By William Wolf

SPECIAL GUEST COLUMN FILED BY SI LIBERMAN: A SNOWBIRD'S VIEW: THE HAMPTON JITNEY VS THE AUTO TRAIN  Send This Review to a Friend

By Si Liberman

(Si Liberman is a renowned travel and feature writer)

With no fanfare, the Hampton Jitney, a little known Southampton, N.Y., bus company is putting on the ritz, competing with the Amtrak Auto Train transporting snowbirds and their cars to Florida.

Best known for its Manhattan to Hampton and Boston runs, the 27-year-old privately-owned company has supplemented its seasonal weekly South Florida run by initiating an upscale version with a new state-of-the-art motorcoach that carries 36 passengers. Called Ambassador Class, the new bus has wide, plush airline-like first class seats, large windows, a modern, roomy bathroom and a kitchen galley from which complimentary Champagne, wine, beer, soft drinks and a variety of snacks are offered.

Simultaneously, vehicles go on separate commercial car carriers and reach their destinations before the buses.

The Hampton Jitney does little advertising of its Florida service, which began in 1990, preferring to rely on word-of-mouth promotion. More and more passengers unsettled by Amtrak’s derailments in recent years and reports of terrorist threats have been turning to the Jitney as an alternative.

Count my wife, Dorothy, and me among them. Veteran snowbirds that we are, we opted for the new Ambassador weekly service last fall. In the past, we used both the Jitney’s less expensive standard 56-passenger bus and the Auto Train to get to our Palm Beach County condo. Each has its pluses and minuses. The Auto Train is less expensive, nonstop and arrives in Florida several hours before the bus.

We prefer the bus, though. It allows us to deposit our car and board it in central New Jersey, a 45-minute drive from our Jersey Shore home, as opposed to driving five hours to the Lorton, Va., Auto Train terminal south of Washington, then another few hours after disembarking in Sanford, its central Florida terminus, and waiting for our car to be off-loaded from the train’s attached double-decker vehicle carriers.

In all, it saved us at least eight hours drive time on busy, truck-laden I-95, and ensured a good night’s sleep and shower during a 12-hour layover in a modern motel. Sleeping on the rocking, clattering Auto Train was always an impossible challenge for me whether in a coach seat or cramped upper berth.

The one-way southbound Ambassador price for a couple and car, $1,455, included overnight reservations at the recently refurbished Holiday Inn in Fayetteville, N.C., a so-so buffet dinner there aptly described by my wife as “sustenance” (vegetable and fruit salads, roast chicken and pot roast, potatoes, vegetables, ice tea, coffee and cake) and a very satisfying breakfast (juices, fresh fruit, hot and cold cereals, bacon, sausages, made-to-order omelettes, potatoes, rolls and coffee) the next morning.

The Auto Train’s peak period price for two persons and sedan ranges from $542.80 for coach seats to $1,033.20 for a deluxe cabin with upper/lower berths and mini-bathroom. We had experienced a sit-down dinner graciously served in the dining car with a choice of three entrees (chicken, beef, fish), wine, dessert and coffee or tea and a simple continental breakfast.

Price of the standard Jitney service to Florida would have been $1,088 which is $367 less than Ambassador class. Aside from its wider seats, wine, beer and greater variety of snacks, the new Ambassador Class hotel accommodations and meals were comparable to what we previously experienced on the standard Jitney bus.

We boarded the Ambassador bus at the Ramada Inn near Hightstown just off Exit 8 of the New Jersey Turnpike, one of the Jitney’s four northern boarding/disembarking sites, at 10 a.m. on a Sunday and disembarked 34 hours later at its Holiday Inn Belvedere Boulevard dropoff site in West Palm Beach, a 15 minute drive from our winter apartment. Along the way, the bus made three 15-minute rest stops and a one-hour Dutch treat lunch break each day, the first at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Dunfries, Va., and the next day at Applebee’s in Kingsland, Ga., near Jacksonville.

Other northern Jitney pickup/dropoff points are at the Southampton Long Island Omni, Long Island Expressway Exit 52 Park ’n Ride and in Queens, N.Y. The other South Florida east coast Ambassador boarding/disembarking sites are in Kingsland, Ga., Titusville and the Marriott Courtyard Hotel on West Cypress Creek Road in Ft. Lauderdale. On select dates, standard Jitney buses also serve the west coast Florida cities of Sarasota, Bradenton and Ft. Myers.

As in standard class, Ambassador driving was shared by two Jitney employees and a third served as an attendant, offering drinks and refreshments. The buses have four television monitors, and we saw five movies heading south with complimentary headsets.

On the Auto Train, a movie was shown in the dome car after dinner, but the 26-inch monitor was hard to see from several yards away, and the competing train noise was very distracting. You see more countryside on the bus because most travel is during daylight hours while most of the Auto Train trip is at night. And as in the past, our car was waiting for us when we disembarked in West Palm Beach near I-95.

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IF YOU GO . . .

Hampton Jitney: South- and northbound Ambassador Class weekly car/passenger service from mid-October to mid-May. Trips begin in Southampton, Long Island, with boarding/disembarking stops at Long Island Expressway Exit 52 Park ‘Ride, New York City (Queens) and the Ramada Inn near Hightstown, N.J., and return boarding stops at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel on West Cypress Creek Road, Ft. Lauderdale, and Holiday Inn on Belvedere Boulevard, West Palm Beach. One-way price: $1,010 for car and driver, $1,455 for car and 2 people and $465 for one passenger only. Includes one-night hotel accommodation, buffet dinner and breakfast. Standard Jitney weekly roundtrip service from early September till mid-June. Boarding/disembarking sites, hotel accommodations, dinner and breakfast same as Ambassador Class service. One-way fare: $824 for car and driver, $1,088 for car and 2 people, $284 for passenger only, $655 for car only. Same fares for select trips to Florida west coast cities with stops in Orlando, Brandon, Sarasota and Ft. Myers. For more information and reservations, call Hampton Jitney, 800-327-0732; www.hamptonjitney.com.

Amtrak Auto Train: Daily southbound service from Lorton, Va.., south of Washington, to Sanford, east of Orlando. Passengers must arrive two hours in advance and must have photo I.D. Trip takes about 17 hours. Fares may vary, depending on number of remaining seats and car spaces on the train, but peak rates for a couple and car are $542.60 with coach seats, $682.20 for standard upper/lower berth accommodations and $1,033.20 for cabin with upper/lower berths and small bathroom with shower facility. Sitdown dinner and continental breakfast included. The Auto Train only accommodates passengers traveling with a vehicle (car, SUV or motorcycle). Passenger only service to and from Florida is available on other Amtrak trains. For rates and information. 800-872-7245; www.amtrak.com.

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