“Let’s take the Amtrak Auto Train to Florida,” I said to my BFF M last fall when we were planning our winter road trip south for our 2023 snowbird stay. She would be staying for one month, I for three. I had taken the Auto Train northbound in 2021 and survived the ride. (You can read about my first adventure where I provide helpful tips in a previous post.)
“It’s cuts out significant miles and after one overnight we’ll be in Orlando.” M was hesitant but open to the adventure. Now on the other side, we both said while it’s not perfect, it gets the job done and we would do it again. Mind you that wasn’t the case for our new Canadian BFFs who were our traveling companions in the roomette next door. One and done they exclaimed on departure. I think it was the bunk bed that did them in. I should have mentioned that if you climb into a bunk you’re sunk!
Come and join me for our ride and I’ll tell you more
“We better book our Amtrak Auto Train tickets soon. Tickets may sell out,” I said to M. By the time I went online in mid- September to secure a roomette for two plus two rail fares plus car transport from Lorton, VA Auto Train Station (nearby D.C. off I95) to Sanford, FL Auto Train Station (in Orlando) for the last week in December, the train was 70 percent full.
There are all types of lodging. With Covid still a concern, we chose a roomette rather than a less costly regular seat. We didn’t want to sleep alongside so many passengers in one cabin. Our roomette did not include a private bath — we made do with hallway shares. There are a few roomettes with private baths which are very expensive.
Ka’ching, ka’ching, riding the Amtrak Auto Train is not cheap
Two adult rail fares $286 + one roomette for two $565 + automobile $269 = Grand total $1120.
Priority off-boarding of your car is an additional $60. Instead of waiting more than an hour for your car, it’s off the train in about 30 minutes. I learned that only 30 lucky individuals get these passes. They sell out quickly.
Ready, set, check in at Lorton Station
Our drive to Lorton took about three hours from Southern New Jersey. It’s a simple ride down Route 295 and I95. Check in begins at 12:30 pm. We arrived at 1:00 pm and the indoor waiting area was already quite full.
“Don’t bring too much luggage,” I said to M. “Just what you need for the evening and early morn.” We both brought large totes with toiletries and our tablets and chargers. We also brought some snacks and water bottles.
Once our car was loaded onto the train, we checked inside to confirm our reservation. “What time would you like to have dinner in the dining car. 5, 7 or 9 pm,” asked the receptionist. We selected 7 pm. Only those with roomettes have dinner included. Others must purchase food.
We had plenty of time before boarding began at 4:00 pm and the train departed at 5:00 pm. We walked back and forth nearby the tracks wheeling our luggage cart for exercise. Thankfully it was a nice warm afternoon.
One of the negatives is that you have to hang out at the Lorton Station for several hours. The latest check-in for a car is 3:00 pm and you don’t want to miss that or your car will be left behind.
All-aboard said the attendant on the loud-speaker
At 4:00 pm we were ready and waiting. With 600 people on our sold out train, it took an hour to get everyone boarded and settled in their respective seats and roomettes.
“I’ll do your turndown service,” said our nice porter Lee. Porters magically turn the seats into beds and pull down the upper bunks. They also do the reverse in the morning. “We’ll pass on the bunk bed,” I said to Lee. “We’ll do our best to both sleep on the lower bed. I’m claustrophobic and the upper bed is really, really close to the ceiling. And climbing up the stairs to the bunk is not something I care to try either.”
Beware that you likely won’t get quality sleep on the Auto Train. The ride is bumpy and beds not comfy. M and I made do sleeping opposite ways but didn’t get much shut eye.
“That’s not why we’re taking the Auto Train,” I reminded M. “Think of the 17 hours of driving we’re missing. It’s worth it.”
Our dinner in the dining car awaits
When I last took the Auto Train north during earlier Covid, dinner was brought to our roomette. On this journey we shuffled (or should I say stumbled our way due to our speedy conductor) to the dining car. “Don’t get excited for dinner,” I said to M and to our new Canadian BFFs. “It’s not a gourmet meal.” Indeed it wasn’t. The salmon overcooked, green beans cold, and rice, well what can you do to rice. Desserts were slim pickings and not worth the calories.
That’s not why we’re taking the Auto Train,” I prompted. “Think of the 8 hours it took us to get from Rocky Mount, NC to Savannah last year. We’re missing all that traffic. It’s worth it.”
Note to self: If I take the Auto Train again I must remember to bring my own food.
Good morning Sanford Station
After little shut-eye and a lukewarm cup of coffee and packaged muffin for breakfast, we arrived in Sanford Station at 10:30 am. We were excited to get off the train and greet the day. We said our goodbyes and exchanged numbers with our new Canadian BFFs, who like us were snowbirds in route to Florida’s West Coast.
“Is that our car?” we exclaimed every time a dark grey sedan rolled off another automobile ramp. The process reminded me of the luggage ramp at the airport, when you hope the next black bag will be yours.
It was about 90 minutes before my dark gray sedan was off and running. Indeed it takes a long time to unload 325 cars.
“That’s not why we took the Auto Train,” I said one last time as we drove away. We left Virginia on Wednesday and today’s Thursday and we’re here in Flo-ree-da. No traffic, no bathroom breaks, no gas pump refills. And what’s even better, we’re going to Disney World!”
We looked at each other and smiled. We’re going to Disney World! The Amtrak Auto Train wasn’t all that bad. If you think you want to try the Amtrak Auto Train south-or-north-bound,
here are some useful tips:
– Book early, the Auto Train sells out during peak season, going south bound in December, January and February and going northbound end of March and April.
– If available, pay extra for the “early off” automobile fee. It’s worth not waiting so long on the backend to get your car.
– Bring your own food for dinner, breakfast and snacks.
– Download some shows or podcasts on your tablet or mobile phone for entertainment. Or bring your Kindle or a good book.
– Sleep on the top bunk at your own risk.
– It’s not required that you tip the porters. I did because Lee was helpful.
– If you are traveling with a service dog or you or a loved one are handicapped be sure to alert Amtrak when you book your ticket.
– Accept that you won’t get much sleep. But remember, you’re missing 17 hours of drive time.
Have you ever taken the Amtrak Auto Train? LMK your thoughts about the experience.
P.S. Stay tuned for my recap of our fab Disney World vacay. It was fun being a kid for a day in the Magic Kingdom.