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How did we successfully (and fairly painlessly) travel over a thousand miles to reach our final destination, Key West, when the 2 humans in this family aren’t fans of long drives? Via the Amtrak Auto Train of course!
Let me start off by saying spring break in Key West with Jaxson was AMAZE. But I must caution you. We were coming from New Jersey and it ain’t around the corner. Key West is called the Southernmost Point of the Continental USA because it IS. So I do want to put it out there that if you can’t travel far with your pooch for whatever reason, Key West may not be the best Dogcation for you.
That being said – if you ARE able to travel far distances with your dog, Key West is a fabulous, warm, and abundantly dog-friendly spot.
The Amtrak Auto Train departs from Lorton, VA (not far from D.C.) and ends at Sanford, FL (which is close to Orlando) and obviously does the reverse trip. Which means we only had to drive 3.5 hours to VA from NJ, then from Sanford (with a stop in Miami in-between) to Key West which was about 6.5 hours. So, we cut out about 18 hours of driving between Virginia and Florida by taking the train.
I was a bit hesitant taking this form of transportation for a few reasons. Jaxson had never been on a train before and also isn’t a fan of loud noises, so I was worried how this would go over. Also, the Amtrak Auto Train only stops once over the course of the 18-hour ride (and that’s with no delays) and my little old man usually needs to pee a lot. So I felt I needed to do a little pre-work to ensure things would go as smoothly as possible on the train.
During one of Jaxson’s massage appointments with Bridle & Bone Wellness, Heather suggested I try a dry run on NJ Transit with Jaxson just so he could get a sense of what a train ride was like. Since I live close to the station and already have a train pass, I thought I’d try going just a stop or two. Luckily it was a weekend and the conductor wasn’t too concerned about my dog being with me, so Jaxson and I got on board easily. Jaxson was a bit curious at first (mom what the heck is this new contraption?) but he soon calmed down. I believe since I was calm and the experience was more or less close to riding in a car (which he is extremely used to), Jaxson was soon fine with it all.
Bridle & Bone Wellness also provides aromatherapy, so they suggested I try lavender essential oil while on the train for a calming effect. I purchased some on Amazon and sprayed a bit on Jaxson’s bed and items that we would be bringing so he could get accustomed to the scent. Immediately on board our car I sprayed my lavender concoction. When the engines started Jaxson got a bit nervous (he started to shake as he does during thunderstorms) but within about 10 minutes calmed down. I can’t say for certain if the lavender helped but I can say it certainly didn’t hurt.
We did have our own sleeper car on the train, which I found important if you’re going to ride with a dog that’s bigger than a toy breed. There’s just too much commotion and hustle and bustle of people passing by to have a larger dog in the open coach area. While the sleeper car is definitely not big, you do have your own bathroom, sink, fold-out bunk bed, garbage, and floor space. It worked for us and our senior beagle, but it might not work for a dog who doesn’t like to be confined or needs large spaces. Still it’s better than the cargo hold of an airplane.
I was hoping Jaxson would make it through the ride without needing many bathroom breaks, but I thought I should play it safe. I packed a few Wee Wee Pads to lay down in our bathroom and garbage bags that could then be easily disposed. The train does make one stop in Florence, SC where the operating crew changes. The conductor, knowing we had a dog with us, told us once onboard that he would send a member of his staff to our car when we got close to the stop. The stop occurs pretty late in the night. (I thought it was very courteous that someone would come knock on our door as we approached Florence to make sure we were awake to take Jaxson out).
We stopped in Florence for about 15 minutes and I made sure to walk Jaxson thoroughly. Once we were done I could hear the conductors talking on the train speakers checking to make sure that Jaxson and I were safely back onboard before departing, which I again found to be very courteous move. Fortunately, Jaxson did not even need to use the wee wee pad as he seemed to do all his biz in Florence.
Meals are served in the dining car which gets packed, and I couldn’t feasibly see where Jaxson would fit in all of that. When we checked in before our departure we noted we had a dog with us and were told it could easily be arranged for dinner to be brought to our room. Amtrak was very accommodating and understanding of the fact we didn’t feel comfortable leaving Jaxson alone in our “room” while the humans got dinner. Again – another point scored by Amtrak for accommodating dog owners.
Jaxson takes Omega-3 fish oil pills daily which research has shown to be particularly beneficial for dogs with kidney disease (which my almost 11 year old beagle is diagnosed). He can get picky with the Greenie’s flavored pill pockets for these larger pills so Mr. Genteel over here only takes the fish oil pills now with sliced meat.
I knew we wouldn’t have our own fridge on the train, so I began to get worried how Jaxson would manage take these supplements. (It is my own personal opinion that combined with his prescribed medicine from the vet, the fish oil has helped with his energy, mental awareness, and vitality so I was determined not to skip doses if possible).
Knowing I was worried, Heather sent me a great article about the benefits of phytoplankton, which has an even more concentrated dose of Omega-3 than fish oil (fish eat the phytoplankton to GET the Omega-3, so it’s pretty potent stuff!). Upon hearing this, I thought of a great solution…to buy phytoplankton (which I found in a droplet bottle) and drop a little on beef jerky (which Jaxson loves). No refrigeration needed and twice the Omega-3 per dose – win win!
This suggestion probably comes as an obvious one but I found it to be imperative -- bring items onboard that your dog is familiar with. While Jaxson was a little nervous when the engines started on our departure to FL, he relaxed within minutes into his Barbour bed (mentioned previously in our Dogcation: Vermont, The Paw House Inn. He has one bed for the car and one for home so he is very used to them) along with his two “scarfies” and a little toy turkey that squeaks when you push it – a sound he is familiar with. Making the opposite trip home, Jaxson immediately got into his bed with “his” items and there was not one moment of shaking or trepidation.
I had a reminder in my calendar to call my vet upon our return since Jaxson would soon need a refill of his prescribed kidney medicine. I’m pretty friendly with the receptionist and she asked how everything went – mainly because she wants to visit a friend in Orlando with her own dog but like us doesn’t want to fly with her larger dog in cargo or drive the whole way from NJ to Florida. I outlined our trip and she more or less said “well that sounds exactly what I’m looking for!” Hopefully another Amtrak Auto Train ‘human with dog in tow’ convert made! ☺
Thank you to Amtrak Auto Train and its staff for an amazing, and courteous experience!
So was Key West as dog-friendly as it sounds? You betcha. And then some. Next month read all about the adventures Jaxson enjoyed while on spring break that you too can enjoy with your pup!
About the writer: Amy Molnar Schwebel is a New Jersey native who works in the publishing industry in marketing by day. When not working she enjoys travel, fine dining, live music, and her number one passion, spending time with her pooch Jaxson. Amy also revels in writing the Dogcation series for Bridle & Bone, hoping to inform other pet parents that the world is your oyster when it comes to journeying with your dog.