Can't see your alternator from here, so you're going to have to do the preliminary testing. I suspect driving to Miami is not related to the cause of the problem, but to be safe, don't drive there anymore. :)
By panel lights, do you mean the instrument cluster, heater controls, or both? Were the interior lights flickering while the doors where still closed? Dome lights are now controlled by an over-complicated, unnecessary computer instead of a simple set of door switches. The body computer would be a likely suspect for a burning odor that you could smell inside the vehicle, and it could affect the dome lights. It is also possible to affect engine performance if it shorts out one of the data buss wires. The data buss is a pair of wires all of the car's computers use to talk back and forth to each other. The engine computer will still get information from the sensors wired to it directly, but it will not receive information from other computers, (body, airbag, transmission, anti-lock brakes). On newer vehicles, all sensors and switches are little computer modules that talk on the data buss. You'd really have a mess with that system.
I'm only familiar with the body computers up to 1999 models, and they are definitely not a do-it-yourself project. I suspect yours is the same. If so, it lives up against the firewall in front of the brake pedal. Replacing them is hard for the professionals. Plus, I'm only guessing it is related to your problem.
If you suspect the alternator, use any cheap digital voltmeter to measure the voltage between the two battery terminals while the engine is running. It must be between 13.75 and 14.75 volts. Lower than 13.75 volts and the battery will not be fully recharged while driving, and computers are very sensitive to incorrect supply voltages. Over about 15 volts, the water will start to boil out of the battery. Computers can be permanently damaged and you'll be popping light bulbs more frequently than normal.
When a problem like this is intermittent, you have to take test measurements while the problem is acting up. Any diagnostic measurements taken while the engine is running properly will be useless except for comparison to the same readings when it's running poorly. Most of the time, charging system problems result in a failure of the starter to crank the engine before it gets bad enough to affect the computers.
If it acts up again, try to notice what other things are affected. Look for flickering headlights and radio display. Also check the operation of the power windows and locks. They are both controlled by the body computer. If something in the doors doesn't work properly, you might suspect broken wires between the door hinges. On older vehicles without computers, broken wires would just cause things to stop working, or they would pop auto-resetting circuit breakers. I'm guessing there are safeguards built into the computers to prevent damage from shorted wires, but I don't know that for sure.
Again, this is all speculation since there hasn't been any preliminary diagnosis done. Any additional clues or observations will be helpful.
A more common possibility is burned contacts or connector terminals on the ignition switch. The circuit usually affected includes the heater fan, radio, wipers, and power windows. You'll definitely smell a burning connector. I've never heard of an overheated connector causing a fire on a Chrysler product but it is REAL common on Fords. They cause a lot of garage fires. The switch is relatively inexpensive and not terribly hard to replace. When wire terminals in the connector are overheated, you don't have to replace the entire connector body or wiring harness. I just cut out all the burned area and solder new terminals onto the old wire(s). The overheated section of wire will be hard to bend. I cut it back further and splice in a new section with nice shiny copper wire. This works for headlight switches too although this was more common on 1980s and older vehicles. Ignition switch problems are more common on vehicles where the owners use the heater fan on "high" quite often because of the very high current demand of the motor. The ignition switch contacts can handle the load for a little while but when the overheating finally begins, it deteriorates the contacts which causes more overheating. This leads to a snowball effect where the problems causes itself to get worse over time. To reduce the likelihood of this happening, keep the heater / ac fan on the lowest comfortable setting and turn it down to a low setting before turning off the ignition switch.
Next time the problem acts up, try wiggling the ignition switch just a little to see if it clears up. If the problem goes away, you'll have a good idea you found the problem.
Saturday, November 28th, 2009 AT 2:52 AM