On Site: Brightline's Rail Experience in Smart Class to Orlando

Modern U.S. rail travel with great service, new stations and state-of-the-art trains now connects several of Florida's top tourism areas. Since 2018, Brightline has operated many daily trains between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Additional South Florida stations in Boca Raton and Aventura opened in 2022. Then, in summer 2023, using $5 billion in private investment, Brightline added 170 miles of new track in Central Florida and began service to Orlando. At some points during that journey, the train can zip along at speeds of up to125 mph.

For travelers, it’s now easy to combine a Central Florida theme park visit or Port Canaveral cruise (using cruise line transportation to/from Orlando International Airport) with a South Florida beach stay, Everglades eco-trip or a Caribbean/Bahamas cruise from South Florida. 

To gather intel for travel advisors about the new Orlando service, Travel Agent rode the rails recently—taking a Brightline train in Smart (coach) class from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando and then returning to South Florida later in the day in Premium (business) class. Here's our detailed look at the experience. 

Great for travel advisors? Brightline, which had introduced 10 percent commission for all train rides in early November, this week is increasing that commission rate to 20 percent on all ticket reservations made now through February 29, 2024. That's for train travel through June 30, 2024. Visit www.gobrightline.com/travel-professionals for more details. So, come along as we provide intel about the stations, trade rides, service and overall experience.

Fort Lauderdale Station

Brightline's Fort Lauderdale train station.
Brightline offers modern, spacious train terminals such as this one at Fort Lauderdale in South Florida.  (Photo by Brightline.)

Arriving at Fort Lauderdale’s Brightline station for a 9:16 a.m. train departure to Orlando, we headed for the Brightline parking garage adjacent to the station. The garage can accommodate 650 vehicles. Parking costs $15 per day unless train riders buy a parking ticket at the same time as they purchase their train ride ticket. If so, then it's only $7 per day. Frequent train riders also can buy a $75 monthly parking pass. Those same parking rates apply at all five South Florida stations. In Part Two of this story (coming soon), we'll cover Orlando parking choices.  

Brightline stations also have other local transportation options, varying by location. For instance, at Fort Lauderdale, riders can sign up for private rides powered by Uber. The train also has some fixed route shuttles such as to/from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, plus special event shuttles.

Brightline shuttle to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport from the downtown Fort Lauderdale terminal.
Brightline offers a free shuttle from the Fort Lauderdale station to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

In addition, travelers will find neighborhood electric vehicles powered by Circuit to places such as Las Olas Boulevard and other destinations close to the Fort Lauderdale station. BrightBikes and CitiBikes are also available in front of the terminal.  

Stepping inside the bright, modern Fort Lauderdale terminal, we encountered a spacious, open area with a few seats as well as tables and chairs. Colorful maps of three South Florida stations graced the adjacent wall. Restrooms were close by, too.

The ground level of Brightline's Fort Lauderdale station has ticket machines, a check-in counter and passengers tables with several South Florida station maps on the wall.
Brightline offers some seats plus a few tables and chairs on the ground level of its Fort Lauderdale station. Large, colorful maps of the local areas surrounding three Brightline stations in South Florida grace the wall. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Since our tickets had been issued in advance, we had seat assignments and QR code tickets on our phones. Still, we sauntered over to the check-in area to ask about our tickets. A friendly Brightline employee staffing the check-in counter looked at our phones, and said, "You're all set." He pointed us to the escalator, which went up one level to the security area. An elevator is also nearby for rider use.

If clients have luggage, that lower-level check-in desk is much akin to an airline check-in desk for bags. One free checked bag is provided as part of the ticket for Premium travelers. Otherwise, in Smart class, guests can check a bag—starting at $25 per bag—to their final train station destination.

The ground floor facilities -- ticketing and bag check-in -- at Brightline's Fort Lauderdale train station.
Ground-level facilities at Brightline's Fort Lauderdale station include ticket machines, train status screens and staffed check-in desks.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

What if travelers haven't bought tickets for their train ride in advance? It's no problem. They can purchase them at electronic ticket terminals inside each station. Brightline attendants at the check-in counter can also assist with ticketing.

Once guests are ticketed and any bags handled, they head upstairs to security. Brightline has similar security to what you'd find at an airport. Any hand baggage to be carried onboard by ticketed guests is scanned via a conveyor belt through an X-ray machine. Travelers also walk through a metal screening device. The two security personnel on site were friendly, and the process was quick. We didn't encounter any long lines.  

Fort Lauderdale Terminal Spaces

Brightline's train passengers enjoy use of upstairs lounges with expansive window views of downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Brightline's upstairs lounges offer plenty of seating areas for travelers waiting for their Brightline train to arrive. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

After clearing security, we walked a very short distance into the terminal's upstairs Smart Lounge (again, for coach-class passengers). Ticketed passengers were relaxing, socializing or working. We liked the many comfortable “seating enclaves” comprising couches, upholstered chairs and small end/cocktail tables.

In addition, there was a long table with stools, perfect for those working while traveling. Best of all, every seating area has its own plugs and USB ports. In some cases, those were located within the chair itself. Outside, we viewed Fort Lauderdale’s skyline through huge expanses of glass.

The Smart (economy) Lounge at Brightline's Fort Lauderdale Station
Brightline's Smart lounges such as the one in Fort Lauderdale station are spacious, light-filled, comfortable and well-equipped for use of technology (with Wi-Fi, outlets and USB ports). (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Adjacent to the Fort Lauderdale Station's Smart Lounge is a self-serve retail area. Train riders simply can in their QR ticket code and, presto, the gates will open into the shop. It's the spot in the station for browsing or buying Brightline gear, sundries, snacks, travel items and small gifts and souvenirs.

Adjacent to that shop is a separate, full-service bar, Mary Mary, selling food and drinks. An electronic menu screen above the bar shows what’s available food-wise, with a menu that changes throughout the day. For our late breakfast prior to boarding our train, we ordered coffee and hot breakfast sandwiches, which were quite ample in size. If travelers would prefer a morning mimosa, they can certainly purchase that, too!

The Mary Mary Bar at Fort Lauderdale's Brightline station serves both food items and drinks.
The Mary Mary Bar at Brightline's Fort Lauderdale Station offers both light food and drinks for purchase.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Toward the end of the Smart Lounge is a small family room, which was formerly filled with kid-friendly furniture. But too many kids were left unsupervised, and the line had to remove the furniture for safety's sake. That said, parents can still accompany their kids to the area to play (bringing a small toy or game from home) or just to let a toddler run around and burn off some energy, but there’s no seating. 

This room also has a large wall-mounted TV screen. What's new? Starting in December, Brightline will use this space for holiday cookie-decorating sessions. 

Travelers who’ve purchased a Premium train ticket can walk to the other end of the upstairs terminal space to reach the Premium Lounge. Access is via automatic plexiglass gates that scan the passenger’s QR ticket code. Reserved for those who've booked Brightline’s version of business class, the lounge has comfortable seating areas, large expanses of glass, a complimentary refreshment area with free sodas, water, beer, wine and coffee and complimentary light fare such breakfast pastries, lunchtime salads, soup, fruit, Charcuterie and sweet treats. 

The Premium Lounge at Brightline's Fort Lauderdale station offers comfortable seating, complimentary food items and drinks and priority boarding.
The Premium Lounge at Brightline's Fort Lauderdale Station offers comfortable seating areas with technology plugs; complimentary food items and drinks; and priority board for trains—using an adjacent escalator. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

A tip for travelers? Prior to boarding their train, travelers should take a few moments to peruse the historic wall photos displayed between the bar and the nearby Premium Lounge. Those photos show Henry Flagler, who founded the Florida East Coast Railway more than a century ago, with his family and dog, plus train artifacts such as a historic ticket. Today’s Brightline trains travel along the same East Coast right-of-way used by that historic train in Florida more than a century ago.

One wall at the Fort Lauderdale Brightline station is covered with copies of historic photos. Most show railroad baron Henry Flagler of the historic Florida East Coast Railway. Here Flagler is with his dog. Today's Brightline service uses the historic right-of-way once used by that historic railway.
In Fort Lauderdale station, Brightline riders can view historic photos of railroad baron Henry Flagler, shown above with his dog Delos. Today, Brightline trains run along the same right-of-way as Flagler's original Florida East Coast Railway. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Boarding the Train

Set to depart at 9:16 a.m., our sleek, modern Brightline train arrived on time at the Fort Lauderdale station. Beckoned via the terminal's PA system, travelers head down from the second level waiting lounges via escalator or elevator to the train platforms. Brightline employees are present to assist guests with boarding. Separate boarding areas on the platform accommodate those in Smart or Premium class.

Boarding is immediate after the train arrives, as generally any train is in the station for only four minutes or so. We liked our train car's automated door system, which incorporates a “gap filler." That bridges the gap and three-inch height change between the train and platform. So, passengers have a seamless way of walking (or rolling for wheelchairs) in and out of the train.

A Brightline train arrives at the Fort Lauderdale station in South Florida. Passengers prepare to board.
Passengers wait on the boarding platform at Fort Lauderdale as a Brightline train pulls into the station. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Brightline train attendants were helpful inside the train in directing passengers to their seats. Traveling to Orlando, our journey in Smart class was overall a pleasant experience. We enjoyed scenic views of Florida's urban and rural areas. Plus, we liked the light look of the train car interior, including the seats.

We deposited our carry-on bags in open bins above the seats. Smaller items could be placed under the seats, plus the train cars also have luggage towers for storing larger carry-on bags. Bikes also can be carried aboard Brightline trains and must be checked as bags. Pets are also welcome, too, if they're carried in a small case that can be placed under the seat. Larger dogs can be accommodated in large pet carriers and ride with the checked baggage. 

One good design perk of the train cars is that their one middle aisle is 32 inches wide, so it can accommodate most walkers and wheelchairs. Even when the train crew was serving food and drinks from a cart in the aisle, one person could slide past on one side too, something that simply isn't doable on most planes.  

Brightline has various seating configurations. Guests on our Smart coach picked either two adjacent seats facing the back of the seats in front of them, or alternatively, as we did, two adjacent seats that face two other seats with a table between. Our seats were of the latter type, and a solo traveler was seated across the table facing us.

On our Fort Lauderdale-to-Orlando Brightline trip, we picked two seats facing two others with a table between. Shown are Susan Young, cruise editor, TravelAgentCentral.com, and Harrison Liu, a travel industry friend.
Two friends tried out Brightline on a train ride to Orlando. Shown in Smart (coach class) are Susan J. Young, cruise editor for Travel Agent and Luxury Travel Advisor, and Harrison Liu, a travel industry marketing and communications expert.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

We spotted an empty, quad-passenger seating area farther back in our car and were tempted to move for a bit more room to spread out. But it's helpful for clients to know that additional guests with assigned seats could be waiting to board at the next station. So, we stayed in our assigned seats as the train left Fort Lauderdale—continuing first to Boca Raton and then West Palm Beach. However, when the train departed the West Palm Beach station, there weren't any more stops prior to our arrival in Orlando, so we made the seat switch. 

Unique Seat Features

As for the seats themselves, they're comfortable and made of a blend of real and synthetic leather. While they're also wider than most airline coach seats, they're not plushly cushioned. But again, they were comfortable from our perspective.

A bit more about the seats in both Smart and Premium class: First, they recline in place, sliding down and back. So, unlike most airline seats, travelers won’t find people in front of them invading their space by pushing back their seat.

Second, they have a very functional tray table, somewhat like having two trays in one. Travelers can place their smartphone or smaller items on the inner small table and enjoy the extra space. Alternatively, they can bring down the larger table for placing laptops, books, and food. And if travelers are seated—as we were—in a four-seat configuration with a fixed table between, a small tray simply pulls out at each seat from underneath that larger table.

Smart (economy) class guests can opt for a variety of seating including quad seats with a table between. Small trays for each seat also pull up from under the table.
Here's a look at the four-seat configuration with a center table. Small trays pull out from under the table so each traveler has a personal tray that can hold a cell phone, pen, glasses or other small items. (Photo by Brightline.)

Third, we liked the helpful ergonomic metal grip handle at the top of every aisle seat. Generally the ride on the tracks was pretty smooth throughout the journey. But for people headed to the one large restroom on each car or retrieving something from an overhead bin, the handle was a nice feature.

And fourth, the train is focused on "connectivity. We liked being able to tap into the train’s Wi-Fi (free for both classes of service) powered by Starlink. Seating areas also have many built-in power outlets and USB connections. They were located under the armrests in the seat pedestals, and in pop-up style table units.

Journey North to Orlando

The total journey to Orlando covers 235 miles of track and takes approximately three hours or so. Peering out our train car windows at city or rural scenery, we couldn't help thinking how much more relaxing it was then driving or taking a commercial flight. We particularly appreciated not having to drive along I-95 and then I-4 to reach Orlando. 

What about speed? In South Florida, Brightline's trains will hit a maximum speed of 79 mph—less in major downtown areas, obviously. But train speeds increase beyond West Palm Beach. After leaving that station and heading north, our train began zipping along at up to 110 mph. That typically occurs between Jupiter area and the Space Coast. But as Brightline's trains veer leftward and head west toward Orlando, they're operating on totally new track. So, speeds increase and can approach 125 mph. Using a phone app, we clocked our train's speed at one point along that section at 124 mph.

Multiple trains make the journey daily between South Florida and Orlando on multiple runs. Departures are almost on an hourly basis. One operational approach that's good for travelers to know is that every Brightline train is powered by two locomotives—one on each end. That way, the train won’t have to turn around and instead can just run back and forth between South Florida and Orlando. That also assures that every train has back-up power and a continual flow of air conditioning.

Brightline's Passengers

Who rides Brightline? We discovered a mix of folks during our ride up to Orlando and back to South Florida. One family with teens and adults were heading from Miami to Orlando for a theme park day, and planning to return later the next day. Brightline also reports a growing number of bookings for those who desire to combine a cruise with a theme park or beach getaway, or simply to travel to two different parts of Florida for their vacation. 

On our return trip, we met a business traveler who’d flown into Orlando International Airport and liked the train—with its terminal within the airport—for the ease of the three-hour trip to South Florida. She preferred that to spending more time in an airport taking a connecting flight to Miami or renting a car for the four-and-a-half-hour drive southward. 

Brightline also attracts local business travelers. For example, Vicki Freed, senior vice president, sales, trade support and service, Royal Caribbean International, rides Brightline to work. “From a personal perspective, it is a game-changer,” Freed tells us. “The stress of commuting is almost eliminated and the ease of going from my home in Boca Raton to Miami is truly a seamless experience. The Brightline is clean with outstanding service.”

She also explains that often more than 100 other Royal Caribbean employees board the train to/from Miami. So, they begin their day by working aboard, catching up on email and cleaning out their inboxes, before even getting to the office. Plus, Royal Caribbean encourages employees to use mass transit, and nicely sends three buses to pick them up at the Miami Brightline station.

A Brightline train is shown at Orlando International Airport.
A Brightline train is shown at Orlando International Airport. (Photo by Brightline.)

Freed also sees great potential for travelers flying into Orlando International Airport and taking a cruise from Port Canaveral—then combining that with a visit to South Florida, too. The new Utopia of the Seas will begin service from Port Canaveral in July 2024 on short cruises, plus Wonder of the Seas is currently operating seven-night cruises from that port.

While there isn't a Brightline station at Port Canaveral, travelers taking a cruise from that port can book the cruise line's motorcoach transfers or other local transportation options to/from Orlando International Airport. That way, they could board a Brightline train to South Florida for a different type of vacation experience—beach stay, cultural experience, Everglades exploration and so on—before returning to Orlando by train a few days or a week later.

"It is like getting a “mini-vacation” at the start and end of the cruise with the hassle-free experience of using the Brightline," says Freed. "No hassles with parking at the pier and no traffic."  Brightline expects many cruise guests sailing on multiple cruise brands to use the train service in 2024 and beyond.

New Orlando Service

The train route to Orlando was made possible this year after the completion of 170 miles of new track, the addition of 56 new railroad bridges and use of 2 million spikes and bolts. We enjoyed our journey northward beyond Palm Beach.The Smart car’s windows were big, wide and perfect for viewing cityscapes, residential developments, small towns, natural-eco areas and a few inlets from the Atlantic Ocean. For instance, Jupiter, FL, was a good spot to view gorgeous yachts of every size

During our journey in Smart class, the Brightline train attendants also came several times through the aisle with the cart, offering drinks and snacks for purchase. We found the servers/attendants well trained, pleasant and cheery. They proactively returned to the car multiple times just to see if anyone needed anything else. Overall, the time heading northward seemed to pass quickly.

Tip: Stay tuned later this week for Part Two of this Brightline experience story. In that, we'll focus specifically on the new Orlando station experience. Plus, we'll detail our return trip to Fort Lauderdale in Premium class. We'll also look at the train's pricing and assess the overall Brightline experience. 

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