Quick, Easy, Car-free, Cheap Trip from Roanoke to Alexandria on the Train.

For the beginning of Christmas break, Mrs. JumpStart and I took a quick 2 night trip to Alexandria, Va.  Neither of us have ever been to Alexandria, and we chose the location because it would be an easy, quick, cheap trip on the train.  We really just wanted a few days alone to recover from the first half of the school year.

Getting there.

Thankfully some of this method will soon be more efficient.  The last estimate I heard is that Amtrak would be coming to Roanoke in late 2017.  Since it is not quite in Roanoke yet, we paid 4$ each for an hour ride on the Smartbus to Lynchburg, Va.  We left our car at the pickup location at the Roanoke Civic Center at 5:45 in the morning.  Some people would hate the early start, but it was perfect for us, and the bus was on time, comfortable, and arrived just in time to board the train in Lynchburg.  The train ride was also comfortable, uneventful, and we could relax without having to drive.  We arrived in Alexandria a few minutes after 11:00.

I really didn’t know much about Alexandria except that it was the last Amtrak stop before Union Station in Washington DC.  There were cheap Starwood and Marriott hotels and I wanted to take advantage of my platinum status in the newly merged hotel chain.  I had read that Alexandria had beautiful and historic architecture, a nice waterfront area on the Potomac, good shopping on King Street, and easy access to the Metro.

We got off the train and walked through the tunnel under the train tracks, toward the Potomac River.  It was about 1.5 miles to the hotel.  We walk a lot and think nothing of walking several miles at a time, but we did have some luggage.  We were each carrying a small back pack and small carry-on rolling luggage.  Uber was an option, but we kept walking and were making progress in the right direction.  The architecture in Alexandria consists of a blend of historic and new row houses everywhere. There were ornate wrought iron steps, Christmas decorations, and brick sidewalks on every block.  I should mention that rolling luggage sucks on brick sidewalks.  We are frugal, decided against Uber, and bounced our bags over about 20 blocks of brick sidewalk, until we made it to the Sheraton Suites Old Town Alexandria, before noon.

Between carryover nights from last year, annual 15 nights for the Marriott personal card, annual 15 nights for the Marriott business card, award stays, and receiving 1 night for every 3k$ spend on Marriott card, I managed to accumulated 75 nights this year, giving me Marriott platinum status through next year.  When Marriott and Starwood merged the status extended to Starwood hotels as well.  The platinum benefits with Starwood include early check-in, late check-out, upgraded room, and lounge access.  Due to the train schedule, we needed the special check-in/out times and through email had confirmed they would accommodate us.  The room upgrade was not really a factor, because the hotel is all suites.  We were given lounge access, which I was excited about, and turned out to be a real money saver for us.

Day 1.

That afternoon, we decided to explore old town Alexandria near the hotel.  We walked toward the riverfront which was deserted, probably because it was freezing.  There are great paved paths for walking, jogging, and bike riding.  The Woodrow Wilson Bridge spans the Potomac to the south and there was a Ferris Wheel on the other side.  Later after some googling, I identified the Ferris Wheel area as National Harbor, and I also realized that the new MGM Casino had finally opened earlier this month. We walked south along the Riverfront, then turned up King Street.  King Street has some typical national retail stores such as Banana Republic, Gap, H&M, as well as some small locally owned unique shops.  The restaurants were equally eclectic with several local Irish pubs, several Starbucks, bakeries, etc. We chose Don Taco for lunch, and had a really enjoyed it.

At the bar, they had a few draft beers, an abundance of tequila choices, and cards to fill out for ordering tacos.  Our favorites were the chicken empanada and fried avocado taco which are included in the picture. Our dinner was much smaller than the one pictured and set us back about 30$, including beer and tip.

Day 2.

I was intrigued with the new MGM Casino and my wife was itching to get to the outlet mall just on the other side.  Distances are always deceiving on flat land near water, but it looked walk-able. Google map estimated the walk at 4.1 miles and we decided to head out early, for our trek.  The walk across the middle of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was cold and loud, from the traffic, and the view is average.  We passed 5 people on the walk across the massive bridge.  The infrastructure on the Maryland side of the bridge was very new and pretty impressive.  There were smaller bridges, statues, and gardens in the dedicated pedestrian walkway between the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the MGM. It was a nice walk with lots to see, and the sun was shining, but I wished it had been a little warmer.  It would definitely be a better walk in a different season.

The MGM building itself is just awesome. It sits low on the landscape and is so large that pictures can’t do it justice.  The inside lobby inside was grand, elaborate, and comparable to resorts in Vegas.  The casino inside could have been mistaken for Vegas.  There were only two differences I noticed.  The first was the security at the entrances, where I had to unzip my backpack for them to take a look.  The second was number of cocktail waitresses.  We love playing the slots slowly, and getting free drinks in Vegas.  It could have been the time of day, but there were hardly any waitresses, and I never found out if they have complimentary drinks like Vegas.  We walked across the street and did a little shopping at the Tanger Outlet Mall, had a 16$ lunch at Stake and Shake and made the trek back across the bridge back to the hotel.

Day 3.

On Wed, our train did not depart until 5:11 PM, we had a 4:00 late check-out, and we headed into DC for our last day.  We used the Metro which cost about 15$ total to and from DC.  It would have been 4$ cheaper if I had remembered the metro cards from the last time we were in DC.  The Braddock Road Metro stop is about a half mile from the hotel.  The 9:00 Metro ride into DC was hot, jerky, crowded, stinky, and no fun at all.  We walked a loop hitting the National Arboretum, the Art Gallery, the National History Museum, 30$ lunch at an average Chinese Restaurant, past the White House and the Washington Memorial.  It had been about 10 years since we have visited DC, but it was a familiar walk.  There is tons to see in DC, but we have seen it many times before.  At about 1:30, we actually had seats for the pleasant Metro ride back.  Time of day is crucial for comfort riding the metro.

Saving money on food and transportation.

We walked 34 miles in 52 hours, and never used Uber/taxi, but Uber was always an option. We were Walking on the street enough time that we heard 2 separate car crashes, less than 50 feet away.  We were looking the wrong way, but saw the aftermath of both crashes.  We never paid for coffee, soft drinks, bottled water, breakfast, or dinner thanks to the Club Lounge.  The lounge had an espresso machine, a very nice continental breakfast with eggs and ham, an evening assortment of fruit, cheese and crackers, chips and dip, pasta salad and one hot item cheese sticks.  We did buy 3 lunches and a sandwich for the train.  We bought a 6 pack of beer, a bottle of wine, and a few desserts at the grocery store.  There were lots of tempting options that we resisted during the 3 days.

Getting home.

We got packed, checked out, walked back to the train station.  The trip home was not nearly as easy or smooth.  When boarding the train in Lynchburg there are lots of available seats to choose from, but on the return trip, a 15 minute late, nearly full train had just left DC, and we found 2 seats beside strangers about 3 rows apart.  40 minutes and 2 stops later, we got lucky when the guy beside me exited and we were back together.  We arrived at Lynchburg, got off the train, hurried up the steps to catch the Smartbus.  No Smartbus.  It is amazing how fast the Lynchburg train station gets empty after the train arrives.  About 25 minutes later, there were 20 people left waiting on the bus, and it finally showed up.  And we were off for the hour ride back to Roanoke.

Our travel choices are not everyone’s taste, but this trip is a great option for Roanokers.  It will be even easier late next year when the train comes to Roanoke.  With a bigger budget, the options expand quickly.  Accommodation choices include the MGM, resorts in National Harbor, and elegant hotels in DC.  There are countless dining options in all price ranges.  If  gambling, shopping, or museums are your thing, this trip could easily be tailored for a quick getaway.

Posted in Local (Roanoke), Trip Report.

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