It was 11am at the Fort Lauderdale airport, an hour after my non-stop flight to Portland was supposed to have boarded. As I had been watching our estimated departure get pushed back in 15 minute increments, I finally received the dreaded news over the loudspeaker - the flight was cancelled entirely. As hordes of people started lining up to rebook their flights with the gate agent, I found a quiet spot in the corner and opened up my laptop to look at my options.
The other Alaska Airlines flight options were pretty terrible. There was a Fort Lauderdale to Seattle to Portland option that would have me landing at midnight. A flight on a partner airline had a 1-hour connection through Dallas, and there were only middle seats available on both legs. So I started to get creative, and searched for flights from Orlando, about 200 miles north. There was a non-stop on Alaska Airlines at 7pm, with plenty of available seats, so I called up customer service and asked them to change my booking. Since the delay was their fault, there were no change fees even though the flight was leaving from a different airport.
So now it was my responsibility to get myself from Miami to Orlando by 7pm. I could have booked a flight on a budget airline for $150, but it wouldn't have been a very nice experience, and I'd have a lot of time to kill in the Orlando airport. Then I remembered the Brightline train recently opened new service from Miami to Orlando, supposedly taking less time than driving there.
Brightline Station Fort Lauderdale
Never having tried to take that train before, I didn't realize they run a shuttle service from the Fort Lauderdale airport to the train station, so I jumped in an Uber headed to the station. On the way there, I booked a ticket on my phone. The price from Miami to Orlando was $144 for Coach, or $229 for Premium class. Since this will probably be the only time I take this train for the foreseeable future, I splurged for the Premium class ticket to see what that experience is like.
Astute readers will have noticed that I mentioned I booked a ticket from Miami rather than Fort Lauderdale. We'll come back to that in a bit. Once I arrived at the station, I began my Brightline experience.
Walking in to the station felt like something between an airport and a car rental center.
There was a small ticket counter in the lobby, but I already had a ticket on my phone so I went up the escalators.
At the top of the escalators was an electronic gate where you scan your QR code to go through. Mine didn't work (again, more on that later), but it was relatively empty and a staff member was able to look at my ticket on my phone and let me through anyway. There was a small X-Ray machine, I tossed my roller bag and backpack onto the belt, but kept my phone and wallet in my pocket, and walked through the security checkpoint.
Once through the minimal security checkpoint, I was up in the waiting area above the platform with a variety of different sections. There was a small bar with drinks and snacks, a couple large seating areas, an automated mini mart, some tall tables...
... and the entrance to the Premium lounge.
Brightline Station Premium Lounge
The Premium Lounge entrance had another electronic gate with a QR code scanner. I tried getting in but it also rejected my boarding pass. My first thought was I booked my ticket just 10 minutes earlier so it hadn't synced up yet, so I went back to the the security checkpoint and asked what was wrong. They looked at my boarding pass and had no idea what was wrong, and let me in to the lounge via the back employee-only entrance instead.
Once inside the lounge, I did a quick loop to see what kind of food and drink options there were. The lounge was entirely un-attended, the only staff I saw were at the security checkpoint, and someone occasionally coming through to take out dirty dishes.
The first thing you're presented with after entering the lounge is the beverage station. There are 6 taps with beer and wine, and you use a touch screen to make your selection and pour what you want.
On the other side of the wall is the food. I arrived at the tail end of the breakfast service, so there were pretty slim pickings by the end.
There were yogurts, granola, a bowl of bacon and egg mix, several kinds of pastries, and a bowl of fruit that nobody seemed to have touched. I don't know if this was just because this was the end of the morning, but if you were vegan or gluten free there was really nothing you could eat there.
There was also a coffee and tea station with some minimal options.
Shortly after I arrived, it rolled over to lunch time, so the staff came out to swap out the food at the food station. The lunch options were also minimal, but there was a bit more selection.
There was a good size meat and cheese spread. I'm not a big fan of when they mix the meat and cheese on the same plate, but there was enough of a cheese island in the middle I was reasonably confident I wasn't eating meat juice off the side of the cheeses. The pasta dish also had meat so I didn't investigate further. Two of the three wraps had meat and I wasn't confident about which were which so I skipped those. There was a pretty good spinach and feta salad, and some hummus as well as artichoke dip, and a variety of crackers. If you like desserts, there was an even better selection of small desserts as well.
At this point I was starting to listen for my train's boarding announcement. There was really barely any staff visible anywhere, but the few people I saw had made it clear they would clearly announce the train over the loudspeakers when it was time. There was also a sign at the escalators to the platform that said boarding opens 10 minutes before the train departs.
The trains run northbound and southbound every 1-2 hours, so it's likely that you'll only hear one announcement for a train other than yours the entire time you're there.
The one train announcement I heard was a good demonstration of how quickly the whole process actually is once the train shows up. The train pulls up, they call everyone down to the platform, and you have ten minutes to get onto the train. Ten minutes isn't much, but you're sitting literally right on top of the train platform so it takes no time to get down there.
Once your train is called, it's time to head down the escalator to the train platform!
Boarding the Train
But wait, I mentioned my barcode had failed to be scanned a couple times at this point. Let me explain. Apparently, in my haste in the back of the Uber, I had actually booked a ticket from Miami to Orlando, but since I was already at the Fort Lauderdale airport, I had gone to the Fort Lauderdale Brightline station since it was the closest. So the departure time I saw on my ticket didn't match the time the train arrived at Fort Lauderdale, and the ticket gates refused to let me in because the ticket didn't depart from that station. I don't know why none of the employees who looked at my ticket mentioned this ever. It didn't end up being a big deal because thankfully Miami was earlier in the route, so I essentially just got on my scheduled train 2 stops late.
So anyway, I made my way down to the platform to board the train. I should also mention at this point that I was on a conference call from my phone. I had previously connected my phone to the free wifi at the station, and it was plenty good enough for the call. As I went down the escalator to the platform, it broke up a bit in the middle of the escalator, but picked back up once I was on the platform outside.
There were some signs on the platform to indicate "Coach 1", "Coach 2" and "Coach 3" cars. However my ticket was a "Premium" ticket, so I walked to where I assumed the front of the train would be when it pulled up.
I got on the train on the front car marked "SMART" and "3", seats 9-17. It wasn't clear what "SMART" was since I didn't see that option when booking online. My seat was seat 9A, so I wasn't entirely sure I was in the right spot, but I figured better to be on the train than on the platform, so I just went in. We started moving shortly after. As soon as I walked in, I had to walk past the train attendant pushing a beverage cart through the aisles. I made it to seat 9, but it was occupied. I asked the attendant where my seat was, and she said it was in car 1 at the "front", and motioned to the back of the train. I don't know why their cars are in the opposite order you'd expect. So I took my bags back to car 1 where I was finally greeted with the "Premium" sign I was looking for.
I was quickly able to find my seat, which was not in fact occupied. The Premium car was configured with 2 seats on one side and 1 seat on the other side.
The Brightline Premium Car
Some of the seats are configured to face each other, so there is a nice variety of seating options. You could all be sitting around a table if you booked a ticket for 4 people, or you could book 2 tickets and sit either next to each other or across from each other.
Since I had booked my ticket so last minute, I had basically the last available seat in the car so I was sitting next to someone. As soon as I sat down, the beverage cart came by with drinks. The cart looked like the same type you'd find on an airplane, and even had some identical warning stickers on it such as the "must be secured for takeoff and landing" sign. The drink options were also similar to what you'd get on a Premium Economy flight service. I opted for a glass of prosecco, and made myself comfortable.
The tray table at the seat had two configurations. You could either drop down a small flap or the whole tray.
The small tray was big enough to hold a drink or an iPad or phone, but not much else. The large tray was big enough for my laptop with a drink next to it as well as an empty glass or bottle behind it.
Under the seat there was a single power outlet for the 2 seats with 120v power as well as two USB-C ports.
Shortly after I had settled in, the crew came back with a snack tray and handed me these four snacks without really giving me the option of refusing any of them.
At this point I wasn't really hungry since I had just eaten at the airport, so I stuffed the snacks in my bag, except for the prosciutto, which I offered to my seat mate but he refused.
By this point we were well on our way to the Boca Raton stop. A few people got off and on there, and we continued on. I should add here that I always feel a bit unsettled when there is that much movement of people getting on and off all the time. These stops were about 20-30 minutes away from each other, which meant the beginning of the ride I never really felt completely settled in. This is the same reason I prefer a 6 hour flight over two 3 hour flights. I like to be able to settle in and just not think about anything until we arrive.
We finally left the last of the South Florida stops, West Palm Beach, and started the rest of the trip to Orlando. A bunch of people got off at West Palm Beach, enough that the Premium cabin was nearly empty at that point. I was able to move to the seat across the aisle which was a window/aisle seat all to myself!
Finally I could settle in for the long haul. Shortly before 3, the crew came by with the lunch cart. The options were either a vegetarian or non-vegetarian option, so that made the choice easy for me.
The vegetarian option was a tomato basil mozzarella sandwich, a side of fruit salad, and some vegetables with hummus. The hummus was surprisingly good, not like the little plastic tubs you get at the airport. The sandwich was okay, but did have a nice pesto spread on it.
After lunch, I opened up my computer to start writing this post and worked on it for most of the rest of the trip.
As the train started making a left turn to head west, the conductor came on the loudspeaker and made an announcement along the lines of "we're about to head west onto the newest tracks that have been built in the US in 100 years. We'll be reaching 120 miles per hour, so feel free to feel smug as we whiz by the cars on the highway." And sure enough, we really picked up the speed on that stretch! While we had reached 100-120mph briefly during the trip north, that last stretch was a solid 120mph sustained for about 20 minutes!
We finally slowed down and pulled into the Orlando station at the airport.
Disembarking the train was simple enough. This was the last stop of the train so there wasn't quite as much of a rush to get off before the train started again. There's no need to mind the gap as you get off since there's a little platform that extends from the train car.
At the Orlando station there was a short escalator up and then you exit through the automated gates.
I assumed I would have to scan my ticket when exiting but that ended up not being the case. Which actually meant that the only time my ticket was ever checked was when entering the station. I never saw anyone come through to check tickets on the train.
At this point I was already in the airport, and it was a short walk around the corner to the tram that goes directly to the airport security checkpoint.
The whole trip took 176 minutes for 210 miles, which is an average speed of 71 miles per hour. When moving, we were typically moving at anywhere from 80-120 miles per hour.
- The whole experience was way nicer than an airplane, I would take this over a short flight from Miami to Orlando any day.
- It felt similar to a European train, but with service closer to an airline.
- The service needs to be better timed with the stops when people are boarding.
- The only ticket check was when entering the station, nobody came to check my ticket or seat on the train, or even when I left the destination station.
- While the Premium car food and drinks were free, I'm not sure it was worth the $85 extra ticket price over just buying the food you want.
- Unfortunately the ticket cost was similar to that of budget airlines, I would have preferred the cost to be slightly lower. But even still, I would definitely take this train over a budget airline at the same cost.
We need more high speed trains in the US! I go from Portland to Seattle often enough that a train running every 90 minutes that was faster than a car and easier and more comfortable than an airplane would be so nice!