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Florida Train Rides Can Get You to Multiple Airports

While the state of Florida has gotten more and more conservative in its politics, it’s a surprisingly progressive state in one transportation aspect: its train system. Florida train rides can get you to a surprisingly high number of destinations in the Sunshine State, including several airports and downtown Tampa. 

Florida train rides

This comes as a surprise to a lot of people used to the crappy state of rail travel in the United States, but Florida’s railroad history goes back to the times of Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, who really kicked off Florida tourism as an escape from winter cold up north. (There was once a train all the way to Key West.)

Once you look into it, your options for getting around in Florida mean that you may be able to fly out of a different airport and play the airfare differences to your advantage. Florida train rides can get you to the airport in Orlando, Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami easily. With a slightly longer ride, you can get to the ones in Jacksonville and Tampa too.

For Tampa, the station is downtown, only about 20 minutes by Uber/Lyft from the airport. Jacksonville’s Amtrak station is also about 20 minutes from the JAX airport. It’s a short hop from the train station to the Palm Beach airport too. 

The guy who wrote the seminal creativity book A Whack on the Side of the Head had one great piece of advice I try to apply to every problem situation: “Look for the second right answer.” In Florida, the second right answer may just save you a hundred dollars or more. That’s because there are three train services serving the cities: Amtrak, Tri-Rail, and Brightline.

Florida Trains to the Airports

When I lived in Tampa for years, I would always first look at Tampa Bay flight prices (including PIE airport where Allegiant has a big hub) and then I would compare those to departures from Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. It is so inexpensive to take a train between Tampa and those two other airports that I would often take the train to one of those, working along the way, and pocket big savings in exchange for spending time in transit. 

Now with the advent of private Brightline, people in South Florida have more options: they can take that train service directly to the Orlando International Airport. That’s a big deal because Orlando often has the cheapest flights to Europe and Latin America of any airport in the Southeast. It also has the widest selection, thanks to the draw of the theme parks. 

There are three sizable airports served by both Brightline and the public Tri-rail station. Here are the options to get to the airport directly by rail or by rail then a free (or almost free) ride the last distance.

Miami International Airport (MIA)

Miami airport terminal

You can get directly to the airport on Tri-Rail, or by taking Amtrak or Brightline to downtown Miami and switching to a local train. This airport is a hub for American Airlines and most of the major airlines serving Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America have flights from here. 

Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport (FLL)

The Fort Lauderdale Airport station has regular shuttle bus service to the airport that is complimentary. There’s also a rebate program to get $5 of a taxi or Uber ride if you’re running late, with information on the Tri-Rail site. Bargain carrier Spirit Air has its hub in Ft. Lauderdale and they have cheap flights to a lot of international destinations in the Americas. That includes flights to Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras–routinely under $100 one-way when there’s a sale going on–plus they fly all the way to Peru if you’re a masochist or don’t need much legroom. 

Southwest, the best airline in the U.S. for domestic flights, has a lot of flights into Ft. Lauderdale.

Palm Beach International Airport (PBI)

There’s no dedicated shuttle bus getting you from the West Palm Beach Amtrak or Tri-rail Station to the airport, but head to this page to see how to get $5 off your Uber or taxi ride from the station to the airport. It’s only about three miles, so the trip takes 10 minutes or less usually.

Palm Beach is usually going to be more expensive and will have fewer choices than the others on this list that you can reach by train in Florida, but at least check the Southwest site to compare if you’re on the Tri-Rail route somewhere. 

Orlando International Airport (MCO)

This is the largest airport in Florida, with more daily flights than Miami, but until the long-awaited Brightline station at MCO opened last year, there was no way to get to this airport except in a vehicle. Now you could be anywhere along the route that Brightline serves, from here down to Miami, and Orlando is now an option for flights.

As I mentioned earlier, Orlando often has the cheapest international flights and a few times it has been cheaper for me to fly into Orlando from Mexico and get a one-way rental car to Tampa Bay than it has been to fly into Tampa. Thanks to so many foreigners coming to the Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios Florida, and other theme parks, Orlando has the most international connections.

At some point this line will actually connect to Tampa as well, meaning all of Florida’s main tourist centers will be connected, but for now the closest you can get is Amtrak to Winter Park or Orlando Station from Tampa and then a taxi or Uber to the airport.  

Keep in mind that you’ll get a lot more legroom on a train than you will in a plane or bus. Here’s what it’s usually like on Amtrak in Florida: 

Amtrak train legroom

Florida by Train: My Experience

If you take advantage of the Florida trains and use the airport connections to your advantage, you can open up your options quite a bit for finding cheap flights. I probably saved a thousand bucks or more by using the trains when I lived in Tampa. Twice I flew to South America via Miami and it made a huge difference in the fare. When I did it for a magazine assignment in Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean, the round-trip fare difference was nearly $300. 

I once had a flight into Miami on American and then a flight out of Ft. Lauderdale on Spirit to get to my end destination. A $5 train ticket took me from one airport to the other in comfort. OK, I did have to get on a short shuttle bus to get from the train station to the Ft. Lauderdale airport, but it’s a short hop and free.

If you find a bargain flight from Tampa and need to go the other direction, just understand that Tampa’s Amtrak station is downtown, not very close to the airport. But hey, you could come early and enjoy the city for a bit: there’s even a trolley car train from downtown Tampa to Ybor City where the cigar rollers used to work, now a major nightlife zone. It’s a pretty station too: 

Tampa train station via Amtrak

My daughter went to college in Winter Park, Florida and didn’t have a car at the time when she was a student. So sometimes she would hop on the train to come to Tampa to visit friends and her grandmother. Once she took Amtrak down to Boca to meet up with her relatives. 

Fares for Florida Train Rides

The Tri-Rail system in Florida is a great value. It is set up by zone and if you only travel within one zone, the fare is a mere $2.50. Even if you go as far as you possibly can though, from Miami Airport to Mangonia Park station north of Palm Beach, you will only be out $8.75 for six zones. You can buy the ticket from a kiosk with cash or a credit card and naturally they sell multi-day or monthly passes. The latter is $155.

It gets even better though: on weekends and holidays you can buy an all-day pass for $5. So you could travel through every zone then for just five bucks. 

This Florida train system is primarily serving commuters, so they’re not meant to be plush. They’re on two levels though, with places for luggage or bikes, and I’ve never been on one where I couldn’t find a seat available. It’s a great system overall and if you have an early flight out of Miami, you could ride the train from Boca Raton as we did recently when visiting relatives and spend the night at a hotel near the Miami airport station. (Get the right credit card and your hotel stay might be free.)

How much is Amtrak in Florida? Not very much if you’re only traveling within the state. You can go from Tampa all the way to Miami airport for less than $40 most of the time, even if you wait until the last minute. 

Florida train travel by Amtrak

You can also use Amtrak to get to some places in Florida that are not on the Tri-Rail line, such as Deland, Kissimmee (near Disney parks), and Jacksonville. Here’s a full list of stations. The most expensive route I could find was Miami to Jacksonville, the length of the state, which was $79 for a last-minute ticket when I looked. It’s only $29 if you plan ahead though. That’s a great price for what is not a fast trip: 8.5 to 11 hours with all the stops on the way. 

There are three Amtrak lines going through Florida, but one of them isn’t useful for traveling within the state: it’s the Auto Train line that starts outside of D.C. in Lorton, Virginia and ends up at Sanford, north of Orlando. The other two are the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star. 

The Silver Star line terminates in Tampa at one end and New York City on the other, a trip of 25 hours with no delays. Along the way it serves Orlando, Jacksonville, Savannah, Raleigh, Richmond, Alexandria (VA), Baltimore, Philadelphia, and many more. The Silver Meteor terminates in Miami and it heads up the east coast of Florida. It breaks with the other line in the Carolinas and stops near Charleston, then basically follows the same route through the rest of the states up to NYC. 

Even the long-haul Amtrak routes are quite reasonable if you just get a seat and not a cabin. You can often find tickets from Tampa to New York City for $100 to $150, though if you get a cabin figure on four or five times that amount. In a seat it is often less than a flight but if you want some private space it’ll cost more than flying. 

Here’s what I got quoted when I pulled up the route between Miami and D.C.:

Amtrak Florida

Brightline fares are more expensive, but the service is geared to travelers willing to splash out a bit more, not commuters on a budget. They are more like express trains, with just six stops along their path across more than half of Florida. The longest route between Orlando and Miami ranges from $59 to $79 in “Smart” regular class, which includes nice leather seats, regular and USB outlets, and Wi-Fi.

You can pay three times as much for the equivalent of business class. That Premium service also includes wider seats, complimentary snacks and beverages, a premium lounge, and business services like printing. 

Just be advised that Brightline has adopted a dynamic pricing model, which means you’ll pay more if you wait until the last minute and most of the seats are sold out. I searched Orlando to Boca Raton for two days from now and the rates were $79 to $119 in the lowest category class depending on departure time. Check your dates here

These aren’t the only Florida train rides, actually, There’s a commuter train serving parts of Miami, a commuter train line in the Orlando region that serves 16 stations over 49 miles, and there’s a company staging scenic train rides through sugar cane fields. Fort Myers also has a Murder Mystery Dinner train if you’re in that area and the Central Florida Railroad Museum in Manatee County has pleasure train tours on weekends using steam engines. And let’s not forget, if you take the kids to Walt Disney World Resort, there’s a monorail and a train ride within the park.