While living in Maryland, we would often fly to Orlando, and I’d say my prayers, grit my teeth, and bear it. Once we had a child and realized that we’d be paying hundreds of dollars to bring all of the stuff that a baby seems to require for a week somewhere other than home, plus have to deal with the “fun” of flying with an infant, we looked into travel on the Amtrak Auto Train. Our first trip with our daughter was when she was six months. Since then, we have taken sixteen trips on the Auto Train. I am still surprised at how many people in the Northeast U.S. have not heard about this service, however.
The Auto Train runs daily non-stop between Sanford, Florida (approximately 1 hour from Walt Disney World) and Lorton, Virginia (approximately 30 minutes from Washington, D.C.). When you purchase fare on the Auto Train, you have the option of Coach (a seat comparable to a first-class or business-class airline seat) or Sleeper accommodations. There are three types of sleeper accommodations.
- Roomette: A very cozy accommodation with two seats facing each other and a table between them during the day, which converts to a set of bunk beds at night.
- Bedroom: A larger room that has its own private toilet/shower and sink. During the day, it has a couch and a chair. At night, the couch folds down into a slightly larger bed and there is a standard bunk above it.
- Family Bedroom: The largest of the rooms, and capable of holding two adults and two children. It does not have a private bathroom, but is directly down the hall from restroom facilities.
(Handicap accessible rooms are also available upon request.)
When you book, you also select the size of vehicle that you are bringing on board and the number of passengers.
The Auto Train station opens for arrivals at 11:30 AM (unless the inbound train is delayed), and the last car must check in by 3:00 PM. As cars arrive, they are assigned a number and loaded on to the enclosed train car carriers.
Before you leave your vehicle, you take whatever you need for the evening and the next morning. Space is limited, so most people opt to carry an overnight bag, some snacks, a pillow, and some form of entertainment (such as portable electronics). You are also encouraged to take any valuables out of the car with you.
Inside the terminal, you check in and receive your room or seat assignment and select the time you want to have dinner. The terminal is what you would expect from a small airport. There is a small gift shop with snack foods and an outdoor playground area for the kids. The Lorton station also has two train boards for kids to play with, however since they were first set up, the trains on the boards have disappeared. We always bring some cheap toy cars with us for my daughter to play with and share with other kids in the station.
Once on board, you get settled in your accommodations and meet your attendant. Although the train stops overnight in Florence, South Carolina to switch conductors and refuel, you will have the same attendant all the way through the trip. He or she will explain a bit about the train and dinner seating as well as confirm your desired turndown time and see if you want a wake-up call. The train pulls out of the station promptly at 4:00 PM.
At that point, you can just sit back and relax until your dinner time.* While the train moves along, you can sit back and watch the countryside pass by. In the evening, there are also showings of movies on the TVs in the Lounge car.
Dinner is included with the price of your fare, and includes dishes like braised beef sirloin, chicken marsala, spinach lasagna rolls, or chicken nuggets or pizza for the kids. Also included are non-alcoholic beverages (Pepsi products, iced tea, milk, or juice) and dessert. Beer and wine are available for purchase.**
In the morning, a light continental breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, corn muffins, cereal, fruit, juice, and coffee and tea are served from 6:00 to 8:00 AM. The train is scheduled to arrive at 9:30 AM, although I have been on a train that arrived as early as 7:30 AM or, in one incredibly bad trip from heck, as late as 12:30 PM.
Once the train arrives, the cars are offloaded. When your number is called, you get in your car and drive away. In total, it can take up to an hour and a half to completely empty a maximum-capacity Auto Train, although most of my trips have had less than an hour wait to get our vehicle. Priority offloading is available for an additional fee by calling Amtrak’s reservation line (877-SKIP-I95).
I’m a big fan of pro and con lists to make decisions, so here are the pros and cons of taking the Auto Train.
The trip is part of the vacation. One of my best memories on the Auto Train was riding through in December and seeing all sorts of old Virginia homes decorated with lights. We do some birdwatching in Florida and we’ve even seen the Marines working out in Quantico. It is a great way to see a part of America by traveling through.
You arrive more rested. I’ve flown from Baltimore to Florida and I’ve driven I-95 that whole way. In either case, the only thing keeping me going when I arrive is adrenaline. I’m grumpy, exhausted, and feel more like crawling into bed than heading for the parks. On the Auto Train, I wake up feeling relaxed and ready to have a great day.
Unlike an airline, you can bring as much as you can fit into your car. This was the big selling point for us when we were carrying an infant bathtub, car seat, jogging stroller, regular stroller, portable high chair, changing pad, case of diapers, case of formula, bottles, bottle sterilizer, bottle warmer, toys, and all of our clothes. On later trips, we didn’t have to worry about weighing our suitcases or having to negotiate airport terminals with them in tow.
If you have to work in transit, you can comfortably get work done. Wi-Fi is available in the lounge car, and if you have a mobile hotspot, you can work from the convenience of your room or coach seat. In fact, I wrote this article while on the Southbound Auto Train while my daughter was sprawled out on the bed playing with Frozen figurines!
You have your own car at the other end. I’ve had good experiences and bad experiences with rental cars. There is nothing like driving your own car, however.
Weather cancellations are extremely rare. Twice we have taken the Auto Train when flights from Orlando to Baltimore were cancelled (once for a snowstorm and once for a tropical storm).
It is more expensive than flying in most cases. If you book a coach seat and are using your car instead of renting a car for a week, the cost will generally break even on a one-way trip. Adding a room does add additional cost, depending on the size of the room and time of year and direction of travel (as many snowbirds use the Auto Train in the early summer for northbound and late fall for southbound).
It does take longer than flying. To fly from Baltimore to Orlando takes about 2 ½ hours. To take the Auto Train takes around 17 hours. On the other hand, a majority of those 17 hours are during hours when you’d be sleeping.
Some people do not like the feeling of being on the train. If you have severe motion sickness, traveling on the train may not be for you. The motion of the train as a slight sway and a lot of bounce to it – like light turbulence. For most people, once you get used to it, you tend not to notice it, however. It also tends to make some people really sleepy.
Sitting with strangers. The dining car is comprised of tables that seat four people. If you are less than a party of four, you will have one or more people seated with you. I’ve been lucky to meet some really interesting people for dinner. I’ve also had some people who made me glad that dinner is done in about an hour. If you don’t like being seated with other people, this may be the most uncomfortable part of the trip.
If the Auto Train is a convenient option for you in terms of location, times, and budget, I do think it is a wonderful experience for everyone to try at least once. Only then can you decide if it is best for you to be All Aboard!
* Those who have taken the Auto Train in the past may remember the free wine, cheese, vegetable, and snack mix available in the lounge from 3-4 PM. Unfortunately, that has been discontinued as of May 2014.
** Yeah, the free wine with dinner is gone as well.