Traveling on Amtrak auto train from Florida to Virginia this past March was quite an adventure. Keep in mind, my boyfriend L (now my ex BF and no we didn’t break up after sharing a tiny bedroom on the auto train, although if you want to break up with someone, squeezing him or her into an auto train bed or putting him or her on the top bunk might be a good way to do it! LOL) and I were journeying during Covid-19 before we had our vaccines so we were extra cautious.
Needless to say, I survived (so did L) and am here to share my trials, tribulations and tips for using this mode of transportation. I’ll be frank, even though the ride wasn’t the lap of luxury, considering what bad weather we had during our drive down to Florida from New Jersey, the road trip back using Amtrak auto train was quicker, and for the most part, much less taxing on the physical body. We left Florida at 4:00 p.m. on a Monday and arrived the next day in Virginia a little after 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday — about 17 hours.
Book early when traveling during peak season
“There weren’t any spaces available when we tried to take the Amtrak auto train,” said my friend J. “You have to book early during peak season.” That’s why in September 2020 when we decided we were going to take the auto train home from Florida in March 2021, we did our research and secured a spot almost six months in advance. It wasn’t easy navigating the Amtrak auto train website as a first-timer. I recommend calling Amtrak Customer Service 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800- 872-7245) if you have any questions.
Going southbound, the Amtrak auto train station is right outside D.C. in Lorton , VA. Northbound travelers pick up the train in Sanford, FL outside Orlando. We found the Sanford station farther from the highway and more difficult to find.
Many choices in accommodations
One important aspect is determining your accommodations on Amtrak auto train. There are six different options ranging in price from $140 for a coach seat per person all the way to over $1300 for a Bedroom for two. It’s not an inexpensive way to travel but you do save 900 miles of driving, gasoline and wear and tear on your car on this overnight train passage. Here are the choices:
Upper and Lower Coach Class Seats are the cheapest way to go. It’s like a regular train trip in a coach seat, only the ride is overnight so you’ll have to sleep sitting up. I prefer the upper level seat to see outside, although you will spend about half of the time shut eye.
Roomette is a small private space for two people with seats by day that convert to upper and lower berths by night (which are basically beds). There is no private bathroom. You have access to a bathroom and shower in your cabin that you share with others in that cabin.
Bedroom is twice the size of a Roomette. The big difference is there is a sink, bathroom and shower in your room.
Bedroom Suite is twice the size of a Bedroom and has an additional sink. It’s even more expensive.
Family Bedroom has two sofas by day and two upper and lower beds by night. This is similar to the Roomette in that you don’t have a bathroom in your room, only in the cabin that you share with others.
Accessible Bedrooms are available if you need access for a wheelchair or have a disability.
Which did we choose and what was the cost?
Again because of Covid-19, we wanted a separate room. At the time of booking there was a Family Bedroom available that was the lowest price room for two so we booked it.
To give you an idea of pricing, in March 2021 the Family Room cost was $306 during peak season and the Bedroom with private bathroom inside was more. The rail fares were additional at $140 per person. So we’re up to $586 so far.
Complimentary dinner and breakfast are included. Our dinner was served in our room due to Covid-19. Breakfast was continental pick up in the dining car. During normal times you can have meals in the dining car.
Remember to book your vehicle
There is a separate cost to take your automobile on the Amtrak auto train — don’t forget to book your car. Prices vary depending on the size and style of the car. The 2020 charge for my sedan was $258. You can also pay $60 extra like we did for priority off-loading which means your car is one of the first 30 cars off the train. The great thing about taking the car on the train is that you can load it up with lots of stuff as if it was a suitcase.
Be sure to read the details about load-on time for the car. The station opens at 11:30 a.m. for passengers and vehicles. All passengers and vehicles must be checked in by 2:30 p.m. on day of travel. The train departs at 4:00 p.m.
Trials, tribulations and tips
Now that I’m looking back on my trip, I have several tips for taking the Amtrak auto train:
When booking your trip remember to buy a ticket for each person. “I see my name on the ticket but not yours,” I said to L after we made our online northbound reservation. We called Amtrak Customer Service 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245) because we were confused about how to add a second passenger. Sadly we thought the expensive Bedroom cost included the cost of a ticket for two! We had to modify our reservation.
Leave plenty of time to get to the train station. “I think we might miss the train,” I said to L as we watched the clock tick closer to 2:30 p.m. We thought four hours was enough time to get from Naples to Sanford. It wasn’t with all the traffic near Orlando. We spent over an hour sitting in traffic near Disneyland. We were very nervous. Thankfully our GPS rerouted us and we made it to the station by 2:00 p.m. While the train doesn’t leave until 4:00 p.m. all cars must be loaded by 2:30 p.m.
Bring extra food for lunch and snacks. “I’m hungry and there’s mostly candy and chips at the snack bar in the train station,” said L. We had planned to stop on the way to pick up some lunch, beverages and snacks — with delays there was no time to make any stops. I had a few water bottles and some pretzels in my carry-on bag, nothing substantial. Meals on the train were similar to airplane food — not worth writing about except for the ice cream sundae.
Pack a small overnight carry-on bag with toiletries, a tee and comfy leggings or sweat pants for sleeping, loafers or sandals that can be slipped on when you need to leave the room for a potty break, and clothing for the next day. Towels are provided.
Read the details of each type of accommodation and make sure you understand what it includes: “What do you mean we don’t have a bathroom in our Family Room?” I said to our nice attendant Whitney upon boarding the train. “Family Rooms don’t include private bathrooms,” she replied. “Ugh, I can’t believe we paid all this money and we don’t have our own bathroom,” I said to L.
Let the attendant set up the beds. “Turn down service is from 8:00 – 10:00 p.m.,” said Whitney. She came at 9:00 p.m. and opened our beds. FYI the two extra beds are for kiddies and kiddie size! Our couch folded out into a double bed. We also had a bunk bed, however I was feeling uncomfortable sleeping above L so we slept next to each other. Squish, squish, squish, my body was close to the wall. Squish, squish, squish, I had to climb over L to get out to the bathroom (BTW the flush button is under the sink) while he was sleeping. Squish, squish, squish, I had to climb back into my corner. Glad I was heavily medicated for sleep.
Charge your phone, Kindle, tablet or laptop before boarding. Or bring extra portable chargers — we found only one outlet in our bedroom and it was for an electric razor. My iPad was fully charged and I downloaded some television shows and a movie for after dinner viewing. There is wifi but it is spotty at best during the trip. Our train made one stop in Florence, SC around 1:00 a.m. to refuel and change conductors.
Big question: Was it worth it and would I do it again?
It was expensive to book the auto train with a Bedroom during peak season. Our grand total for the two of us one way was $904.
For comparison purposes, based on my research:
If you have a transport service ship your car up or down the Northeast from NJ to FL during peak season it’s more than $1200 one way plus you have to add the cost of your airfare — and the day of arrival for your car is not guaranteed.
If you drive the entire 1200 miles one way and stay in hotels along the route — in February we took a leisurely southbound drive of about six hours a day, left NJ on a Friday and arrived in FL on a Monday — the cost is similar. Depending on when you go you could hit bad weather during the winter months like we did between NC and FL. The auto train cuts out all those miles.
“Wow, we’re home in less than four hours,” I said to L. “The auto train wasn’t that bad after all.” We both agreed we’d rate it a B or B+ and would definitely do it again.
Have you ever taken the Amtrak auto train? If so, leave a comment and LMK how you found the trip.
P.S.: If you missed my previous posts about my month-long stay in Florida you can find links below: