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June 9th, 2019

Maybe They Could Just Call It Traffic Hell Instead Of Baltimore-Washington

I really wanted to do the road trip thing later this month when I go down to Walt Disney World for the Disney Villains After Hours party at Magic Kingdom. I really did. But once again the traffic nightmare that is the Baltimore-Washington Beltways made me look at taking the train again.

Problem is, these ad hoc Disney trips are out of budget and I need to keep my expenses as low as possible. And overnight train fare can be expensive if you get a room. I am not doing overnight in coach. The annual pass means I don’t have to pay for park tickets or parking. So there’s that. And I got a very sweet deal on a hotel within walking distance to Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney and Pleasure Island…). I figured if I took my car down I’d just have to buy fuel, food and motel rooms. Low budget road trip travel tests my willingness to avail myself of low budget motel rooms for the night, but I can deal with it if I must. Time was a trip down to Orlando would cost me two nights in a motel…one night there and one night back, a tank and a quarter each way, plus road snacks and dinner before bed. The biggest expense is always the motel rooms. 2-250 about for the round trip. Cost of fuel varies, but it’s never more than 120 round trip. On the flat coastal plains if I don’t drive with a heavy foot, Spirit, my Mercedes, gets in the low forties mpg. So maybe $400 for the round trip if I drive it myself.

But the traffic nightmare throws a wrench into all of this, and every year it gets a little worse, a little more hellish than I thought possible. When I started going down to Walt Disney World and Key West, starting back in 2007, I could do it with just one motel stop for the night on the way down, and just drive all the way home on the way back. Now, unless I’m willing to leave at 3 in the morning…which I’m not…getting around both beltways and to Richmond can take as long as four hours…five or more if there’s an accident or two. Or three. My alternative is a bridge that scares the hell out of me. It’s taking rt 301 through Waldorf and La Plata and cross the Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge, also known as the Potomac River Bridge. Just look at this goddamned thing…

That’s two way traffic, one lane each way. Hell no. And even going this way is its own traffic nightmare anyway, what with all the traffic and traffic lights going through Waldorf and La Plata just to get to it, although once across the Potomac River it is actually a very nice drive. But that bridge. That bridge almost has as much No going for it as the Bay Bridge..

So the time delay built into getting past the traffic nightmare means that nowadays I usually have to stop for the night twice in each direction, which doubles the motel cost, and adds to the food costs. That’s what makes a train ticket, even with the added cost of getting a roomette, comparable. It’s about 6-700 bucks for the round trip if I do it all on the Silver Meteor, which has a dining car. About 200 bucks less if I do it all on the Silver Star which does not. (The difference for sleeper car passengers is your meals in the dining car are included, so on the train without one you get a discount). This is do-able. When the money’s there.

But the fly in the ointment here is the cost of renting a car when I get there. I could probably get by with a taxi or Lift to and from the hotel, and then take advantage of the Disney Parks busses. But I have no patience and waiting in the hot Florida sun for a bus isn’t my idea of a good time.  Plus, you do your own grocery shopping for breakfast and lunch and you save money for the nice places to eat dinner. So I want a car while I’m there.

I did the math and really didn’t want to have to spend that money. So taking the car seemed the best bet. If I could just do it…somehow…and avoid the two beltways traffic nightmare.

I have looked at all sorts of other routes down to Richmond from Baltimore and none of them really offer any advantages. You get off the Interstates and onto the secondary roads and highways and there is lots of local traffic to deal with, plus the added fun of all the traffic lights and uncontrolled intersections. So yesterday I decided to try an insane experiment: Baltimore to Richmond by way of Hagerstown.

Hear me out…I get on the Baltimore beltway and take I-70 west to Hagerstown. Then I pick up I-81 south. That’s the route I used to take to visit mom down in Hillsville and I know it well. Plus, when I’m going west and it’s too cold and snowy to take I-70 all the way I take I-81 to I-40 in Tennessee. So I know that stretch of I-81 through Virginia like the back of my hand. It’s very familiar territory. But this time instead, when I get to Staunton I take I-64 back east to Richmond, then get back on I-95 going south. Coming back hitting the Baltimore beltway where it connects to I-70 gets me past nearly all the bad traffic and it’s just a short hop to I-83 and home, which would be a Much better way to end a vacation. 

Yes…it’s Waaaay out of the way. But my theory was if I could just keep moving and not get stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for hours the time difference might not be too much. And I could at least get past Richmond and not be all stressed out from traffic.

So yesterday morning I gave it a shot. Bright and early Spirit and I set out to see if this crazy detour around the two beltways might be a workable solution. I had a secondary motive in mind as well. I’ve not done a really big road trip in a while because I’ve been loving the train a lot. So I wanted to get myself re-acquainted with the road and its culture.

I settled back into it pretty nicely. And the journey was almost completely free of heavy traffic. But by the time I got to Richmond I was deciding against it. Yes the drive was lovely, but it was a couple hundred miles more than just taking a straight shot. Time-wise it was four and a half hours from Baltimore to Richmond, not counting the detour I took for fuel that morning.

But this was Saturday morning, and so I’m turning back north from Richmond and thinking to myself, let’s compare travel times now and see what it looks like. It’s Saturday, so the worst of it from Fredericksburg to the Mixing Bowl shouldn’t be that bad, and I can get a baseline of travel times based on ideal traffic conditions.

Hahahahahahaha… No.

It was gawd awful bumper to bumper almost all the way back to Baltimore. And I’m sitting there in atrociously heavy traffic on a Saturday afternoon thinking…what the hell…if this is Saturday I don’t even want to know what business hours are like here anymore.

It took me four and a half hours to get to Richmond, and three and a half hours to get from Richmond back to Baltimore. And it was ugly the whole way back. So now I’m thinking the crazy detour is viable after all. I’m not losing more than an hour of travel time going that way and it’s a nice relaxing drive the way these road trips used to be.

So I get back to my little Baltimore rowhouse all stressed out from just three and a half hours in traffic from Richmond and now I’m so tired and wrung out I’m thinking maybe for this next ad hoc vacation I’ll just take the train instead. But the expense. I really need this one to be inexpensive, because the next one is two weeks on my birthday and I’ve been saving for that one for months now. I didn’t want to have to use any of what I’ve saved for that one, for this one.

If it was just the train it would be do-able. But both the train and a week of car rental was more than I wanted to spend. Then I remembered something: I have a sh*tload of Amtrak points I’ve been accumulating for nearly three years now, including the bunches I got from those two big cross-country in deluxe bedroom trips. 

So when I got home I fired up one of the household computers and logged onto the Amtrak website, wondering if at this late stage are there any roomettes still available. I entered my travel dates and low and behold there Were rooms available on the Silver Meteor, both ways, which meant my food would be included. And I didn’t even use half the points I’d accumulated.

So the trip down and back is basically free and all I need to pay for is a rental car, which makes it even less expensive than driving it myself.

This is good, but for my birthday vacation I probably still need to take the car. Last year I took the AutoTrain and got stuck for a while in Disney World (not the worst place to get stuck) when a hurricane flooded most of South and North Carolina and even the trains stopped running. If I hadn’t had my car with me it could have been weeks before I was able to get back home. So…new rule of thumb: when going to Walt Disney World during hurricane season I have to drive it myself, or at least take the AutoTrain. 

And…I still want to keep doing road trips. Before I’m too old to do them any more.

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