All Aboard! Amtrak Auto Train

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Auto Train car carriers
Loading cars into the Auto Train car carriers.

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.)

Auto Train Bedroom by day.
The Bedroom provides a bathroom toilet/shower and sink plus couch and chair by day and bunk beds by night.

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.

 

Sanford Auto Train station
The Sanford Auto Train 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.**

 

Auto Train dinner
Dinner, like the chicken marsala shown here, is included with your fare.

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.

PROS:

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).

CONS:

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.

View from Auto Train
The Auto Train provides beautiful views of the mid-Atlantic region.

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Julia Mascardo

Former writer, editor, and social media manager of TouringPlans. Embarking on new adventures with husband, kid, and cats.

16 thoughts on “All Aboard! Amtrak Auto Train

    • August 19, 2014 at 10:40 am
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      Thanks for the kudos. Also thanks for the link about tipping — I think it is so important to give a little (monetary) extra for people who really help make the trip such an enjoyable experience.

      Reply
  • August 19, 2014 at 10:43 am
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    I wish the Autotrain was a better option because the concept is great.
    However,every time we look at it it is just a terrible waste of money and time. It costs more than flying, and it takes even longer than driving (you drive about 13-14 hours from Northern Virginia) and it is not like you don’t have to drive to/from and sit at the stations, both ends, for hours sometimes. Woe to those who are one of the last cars off, you can wait quite a while. Plus, it is often late.
    If you like sleeping in chairs than you might arrive rested (being a regular red-eye traveler, I do not care much for this). You could pay extra for a room, which is a bit better for more money.
    Finally, the cost of the car’s ticket alone is about the same as a rental for a week if you should fly.
    Drive to Georgia or Northern Florida, get a room, a great meal and good nights rest and arrive early at WDW the next morning. You will spend less time, money and be well-rested. For flyers, I find it hard to view a 2 hour flight as exhausting in comparison. I think most people commute more every day (at least in the DC area they do.
    All that said, it can be fun to do it once, it is just not economical. Personally I think it is better to do it on your return. It helps take the edge off of having to drive away from the Disney magic and back to the daily grind. Plus, there is no no discount for a round-trip, they just charge based on the day of the year.
    So, I would give it a go if you never have done it. And hey, if the extra cost and time offset the additional driving hours for you personally, than use it regularly. I just wanted to highlight some of the factors.

    Reply
    • August 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm
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      Hi DVCDad,

      Totally agree that it can be quite the expense and not for everyone, and am glad that you agree that it is something to try at least once.

      Part of the exhaustion for me when flying is likely stress induced because of the fear of flying. 😉 But when taking into account a 2.5 hour flight, it also included for us the 30 minute drive to BWI, the 15 minutes on the parking shuttle bus, the 30 minutes of check-in, all so that we could get to the security checkpoint 2 hours early for a flight that was usually at least 30 minutes late. Thus, that 2.5 hour flight was almost a 7-hour ordeal. That doesn’t include circling around waiting to land if there’s a weather delay. (My least favorite landing at MCO story — when the pilot came on saying “We’re almost out of fuel, so we’re going to try and land.” We made it down in one piece, but “TRY!?!?”? Ugh.) For whatever reason, flying also tends to trigger migraines from me (from the pressure changes and dehydration) and I’ve often gotten sick from someone on the plane coughing and sneezing the plague all over everyone’s body in that enclosed petri dish. Needless to say, I’d almost rather hitchhike from point A to B than get on a plane. 🙂

      I’ve not done the coach seats (the sleeping in chairs bit), because I tend to work on the train and find a private room more amenable to that.

      When we moved down in April, we did the I-95 drive, and it was exhausting and a less-than-positive experience. (Even though we stayed in well-rated hotels, the clientele in the hotel the second night made for a very noisy and not-at-all-child-friendly evening.) We also didn’t have much luck finding good food off of I-95, but as we’re likely to have to make that schlepp by car at some point in the future, I’d love to hear suggestions! We were coming from Maryland and stopped for the night in Fayetteville and then the second night in Kingsland, GA. Ironically, when I did the travel up the I-95 corridor with my family way back in the day, the best hotel we stayed at was at South of the Border!

      Part of the reason that I took the Auto Train on the trip that I reviewed here is that it was just myself and DD4 for this trip. Although I have no doubt I could have safely traveled just myself and kiddo along I-95, I think all of the various family members involved were glad that I was not going it alone.

      Another benefit of taking it going northbound after a Disney trip would be to have all that room for souvenirs — and not having to worry about items getting damaged in suitcases!

      So yes, my preferences would be train first, driving second, and plane third — or hitchhike third and plane fourth if it wasn’t so darn illegal to hitchhike up I-95! Now if only Disney Cruise Line would offer a cruise from Orlando to Baltimore, I’d be all set….

      Reply
    • August 22, 2014 at 5:42 pm
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      Amen…. good kool aid needs just the right amount of water.

      Although, in this case, I’m truly interested in people’s experience on the auto train. I love it.

      Reply
  • August 19, 2014 at 10:46 am
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    We’ve booked the auto train down to FL next April – I’ve heard great things about it from other travelers. With two small children it only cost us about $100 more than flying. Worth it if I don’t have to pay $200 worth of luggage fees.

    Reply
    • August 19, 2014 at 12:04 pm
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      Another benefit with small kids is that on the train, you have the ability to get up and let them move around, which isn’t an option on a plane, and is only an option when you stop on a long car trip. Our first trip on the Auto Train was with an infant, and knowing that we could break out the changing pad and change her whenever (and without trying to cram into an airplane lavatory!) gave us huge peace of mind.

      Reply
  • August 19, 2014 at 12:33 pm
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    Thank you for your article. Always dismissed this as an option; however the entire flight (including overnight at airport hotel) becomes a major event. The auto train seems to be a nice option to try.

    Reply
  • August 19, 2014 at 6:52 pm
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    I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to and from WDW via the Auto Train three times. It would be more if it weren’t for the extra cost. It’s so much more relaxing and pleasant than flying.

    Reply
  • August 20, 2014 at 2:06 pm
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    I think the main reason the Auto Train isn’t popular in the Northeast is that you need to drive through a lot of awful traffic and tolls just to get to Lorton.

    There are definitely benefits to being on the train, but from the Northwest the rest of the drive to Florida on I-95 (beyond Lorton) is peaceful, cheap, and “easy” in comparison to the trek to get there. 🙂

    Reply
  • August 22, 2014 at 5:52 pm
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    I’ve NEVER understood, being an I 75 traveler and not 95.

    But recently I drove in the northeast, and if all 18 hours of the drive are in awful traffic, I would want an alternate.

    Additional point: train doesn’t stop at south of the border in south Carolina.

    Reply
  • August 24, 2014 at 9:29 am
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    We like to overnight in Charleston, SC when driving I-95 from the DC area to Orlando. Charleston is a bit out of the way, but we get there late and then spend the next morning exploring the town before heading to Orlando after lunch. We have really enjoyed our visits to Charleston, and the kids love all the outdoor areas, parks, and farmers market. Lastly, there are some really great restaurant choices all over Charleston, no matter your tastes.

    I appreciate your post on the Autotrain, and will look into it for future trips. We don’t like to fly (funny, because I work in aviation), and driving can be exhausting. The Autotrain definitely looks like a “try it at least once” option!

    Reply
  • August 30, 2014 at 3:14 pm
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    Great article. We recently took Amtrak out of Union Station to Orlando this past spring. I would recommend the sleeping cars for the return trip. We did coach both ways and I think a private room on the return would have been nice. In our case, Amtrak was over $1000 cheaper than flying. We are considering the trip out of Lorton for spring 2015 so this is very useful.

    Reply
  • September 23, 2021 at 7:57 pm
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    Where did the baby sleep? We are considering taking the auto train with an 8 month old and I worry about sleeping arrangements.

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    • September 24, 2021 at 8:30 am
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      Hi, Amanda,

      The bottom bunk folds out into slightly larger than a twin bed, so we brought a baby lounger (something similar to this: https://www.amazon.com/Mamibaby-Portable-Breathable-Lounger-Co-Sleeping/dp/B07RXB7ZKP) and the baby slept next to me on the bottom bunk. (I positioned her towards the inside wall of the bunk so that she wouldn’t roll or slide off the bunk if the train stopped suddenly.)

      As she got older, we switched to the family bedroom which gave a little more room for her to have her own toddler-sized bed area.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  • September 24, 2021 at 8:33 am
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    Thank you very much!

    Reply

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