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So you live in the Northeast and want to take your family to Florida. Do you spend the money or miles, fly everyone and then rent a car when you land, or suck it up and just drive down I-95? Well, maybe not.
There's a third option that you've probably heard of, but probably haven't given much thought to either: the Auto Train, which lets you drive your car on rails. Amtrak has operated an Auto Train between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida for over 25 years. Unless you live in Lorton or Sanford (or haven't flown to central Florida on Allegiant), you might not have heard of either city, but Lorton is south of Washington, D.C., and the Sanford Auto Train Station is about a 45-minute drive north of Disney World.
With the Auto Train, you can not only take your car on the train, but actually take it with yourequiresthat you take a vehicle with you on the journey. If you only want to board the train between New York and Florida, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star lines are for you.
The Auto Train departs from Lorton and Sanford around 4pm each afternoon and arrives the following morning. While there is a stop late at night to change crews, the train makes no stops en route for passengers to board or disembark. It's a straight shot that takes around 14 hours to complete, although you're probably closer to 17 hours on the train overall.
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In this post
The Auto Train is the only Amtrak train that runs between Lorton and Sanford. So there is no chance of booking the wrong train if your journey includes these two stations, but there are still booking problems.
Amtrak's website works for regular reservations, but has trouble handling some of the Auto Train configurations. The Auto Train offers a variety of seating/sleeping options: reserved coach seating (both upper and lower decks), Superliner Roomette (both decks), family bedroom (lower deck only), and Superliner bedroom (both decks).
The Superliner Roomette sleeps two people, while the Family Room sleeps up to two adults and two children. The Superliner bedroom technically sleeps three, but Amtrak's website doesn't let you book it online for three passengers. Telephone agents are more than capable of solving this problem, usually after a healthy wait.
In all dormitories, neither the website nor the phone agents can book them for a total of more passengers than the listed capacity. I inquired about booking a fourth passenger on a reserved bus seat but that that person ends up sleeping in the Superliner bedroom. The phone agent I spoke to told me it was entirely at the discretion of the cabin crew for our train car. Besides, that's a bad idea. You don't want to try and sleep four people in a Superliner bedroom - trust me.
Amtrak offers a number of publicly available discounts, although the vast majority do not apply to the Auto Train. Child Auto Train fares are generally available for 50% of the adult fare. However, only on the basic tariff, also in the sleeping car. Amtrak divides the fare into two categories for each passenger. The basic tariff roughly corresponds to the bus price for this segment (whether saver, saver or other tariffs). The sleeper portion of the fare is the other portion and was not discounted on either our trip or any of the test bookings we tried.
Despite this, adult seats on the Auto Train generally range from $105 to $140 per seatAmtrak is running a promotionon certain days you may be able to snag a seat for $89 one way, but with limited availability.Roomettes range from around $450 to just over $600 for two passengers.Superliner bedrooms range from $500 to $725 for two passengers. A third passenger would add between $60 (child) and $140 (adult). Family rooms range from approximately $850 to $1150 for a family of two adults and two children under 12 (children under 2 stay free in all cabins when accompanied by a paying adult).
As part of the booking process, you must specify your vehicle type and whether you would like preferred vehicle unloading. Transportation of standard cars, which includes cars, vans, SUVs, and trucks with a maximum height of 85 inches and a width of 84 inches, ranges from $204 to $254 each way. A regular two-wheeled motorcycle costs $143. For all other vehicles, including modified production vehicles, you have to pick up the phone.
Preferred vehicle unloading is a flat rate of $65 per car. This guarantees that your vehicle will be one of the first 30 unloaded vehicles upon arrival. At maximum capacity, the Auto Train will hold 330 vehicles. So if you're pressed for time, seriously consider the $65 fee or arrive very early for the departure.
Amtrak makes it very easy to search for award redemptions on its website; Simply select points instead of dollars when searching for a train. However, Amtrak no longer uses a fixed award schedule. Similar to Southwest or JetBlue, award prices are roughly tied to the cash cost of the ticket. To get the most out of your points, consider using them for travel when the cheapest saver tickets are sold out.
Related:Your Guide to Amtrak Guest Rewards
If you're looking to stock up on Amtrak points, consider applying for one of two co-branded credit cards issued by Bank of America. The Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercards currently offer an enhanced welcome bonus of 40,000 points after you spend $2,500 in the first 90 days of account opening, while the no-fee Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum Mastercards offer 12,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days have spent the account opening.TPG estimates Amtrak pointsat 2.5 cents each, making these bonuses worth $1,000 and $300, respectively.
Related:The best credit cards for train travel
Vehicle acceptance for the Auto Train begins at 11:30 am at both stations. Special vehicles are accepted by 2:00 p.m. at the latest, standard vehicles by 2:30 p.m. at the latest.
Upon arrival, a gate agent will verify your boarding pass and direct you to a lane to unload your carry-on baggage. Once you exit your vehicle, you will not have access to it until it is unloaded at the arrival stations. So take all important items with you. Do not leave valuables in your vehicle. Amtrak conducts a video tour of each vehicle and records the current condition of your vehicle.
Passengers are allowed two carry-on bags, each not exceeding 28 inches by 22 inches by 14 inches and 50 pounds, and two personal items, each not exceeding 14 inches by 11 inches by 7 inches and 25 pounds. None of our bags were weighed or measured on either trip.
There is a quick check-in process for all passengers in the terminal. This is also required if you have checked in online and received a boarding pass with a barcode. You'll also select your seating for dinner on a first-come, first-served basis. In a full train, dinner is at 17:00, 19:00. and 9 p.m. On brighter days it is 9 p.m. Seats are not available.
Both stations have a reasonable amount of seating for everyone in the terminal, provided you like being friendly with your neighbors. A family of four arriving later in the afternoon will have trouble finding seats together.
There is outdoor seating in Lorton for a breath of fresh air before the long train journey. There is also a small play area for small children. And while you wait, you're free to walk across the platform — you might even catch an engineer asking questions.
Each station has a small shop with sandwiches, drinks, snacks, magazines and other sundries. Prices are reasonable, although the selection is sparser than Hudson News stores at major airports.
You can bring any snacks or drinks that you bought before your arrival. This includes alcoholic beverages, but these can only be consumed in the sleeping car. You can also bring a small cooler, up to 12" x 12" x 12", although there have been reports of people bringing larger coolers with no problem.
cabins and seats
The Auto Train bus cab looks like many other Amtrak bus cabs, but you'll find significantly more space and comfort. The seats are arranged in a 2-2 configuration and recline quite generously, similar to the sloping business class lie-flat seats that have been common on international flights for decades.
A small footrest fits well for taller travelers. The seats are padded and wide enough for you to sleep in, although you'll want to bring items like pillows, blankets, and eye masks if you need them, as there are no amenity kits.
Each carriage has bathrooms on the lower level. They're similar in size to lavatories on most domestic planes (maybe not the tiny little slimline version). There is no shower in the carriage cabin. There are also no showers in either terminal, so all you can hope for is washing your face and changing into fresh clothes after a long night train journey.
The Roomette is the smallest sleeping car variant. The seating is actually less comfortable than regular seats. You don't have the steep backrest or footrests in the coach cab, and you also share legroom with your companion.
The Roomette is a self-contained cabin with a door, so you definitely have more privacy. They also have modest air-conditioning and an easily accessible outlet (only one outlet, so consider packing a small power strip). Roomettes come with a clothes rack, but don't have much space for luggage.
Sleeper cars generally have some storage space outside the sleeping quarters. Additionally, the Roomette has a small amount of storage space under each seat that would fit a soft-sided bag.
When it's time to sleep, you'll be much happier in a Roomette than in a coach seat. The two deck chairs can be folded into a bed. Above, a bunk swings down for the second passenger. Your cabin attendant makes the beds upon request. There is even a mattress topper for the passenger sleeping in the lower bunk. The beds are 6 feet, 6 inches long and 3 feet, 6 inches wide.
The top bunk is a bit of a challenge to climb into, but there are steps built into the sides of the cabin. There is a reading light and grab rails in the bunk to keep you from falling out while driving. (The ride can get pretty bumpy at times.) Finally, there's a vent control in the ceiling, though given the cars' age it can be tricky to use.
The roomettes make up a large part of the total inventory in the sleeping car compartments. As a result, there are reports of price reductions for this room type without much notice on longer routes. If you're looking for an option that could drop in price, this is probably your best bet.
Family rooms can accommodate up to four people, specifically two adults and two children. We found these on the lower deck of the sleeper cars down a short hallway.
These rooms are quite spacious for what they are. A family of four will find plenty of space during the day. The bench seat, which stretches the width of the train, is large enough for four people. And there is a single seat on one side opposite the bench.
A fold-out tray table is located at each end of the cab with plenty of space. The tables also serve as checkers/chess boards. There is a narrow closet that would fit a garment bag or a couple of coats, but not much else.
There is also a small amount of storage space under the seats. As in the Roomette, there is no further luggage storage in the room. We probably brought a bag or two too many. Our suggestion here is that you think carefully about what you really need for the train journey and leave the rest in the car.
The Auto Train cars were built 25 years ago, when most people didn't even really think about carrying around a cell phone or its charging cable. There is an outlet near the family bedroom door - not the best location. If your family is like ours, consider packing a power strip to charge all your devices at once. You'll also find reading lights, a music volume control (yes, Amtrak has a number of stations), and a climate control, which surprised us a bit with its effectiveness. We were told to use the cabin crew call button when we were ready to have our room made up in the morning. Otherwise we treated it like a flight attendant call button.
The family bedroom seats convert to two lower bunks while two bunks fold down from the ceiling. As in the Roomette, there are reading lights and vent controls for the upper bunks.
The bunks are at right angles to each other. Because the family bedroom is a rectangle, two bunks are shorter than the others. Unless you are a very small adult you cannot fit in the shorter beds. Our kids were initially apprehensive about sleeping in the top bunk in case the jerky train threw them onto the floor, but the safety harnesses reassured them. When our cabin attendant made our beds for the evening, he also brought a ladder to access the upper bunks.
Finally, the larger of the two lower bunks is actually slightly wider than the others. It's not as big as a full bed but if a small child wants to sleep that might be an option. Note: Even if a small child sleeps with a parent in this lower bunk, the maximum capacity for a family room is four passengers.
Family rooms represent the smallest percentage of available cabins in the sleeper cars. While searching we kept seeing dates where there were only one or two left. If this is the right option for your traveling family, book early.
If you're a family of four with kids on the smaller side (5ft, 5in or smaller), the Family Bedroom is probably the most affordable Auto Train sleeper option. During the day you have plenty of space to lounge around in the cabin and in the evening everyone has their own bed.
The Superliner bedroom has a smaller capacity than the family room but has a hidden feature if you're not on a tight budget. The Superliner bedroom has a maximum capacity of three passengers, although you can only book it for up to two passengers on the Amtrak website. So call if you need three passengers.
The couch in this room type is shorter than in the family room. Additionally there is a single seat opposite the couch with a tray table in between.
Next to the couch is a narrow closet for hanging items that only fits a couple of jackets.
There is a small shelf above the single seat in the cabin where a small suitcase can fit. Otherwise, you have to rely on the narrow storage space under the seats. When you don't need the single seat, it folds away to allow for some stacked luggage in the corner.
Each Superliner bedroom has its own toilet/shower combination and sink. The toilet is about the same size as the public toilets in any car. The shower occupies the same space and is significantly smaller than the public showers.
We tried to shower and managed without causing much chaos, but didn't try the recommendation to sit while showering! The only potential downside to the shower is privacy from the rest of the bedroom occupants. There's really no place to get dressed or undressed in the shower, at least not without risking getting all your clothes wet.
The Superliner bedroom has a fold-down loft bed with safety bars to keep you from falling out while you sleep. Unlike the family bedroom, the Superliner bunks are all longer, at least 6 feet, 6 inches. The bottom bunk is wider to accommodate a second person, but you'll need to get comfortable. The cabin attendant adds a ladder when crafting the room.
The Superliner bedroom has a great feature if you're not on a tight budget and want extra space: each Superliner bedroom is a mirror image of another room that you can use to your advantage. Make sure you get adjoining bedrooms and book with a phone agent so they can note this on your reservation. Once on board, the flight attendant removes the partition between the two cabins, freeing up space.
You actually have space between the individual seats to stow a couple of suitcases. Our family of four was definitely able to spread out the most in this format, but you're essentially buying two rooms, so it's not a budget game.
Each sleeper car has its own bathroom on the lower level and one shower per car. The shower is shared by all roomette and family room guests, although we found it to have seen only light use during our two trips.
The shower unit consists of a small changing area connected to a shower and separated by a shower curtain. The showers were more spacious than we expected with plenty of room to change and shower without hitting walls.
We didn't find much in the way of amenities other than bars of soap and towels. However, we had plenty of hot water and steady water pressure. Given the low ceiling height, the shower probably would not have passed the TPG shower test.
Sleeping on board the Autozug is possible for light sleepers, but annoying for light sleepers. The Auto Train makes a late evening stop (around 11pm southbound and after midnight northbound) to exchange crew members. They stop announcements after 10pm. and make breakfast announcements from 6:30 a.m., and only the healthiest of sleepers will manage to sleep through those.
The lights in the bus cabs are turned off overnight and it's really dark in the car except for light from outside. When I walked through the wagons at 11 p.m., practically every light was off and almost everyone was asleep.
In the sleeping cars, the doors to each room did a good job of shutting out any noise in the hallway. The curtains also did a reasonable job of keeping the lights out in the morning, but the announcements were loud enough that I wished I had worn headphones to sleep.
The train itself also makes quite a bit of rolling along the ride. It speeds up and slows down during the night, resulting in periods of heavy movement. Each of us had trouble falling asleep, and one of our children woke up when the train stopped to change crew members. All in all we all got some sleep, but none of us felt rested.
food and beverages
Each car on the Auto Train has a self-service drinks station. Coffee on the go and decaffeinated coffee are readily available. There is also hot water and plenty of tea bags and hot chocolate, as well as an ice bucket and bucket.
Each Auto Train has two dining options: the dining car and the lounge car. The included breakfast and dinner are served in the dining car. While meals are currently included for everyone, in 2020 bus passengers will lose free dinner and switch to a buy-on-board program. The lounge car offers a variety of a la carte food and drink items for sale.
Dinner is served at your appointed time while breakfast is open from 6am to 7:30am. The lounge car is open from 6:00 a.m. to around 11:00 p.m. A handful of free grab-and-go items are also available during breakfast.
Similar menus are available for coaches and sleepers. Each menu has a steak option, with bus passengers being served flank steaks and sleeper passengers being served a sirloin or flat-iron steak. The menu also generally includes chicken, fish and pasta for starters.
The quality of the food may surprise you. Although it's certainly not the caviar you would findin Lufthansa First Class, the quality of Amtrak's meals generally surpasses the first class meals offered by most domestic US airlines.
Our meal on the Amtrak Auto Train started with a bread service and a salad. Soft drinks were included, and you could purchase spirits, beer, and wine from your server.
Steaks were cooked to the right temperature, the fish was tender and flavorful and the dessert was delicious. We didn't eat on fine china, but the steak tasted just fine on a plastic plate.
The cheesecake and melted chocolate cake weren't award-winning, but they beat any dessert I've had in home first class in quite some time.
The breakfast service is actually the meal to miss if you want some extra sleep (though you'll need headphones or earplugs if you're a light sleeper when the breakfast announcements start). Seats for breakfast in the dining car are allocated on a first come, first served basis.
Breakfast for us consisted of a banana, a bowl of cereal, OJ and bagels. Those weren't fresh New York bagels. They were small, frozen bagels. In short, if you're not really hungry, skip breakfast and go to sleep. Or grab some stuff and head back to your seat or berth.
Wi-Fi aboard the Auto Train is free, but remember the saying, “You get what you pay for.” It's entirely possible that someone had Amtrak Auto Train Wi-Fi in mind when coining the term . The WiFi speeds are... poor. I tried running speed tests but mostly got this message:
When I could get connectivity it was really bad.
I used my phone hotspot for a decent portion of the trip as there is no viable wifi on board. Due to the rural nature of parts of the route, even the hotspot dropped out from time to time.
bottom line? Bring a book, play checkers, watch downloaded Netflix episodes - just don't rely on good connection speeds.
As the train pulls into each station, you'll need to retrieve your car and set off. At Sanford, the platform is shorter, meaning the train has to be split in two. Bus passengers wait longer to get off the train, although this may not matter much if you haven't paid for priority unloading, as you'll likely be waiting for departure anyway.
As I mentioned earlier, the Auto Train can accommodate up to 330 vehicles. The Auto Train is one of Amtrak's most profitable routes because it loses relatively little money as a standalone route. The profitability facts and our pricing research lead me to believe that the Auto Train is generally running at almost full capacity - and unloading 300 vehicles can take a long time.
On our way to Sanford, we got off the train and were at the station less than five minutes after our arrival. Our car was off the train in less than 10 minutes which definitely exceeded our expectations and was well worth the priority offloading fee. In Lorton we pulled up from the Auto Train parking lot in less than 15 minutes.
Although the staff removes the cars at a brisk pace, there are only about 10 places where people can load their luggage, get in their car and drive off. The Amtrak team doubled that with another 10 cars lined up directly behind those waiting for the slots to open, but the process still took some time. We hung around Sanford for about 45 minutes and still didn't see half the cars come off our train. That means the last people to arrive at the exit station can wait up to two hours to collect their car on arrival.
Is it worth it?
So was it worth it? Is the Auto Train worth the price to avoid the stress of driving? What about all the extra time it takes instead of just flying?
Let's say you are a family of four just like ours. If we assume a guide price of $300 per plane ticket from the DC area to Orlando, Florida, that's $1,200. Throw in a rental car for about $400 per week and $150 for airport parking or transportation. That makes a flight to Florida around $1,750 at my rough estimate.
Now let's compare some of the other options based on the average prices of each cabin. For our Amtrak examples, we used half-price fares for children, assuming both children are between the ages of 2 and 12.
- Flies: $1,750
- Auto Train im Bus: 1.170 $
- Auto Train in Two Roomettes: $2,550
- Auto Train Superliner Bedroom: $2,050*
- Family Room on Auto Train: $2,450
- Ride from New York City to Orlando: $450**
*Superliner bedroom prices are based on one adult and two children sharing the Superliner bedroom with one parent sleeping on the coach.
**For the New York to Orlando trip, we assumed 1,080 miles at an average of 24.7 miles per gallon and a price of $2.85 per gallon. We also budgeted $200 for a hotel room along the way. This does not take into account "wear and tear".
If you're taking the family on vacation to Florida, getting a good night's sleep along the way is probably a pretty firm requirement. Every family sleeps differently, but I imagine most families struggle to get a good night's sleep on the bus.
The family bedroom is probably the most cost-effective option that balances a good night's sleep with a reasonable budget. Even so, it will likely cost you a little more. Looking through various forums dedicated to Amtrak night train travel, we found people who have snuck up last minute deals on Roomettes, one of the most plentiful cabins on board. If the train is in your future and budget is your primary option, booking on the bus and pursuing a cheap upgrade to a Roomette could be a consideration.
Keep in mind that certain Amtrak fare plans incur a penalty fee if you request a refund. In this case, an upgrade should be viewed as a change that is usually free apart from the difference in price. However, over the course of a few phone calls to Amtrak call agents, we have heard that this policy has been misrepresented.
There are many ways to look at the equation of values when it comes to the car train. Our comparison was simpler, we lived in the D.C. area. However, if you live in Boston or Albany, New York, it's still possible to catch the Auto Train without getting up when the sun is still asleep. If airline ticket prices go up this could be practical as sleeping on the Auto Train would save you from paying for a hotel room en route.
Also keep in mind that if your final Florida destination is somewhere like Key West, Florida, your airfare would be higher than the examples above to fly all the way there.
Our family went into the Auto Train experience with no prejudices. Our biggest souvenir? The Auto Train takes a lot of time. This may seem obvious, but unless we're talking about a long summer trip, families generally have tighter vacation windows than, say, retirees. If you only have a week or so off from school, tying two of them on the train really cuts your time.
We quickly learned that we will pack differently in the future. Our bags were all soft, a plus, but we would have done better to leave more of our belongings in the car.
As the dust settled on our trip to Disney World, our family was glad we got to experience the Auto Train. My wife even emphasized the word "experience." We turned it into a fun family journey with Play-Doh checkers and family games from Uno. The lack of reliable Wi-Fi may have been a blessing.
As my wife put it, the Auto Train helped eliminate a lot of travel stress. We didn't bother with the traffic on I-95, a virtual guarantee. There were no queues at airport security, no beverage trolley to block the aisle when a child needed the bathroom urgently. Our phones worked and the seat belt sign didn't stop us from getting up and moving around the cabin.
The biggest compromise was just the time it took, but everyone said they would consider this trip again if circumstances permitted in the future.
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Edward Pizzarello covers family travelTPGfamily and also blogsPizza on the move. You can find him in the podcast atmiles to goand eat donutsTwitterAndInstagram.