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My Amtrak Auto Train Experience

By Cindy of Stone Marmot

Aug. 16, 2008

Recently I had to make a trip from here in Florida to Pennsylvania to visit my family. After comparing all my options, driving there seemed to be the cheapest alternative, but not by much anymore, due to high gas prices. I also don't look forward to the long, boring, tiring two day, over 1100 mile, drive each way.

I used to often fly there. But airfares have gone up a lot in recent years. Plus my parents are no longer able to pick me up at the airport, so I have to figure how to get to and from the nearest airport, which is over 50 miles away from my parents fairly rural home. About the only safe option is a rental car. But rental cars costs are often comparable to, if not more than, airfare. Add to that all the extra fees, baggage restrictions, security, etc., flying has become a rather unpleasant experience.

So I looked again at the Amtrak Auto Train. I had briefly looked at it about 15 years ago, but rejected it as being at least three times as expensive as flying. But not anymore. I found I could get a round trip Amtrak ticket for less than $600 (much less for vehicles smaller than my truck). Add another $100 for my costs for driving to and from the Amtrak stations, the $700 total cost is comparable (and much cheaper for a multiweek trip) to flying and renting a car. This is still a couple hundred dollars more expensive than driving all the way, but the Auto Train is far less stressful.

For those unfamiliar with the Auto Train, this train takes you and your vehicle to its destination. You cannot travel on this train unless you have an accompanying vehicle. The result is as if you drove the whole way yourself, except Amtrak does about 800 miles of the driving for you, so it is a lot less stressful.

The train leaves 4:00 PM one day and arrives around 9:30 AM the next day, for about 17 and a half hours total travel time. There is only one scheduled stop on the way, which is about at the half way point to change some critical crew. All trains go from either Lorton, Virginia (about 30 miles south of Washington, DC.) to Sanford, Florida (about 20 miles north of Orlando), or vice versa. I heard the reason the trains don't go any further is that this is the longest stretch of rail that can handle the height of the train's cars.

The only real baggage restriction is only one carry-on with you while riding the train and as much otherwise as your vehicle can hold. Since you are only staying on the train one night each way, the one carry-on is not much of a problem. You have no access to your vehicle during the trip.

All the rail cars are two levels. Most of the seating is on the top level, with facilities, like bathrooms, as well as some lounges and some seats, on the bottom level. You can request a seat on the bottom level if you desire. There was a separate lounge car with a lounge that served drinks and snacks, some of which cost extra. They don't serve drinks or food to you at your seat like the airlines do. There is free drinking water available in all cars. They also show a free movie in the lounge car.

There are separate dining cars. A free dinner and breakfast come with each ticket. All tables seat four. Since there is limited space on these trains, the attendants assign you to a table as you enter the dining car. So, if there are less that four in your party, you will probably be seated with strangers. I, as well as all I talked to, rather enjoyed this as you got to meet so many interesting people this way.

The meals were rather good. There are usually four or five dinner entrees to choose from. Breakfast is cold cereal, rolls, bagels, and fruit, with a limited selection of each item. For most people, the meals would be filling. But, if you have a big appetite like my bandmate Sammy, you may want to bring some extra food along with you in your one carry-on.

Since your seat is on the upper level, you have a good view of everything you pass. Most of the view is rather scenic, though you do occasionally go through some rather worn neighborhoods and some industrial areas. I was expecting it to be bumpy and noisy, like in the movies. But the ride is exceptionally quiet and very smooth, with just a very occasional bump at an occasional road crossing or track switching area. If you walk around, though, you will usually notice a pronounced swaying of the cars. This swaying isn't noticeable when seated.

I, as most people, didn't get a sleeping cabin. I just slept in my seat. Since the seats and surrounding area are far larger than any even first class seats on an airplane, I was rather comfortable. Many I talked to complained that they never sleep well on these trains. I can sleep almost anywhere (I do a lot of camping and sleep on the ground a lot), so I had no problem. Many had tried the sleeping cabins, but found they didn't sleep any better in the cabins as in their seats, so on subsequent trips they just opted to sleep in their seats and save the extra couple hundred dollars for a cabin.

Negatives? Just two that I can think of (three if you have a big appetite like Sammy). One is that the previous train was late getting into my station on my return from PA. This resulted in my having to wait in line in my parked car for over an hour when I got to Lorton until they offloaded the train before they could accept us. I don't know why the train was late. I heard at breakfast that our train had to make on unscheduled stop due to a medical emergency, though this was never formally announced and we were less than 20 minutes late in arriving in Sanford, FL.

Another problem I had was my rear view mirror in my vehicle was loose when I got back to Florida. It fell off the window within a week of getting home. Someone was a little rough adjusting my mirror when moving my vehicle on or off the train.

Would I travel this way again? I've already booked another trip on the Auto Train, so the answer is obviously yes. Traveling on the Auto Train makes the trip a bit of an adventure rather than just a big chore.

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