What if I told you that there's a train service to the sunshine state of Florida that can ride you AND your car? You might be excited and terrified by the sound of that. And that's justified because we know the kind of questions running in your mind right now.
How long is the journey? Departure and arrival points? Costs involved? Is it really worth it? Pause those questions for a bit and read on to find out more.
The Amtrak Auto Train is the only train in the USA that carries vehicles and passengers between Virginia and Florida. It is a non-stop ride that covers almost 900 miles daily each way. The train service has been operational for more than 25 years now.
Other than the necessary things to know about the train service from booking tickets to riding the train itself, this blog will also recommend you the situations in which you should and should not ride this train. If you want to know the latter right away, jump here. Otherwise, let's start with the basics first.
#TravelSmart Blog at a Glance
The two stops of the train service are:
- Lorton, Virginia: 20 miles south of Washington DC
- Sanford, Florida: 24 miles north of Orlando
Tickets and Costs
There are two kinds of seating accommodations available:
- Coach: as low as $89
- Upper Level
- Lower Level
- Sleeping Car
- Roomette - sleeps 2
- Bedroom - sleeps 2 or 3
- Family Bedroom - sleeps 4
Coach tickets are available in three price tiers: Saver, Value, and Flexible. The sleeping car falls under the Premium tier. Depending on the dates of travel, demand, and how early you book, the saver ticket can be as low as $89 per passenger.
The cost of the vehicle loading ranges between $208 and $258. The motorcycle loading costs $146. For $65, you can choose priority vehicle offloading that guarantees that your vehicle will be amongst the first 30 vehicles to be released upon arrival.
Assuming you pick the cheapest fares from the above booking options for one passenger and a vehicle, the total for the train ride will come out to be $89 + $208 = $297. Clearly, the per-person cost would come down if more passengers were sharing the same car.
The cushioned coach seats provide way more legroom than a standard airplane seat. An extendible cushioned leg-rest along with a foot-rest is also available. The seat reclines back enough to sleep comfortably.
Bring your own eye mask, blanket, and pillow as Amtrak does not offer any sleeper kits for coach seats.
A tray table is large enough for watching movies on your iPad, working on your laptop, or having a meal.
The roomette that sleeps two will make you share the leg space with your train-mate and might be less comfortable without a foot-rest.
The lower bed of the bedroom can sleep one or two people, while the bunk bed can only sleep only one person.
The bedroom can be a valuable choice for a party of three if two can get comfortable in the lower bed.
Two of the beds of the family bedroom are shorter in length and are designed for the kids.
If two adults in your party think they will comfortably sleep on the children's beds, you should request Amtrak on call to book a family bedroom for four adults.
There are bathrooms similar to the airplanes on the lower level of the coach cars, but showers are not available.
The roomettes and the family bedrooms in every car have a shared shower. Every bedroom has a tiny personal shower, toilet, and sink inside.
Passengers of the sleeping cars receive complimentary dinner. You can choose to be served in the dining car at 5 pm, 7 pm, or 9 pm. Click here to read the dinner menu.
Coach customers can purchase food from the cafe onboard or carry their own. Click here to read the cafe menu.
A continental breakfast and a self-serve beverage station are available for all the passengers
The free WiFi on the train can be choppy at times, with speeds going under 1 Mbps. If you're only surfing on the phone or emailing on your laptop, the fluctuating WiFi won't feel that annoying.
Download offline episodes you want to watch to avoid unreliable streaming.
Departure and Arrival
The train departs daily in each direction at 4 pm and arrives at 9 am, i.e., it's a 17 hours long journey. But this is just the time spent inside the train.
The earliest you can drop off your car at the departure station is 11 30 am. Amtrak does not take any vehicles after 2 30 pm, which is when they begin boarding the passengers.
As you enter the gate, an attendant will verify your ticket and direct you to a lane to unload. You can keep your luggage in the car and only carry the essentials in a carry-on. Your vehicle will not be accessible until you arrive, so pack in advance accordingly.
Another attendant will record a video of the current condition of your car, put a number sticker on it and drive it away to load it on the train.
Both stations have a lot of seating within the terminal. Both stations also have a souvenir and snack shop for light refreshments and last-minute purchases.
Upon arrival, the passengers have to wait inside the terminal. A screen will display the car sticker numbers every few minutes, indicating the cars that are unloaded. Those who paid for priority offloading will receive their vehicles within 10 minutes, and others may have to wait as long as an hour or more.
The Amtrak staff will line up the car in 10 lanes quickly, and passengers are expected to get in the car and drive away as soon as possible to keep the offloading efficient.
Drop off your car at the departure station between 2 and 2 30 pm. The train seems to load the vehicles first-in-last-out. This way, you will receive your vehicle the earliest at the arrival station.
We dropped off our car at 2 15 pm and received the car within 30 minutes of arrival.
Why ride the Auto Train?
The long time spent on the train is the biggest downside. It's even longer if you add the time between loading and boarding at the departure, and deboarding and unloading at the arrival.
If you book in advance, flight tickets will be cheaper and also faster compared to riding the auto train. However, if you add the cost of a rental car, especially for more than three or four days, the auto train is a more cost-friendly option for a group that will share the vehicle upon arrival.
But you may ask, why not just make it a road trip instead? The cost of the fuel for 900 miles may seem cheaper, but you should also account for the mileage and wear and tear you are adding to your car.
If you know anything about I-95, it's how terrible its traffic can be. Driving through that for over 15 hours can be quite discomforting even in the absence of traffic. You should also account for hotel charges if you're planning to take an overnight break.
When should you BOOK the Auto Train?
We have listed the situations below in which you can consider taking the auto train.
- Week-long or longer vacations with a paid car rental
- Last-minute trips when flight prices are high
- Long weekends when I-95 has its worst traffic
- Groups or families planning to experience something different
- One way road trips with the return via the auto train or vice versa
- "Snowbirding" - moving to warmer states for the winter
When should you SKIP the Auto Train?
- Short two or three day vacations where time spent on quality experiences is more important
- Significantly cheaper flights with discounted long term car rentals
- If you're a light sleeper or claustrophobic finding sleeping on a train difficult
The Auto Train experience is attractive to several groups and families for a variety of reasons, but for others, it may be a big no-no. What do you think about this train ride? Would you ever consider bringing you and your car on Amtrak's Auto Train? Comment below and let us know your opinion.