We’re zipping along I-95 as I write this, near the Virginia/North Carolina border I think. My wife, Robin, is reading a book. My name’s Lance.
To be clear, I am not at the wheel, although I have driven this route between the Northeast US and Florida many times. No, we’re not in a driverless vehicle.
Actually, we’re along-SIDE I-95, comfortably situated in Amtrak’s Auto Train.
Vehicles on the interstate, when we can see them from the big window of our sleeper car, seem to be moving well enough. Surely, though, there’s a 10-mile backup ahead. There always was when I drove it.
Not long after our train left the Lorton Station, this is our view from the right side of the train as it speeds along the James River near Richmond, VA. Some of the views include heavily forested areas, small towns, big cities, back yards, and bridges across rivers.
I gave up on long-distance hauls, which seemed fun way back when in the pre-back/butt/neck-ache era. We’ve taken the Auto Train a half-dozen times and we’ll always choose it.
Retirement for me came a little earlier than I expected. The company where I worked in Pennsylvania offered accelerated exits to longtime employees because of the pandemic. After a quarter of a century there and several important-sounding titles, including vice president, I took the offer.
Robin and I are in our early 60s, and not ready to entirely call it quits. She’s part of the gig economy, helping to shepherd new museums into existence with writing and researching. The great thing is, all of her work is online and via phone.
I’ll be helping her when possible, but I’d really like to play more golf if you want to know the truth. I also like to dabble in carpentry, having outfitted our Pennsylvania home with built-in bookcases, benches, shelving, and the like.
But first, travel.
After much debate about whether to hold onto the Pennsylvania home or sell, we sold—in a seller’s market happily enough. In a rare fit of prescience, we bought a second home in Florida several years ago during a buyer’s market. It’s been rented out since then. Our renter’s lease ends about a year from now, so that leaves us without a home base for the time being.
Fortune smiled on us again, as our daughter gave us a car—a snazzy Audi convertible—for our 40th anniversary this past spring. We sold our 11-year-old Ford F-150. Our Audi is somewhere behind us as I write this, along with dozens of other vehicles belonging to our fellow train passengers.
It’s the “auto” in Auto Train that we like the most. Taking the train is fun, and even romantic. We jammed our little Audi with about 200 pounds of luggage—another advantage over flying. Amtrak doesn’t care how much stuff we put in the car.
For this trip, we got a full-size Bedroom in a Sleeper Car. This is one of the seats in our room, offering a great view of the passing countryside. A sofa-like seat is on the other side, which converts into a bunk bed. The lower berth has more room. Other offerings include a Roomette (smaller than the Bedroom, also with a big window, but with shared bathroom facilities), a Family Bedroom (for up to four people), and Coach Class.
But, not having to deal with the craziness of I-95 is the best.
If driving, we would have stayed at least one night in a hotel, and put a thousand miles or so on our car. If flying, we would have gotten there sooner, but then we’d have to rent a car. Neither of those options results in having good food, and both involve tons of stress.
All in, the Auto Train is a bit more expensive than driving or flying. But it’s worth it.
Here’s why: At the moment, I am sipping a nice Sauvignon Blanc we picked up at Food Lion before boarding the train, which is zipping along at about 65 mph. They definitely frown on that while driving, by the way.
This is me in the Dining Car. Before boarding, you’ll be asked when you prefer to have dinner. Because of the pandemic, and probably for the foreseeable future, they also ask if you want to have your dinner in the Dining Car, or if you’d prefer to have it delivered to your room. Dinner is included in the price for those in the Sleeper Cars. There’s also a lounge car for snacks and drinks of all kinds, but remember, you can bring your own food and drinks on board (including a bottle of wine, if you are so inclined).
Food in airports and on road trips is problematic for people like us, who try to stick to Keto, more or less. The complementary meal we had an hour ago was not great, but still pretty good—far better than anything we might have gotten on the road, or in an airport. We brought along healthy snacks—to complement the white wine of course.
So the plan is to be “Hobos in an Audi” for a while, staying at Airbnbs and taking our time to see some of the things we always wanted to see when we didn’t have the time, or the money, to see them. (Note: We’re not wealthy by any means, but we have a nest egg, our children don’t need our money, and we’re frugal travelers.)
This first trip of my semi-retirement is to visit our daughter in Miami. She’s getting married at Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West later in the month, so that will be amazing.
I’ll update this blog as our adventure continues, with details to come on our Key West visit, but here are some of the longer-range plans…
We have booked two trips to Europe, the first in December aboard the Queen Mary 2—a bucket list item for both of us for many years. We plan to stay at least a month in London.
After returning to the States, we’ll head back to Europe in April 2022 on a Royal Caribbean ship, where we’ll visit Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Then we’ll maybe bop around Europe for a month or two before returning.
Hopefully, the world will be back to something resembling normal, pandemic-wise, and we won’t have any major issues. Either way, we’ll keep you informed.
Until next time, safe travels. We’ve crossed into North Carolina, by the way.
How do you embrace the FIRE (Financial Independence and Early Retirement) lifestyle while addressing financial risks? One solution: semi-retire and travel the world. Let's look at how to get there in this comprehensive guide!
Want to read more? Check out our guide for the 10 best semi-retirement jobs!
Robin, at the Lorton, Va., train station waiting room, points out the spiffy art deco advertisement for the Auto Train. It’s a unique line for Amtrak, running between Lorton (near Washington, DC) and the Orlando suburb of Sanford, FL, once each day, each way. When you arrive at the station, a number is magnetically applied to your vehicle, and your wheels are whisked away until your 855-mile journey ends. Larger vehicles cost more on the Auto Train, but most sizes up to a standard pickup truck will travel for the normal rate.
Here is a view of the bathroom in our Bedroom accommodation. It’s small for sure, but it’s also private, unlike the Roomette and Coach Class offerings. The trip takes about 17 hours, with one short stop in South Carolina around midnight, but if you want a shower, this bathroom has one. It’s similar to a “wet bath” on an RV.
After dinner, your car’s attendant will turn down the beds, which include linens, pillows, and blankets. The lower berth is a bit larger, and the upper berth requires a trip up a ladder — as well as a little contortion. But it’s fine for just one night, in my opinion. Again, having a private bathroom is nice, particularly for nighttime visits. In the morning, your attendant re-converts your room to the daytime layout.
This is the corridor between the Bedroom entrances and the windows on the outside of the train. It’s probably a good thing the aisles are narrow, since the train always seems to jostle a little when you are walking here. The aisles also make it interesting when people are coming the other way, but there’s room at either end, so this is not a big problem.
This is our train upon arrival in Sanford. If your Attendant has been … well, attentive, it’s customary to tip them, but not required. On our trips, we have found most of them to be friendly and helpful. The fare, and the fee for a vehicle, can vary depending on the season — basic supply and demand. You can count on the fees being higher, generally, around the time “snowbirds” are heading north (in the spring) or south (in the fall).
After de-training, you’ll wait in a holding area until your vehicle is off-loaded. This one is in Sanford, but the Lorton Station looks about the same. You can take your chances on having to wait up to 90 minutes or more for them to call out your vehicle’s number, or you can pay extra for priority off-loading. In that case, your vehicle is among the first to be off-loaded, and the wait is only 10 minutes or so.
About the Author
Lance Van Auken retired in 2020 from Little League Baseball and Softball in Williamsport, PA, where he served as Vice President. While at Little League, he was liaison to The White House during President George W. Bush’s Tee Ball on the South Lawn initiative. As spokesman for Little League, he has been interviewed on the Today Show, Good Morning America, ESPN, MSNBC, PBS, and in hundreds of newspapers. Lance also served for 12 years in the U.S. Army Reserve as a Military Policeman and Journalist. He now enjoys traveling with his wife, Robin, and writing about it. Oh, and golf. He likes golf, but isn’t very good at it.
Featured image courtesy of Joseph W. Smith III.