From The Observer News (www.observernews.net)

Features and Series
Around America: Adventures In Last-Minute Travel
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
May 10, 2007, 13:10

Introduction to a series


TAMPA – It almost seems like an optical illusion.  On certain days, driving up Causeway Boulevard towards the Crosstown Expressway, a large Carnival cruise ship appears to be parked among the towers of downtown Tampa.  From that vantage point, you can’t see the water, and the ship itself blends in so well it could very well be condominiums.

To me, it looks like a dream – and seeing it causes my imagination to run wild.  In my mind, I picture myself being diverted from whatever appointment I have to drive to the cruise terminal.  Once there, I slap a credit card on the counter and, with a big, fixed grin on my face, I tell a ticket agent, with insane resolve, “I’d like a cabin, please!”

Seeing the ship is like seeing the very embodiment of freedom and adventure.  That it is so close to home means that a spontaneous escape awaits just down the road.  If a day or week is going badly, I dream that I can simply sail away.


But like my take on the view from the roadway, that spontaneous escape will remain nothing but a dream.  In all likelihood, as I stood grinning at the cruise agent, I would be told, “Sorry, the ship’s full.”


Unfortunately, reality often has a way of ruining a good dream.  I learned that the hard way as I planned a series of stories centered on making last-minute travel plans.

Clearly, I’m not the only one taken in by the lure of cruise ships.  Dozens of people responded to an article I wrote last month about a Caribbean cruise – all with their own stories.  Some wrote to say they had booked their own cruise based on my adventure.

So, with the thought of kicking off a pre-summer travel series, I decided to take another cruise – this time more as an observer than a participant – with the goal of providing you with ideas for an escape of your own, or to provide an opportunity to travel vicariously for those unable to simply take off.


And that’s when I was slapped by reality.  There are dozens of cruises sailing out of ports all around the country during the month of May.  Almost all of them are fully booked – and have been for weeks.  And the few with cabins still available commanded a price that went well beyond the small budget I had set.  By the time I was ready to give up, I had spent two weeks poring over information about cruises departing Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Port Canaveral, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and, of course, Tampa.  All together, tens of thousands of people had beaten me to the punch.  The ships were full and would be sailing without me.


It appeared there would be no spontaneous escape to the sea.


Can you find the Carnival cruise ship in this picture? This view from Causeway Boulevard makes it appear as though it is parked among the towers of downtown Tampa. From my point of view, it looks like a dream. Mitch Traphagen Photo
But I still wanted to find something different, something a little unusual for your entertainment and information – so I shifted my sights to land-based adventures.


There is only one Auto Train in the nation and it runs daily between Florida and Virginia.  At the Sanford station near Orlando, you simply drive up and get on the train.  Less than 20 hours later, you arrive in Virginia, a short distance from Washington, D.C., and simply wait for your car to be unloaded.  Aboard the Auto Train you can endure the night in a coach seat or have the cozy privacy of a “roomette” in which the seats fold down into a bed (complete with turn down service and a morning newspaper) or enjoy the luxury of a full cabin with your own bathroom and shower.


The train, with an aura of nostalgia, romance and adventure, appeared to be perfect.  Apparently, other people thought so too, because, like the cruise ships, it was booked well in advance.  Yes, coach seats were available, but I’m about 25 years past being willing to spend a night sleeping with people I haven’t met.


During the weeks of research, I learned that as the date of departure nears, cruise lines will offer last-minute sales on any remaining cabins – but you must be ready to act immediately to get ahead of thousands of people who are also waiting and poised to buy.  Several times, I found a great price on a cabin and paused momentarily with indecision – which was long enough to lose out.  Literally, within minutes other travelers swooped in and the sale was over – the cabins were gone.


But Amtrak doesn’t appear to use that strategy.  The month of May is a peak time for the northbound run of the Auto Train.  If you hope to travel at the last minute, assuming you can even get a ticket, you are going to pay dearly for it.  The prices are often double, or more.


The final straw in my train travel plans came when I found accommodations available exactly on the day I had hoped to depart.  I chose the cabin and added arrangements for my car and clicked on the button that would total the price.  It came to $1,025.  If I’m going to spend more than a thousand bucks for a single night, I better get a foot massage or have a personal staff willing to physically carry me around the train.  Since Amtrak’s Web site promised neither, I decided to pass.


That said, however, the Auto Train does provide an excellent value for families or couples.  It allows an avenue of escape from the madness of I-95 or from the cost and hassle of air travel.  Best of all, when you arrive, you can take off in your own car.  Just don’t expect to go at the last minute during peak season.  If I was willing to wait a few weeks, I could have purchased the same accommodations for just over $300.


But for the purposes of the story, that wouldn’t work – so scratch the Auto Train from the list.


I have long since lost my love of air travel.  Something that formerly would cause my heart to soar along with the airplane has now become an event filled with dread.  For me, there is nothing fun, easy or spontaneous about flying.


Even so, I thought back to my youth. There was a time when I dreamed of flying into the town of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories.  I had always wanted to see what life on the very edge of civilization looked like – and to be able to gaze out into the vast wilderness of the Arctic.  Time, however, had brought changes to Yellowknife.  It’s still on the very edge of the Arctic wilderness, but in the years since my youth, oil and diamonds have been discovered in the area.  Today, it is a modern city with multistory buildings and the second busiest airport in Canada.  The adventure seems somehow less... well, adventuresome than it once did.


So, scratch air travel as well.


An open road and an old Porsche seemed to be the ingredients for a perfect travel adventure – until I considered the high cost of fuel. Mitch Traphagen Photo
At that point, I pulled out my well-worn atlas of the U.S. and thought about an adventure with my trusty old Porsche on a road trip into the nation’s heartland.  Reality was quick to descend upon me this time.  Rising gas prices and the Porsche’s thirst for premium fuel put the kibosh on that idea.


Taking a road trip on my motorcycle was also a possibility I briefly entertained.  Driving carefully, I could get nearly 50 miles to the gallon.  I quickly realized that could be useful should I have to flee from one of the tornadoes that seem hell-bent on causing misery and woe in the Midwest.  I’m all for adventure, but I have my limits.  Attempting to outrun a tornado on a motorcycle is just not something I’m willing to do.


Just as I was beginning to conclude that spontaneous travel was a thing of the past, I received an e-mail from Martha Bier of K and B Travel.  I replied to her in a whining tone about how the adventure is gone from travel.  A few minutes later, another e-mail arrived – in which she casually wrote, “Well, how about this…”


Her suggestion provided a single component of what would become an adventure of 9,500 miles crisscrossing the nation.  Within a few hours, all the other parts fell into place.  I leave in just a few days.


Best of all, the adventure is on a realistic budget and is something that you could do – should the day come when you need a last minute escape from reality.


But wait a minute… if I don’t like air travel, why do I have an airplane ticket in my hand?  And why are six more tickets sitting on my desk?


Stay tuned – it’s all part of the adventure.


The series Around America will begin on May 24.  If you’d like to travel along (in a virtual sense) and receive occasional updates and observations beyond what will appear in print, e-mail your request to ridealong@observernews.net.  Your address is safe - we would never share your information with anyone.



© Copyright 2006 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing