The Auto Train – Getting There is Half the Fun
The Auto Train is the only train in the United States that carries both passengers and their vehicles (autos, vans, SUVs, small trailers, jet-skis, and motorcycles). Daily service is offered between Lorton, VA (about 20 miles south of DC), and Sanford, FL, (about 20 miles north of Orlando). I recently took the Auto Train, and want to share what I discovered.
Several scenarios of those who ride the Auto Train rails: Julia and Michael live in Reston, VA, and will spend three weeks exploring retirement locales in the southeast; Jan (that would be me) and her husband live in Florida near St. Augustine, and their son is getting married at Brookside Gardens in Maryland; Caroline is an elderly widow living in DeLand, FL, and doesn’t like to fly or drive long distances, and visits her three children in the Vienna, VA, area for a few weeks each year; Kathy and Pete live in Silver Spring, MD, and are treating their three pre-teen grandchildren to Disneyworld for a week’s vacation; Rhonda is using the Auto Train in a move from Pennsylvania to Florida; Jennifer and Bill split their time between a home in New York and a home in Georgia and want their car with them when they are in their Southern home.
Dream, Dine and Drink
Accommodations. The least expensive sleeping option, Coach seating, is superior to coach seats on a plane: the train’s seats have some space between them, the footrests are better, and there are only two seats on either side of the aisle.
“Bedroom” is the term used by Amtrak for their most expensive option, but I’d use that word loosely. The space contains two good-sized seats with reading lights, a nice-sized window, a small folding table between the seats, a sink,
and a separate toilet (think airplane-size commode), which contains a hand-held shower wand. There are towels and soap available, bottled water, and outlets that can be used for hair dryers or razors. The attendant schedules a time to convert the seating area into sleeping berths for two with sheets, pillows, and blankets; the end result is a bunk bed (there are straps to prevent you from falling out of the top bunk). In the morning, the attendant will re-convert the sleeping berths back to the seating configuration while you’re eating breakfast in the dining car. This is the option we chose going to D.C. from Florida.
A “roomette” is smaller than a bedroom and can accommodate one or two people. No bathroom (but there are ample toilet and shower facilities throughout the train), and again, a window and a bunk bed style of sleeping, along with a few outlets and reading lights. I used this option on the return trip. There are also a few family rooms, which can accommodate up to six people, and rooms for those with special needs. If you want to escape your seat or room, there is a lounge where they show a nightly movie (basically seats and tables), and a number of people were playing cards or working on their laptops during the trip.
Food. Dinner and a continental breakfast are included in all fares. Dining tables hold four, so we were able to enjoy meeting people and discovering their reasons for choosing the Auto Train. There is a choice of several entrées, along with a roll, salad, iced tea or water, and a dessert. I enjoyed baked cod on the north leg of the trip and braised beef sirloin on the return trip. Wine and beer are available for a charge. The continental breakfast consisted of bagels, muffins,
bananas, cereal, milk, orange juice, coffee, and tea. No smoking is allowed on the Auto Train. Dining times are assigned when you check in at the station; they can be as early as 4:30 or as late as 9 p.m. Additional drinks and snacks can be purchased on the train, and complimentary coffee is available throughout the trip.
Logistics. Departure times from both Sanford and Lorton are 4 p.m., and arrival is scheduled for 9 a.m. You must be at the station by 2:30 p.m. to ensure your vehicle will be loaded on the train, although you can drop it off as early as 11:30 a.m. One benefit of the Sanford station is a free shuttle bus that will take you to the downtown area (five minutes away) if you want to get a bite to eat or do a little walking before boarding.
Handing off your car at the station is very efficient, similar to returning a rental car. The drivers who put the cars on the train put in paper floor mats and protect the back of the driver’s seat with plastic. The train waiting stations are fairly roomy, with a little store where you can buy some snacks or magazines. You can board the train at 2:30 p.m.
Unloading the vehicles moves smoothly, but there can be a wait of up to two hours to get your car, depending on when it’s your car’s “turn” (the time you check in doesn’t correlate with when your car will be unloaded). If you want to pay an additional $50 per one-way trip, your car will be among the first to be driven out of the freight cars. We didn’t pay the extra $50, and our car took 50 minutes to be off-loaded in Lorton and only 25 minutes to be on our way on the return trip to Sanford.
A glitch. Departing from Sanford was a delight. The Auto Train left on time and arrived in Lorton on time. On the return trip, however, the train stopped about 7 a.m. because of a tree on the tracks. Passengers had to wait for the removal of the tree, and then we needed to make an additional stop to change out the crew, who had surpassed the number of hours they were allowed to work. So, although we were scheduled to arrive at 9 a.m., we pulled into the station about 11:15 a.m. According to Amtrak, the Auto Train has an on-time arrival of 68 percent over the last 12 months.
Cost. Like an airplane ticket, the ticket cost can vary depending on the date you book and where you’re sitting/sleeping. For my husband and me, the cost of the bedroom and vehicle from Sanford to Lorton was $950; the return trip from Lorton to Sanford, with a roomette, was $550. Of course, if you take the Auto Train, there are no rental car fees, no airplane baggage fees because your luggage is in the car, no wear and tear on your vehicle, no meal or gas costs, and no hotel room if you need to spend the night because you don’t want to drive that long without stopping. Does the Auto Train save you money over driving yourself or flying? Probably not, unless you travel coach and catch the lower fares the days you travel.
Were we glad we did it and would we do it again? Absolutely. Other than the cramped shower and delay (and believe me, we’ve had airport and road delays aplenty), it was fun, novel, we had an efficient and courteous crew, we avoided the negatives of flying or driving, there was lots of time to read, we enjoyed looking out the window at the passing scenery, and we were well-rested when we arrived.
Purchasing tickets is easy, too. We did ours online, but you can buy tickets at the station, make a reservation over the phone, or go through a travel agent. By the way, no vehicle, no seat on the Auto Train.
So, think about choo-choo choosing the Auto Train. Their clever phone number really resonated with us: 1-877-SKIP-I-95. All aboard. (P.S. Our son’s wedding was wonderful.)
Jan Cullinane is an award-winning and best-selling retirement author, speaker and consultant.