BYO Car: A review of Amtrak’s Auto Train from Virginia to Florida
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All aboard! For the entire month of September at The Points Guy, we’ll be exploring the world of train travel with reviews, features, deals and tips for maximizing your trip by rail.
So you live in the Northeast and want to take the family down to Florida. Do you spend the cash or miles, fly everyone and then rent a car when you land, or suck it up and just drive down I-95? Well, maybe neither.
There’s a third option you’ve probably heard of, but also probably haven’t seriously considered: the Auto Train where you can ride the rails … with your car. Amtrak has operated an Auto Train for over 25 years between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida. If you don’t live in Lorton or Sanford (or haven’t flown Allegiant to Central Florida) you may not have heard of either town, but Lorton is just south of Washington, D.C., and the Sanford Auto Train station is about a 45-minute drive north of Disney World.
The Auto Train doesn’t just allow you to bring your car on the train but actually requires you to bring a vehicle on the journey. If you just want to hop the train between New York and Florida, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star lines are what you’re looking for.
The Auto Train leaves every afternoon from both Lorton and Sanford around 4 p.m., arriving the next morning. While there’s a stop to change crews late at night, the train makes no stops for passengers to embark or disembark along the way. It’s a straight shot that clocks in around 14 hours, though you’re likely to be on the train for closer to 17 hours total.
The Auto Train is the only Amtrak train that runs between Lorton and Sanford, so there’s no chance of you booking the wrong train if your travel involves those two stations, but there are still booking challenges.
Amtrak’s website is workable for normal reservations but has problems digesting some of the Auto Train configurations. The Auto Train has a number of different seating/sleeping options: reserved coach seat (both upper and lower deck), Superliner roomette (both decks), family bedroom (only lower deck) and Superliner bedroom (both decks).
The Superliner roomette can fit two people, while the family bedroom can hold up to two adults and two children. The Superliner bedroom technically sleeps three, but the Amtrak website won’t allow you to book it for three passengers online. Phone agents are more than capable of solving this problem, usually after a healthy hold time.
In all of the sleeping rooms, neither the website or the phone agents can book them for more total passengers than the listed capacity. I inquired about booking a fourth passenger in a reserved coach seat but having that person ultimately sleep in the Superliner bedroom. The phone agent I spoke with told me that it was totally up to the discretion of the cabin attendant for our train car. As an aside, that’s a bad idea. You don’t want to try to sleep four people in a Superliner bedroom — trust me.
Amtrak has a number of discounts publicly available, though the vast majority do not apply to the Auto Train. Auto Train fares for children are generally available for 50% of the adult fare. However, that’s only on the base fare, even in a sleeping car. Amtrak splits up the fare for each passenger into two categories. The base fare is roughly equal to the coach price for that segment (whether that’s a saver, value or other fare bucket). The sleeping car portion of the fare is the other portion and wasn’t discounted on our voyage or any of the test bookings we tried.
All that said, adult coach seats on the Auto Train generally range from $105 to $140 per seat, though Amtrak is running a promotion on certain days where you might be able to snag a seat for $89 one-way, though with limited availability. Roomettes run from about $450 to just over $600 for two passengers. Superliner bedrooms range from $500 to $725 for two passengers. A third passenger would add anywhere from $60 (child) to $140 (adult). Family bedrooms range from about $850 to $1150 for a family of two adults and two children 12 and under (kids 2 and under are free with a paid adult in all cabins).
As part of the booking process, you need to note your vehicle type and whether you want priority vehicle offloading. Transporting standard automobiles, which include cars, vans, SUVs and trucks with a maximum height of 85 inches and width of 84 inches, range from $204 to $254 one-way. A standard, two-wheel motorcycle costs $143. Any other vehicles, including modified standard vehicles, requires picking up the phone.
Priority vehicle offloading is a flat $65 per car. This guarantees that your vehicle is one of the first 30 vehicles offloaded upon arrival. At maximum capacity, the Auto Train holds 330 vehicles, so if you’re pressed for time, you’ll want to seriously consider the $65 fee or arriving very early for 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 doesn’t use a fixed award chart anymore. Much like Southwest or JetBlue, the reward prices are roughly tied to the cash cost of the ticket. In order to get the best value from your points, you’ll want to use them on trips when the cheapest saver-level tickets are sold out.
Related: Your guide to Amtrak Guest Rewards
If you’d like to build up your stash of Amtrak points, you might want to consider applying for one of its two cobranded credit cards issued by Bank of America. The Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard is currently offering an elevated welcome bonus of 40,000 points after spending $2,500 in the first 90 days of account opening, while the no-annual-fee Amtrak Guest Rewards Platinum Mastercard is offering 12,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days of account opening. TPG values Amtrak points at 2.5 cents each, making these bonuses worth $1,000 and $300 respectively.
Vehicle check-in for the Auto Train begins at 11:30 a.m. in both stations. Specialty vehicles are accepted no later than 2 p.m., while standard vehicles are accepted no later than 2:30 p.m.
Upon arrival, a gate attendant checks your boarding pass and directs you to a lane to unload your carry-on luggage. Once you leave your vehicle, you don’t have access to it again until it’s offloaded at the arrival stations, so be sure to take all essential items. Don’t leave valuables in your vehicle. Amtrak performs a video walkaround of each vehicle, recording the current condition of your vehicle.
Passengers are permitted two carry-on bags not to exceed 28 inches by 22 inches by 14 inches and 50 pounds each, as well as two personal items not to exceed 14 inches by 11 inches by 7 inches and 25 pounds each. None of our bags were weighed or measured on either voyage.
There’s a quick check-in process for all passengers inside the terminal. This is a requirement even if you checked in online and received a boarding pass with a barcode. You also select your dinner seating on a first-come, first-served basis. On a full train, dinner seatings are at 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. On lighter days, the 9 p.m. seating is dropped.
Both stations have an appropriate amount of seating for everyone in the terminal, assuming you like being friendly with your neighbor. A family of four arriving later in the afternoon will struggle to find seats together.
In Lorton, there’s outdoor seating for a breath of fresh air before the long train ride. There’s also a small play area for young children. And you’re free to walk the platform while you wait — you may even catch an engineer to ask questions.
Each station has a small shop with sandwiches, drinks, snacks, magazines and other sundries. The pricing is reasonable, though the selection is sparser than Hudson News stores in sizable airports.
You’re free to bring on any snacks or drinks you purchased prior to arrival. This includes alcoholic beverages, though those can only be consumed in your sleeping car. You can also bring on a small cooler of up to 12 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches, though there are reports of people bringing larger coolers on without a problem.
Cabins and Seats
The coach cabin on the Auto Train looks like many other Amtrak coach cabins but you find considerably more space and comfort. The seats are in a 2-2 configuration and recline quite generously, similar to the slanted lie-flat business-class seats common on international flights in decades past.
A small footrest aligns nicely for taller travelers. The seats are cushioned and wide enough such that sleeping is possible, though you’ll want to bring items such as pillows, blankets and eye masks if you need them, as there are no amenity kits.
Each coach car has bathrooms on the lower level. They’re similar in size to lavatories on most domestic airplanes (maybe not the teeny-tiny slimline version). There’s no shower in the coach cabin. There also aren’t any showers in either terminal, so the most you can hope for is washing your face and changing into fresh clothes after a long overnight train ride.
The roomette is the smallest of the sleeping car options. The seating is actually less comfortable than regular seats. They don’t have the steep recline or footrests in the coach cabin, and you’re also sharing legroom with your companion.
The roomette is a closed-off cabin with a door, so you definitely have more privacy. You also have a modest amount of climate control and an easily accessible electrical outlet (only one outlet, so consider packing a small power strip). Roomettes are equipped with a garment rack, though not a lot of space for luggage.
Sleeping cars generally have some storage outside the sleeping rooms. Additionally, the roomette has a small amount of storage space underneath each seat that would fit a soft-sided bag.
When it comes time to sleep, you’ll be a lot happier in a roomette than a coach seat. The two reclining chairs fold down to form a bed. Overhead, a bunk swings down for the second passenger. Your cabin attendant makes up the beds upon request. There’s 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 little bit of a challenge to climb into, but there are steps built into the sides of the cabin. Inside the bunk is a reading light and restraints to keep you from falling out while the train is moving. (The ride can get pretty bumpy at times.) Lastly, there is a vent control in the ceiling, though given the age of the cars, they can be tough to operate.
The roomettes make up quite a bit of the total inventory in the sleeping-car sections. As a result, there are are reports of prices dropping for this room type without much notice on longer routes. If you’re shooting for an option that might drop in price, this is probably your best bet.
Family bedrooms can sleep up to four people, specifically two adults and two children. We found these on the lower deck of sleeping cars at the end of 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 that stretches the width of the train is plenty large enough for four. And there’s a single seat on one side opposite the bench.
At each end of the cabin is a foldout tray table with plenty of space. The tables also double as a checkers/chessboard. There’s a narrow closet that would fit a suit bag or a few coats but not much else.
There’s also a small amount of storage space underneath the seats. As in the roomette, there isn’t any other luggage storage in the room. We probably brought one or two too many bags. Our suggestion here is to be thoughtful about what you really need for the train ride, leaving the rest in your car.
The Auto Train cars were built 25 years ago, when most people hadn’t even really thought about carrying around a wireless phone or its charging cord. There’s one electrical outlet near the door of the family bedroom — not the best location. If your family is like ours, you’ll want to pack 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 knob that surprised us a bit with its effectiveness. We were told to use the cabin-attendant call button when we were ready to have our room made up in the morning. Other than that, we treated it like a flight-attendant call button.
The family bedroom seats convert to form 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’re a very small adult, you won’t be able to fit in the shorter beds. Our kids were initially worried about sleeping in the upper bunk, in case the lurching train launched them to the floor, but the protective straps put them at ease. When our cabin attendant made up our beds for the evening he also brought a ladder to access the top bunks.
Lastly, the larger of the two lower bunks is actually a bit wider than the others. It’s not as big as a full-size bed, but if a small child wanted to cosleep, that could be an option. Note: Even if a small child sleeps in that lower bunk with a parent, the maximum capacity for a family bedroom is four passengers.
Family bedrooms represent the smallest percentage of the available cabins in the sleeping cars. During searches, we consistently saw dates with 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 (5 feet, 5 inches or shorter) the family bedroom is probably the most cost-efficient option for sleeping cars on the Auto Train. You’ll have plenty of space during the day to lounge in the cabin, and everyone will have their own bed in the evening.
The Superliner bedroom is a smaller capacity than the family bedroom but has a hidden feature if you’re not on a strict budget. The Superliner bedroom has a maximum capacity of three passengers, though the Amtrak website will only let you book it for up to two passengers, so call if you need three.
The couch in this room type is shorter than in the family bedroom. Additionally, there’s a single seat opposite the couch with a tray table in between.
Alongside the couch is a narrow closet for hanging up items, only able to fit a few jackets.
Above the individual seat in the cabin is a small shelf that can fit a small suitcase. Other than that, you need to rely on the narrow space under the seats for storage. If you don’t need to use the individual seat, it folds away to allow for some stacked luggage in the corner.
Each Superliner bedroom has its own toilet/shower combo and a sink. The toilet is about the same size as the public bathrooms in each car. The shower occupies the same space and is noticeably smaller than the public showers.
We did try showering and managed to do so without making much of a mess, but did not 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 room to get dressed or undressed in the shower, at least not without risking getting all of your clothes wet.
The Superliner bedroom has an overhead bunk that folds down with protective restraints to keep you from falling out while sleeping. 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, though you’ll have to get cozy. The cabin attendant will add a ladder when they make up the room.
The Superliner bedroom has a great feature if you’re not on a tight budget and want extra space: Each Superliner bedroom backs up to another room in a mirror image, which you can use to your advantage. Be sure that you get adjacent bedrooms, booking with a phone agent so they can note that on your reservation. Once you’re on board, the cabin attendant removes the partition between the two cabins, freeing up a lot of space.
You actually have space to store a few suitcases between the individual seats. Our family of four was definitely able to spread out most in this format, but you’re essentially buying two rooms, so it’s not a budget play.
Each sleeping car has its own set of bathrooms on the lower level and one shower per car. The shower is shared between all the roomette and family-bedroom guests, though we found it only lightly used during both of our voyages.
The shower unit consists of a small changing area connected to a shower, separated by a shower curtain. The showers were more spacious than we were expecting, with plenty of space to get changed and shower without bumping into walls.
We didn’t find much in the way of amenities other than bars of soap and towels. However, we did have plenty of hot water and solid water pressure. Given the low ceiling height, the shower probably would not have passed the TPG shower test.
Sleeping on board the Auto Train is possible for sound sleepers, troublesome for light sleepers. The Auto Train makes one stop to swap crew members late in the evening (around 11 p.m. heading south and after midnight heading north). They do stop announcements after 10 p.m. and make breakfast announcements starting at 6:30 a.m. and only the soundest of sleepers will manage to sleep through those.
In the coach cabins, the lights are extinguished overnight, and it is truly dark inside the car other than light from outside. When I walked through the coach cars at 11 p.m., virtually every light was out, and almost everyone was sleeping.
In the sleeping cars, the doors to each room did a good job shutting out any noise in the hallway. The curtains also did a reasonable job shutting out light in the morning, but the announcements were loud enough that I wish I’d worn headphones to sleep.
The train itself also does a fair amount of lurching along the ride. It speeds up and slows down throughout the night, leading to periods of heavy movement. Each of us had some trouble falling asleep, and one of our children woke up when the train stopped to swap out crew members. All in all, we all slept some, but none of us felt well-rested.
Food and Beverage
Each car on the Auto Train has a self-service drink station. Push-button coffee and decaf are readily available. There is also hot water and plenty of teabags and hot chocolate, along with an ice bin and buckets.
Every Auto Train has two food and beverage venues: the dining car and the lounge car. The dining car is where the included breakfast and dinner are served. While meals are included for all right now, coach passengers will lose free dinner in 2020, moving to a buy-on-board program. The lounge car offers a variety of food and beverages for sale a la carte.
Dinner is served at your assigned time, whereas breakfast is open seating starting at 6 a.m. until 7:30 a.m. The lounge car is open from 6 a.m. until approximately 11 p.m. During breakfast, a handful of free grab-and-go items are also available.
There are similar menus for the coach cabin and the sleeper cars. Each menu has a steak option, with coach passengers being served flank steak and sleeper-car passengers a sirloin or flat-iron steak. The menu also generally features a chicken, fish and pasta entree.
The food quality may surprise you. While it’s certainly not the caviar you would find in Lufthansa First Class, the quality of the meals on Amtrak generally exceeds most domestic U.S. airline first-class meals.
Our Amtrak Auto Train meal started out with bread service and a salad. Nonalcoholic beverages were included, and you could purchase liquor, beer and wine from your server.
Steaks were cooked to the right temperature, the fish was tender and flavorful, and dessert was tasty. We weren’t dining on fine china, but the steak tasted just fine on a plastic plate.
The cheesecake and molten chocolate cake weren’t award-winning, but they beat any dessert I’ve had in domestic first class in quite some time.
Breakfast service is actually the meal to miss if you want to grab some extra sleep (though you’ll need headphones or earplugs if you’re a light sleeper when the announcements for breakfast start). Breakfast seating in the dining car is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Breakfast for us consisted of a banana, a bowl of cereal, orange juice and bagels. These were not fresh New York bagels. They were small, frozen bagels. In short, unless you’re really hungry, skip breakfast and sleep. Or grab a few things and head back to your seat or sleeping berth.
Wi-Fi on board the Auto Train is free, but remember the saying: “You get what you pay for.” It’s entirely possible someone was thinking about Amtrak Auto Train Wi-Fi when they coined that phrase. The Wi-Fi speeds are … bad. I tried running speed tests but mostly got this message:
When I was able to get connectivity, it was really poor.
I used my phone hot spot for a decent part of the journey due to the complete lack of usable Wi-Fi on board. Due to the rural nature of parts of the route, even the hot spot dropped from time to time.
Bottom line? Bring a book, play checkers, watch downloaded Netflix episodes — just don’t count on good connection speeds.
When the train pulls into each station, there’s a process to get your car back and get on your way. In Sanford, the train platform is shorter, which means that they need to split the train in two. Coach passengers wait longer to get off the train, though that may not matter much if you didn’t pay for priority offloading, since you’ll likely be waiting to leave anyway.
As I mentioned earlier, the Auto Train can hold up to 330 vehicles. The Auto Train is one of Amtrak’s most profitable routes, in that it loses a fairly small amount of money as a standalone route. The profitability facts and our research on pricing leads me to believe that the Auto Train generally runs close to full capacity — and 300 vehicles can take a long time to offload.
On our journey down to Sanford, we were off the train and sitting in the station less than five minutes after arriving. Our car was off the train in less than 10 minutes, definitely exceeding our expectations and worth the priority-offloading fee. In Lorton, we were driving off the Auto Train lot in under 15 minutes.
Even though the staff moves the cars off at a brisk pace, there’s only about 10 slots for folks to load their luggage, hop in their car and hit the road. The Amtrak team doubled that up with another 10 cars slotted right behind those waiting for spots to open, but the process still took time. We hung around for about 45 minutes in Sanford and still didn’t see half the cars come off our train. That means the last folks to arrive at the outbound station could be waiting up to two hours to retrieve their car upon arrival.
Is it worth it?
So, was it worth it? Is the Auto Train worth the price to avoid the hassle of driving? What about all that extra time it takes versus just flying?
Let’s say you’re a family of four, just like ours. If we assume a benchmark price of $300 per airline ticket from the D.C. area down to Orlando, Florida, that’s $1,200. Throw in a rental car for roughly $400 for the week and $150 for airport parking or transportation. That makes flying to Florida around $1,750, in my rough estimate.
Now let’s compare some of the other options, based on average prices of each cabin. For our Amtrak examples, we used half-priced fares for children, assuming both kids were between 2 and 12.
- Flying: $1,750
- Auto Train in coach: $1,170
- Auto Train in two roomettes: $2,550
- Auto Train Superliner bedroom: $2,050*
- Auto Train family bedroom: $2,450
- Driving from New York City to Orlando: $450**
*For the Superliner bedroom pricing, we assumed one adult and two children in the Superliner bedroom, with one parent sleeping in coach.
**For driving from New York to Orlando, we assumed 1,080 miles at an average of 24.7 miles to the gallon and a price of $2.85 per gallon. We also factored in $200 for a hotel room on the way. That does not factor in any “wear and tear.”
If you’re taking the family to Florida for vacation, getting a good night’s sleep on the way is probably a pretty firm requirement. Every family sleeps differently, but I would imagine most families struggle to get a good night’s sleep in coach.
The family bedroom is probably the most cost-effective option that balances getting a good night’s sleep with a reasonable budget. Still, it’s likely to cost you a bit more. As we looked on different message boards talking about overnight Amtrak train trips, we found people who snagged 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 in coach and stalking a cheap upgrade to a roomette could be a consideration.
Keep in mind that certain Amtrak fare categories will pay a penalty if you’re looking to get a refund. In this case, upgrading should be seen as a change, which is normally free other than the price differential. However, over the course of a couple of phone calls with Amtrak phone agents, we heard this policy misrepresented.
There are many ways to look at the value equation when it comes to the Auto Train. Ours was a more simple comparison, living in the D.C. area. However, if you live in Boston or Albany, New York, it’s still feasible to reach the Auto Train without getting up when the sun is still sleeping. When airline ticket prices go up, this could be viable, since you wouldn’t need to pay for a hotel room during your drive by sleeping on the Auto Train.
Keep in mind also that if your final destination in Florida is somewhere like Key West, Florida, your airfare would come in higher than the examples above to fly all the way there.
Our family went into the Auto Train experience without preconceptions. Our biggest takeaway? The Auto Train takes a lot of time. That might seem obvious, but families generally have tighter windows for vacation than, say, retirees, unless we’re talking about a long summer trip. If you only have a week or so off from school, tying up two of them on the train really cuts into your time.
We learned quickly that we would pack differently in the future. Our bags were all soft-sided, a plus, but we would have done better leaving more of our stuff in the car.
When the dust settled on our journey down to Disney World, our family was happy we got to experience the Auto Train. My wife even emphasized the word “experience.” We turned it into a fun family journey with checkers made out of Play-Doh and family games of Uno. The lack of reliable Wi-Fi may have been a blessing.
As my wife put it, the Auto Train helped avoid a lot of the stress of travel. We didn’t deal with traffic on I-95, a virtual guarantee. There were no lines at airport security, no beverage cart blocking the aisle when a kid urgently needed to use the restroom. Our phones worked, and the seat-belt sign didn’t restrain us from getting up and moving around the cabin.
The biggest trade-off was just the amount of time it took, but everyone said they’d consider making that trip again if circumstances allowed in the future.
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