Find everything you need to know with the full Amtrak Auto Train review
While visiting family in the Orlando area recently, my family of five drove from our home in Pennsylvania. On the way home though, we decided to travel via Amtrak’s Auto Train! It was a great adventure for all of us. And there’s not much available for an honest Amtrak Auto Train review. But there’s a lot to know about it! It’s an entirely different way of travel, a hybrid of flying and driving, if you will. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s start at the beginning!
The Amtrak Auto Train was formerly a privately owned Auto-Train Company, but Amtrak has owned and operated it since 1981. This particular Auto Train line is the longest passenger train in the world, around ¾ of a mile long. It travels 855 miles between Sanford, FL, and Lorton, VA, every day. Two trains depart at 4:30pm and arrive at 9:00am, passing each other in the night. Passengers can take their cars along with them and then still have access to it at their destination.
We have five members in our family, and the online reservation tool will only allow parties of up to 4. So I called Amtrak’s 800 number, initially simply for more information on scheduling and pricing. But it turned out the agent was able to make a reservation in my name without any credit card information. As long as I called within five days, my reservation was still there and I could change it or pay for it. When I called back, I did have to make a change in our departure date, and that was no problem. In an Amtrak Auto Train review, it’s important to note that calling is a really great idea!
I would recommend calling for the reservation regardless of party size. In fact, I was able to ask questions and get a catered experience. For example, I asked about the size of our minivan and if it was oversize. Turns out it was and I paid in advance for the upcharge. And since our family needed two rooms to fit us, the our agent was able to book adjoining rooms. And she booked rooms that would actually open up to create a suite! We also wanted that wall to be closed upon arrival. So then when it was opened it would be a big reveal for the kids! Online tools don’t allow for any of these complex booking requests.
Packing and Arrival
Next up: packing! While your car comes along for the ride, it is in a separate and inaccessible train car. Pack an overnight bag, ASAP – that means As Small As Possible! Space is at a premium in these rooms, and it’ll become difficult to get around with excess bags. In other Amtrak Auto Train reviews, I had read advice to bring ear plugs, my own pillow, and a blanket. But next time, I think I’d skip all of that in favor of space. The blankets and pillows were very comfortable, and the noise was actually somewhat soothing (more on that later)!
Arrival was simple! There was no check-in 24 hours ahead like with an airline. Your vehicle must be on the train by 2:30. No exceptions. If you and your car aren’t there by then, you both get left behind. They start accepting cars at 10:30am. We arrived at 1:30 and found that to be pleasant.
When we first pulled into the station, there was a check-in gate where the agent put a number on our car. And she gave us a corresponding ticket. Straight ahead is a multi-lane overhang where we parked our car, removed our baggage, left the keys in it, and walked into the station. An agent walked around our car videotaping the condition while another person drove it off into the auto train. Simple and quick!
Inside the station, getting our tickets was easy. There was a short line, and the agent just needed my name and the number in my party to find my reservation, no numbers or digital tickets or credit card information. I was given a dinner menu to keep, and chose our dinner time. The station reminds me of an airport, with large windows and the Weather Channel playing. We only had about 45 minutes before we boarded at 2:30. There are no long lines, no crowding – we just walked out onto the platform where an agent directed us to our car. Our porter was at the car door waiting to help us find our room and assist with luggage.
What if you arrive earlier?
If you prefer to arrive at the station earlier, there are a few amenities. There’s a small snacks and necessities store, a food truck parked outside, we spotted a playground in the distance, and there’s a free shuttle to downtown Sanford until 2:00pm (excluding Sundays and major holidays). I had hoped to have enough time to enjoy the shuttle – downtown Sanford is a booming and charming little town just down the road, but it was a cold and rainy day, so we didn’t count on that this trip!
The Room, Dinner, and Sleeping
Our family of 5 had a private bedroom suite. Basically, there are two major ways a passenger on the Auto Train can travel: in a seat, like a regular train or airplane (with a lot more leg room!), or in a private room. Passengers in private rooms have a porter to assist with luggage, meals, and turndown, and meals are included with their ticket. The smallest rooms are called roomettes, with two seats facing each other in the day and an upper and lower bunk at night. These have shared bathroom facilities.
Next in size are bedrooms, which feature an armchair and sofa during the day, with an upper and larger lower bunk at night. These have in-room private bathrooms. Our bedroom suite was two of these with a wall between that opened up to have a double mirrored room. Finally, there are family bedrooms, with two sofas by day and four bunks at night. These also have a private bathroom and a max occupancy of two adults and two children ages 2-12. There are also accessible bedrooms. These two larger bedrooms are on the entry-level floor, it should be noted. As a result, we were pleasantly thrilled to find our bedrooms were on the second floor! It afforded us a wonderful view all evening and morning.
The train left the station around 4, and our porter came to get our dinner orders. We ordered the grilled Atlantic salmon with ancient grains and green beans, and the thyme-marinated chicken breast with wild mushroom risotto and green beans. Our children got the mac n cheese and hot dog meals. Other entrees included an 8 oz. flat iron steak with a Cabernet reduction sauce and baked potato, and cheese tortellini in pesto cream sauce with grape tomatoes. Dessert was included, and my chocolate torte was the best chocolate cake I’ve had in years! No Amtrak Auto Train review would be complete without mentioning this cake! You could also get cheesecake, carrot cake, vanilla ice cream, or sugar-free Jell-O. Dinner was served in our rooms due to health restrictions, but it was pleasant and arrived very close to our requested time.
Getting Ready for Bed
We had asked for early turndown for our kids’ sake, and that was done around 7:30, but I overheard other passengers requesting more along the lines of actual adult bedtimes. That is understandable when not traveling with children. The space that the beds take up means the rest of your evening will be spent laying down. It also means the sink is fairly inaccessible except for sitting cross-legged on the edge of the bed. We did all our bedtime duties with the beds turned down, but would recommend avoiding this if you’re not particularly agile!
We found sleeping on the train is an acquired skill, as it’s just a very foreign environment. However, it was also a soothing experience, with the gentle lull and white noise of rumbling over the tracks. The curtains close well and light wasn’t an issue. Plan an adaptive sleeping attire. While there is a temperature control, it didn’t seem particularly effective.
Morning and Disembarking
We arrived at our destination earlier than scheduled, so we were woken at 6:30am by an announcement informing us of such, and that breakfast would be served earlier as a result. This wasn’t ideal, but in an Amtrak Auto Train review, it’s important to note that it’s a possibility. Breakfast is continental style, and the dining room was open for seating in the morning. We enjoyed coffee crumb cake, hard boiled eggs, Raisin Bran with cartons of 2% milk, bananas, and orange juice and coffee. There were also two types of breakfast sandwich: egg, cheese, and sausage on a bagel; and egg white with gouda and veggies on a multigrain English muffin.
Our room was back to being a sitting area by the time we got back. We were in the station half an hour ahead of our expected 9:00 arrival, and just as quickly as we walked on, we walked off and into a very modern station in Lorton, VA. We had chosen not to pay the additional $50 for priority offloading, but our car was still called within 30-40 minutes. And just like that, we were off driving in our own car and headed home to Pennsylvania!
Details and Concluding Thoughts
As a side security note, the doors lock from inside, but not the outside. We went exploring just after departure from Sanford and left our valuables inside with the door closed and the curtains drawn. It would be very difficult to tell no one was inside for a would-be robber. And it was a lot of fun to explore! The trains connect on the second level, and then we could go right through all the passenger trains, from engine to auto cars. We came upon a few crew members who were all helpful and pointed out things to go see. We also discovered that our particular train had 8 sleeping cars and four coach cars, plus the dining and lounge cars, which made for a pretty long walk altogether!
Also, expect to tip your porter. Our porter, Matt, was very pleasant, nice to us and our kids, efficient, and prompt. He offered to help with luggage, he took our dinner orders, delivered our dinners, turned down our beds, redid the rooms in the morning, and helped with disembarking. He was also on-call for anything we needed, day or night. There is one porter per sleeping car, which meant he had 20 rooms to attend to. They work hard for their gratuities and appreciate it!
All in all, our time on the Auto Train was wonderful. It’s what you wish a first-class airplane experience was like – personal help, a private room, amazing meals on demand, clean bathrooms, and complimentary beds and blankets. It was smooth, efficient, modern, and quiet. Hardly any time was wasted with checking in, boarding, or unloading. It’s amazing to go to sleep and wake up 855 miles away, without feeling as though you lifted a finger! I would highly recommend it and look forward to traveling on the Auto Train again!
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