Each year more and more “Baby Boomers” are reaching retirement age. If they are anything like my husband and me, they will want to spend at least part of the winter in a warm climate. We are from upstate New York and spend seven months of the year in Florida. At first we looked forward to the long journey south, planning a leisurely drive and choosing interesting places to spend the night. After a couple of close encounters with 18 wheelers, however, we decided to explore other options. A friend told us about the auto train.
The auto train travels daily between Lorton, Virginia, which is just outside of Washington, D.C., and Sanford, Florida, a distance of approximately 900 miles. It is the longest passenger train in the country because several cars are dedicated to vehicles. The train accommodates all sized cars as well as motorcycles. On our most recent commute there were 245 vehicles being transported.
The journey takes around 17 hours so you will want to choose your sleeping accommodations carefully. Coach is the least expensive option. It is described as follows in the auto train brochure, “…coaches feature wide reclining seats, generous legroom, leg and foot rests and individual reading lights.” Sleeping cars offer an alternative way to travel. The roomette offers sleeping accommodations for one to two adults. It does not have a restroom but there are clean ones nearby. A roomier offering is the bedroom. It is slightly larger than a roomette and has a restroom. Also available are handicap accessible and family bedrooms.
My husband and I have taken the train four times. We booked a roomette the first time and enjoyed being able to watch the scenery go by in the privacy of our own room. However, the sleeping arrangements were a little cramped for us. The next three times we opted for the bedroom and have been very pleased with the choice. Although it is more expensive, we feel it is well worth the extra cost.
Dinner and a continental breakfast are included with the price of your ticket. Upon your arrival at the train station, you will be asked what dinner seating you would like. There are three choices 5:00, 7:00 and 9:00. Since it is on a first-come, first-served basis the 7:00 seating fills up quickly. At both dinner and breakfast you are seated with other passengers.
The first three times we took the train we arrived too late to choose the 7:00 seating; so we chose 5:00. The most enjoyable aspect of the ride for us is watching the scenery. Wanting more time alone in our room to do this we wondered if it would be worth it to arrive at the train station earlier and, hopefully, get the preferred 7:00 seating. On our most recent trip we decided to arrive earlier and were able to get the desired seating. We are glad that we did.
Having made the trip four times we’ve learned a few things. Most importantly, we learned that you can save money by booking well in advance. We also learned, the hard way, that booking a round trip ticket saves money. All four of our trips were booked through a travel agent rather than online.
There are a couple of down sides to auto train travel. Trains do not always run on time. If a train is late and you arrive at the station early, you may have a long wait in line. This has happened to us twice, both times in Lorton, and we waited in line over an hour each time. When you arrive at your destination, you have another wait as they unload the vehicles. Once again we waited over an hour for our car. Still we would choose this method of travel over the long, tedious drive by car.
When we leave our upstate New York home in the fall we have a seven hour drive to Lorton. We still plan a leisurely drive and spend a night in an interesting place. The drive through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland is beautiful especially during the fall when the color of the leaves is brilliant. We, then, have our adventure on the train to anticipate. For us “half the fun is getting there.”
Source: Auto train brochure distributed by Amtrak.