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I Finally Caved and Flew on the 'Worst Airline in America'
I Finally Caved and Flew on the 'Worst Airline in America'
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WAS-TPA DEC 2019:
losing my wings for a 'roomette' on rails
My husband has taught me many things. Among the very most useful lessons is that I meet some definition of "introvert." The teaching moments come when I see him energized by a roomful of people, making smalltalk. Conversely, as I observe him feed off this conviviality, I can feel it draining me. In December 2017, I tested this on my annual winter trek home to Mom in Florida. Rather than flying down from D.C., I opted to take the train, alone in the smallest "sleeper" option, a roomette.
As reported by Sherry Laskin on her CruiseMaven.com site in 2015, some sleeping accommodations were getting cheaper thanks to an experiment: eliminating the dining car. Meals have traditionally been included in sleeper cars (versus coach fares). Minus this perk, fares could be lowered and a roomette from D.C. to Florida no longer seemed an extravagance to me. The solitude, however, is definitely a luxury. After my first test of this new way home, I was amazed at how congenial I was once I arrived in Tampa. After about 20 hours by myself, watching the world roll by, I was downright gregarious, striking up conversations, complimenting strangers, feeling comfortable in crowds. In my case, the effect lasts about three days.
And while overnight trains in other corners of the globe often seem more affordable and more pleasant – see example 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – Amtrak has its charms. There's also a notable environmental component to going by train, versus plane.
AFTER ABOUT 20 HOURS BY MYSELF...
I WAS DOWNRIGHT GREGARIOUS
American infrastructure is definitely automobile and airplane centric for most travel. But if you're thinking about taking a long-haul Amtrak trip, please enjoy a little insight into the experience.
First up was catering. The menu in the Café Car means you'll always have a Plan B. Plus, the attendants in the sleeper cars will head to the Café Car on your behalf. Not that the Café Car menu is included in the fare; just the service. I assume you'll need to work out the payment with the attendant prior, so probably cash. And you'll need to tip the attendant separately, because this is America.
A little extra planning allows me to avoid the Café Car altogether. The foundation is what I bring from home in an insulated bag. I'll want my private "happy hour" to celebrate departure and sunset. With vodka, cranberry juice, and ice, my Cape Cod is complete. Well, minus a lime wedge. I bring my own highball glass, because I'm not a savage. And my bag of ice does double-duty keeping the whole bag cold. Spinach dip, which must be kept cold, and pita chips round out the first course. (I could've gotten by just fine with some mini bottles of vodka, but we had a gift bottle sitting in the liquor cabinet. Besides, it's always best to arrive at Mom's with a little vodka in tow. Just for me, not her.)
I tried preparing a sort of muffuletta for the trip the first two years. I was never happy with the results. Accordingly, for this third trek, I opted to pick up dinner at the station. Of the Union Station options, I reckoned pizza to be the most durable, so that meant Pizzeria Uno. Dinner would be complemented by a bottle of Chenin blanc. Manner hazelnut wafers would cover dessert.
More cranberry juice would make its way to breakfast, along with a bottle of cold coffee, bananas, and madeleines. I knew that if I woke early enough, there'd also be some hot coffee on offer at one end of our Viewliner car. Add to this a couple cans of sparkling water, and I was sitting pretty.
The entire spread just before packing, then packed.
If Step 1 was getting my catering in order, Step 2 was getting myself to Union Station. It's not far from home, just about 1.5 miles, but I'd given myself a generous 30 minutes to get myself, a small roller bag, a tiny duffle bag, my shoulder case, and the insulator bag to the station. The small roller bag I would check, using the small duffle as an overnight bag, and clearing some room in the compact roomette.
The first snag came when the husband asked what time I'd be leaving for the station.
"Enh, like 2:30."
"Isn't your train at 3?"
I then double-checked, saw that he was correct, and that I was late. That was at 2 p.m. In chaotic, comic fashion, I frantically got myself out the door and into a Lyft. I pulled up the Pizzeria Uno site during the traffic-dodging ride and entered an order for dinner. You'll get no photos of the beautiful interior of D.C.'s Union Station, because there was no time! Out of the car, I did a brisk step – about as fast I could walk and keep my little tower of wheeled luggage upright – to the Amtrak counter to check my bag. I waited about five minutes to be told I'd missed the last call for baggage.
"Is the cutoff 30 minutes prior?"
The rules with Amtrak are far more ambiguous than what one might be used to when flying.
Pulling up to Union Station, decked out for the holidays. Looks beautiful inside, too, but you'll have to look elsewhere for that.
With all my bags, still, I then needed to haul myself up one level to grab my pizza and salad. There might've been a nearby elevator, but I knew only of the escalator. Off I scrambled, like a now-sweating and bumbling Gen X Mister Magoo. The order wasn't quite ready, but they were on it.
"Would you like some salt and pepper? Red pepper flakes?"
"YES OK DAMMIT!"
As the time ticked down, my nerves were getting plucked. (Not that I actually raised my voice or used profanity. That was internal dialogue.) I'd never missed a plane due to my own poor time management. Rather, I've always reckoned my Swiss genes have blessed/cursed me with some sort of loud, cerebral clock that usually has me early, on time at worst. Wonderland's March Hare's got nuthin' on me.
Back downstairs and to the track! The door to Track 26 – Gate K? – was being shared by people heading to New York on Amtrak's Northeast Regional. So I arrived to find crowds of people, lined up, but not moving. From about 30 feet, an attendant called out to me to ask what I was looking for. "Silver Star!" He motioned me forward and had me stand in place, alone. Again, this is all much different than flying. Simply standing, at least, gave me a chance to cool down. Within minutes, a few others had been corralled behind me. Based on the smalltalk, we were all confused. But trusting.
Checking the train online, I could see it was on time, so we'd have to be heading down shortly. And we were. Doors open, shouts of "Silver Star!" are made. It's a rustic operation. Another escalator, and I was finally at Track 26. With another long walk in front of me. Were I more Amtrak savvy, I would've tipped a porter to bring everything to the train. I am not. I am, however, cheap. I hauled my luggage down the long platform and finally up into my train car, and through the narrow hall running the length of the sleeper until, finally, Roomette No. 5!
As I arrived at the door of my car, I turned to see how far I'd come. You see the station in the background. That far. That's how far I'd come. With even a couple minutes to spare!
As you can imagine, dragging all the baggage, rushing, getting from there to here, left me spent. So, moving forward, photos can do the heavy lifting for most of this trip report. I'm tired!
One seat to the left, including my dinner, and one seat to the right. These facing seats become a lower berth. Please note the toggle for the window vent, the matching blue curtains, and the built-in cup holders. In the event of an electromagnetic pulse, I doubt there's much that would go awry in a Viewliner of this era. Which era is that? I've no idea. But I imagine anyone transported out of 1980 and into a roomette wouldn't find much out of the ordinary.
Opposite the giant picture window is the door to the hall. It's also made of windows, but I keep those curtains closed at all times. Notice there's a little area for hanging coats and whatnot. The suitcase is sitting on a mauve step that lifts up to reveal the toilet. The little mauve panel pulls down to reveal a sink. The towels, pillows, and water bottles await passengers in sleepers. The shiny plastic ceiling is the bottom of the upper bed. It slides down to rest adjacent the bottom of the upper window. A roomette is like a Wonkavator married a Rubik's Cube.
A ROOMETTE IS LIKE A WONKAVATOR
MARRIED A RUBIK'S CUBE
Heading south, much of the D.C. departure is underground. But not all! You'll see plenty, particularly once you get to the Potomac. Good-bye, Smithsonian Castle! Good-bye, George and Thomas!
It takes a little while to pick up steam. Right out of D.C., first stop Alexandria!
By the time we crossed the Beltway perimeter/Springfield, Va., I was settled in and enjoying my perfect sunset happy hour on the fold-out table between the seats. (Spot the checkerboard pattern? Open the table wings and you've got a checkers/chess game board.) Also the perfect time to text childhood Mike to alert him I am passing through and to advise that the train no longer gets too close to Springfield, where we played on train tracks, decades prior. It's like the most 'boyish' childhood thing we did. Aside from comic books.
A couple hours in, we make a brief stop at Richmond's suburban sad-shack Amtrak station. Unfortunately, the Silver Star doesn't pass through Richmond's landmark downtown Main Street Station. There are, however, plenty of little Main Streets along the way. Pictured is the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, N.C. The theater sits on this cute town's Broad Street, to be precise.
Look, Ma! The step's a toilet! I wasn't kidding. I'll give you just this one glimpse, as it's kind of gross. I've read new Viewliners will not continue this feature in roomettes. The current iteration offers no alternative. While Superliners include a separate bathroom, Viewliners have only a shower room. If you want an actual toilet room, you'll need to pass through the Café Car and into a Coach car. At least, that's how the attendant explained it to me. (PointsWithACrew.com lays out the differences masterfully!) Transformed back into a step, getting 'upstairs' is easy.
Welcome upstairs! You'll see that I've got plenty of pillows for my little bed. Those track-looking things at either end are what make it so easy to pull the bed down, or slide it back up. At about 5-feet, 9-inches tall, there's still adequate space between my feet and the wall. Also upstairs is this storage cubby I always forget about. I believe it's designed to hold the bedding, but I've usually found the bedding squished between the top bunk and the ceiling. It's a perfect place to get stuff off the floor. Which I would've, had I not again forgotten about it till I was up in bed.
This is the more practical portion of the loft tour. Either you or the attendant will need to attach your safety-net straps to the ceiling. It might take you 15 minutes your first try, but once you've gotten the hang of it, you're golden. I've never been shaken so hard that I would've fallen out of the bed, but it could happen. Attach those straps! There's a small storage bag upstairs. There's also some sort of vent plate. In Roomette No. 5, it seemed to be secured with two types of tape. It also rattled loudly. A single, craftily folded business card wedged in the right spot took care of that.
Made it through the night! And what a lovely view to wake up to! It was about 8 a.m. and we were rolling through North Florida. Hours still to go.
The fold-down sink finally gets its closeup! Check out those beautiful jewel lights! The only problem with my morning sponge-bath was the water pressure. The slightest tap sent water spraying everywhere. But I managed. As for the ice water? No, I never tried it. It reminded me too much of airplane water, and I don't drink that either unless they give me a can/bottle.
After flattening my hair, brushing my teeth, and the rest, I walked to the rear of the car for hot coffee. I also took a peek into the shower room adjacent the coffee stand. I expected to see a toilet in here, too, as was the case on the Superliner I took to Chicago years ago. As mentioned prior, nope, just a shower. Having been the baby of the family, road trips forced me to evolve into a sort of 'toilet camel.' Because nobody's stopping just for little Billy to use the potty. For this reason, the package of 'Personal Tissue' remained unopened. But it looked downright Soviet. I suggest bringing something a little less Spartan along for the ride.
The final bit of housekeeping just before arrival is the tip. Because America. There are no specific guidelines of which I am aware, but $10 seemed appropriate. Had I actually asked for any services, like preparing the top bunk, I may have tipped a bit more. Regardless, it is an unspoken expectation. Unlike flying, Amtrak is definitely still a gratuity culture.
Right on time, about 20 hours after departing D.C., we arrived at the beautifully restored Tampa Union Station in Ybor City. Hey, Magic Mike!
Flying is faster. Relative to purchasing some kind of sleeper accommodation, flying (in economy) is cheaper. Still, my annual roomette trek to Florida for the holidays is a highlight of my year. The trip truly delights me. I may be partial to planes, but there is no denying the rails' romantic pull. And my introvert sensibilities are all the more soothed knowing this solitary reboot includes a picture window to keep an eye on the world as my train rolls through it. I'm only hearty enough to do this one-way, opting to fly the return leg. But for anyone looking for a little time away, perhaps even one with a tinier carbon footprint, 20 hours or so by train in an Amtrak sleeper is a wonderful, unique escape. As they say in Portland, Ore., Go-By-Train! At least once in a while.
(p.s. Shortly after posting, I was asked about how comfortable it might be to have two in a roomette. If it's just a daytime trip, I'd say it's more comfortable than coach seating. If the berths are coming down, it might get tight. I'd recommend a 300 lbs. rule. On an overnight trip, a roomette could comfortably accommodate up to 300 lbs. That limit could be met by one person or two. More than 300 lbs. and I'd suggest a bedroom. The pricing is certainly better with two, obviously! Every passenger pays a base fare. The add-on for accommodation, at least on my trip, would be the same whether there were two people in the roomette or one.)