I approach new cities and the way I plan out my trips. The experiences of the last three months have led me to rethink a few of my previously held stances about travel.

Never again will I book my flight more than 60 days before the trip: In the past, I have usually tried to get my flights about three months before I actually want to travel- having them booked relieves the mental stress of a hanging to-do list item, and getting them done early helps to get a good price on the ticket. Or at least that’s how it used to be.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the best prices on flights are usually found about 70 days before a flight and that the best booking window is 21 to 121 days before your flight date. If you wait until the last minute, flight prices are often hugely inflated, and if you get them too early, they can be just as bad.

When Covid-19 hit, my plans started to disappear and I was left with a need to cancel five separate trips out of state- that meant I had to cancel flights with JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and Frontier Airlines. I will never again buy my flight more than a month out- there’s just too much uncertainty, and having to cancel a flight is a giant pain in the ass. This leads me to the next lesson-

Never again will I use an all-in-one travel planning site: I have been an Expedia.com user since some time in 2001. I’ve used it for countless flights and hotels, using various airlines throughout the last eighteen years. I always felt like it was useful to have the web equivalent of a travel agent, and it worked well for me until it didn’t. The mass cancellation of all of those flights is where Expedia fell apart.

It was nearly impossible at first to reach an actual customer service representative, and when they finally started to get their response organized it was still clunky and hard to get a response.

JetBlue was the easiest to deal with- I was able to go directly to them and they canceled my flight and put a credit in their “Travel Bank.” Nice and easy. Several of the others wouldn’t talk to me directly though- if you book through an agent or a site like Expedia or Travelocity, a lot of the airlines will make you go back to that site to deal with any flight changes.

To my vast and unending surprise, the first airline to just do the right thing and give me back my money was Spirit Airlines. The cancellation with them was fully refunded, with a minimum of fuss. I was expecting more difficulty there, and their goodwill has guaranteed that I will use them again if the route I need is there.

Alaska Airlines also gave me a refund, once I called them and spoke to a customer service representative. They were very classy to me.

The other three allowed me to cancel flights, but only gave me credits. This is where the real lesson begins.

I have a long-standing relationship with Delta, and I’ve always enjoyed flying with them, but this experience has put me off of them a bit. For one thing, I haven’t been able to reach a person in weeks. For another, my Expedia flights resulted in airline credits, but those credits aren’t visible in my Delta account. If the credits from all those canceled flights lived in my Delta Skymiles account, I would be sanguine. They don’t, though. They live in Expedia. This is a problem.

The Expedia site is garbage. Up until a few days ago, there was absolutely no place on Expedia to even see a credit. Now you can see it on a per-trip basis, but there’s still no obvious list of them- if you don’t know you have a credit, you’ll never get a notification that you do. And you can’t use Expedia airline credits while booking on their site, you have to call their call center to use your credits. I’m not looking forward to that at all.

American Airlines is the same way- a credit, living somewhere in the Expedia system, that I will have to call in to use when booking a new flight with the same airline.

Frontier Airlines is the last of them, and Frontier gets all of my rage. All of it. The first time I called in, I only had to wait about forty minutes to reach a customer service representative. She initially said that I would have an airline credit, good until September of 2021, but that I would have to re-book within 90 days.

This is a problem because the event that I was attending via a Frontier flight is canceled, not rescheduled. None of my regular travel goes on Frontier routes, and I’m certainly not going to have more travel plans to coordinate with them in the next 90 days. I told the customer service rep this, and she said that she would get me a refund. She said she would route my information to another department to get the refund processed.

I now know that the Frontier Airlines customer service representative lied.

I know this because after a few weeks went by, I tried to call again. This time, it took me more than ninety minutes to get to a rep. He took my basic information, asked to place me on a “brief hold,” and that was the last I heard from him. I had roughly ten minutes of dead silence, and then the hold music came back and I was on for another twenty-five minutes, before I was suddenly disconnected from the call.

For my third attempt to reach someone helpful, I went the Twitter route, speaking to https://twitter.com/FrontierCare, who took more than two days for the first response. I explained my situation, and they said my reservation does not qualify for a refund. I repeated my explanation that the credit was useless to me, and a full two hours later repeated the “booked in 90 days, good until September 2021” bit.

So yeah, Frontier Airlines is going to keep my money, and will provide me no service for it. If they had said all along that they would not give me a refund, I would not have been angry, but the first customer service representative said I would have a refund. Either she lied through her teeth, or the next person I spoke to did. This is shitty customer service, and they’ve guaranteed that I will never fly with them or recommend them to anyone else I know. They can still save their relationship with me by doing the right thing, but they don’t seem willing to, and I’m not feeling up to spending another few hours of my life trying to get them to change their minds.

I have a long memory, Frontier, and I travel a lot. Just not with you.

I’m sure that I’ll still have new lessons from Covid-19 in the future. After all, most of my favorite things involve travel and the entertainment and travel industries are still changing and adapting to life with a pandemic. For now, I’ll leave you with this summary, the three main lessons I have learned from this experience:

  1. Don’t book early. Just don’t. Wait until no less than thirty days from your travel date to get your airfare. You might have to pay a little more, but it’s less expensive than having an airline just keep your money without ever flying you anywhere.
  2. Book directly with the airlines, not through a site like Expedia or Travelocity. If something goes wrong, it’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with the airline directly than with a giant nebulous glob like Expedia. At this point in time, I’ve got a bunch of airline credits that I can ONLY use if I book through Expedia during a phone call. Once those credits are gone from Expedia, so am I.
  3. Never fly Frontier Airlines. They suck. They have earned a spiteful place in my heart for taking my money without a usable service.

Have you learned any lessons from living through a global pandemic?

20/52

This weekend, in Titusville.

Despite living in South Florida for most of my life, I never managed to drive up to Cape Canaveral for a shuttle launch. When I saw that SpaceX and NASA were launching astronauts into space from Florida again, I thought it might be a good time to finally see a launch. Since I live in Orlando, the Cape is right around forty minutes away by car, so I took a half-day from work on Wednesday to go see the launch with some friends.

The first thing I was not expecting was just how bad the traffic would be for the crowds going into Titusville. It took more than 90 minutes to make that forty-minute drive, and when we got out of the car to move to a place where we could see the launch, they halted the countdown because of weather.

Such is life in Florida.

The first backup launch window was Saturday, so we tried again. This time we set out with a wider time window before the launch. We arrived in downtown Titusville and found parking with about three hours until the launch, so we grabbed a quick fast food lunch, and took a quick walk through Space View Park, which has some really neat stuff to read and see.

Space View Park, Titusville, looking east toward the launch site.

A short while later, we met up with another group of friends at Playalinda Brewing Company for a tasty drink before we went to sit and wait for the launch.

Downtown Titusville is super cute.

There were already people setting up with canopies and blankets and folding chairs, none of which it occurred to us to bring. It alternated between cloudy, raining, and sunny, and about fifteen minutes before the launch we moved to a closer vantage point, even though it was in a very thick crowd.

I took some video of the launch, but trust me when I tell you that the more official video is significantly better. Seriously, check out the first few minutes of the C-SPAN video:

From where we stood, roughly twelve miles due west of launch pad 39A, Crew Dragon was a tiny dot atop a column of fire. After about a minute, the sound reached us- the most incredible rumble of rocketry.

Being present for living history- the first launch of astronauts from American soil since the Shuttle program halted in 2011- was amazing, but seeing the crowd response and hearing that thunderous rocket first-hand, I’m tremendously glad I went to see Bob and Doug heading off to the International Space Station.

I don’t even mind getting sunburned while also simultaneously being rained on. Stupid Florida.

Here’s what it looked like from my perspective:

Did you watch the SpaceX/Nasa Demo-2 launch? What did you think?

19/52

State of the Steven

I did it again. I mentioned my upcoming move in an offhanded comment on Heather’s blog, and she said, “And does this mean you’ve made a decision?? Spill!”

One again, I was absolutely certain that I had talked about this on the blog, but I haven’t. I scrolled back through the last few posts, and when I talked about this in February, I was still thinking about it and I hadn’t locked anything in.

So with that in mind, I thought it would be a nice time to do an overall check-in, a sort of “State of the Steven” post as it were. We’ll start with the topic I already brought up-

I’m moving! I spent a lot of time thinking about the things I mentioned back in February, and I talked the ears off of anyone who would listen about the possibility of a move. Most of the people in closest proximity to me figured out that I was definitely going before I knew it myself.

I did a ton of research, looked at dozens of possible places to live, talked on the phone with one helpful-but-also-standoffish realtor, and took several “virtual tours” of possible apartment buildings. Just a hair under two weeks ago, I signed a lease for an apartment in Arlington, VA, just outside of Washington DC. I have about ten weeks left in Florida then I’m headed up to the new place in August.

map of where I will be living relative to DC
The red pin is approximately where the new apartment is located.

On January 1st, I posted about my theoretical goals for the year, and one of them was blogging more consistently. I’ve obviously let that one slide, so let’s take a quick look at a few of the other biggies:

Health, exercise, and sleep: I started out the year strong on this one, but then we got a pandemic. My access to the treadmill went away. Grocery shopping involved more and more junk food and beer. All the things that keep me sane like live music and trivia out with my friends went away for more than two months. Time began to lose all meaning, thanks to the stay-at-home orders, and my sleep went off the rails. So overall, I would say this goal could be better.

Travel: Unfortunately, Covid-19 and the stay at home orders have killed this one. I’ve had five trips involving air travel killed so far this year, and one remaining for September is in serious doubt. I’ll probably be going up to DC in late June, partly to collect keys to my new apartment and partly because the planned Seattle trip with my sister got squashed and we’re trying to make up for it with a smaller East Coast city-hop. We have to wait for touristy things to open though; if we went now we wouldn’t be able to do anything.

Live Music: This is an utter failure, again because of the pandemic. I’ve honestly lost count of how many shows have been canceled, postponed, or rescheduled, but it’s more than twenty so far. The picture to the right is the little whiteboard in my office. The left column is cancellations and it’s only shorter than the other column because I erase shows once a refund is received. The right column is any show that’s been postponed but hasn’t said anything else about the status. If a show gets rescheduled, I’ll either erase it from the right column or move it to the left, pending a refund. I’ve given this WAY too much thought.

And some of the smaller goals from the January 1st post-

  • See more Shakespeare – I watched a little on YouTube, but the pandemic has put a kibosh in this one. Still, there’s a great Shakespeare theater in DC, so I’m optimistic for the future.
  • Make a decision about moving – Finally, a goal that I can actually say is DONE. All that’s left now are the move itself, the acclimating to a new city, and so forth.
  • More decluttering – I’ve actually done a heap of this in preparation for my move- I got rid of the kitchen stools I never sit in, the second television I don’t need, some other small furniture items, and a few odds and ends. I still have way more than I really want to bring for an interstate move, but hey, it’s a start.

How’re you doing so far this year?

18/52

The London Film Museum

My previous post about London led to a conversation with a friend about London, and I wanted to look at the pictures I posted in my blog post about the London Film Museum. When I went to look for the post, I discovered to my vast surprise that I never wrote a post about the London Film Museum, I only wrote a paragraph in one of my previous London posts. In August of 2012, I said the following in a longer post about London:

I quite enjoyed the London Film Museum, which had a lot of neat stuff, including Daleks, a TARDIS, the superman suit from Superman Returns, the Batman Begins batsuit, and a large variety of props from other movies.  There was an entire room of Harry Potter stuff, and a large exhibit dedicated to Ray Harryhausen, including a full sized original Bubo.  This was a highlight for me.

That’s it- just that one paragraph. All the pictures I took at the museum, which I thought I had posted years ago, were still unshared. I will now correct that oversight.

When I visited the London Film Museum, it was in a section of County Hall, right near Westminster Bridge, close to the London Eye along the Thames River. I have since learned that it moved to a location in Covent Garden in April of 2012- my visit was in July of 2012, so I suspect the museum was still moving, and I saw only a fraction of the entire exhibit. What I did see was pretty dang cool though.

Harry Potter props and costumes- A variety of items were present here, including some costumes, the Tri-Wizard cup, and Harry’s Nimbus 2000.

Star Wars stuff – London is the home of Pinewood Studios, which has been a production facility for most of the Star Wars films. There were a few Star Wars artifacts on hand during my visit. I saw much more at the Star Wars exhibit in Tokyo a few years later.

Alien – They had a sculpture of a Xenomorph and some facehuggers from the Alien franchise.

Doctor Who – A film museum in England would naturally have some Doctor Who items. Not as much as the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, but still- a Tardis and a handful of Daleks were still neat to see.

Superman and Batman – Pinewood has a long history with DC Comics, and there weer a number of Superman and Batman artifacts on hand. First up, some costumes!

Next, we have part of the ship that brought Kal to earth in Superman (1978) and a newspaper from Superman II.

Braveheart, Hellraiser, and various animation – The Dangermouse cardboard stand was my favorite in this part.

The Ray Harryhausen Exhibit – This was my favorite part, to be honest- they had a special exhibit in plae called “Ray Harryhausen: Myths and Legends.” It contained various items from Harryhausen’s stop-motion work, but I was most interested in the Clash of the Titans items, particularly the full-sized Bubo the Owl!

Have you ever been to a film museum? What’s your favorite prop that you’ve seen in person?

17/52