Nine Tips For Enjoying the Auto Train

Published On: February 19th, 2019Categories: Coparenting, TravelTags: , , , , , , , 11.5 min read
amtrak train

As we made our travel plans to drive from Northern Virginia to Florida for Thanksgiving to see family, my husband Craig floated the idea of driving down and then returning on the Auto Train. He had always wanted to try it. I was not as enthusiastic, to say the least, but faced with the prospect of dealing with I-95 on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I reluctantly agreed.

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We brought two of the kids, our twelve-year-old, who was every bit as excited as Craig, and our thirteen-year-old, who was skeptical, to say the least. She didn’t think it sounded “fun” (neither did I, really).

Craig asked me to keep an open mind about it, especially in front of the kids. I did and to my surprise, I ended up having a really great time. Also, I was beyond thankful not to have to sit in stop and go traffic for hours on end.

If you’ve ever wondered about taking the Auto Train, here are some things we learned from our trip:

The Basics

The Auto Train, operated by Amtrak, is an 855-mile long train service for passengers and their cars. It operates between Lorton, VA and Sanford, FL and is the only one of its kind in North America. At approximately three-fourths of a mile long, it is also the longest train in the country.

A (Very) Brief History Of The Auto Train

auto train

If you’re interested in digging in more, there’s a book all about the Auto Train and its storied history.

The Auto Train has an interesting history. Eugene K. Garfield, who once worked for the Department of Transportation, founded the Auto-Train Corporation in 1969. Service began in 1971 along the same route as today’s train and was initially very popular. By 1974, the corporation established a second route between Louisville, KY, and Sanford, FL. By 1981, however, a couple of derailments had decimated the finances of the corporation and the company closed its doors.

Amtrak revived the train in 1984 under the slightly changed name “Auto Train” (without the hyphen) with service three times weekly, expanding to daily service after the first year. The Auto Train remains popular. In 2017, it ferried almost 230,000 riders between Lorton and Sanford.

How Does It Work?

You can book tickets on the Amtrak site, which also has all the information you need about boarding and the vehicle requirements.

The process goes something like this: Station gates open at 11:30 a.m. and cars are allowed to proceed into the vehicle staging area. Each car has a unique number assigned and affixed to the side of it with a big magnet. The vehicles go from there to the autorack ramps, where they are loaded. You then proceed into the station with your carry on bags and wait to board the train. And wait.

Passengers can begin to board at 2:30 p.m. and the train departs at 4:00 p.m. So yes, that is more waiting. There are several dinner seatings – you receive your dinner tickets when you check in and the seating times are first come, first served. So the earlier you check in, the more choice you’ll have about your dinner time. Also at check-in, you will be asked what time you want your berth set up for sleeping.

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The train makes one stop around midnight in South Carolina. If you’re awake when it stops, do not be tempted to get off the train. It’s a short stop and I can’t even imagine what a disaster it would be if you missed getting back on.

The train arrives at about 9:00 a.m. Shortly after arrival, you’ll head into the station to claim your car. This can be an extremely long process – like an hour or two. Yep, more waiting. That is if you haven’t purchased priority unloading, which I’ll discuss more below. (You can guess what my recommendation on that is.)

Nine Tips For Taking The Auto Train:

1. Book Far In Advance

We booked our train a few weeks before Thanksgiving and by that time, many of the sleeping cars were already booked. PRO TIP: Book earlier than we did if you want a good selection of banquettes to choose from. We had hoped to get one of the “suite style” berths that accommodate four and has its own bathroom, but they were sold out. We ended up with two two-person “roomettes,” each with no bathroom, but a public restroom down the hall. It worked out so that we were across the hall from the kids’ room, but it sure would have been nice to have our own bathroom. Next time!

2. Book Sleeping Car Accommodations

I know this seems like a given, but the Auto Train is not made up only of sleeping cars. You have a choice between a sleeping car and a coach seat. If you can afford it, book into one of the sleeping cars. It’s a really long train ride. Seventeen. Hours. Long. I cannot imagine that trip sitting in a limited recline seat the entire time. Plenty of people do it, and it still beats driving, but it just seems miserable.

There are a number of options for sleeping car accommodations. I’ve already mentioned that because we made our reservations so close to our travel date, we ended up with two roomettes instead of a larger berth. The roomettes have two chairs facing each other on either side of a picture window. At night, the seats are turned into a bed with another bed folding down from above. The roomettes do not have their own toilets or showers.

One additional note: There are accessible berths available that accommodate two passengers. I would imagine that if you have a wheelchair or walker, moving between train cars might be fairly difficult. I know an attendant will bring meals to you if needed, but it’s worth checking with Amtrak directly about any other accommodations that might be necessary.

3. Purchase Priority Unloading

There is lots of waiting around involved in taking the Auto Train. Lots.

For $60, you can pay to have your car be one of the first thirty unloaded from the train. This is SO worth it. But note that you have to be at the train station by 2:30 p.m. – if you aren’t there, you won’t get the priority unloading – or your money back. Amtrak recommends arriving by 2:00 p.m. We got there just before 2:15 p.m. and were fine, but we cut it a little too close for my comfort.

Disembarking was easy and because we had paid the priority fee, our car was #23 to be unloaded.  When we looked back at the station full of people who still had to wait for their vehicles, that money seemed well worth it.

4. If You Don’t Have Priority Unloading, Get To The Station Early.

To take the Auto Train, Amtrak requires you to be at the Sanford train station no later than 2:30 p.m. to board your car, but vehicle boarding actually begins at 11:30 a.m. The earlier you get there, the sooner your car gets on the train – which logically should mean the earlier it will be unloaded and the less time you’ll have to wait around on the back end. Although full disclaimer that Amtrak car loading processes are less than totally clear.

If you have priority unloading, getting there early is not as much of a concern. However, you can only reserve your dinner spot at the train station. So if you do what we did and arrive at 2:15 p.m., you will have virtually no choice in which dinner seating you get. If that matters to you, I would recommend arriving right at 11:30 a.m., checking in and then taking the shuttle bus into downtown Sanford to explore for a couple of hours before the train leaves. Same goes for Lorton if you’re leaving from there. But be aware that there isn’t much to do outside of the train station in Lorton. So you’ll be sitting around the station for a while before boarding.

5. Pack Your Carry On Wisely

I wrote a piece about how to pack your carry on for a long flight and I have similar advice for the auto train. One of the great benefits of taking the Auto Train is that your luggage is only limited by what you can fit in your car. But you will not be able to access your car or anything in it after you check in.

Amtrak limits you to two carry on bags. I assumed that in a two-person roomette there would be plenty of room for our stuff, so I packed a fairly large carry on (about the size of this one) with a change of clothes and my laptop. And I brought a separate insulated cooler-type bag with drinks and snacks.

I way overestimated the amount of room we would have. The berth isn’t necessarily cramped, and there are lots of nooks and crannies to stow things. But any large bags you bring will likely be underfoot.

Also, you can only lock your room door from the inside. So if you don’t want to leave a laptop or bunch of valuables in your unlocked room, you’ll need to bring them to dinner with you. Or pack them in your car.

9 tips for taking the auto train

6. Bring snacks and drinks

Did I mention this is a 17-hour train ride? Bring snacks.

They do serve dinner and breakfast, and there is self-serve coffee available. The sleeping rooms come with a couple of bottles of water, but I advise bringing more. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m a big believer in traveling with snacks whether I’m traveling with kids or not.

Dinner is serviceable – you’ll get a salad and roll, a choice between a couple of different entrees, and dessert. It was better than plane food (low bar, I know), but not quite restaurant quality. If your party is less than four, you will be seated with other people at dinner. So be prepared to make small talk with your fellow passengers, you might meet some interesting people!

We skipped breakfast in favor of sleeping in. If you decide to eat breakfast, you don’t have to worry about reserved times. Rather, it’s more of a ‘continental’ type where you can get some yogurt and a wrapped pastry.

7. Bring Things To Do

See above on this being a 17-hour train ride. While about half of your time on board will be spent sleeping, that still leaves plenty of hours. And there is a lot of waiting around time during the boarding and unloading processes. You will want to have things to occupy you. Amtrak does provide free wifi. I encourage you to download movies, bring books, magazines, kindles, games, knitting, or whatever will keep you entertained.

the sanford, fl auto train station

Boarding at the Sanford, FL station.

8. Bring Sleep Aids If You Need Them

Some people have a hard time going to sleep with the various noises the train makes at night. You might want ear plugs. I can go to sleep pretty much anywhere (including sitting upright in an open-air jeep on safari in Africa in the middle of the day – true story), but because I have problems staying asleep, I am a big fan of Ambien, especially when I travel. Don’t worry, not Roseanne-Barr-crazy-levels of Ambien, just once in a blue moon to help me stay asleep.

Whatever your jam is – Ambien, melatonin, a glass of wine, meditation, listening to music – if you think you’ll have a hard time sleeping on the train, bring what works for you and use it. And if having your own pillow and blanket helps you, bring those, too. We did get a bit cold at night and wished we had brought more blankets.

Also, be aware that once the beds are made, you have very little room in your berth. Unless you’re a kid, it’s not super easy to get up and down from the top bunk. Craig had to get up a couple of times during the night and getting up and down using the little stairs next to the bed proved to be a little tricky.

9. Relax!!

The auto train really was a fairly relaxing experience, at least for me. Once we boarded, we had a few hours to chill out before dinner. I did some work on my laptop and read. The kids watched movies and Craig took on the latest couple of editions of The Economist. We also spent some time enjoying the changing views and setting sun. The palm trees and marshes gave way to rural pines and some small towns. Some of which had already put out holiday lights, which added some festivity once it got dark.

We woke up around 6:30 a.m. just south of Richmond to a transformed landscape. We could still make out the fading moon as a cotton candy sky melted the fog away. Even with the click-clacking and rocking of the train, it felt completely peaceful.

The attendant announced that we had made excellent time overnight, so would be arriving in Lorton at 8:00 a.m., an hour early. It was welcome news to have made good time, but I kind of wasn’t ready for the trip to be over.

Have you ever taken the auto train?  What did you think of it? Comment below!

xo,

Cameron

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  1. julie February 21, 2019 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Very fun! I would love to do this for vacation one year.

  2. Carolina Frederick February 21, 2019 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    I would love to do this with my family. Great tips, great post, thank you for sharing.

  3. Holly Bird February 21, 2019 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    This looks like a great trip..I would love to do this! Thanks for sharing this.. I hope to do this one day!

  4. Ramae Hamrin February 21, 2019 at 6:25 pm - Reply

    I think this sounds really fun! What wonderful tips!

    • Suzette Howard February 1, 2020 at 6:17 pm - Reply

      I. boarded the Auto train in Sanford Fl . 1/16/20. and was told they did not serve dinner anymore that was bad news, lucky I had food and snacks with me. Overall I enjoyed the auto train to Lorton Va.

  5. Tricia Snow February 21, 2019 at 8:25 pm - Reply

    I have not taken it but my grandfather loved it. I have another friend who can not fly and loves to take the train with her toddler. I have a very romantic notion of trains. I am not sure I would love it though.

    • Michael Washington February 18, 2020 at 9:11 pm - Reply

      I have rode the Auto Train 4-5 times and have enjoyed it but there are some pertinent observations I like to share that may be beneficial
      :
      My first Auto Train ride, February 16-17, 2014, was delayed two to three days due to a snow storm, which did not hinder my plans as I was making a permanent move to Florida; if you are traveling coach, a blanket and pillow is a must as the train gets cold at night and you will want something to rest your head on at night; once you use a sleeper, you will not want to travel by coach again, a mistake I made; the WiFi service is useless, and when it does work, it is inconsistent. Considering you can get WiFi on an airplane 30,000 feet in the air, I cannot figure why Amtrak can’t get this right; starting in January 2020, some of the services will be amended with the most significant being how meals are served. You should consult the Auto Train website for these changes especially if you have not rode the train in a while; prices are usually less expensive traveling north and vary significantly like airline prices; bring lots of reading material/movies for both the train ride and wait in the Train Station; enjoy mingling with other train riders.

  6. Karie February 21, 2019 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    My hubby would love to do this. He’s not much for vacations but this might be an idea he can tolerate. Lol

  7. Leigh Ann February 22, 2019 at 8:39 am - Reply

    Wow! What a great post. I’d never heard of an auto train before but love the idea. Sounds like a lot of waiting but such a great adventure. And, isn’t life a out the moments in between our destinations?

  8. Meagan February 22, 2019 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    My husband and I have talked about doing this! We love road trips, but it kind of stinks for one person to have to be driving. We always talk about how it could be a road trip but no one has to drive!

  9. Anna February 22, 2019 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    The only type of transportation I have never used in the USA its train. Although I am here for 14 years. So thank you for these great tips. I like to be prepared!

  10. Jelane February 22, 2019 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    Traveling by train is on my list of things to do. Thanks for the useful tips!

  11. Kkm February 23, 2019 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    That sounds lije quite an experience. With all the waiting my kids need to be older before i even consided this! 😉

  12. Cindy February 23, 2019 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    How fun! I’ve never heard of the Auto Train. Seems like a great way to travel.

  13. Sandi February 23, 2019 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    This sounds great! I take the Northeast Corridor Amtrak often but have never been further south than DC. I’ll have to check it out.

  14. Jennifer Morrison February 23, 2019 at 5:11 pm - Reply

    What a fun idea! I remember taking a train down California as a young child to Disneyland with my grandparents. It was about 7 hours. We loved it!

  15. Michele Vadnais February 24, 2019 at 9:51 am - Reply

    I have never heard of the Auto Train. What a great idea!

  16. Kristen February 24, 2019 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    This sounds so cool! Thanks for sharing your tips.

  17. Kathryn at QuestFor47 February 25, 2019 at 12:33 am - Reply

    Great tips! I’ve never traveled by train before, but I totally want to!

  18. Angela Greven February 25, 2019 at 8:29 am - Reply

    Great suggestions for traveling on the auto train, I would totally love to do this someday! Looks like you all had a good time 🙂

  19. Susan Franklin February 25, 2019 at 8:31 am - Reply

    I didn’t realize such a train trip existed where you could bring your car – very interesting. I’ve thought that it might be fun to take a train, but now I’m not too sure I would enjoy this type of adventure….. I like to fly and get there. My hubby is introducing me to road trips, which I’m starting to enjoy because we can plan the trips with 2-3 hour stops, in most cases. You provided a lot of great tips and things to be aware of when considering a train trip!

  20. Pauline Reynolds February 25, 2019 at 11:07 am - Reply

    I love trains!!! I miss living in an area where there are ones because it makes things so much easier. I did not know there was a train you could take your car on. Very cool.

    • Matthew Trugman December 18, 2019 at 8:08 pm - Reply

      The station opens at 8 am 7 days a week. One can check in get the information on your dinner and seating assignment then be back to check in your vehicle at 130p

      • CMW July 10, 2021 at 5:16 pm - Reply

        Thank you for this.. it’s been a while since I did the train and this is exactly what I did as we live locally near lorton.

  21. Jen February 26, 2019 at 12:12 am - Reply

    Interesting blog post. Thank you for thi info.

    • E Koch July 23, 2021 at 1:19 pm - Reply

      We are on our first Auto Train trip today. So far, so good. One disappointment: dinner will be sent to our sleeping compartment, there is no dining car service this evening. Four choices for entrees: steak, chicken, cod, or manicotti. Three choices for desert: cheesecake, vanilla ice cream, or sugar-free jello. Beer, wine, and spirits available for purchase.

  22. T.M. Brown February 28, 2019 at 9:51 am - Reply

    This is a great list to keep in mind! I’ve never traveled by train like this, but it does sound like an exciting adventure!

  23. Darla June 24, 2019 at 9:45 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this post! We’re taking it soon and I was googling tips! I wish we had dropped the money on priority boarding for the van, now, but at the time, that $1700 roundtrip was so shocking I didn’t want to spend more! LOL! But I’m really looking forward to this portion of our trip! Just curious, how much were drinks (adult and otherwise) and basic snacks? I will pack some snacks, but wondering if we should pack drinks, too. I just don’t want to overpack. Reading this (we have the 4 person sleeper car with not toilet) makes me thing we just pack one overnight bag with our clothes and one bag with games, books, tablets for us.

    • cgnormand June 25, 2019 at 9:49 am - Reply

      Darla, thanks so much!! Y’all will have a great time.
      We did not buy drinks or snacks on the train – we brought our own – so I can’t speak to the prices. But – because it’s an overnight train, we didn’t end up eating or drinking as much as we thought we would. (Although I subscribe to the be over rather than underprepared notion!)
      I hope y’all have so much fun!!!

    • Pat Scopelliti November 30, 2019 at 2:14 am - Reply

      Hi Darla,

      Your Autotrain fare includes dinner and breakfast. So some snacks should be enough.

      • Pat Scopelliti November 30, 2019 at 2:17 am - Reply

        Note meals are only included with sleeper tickets.

  24. Dave June 29, 2019 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    I have made 11 trips on the AT and love it. I can’t fly and would not even consider a road trip this long. I always get a roomette and its great for one person. Good privacy. Food is good and the service is top notch.

  25. Nikki Scott July 31, 2019 at 9:59 pm - Reply

    8 of us are taking the auto train for the first time next Friday. 5 are my grandkids from age 8 – 19. Some have mixed feelings about the trip. My husband gets motion sickness so I plan to get him the wristband hoping it works. I’m looking forward to the trip. I just hope we all survive 😊

    • cgnormand August 1, 2019 at 2:31 am - Reply

      Good luck, Nikki!! I bet it will be great. Our teen was a bit “bored” with it all, but our 12 year old thought it was super cool!! 🙂

  26. Dave S August 1, 2019 at 11:46 am - Reply

    I will soon be taking my 12th trip on the AutoTrain. All your tips hit the nail on the head. I have found that if I book the trip 4 months ahead of time I usually get better pricing. My first two trips were on the coach seats. Seats were comfortable enough but did not recline enough for my comfort. All trips after that were in the roomettes. Will fit 2 people but much more comfortable as a single passenger.
    I found the dinner very good at first but through the years it has suffered budget cuts. The wine and cheese party for sleeper class is gone, the fresh fruit is gone. The wine at dinner is gone thanks to Diane Sawyer’s false reporting.

    Recent changes reported to happen soon – wine at dinner is coming back. Sleeper class still have complimentary dinner and breakfast but coach class will have to pay.

    All in all I love the Auto Train and would not consider any other means of travel. One tip I would like to pass along – When using the rest rooms, LOCK THE DOOR so there are no surprises. If you lock the door there is a small light outside the door that indicates the room is occupied. No lock = no light = surprise!

    • cgnormand August 1, 2019 at 12:23 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Dave. Glad to know that after so many trips you are still a fan of the auto train. And I love these tips!! Thanks!!

  27. Dora Fralin August 20, 2019 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    My Family Loves the Auto Train, we rode on it one time and have been traveling back and forth from Lorton to Sanford for the past 3yrs, My husband enjoys the train because he wears his Oakland Raiders gear(hat & Tshirt) and that always starts a conversation, my 9yr old enjoy eating the bread at dinner time and I myself like to sit back and relax and I don’t have to listen to my husband complaining about my driving. I highly recommend the auto train.

    • cgnormand August 21, 2019 at 7:03 am - Reply

      I love it, Dora! The train does offer something for everyone, doesn’t it?

  28. Jaime September 22, 2019 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    2nd time coming up in a cpl weeks. I travel with two children 4 & 6 and my husband. Our first experience left us convinced we would never torcher ourselves with flying & renting a car/carseats/stroller ever again while our kids were young. We did go coach & doing so again. One tip I learned from someone else was to bring a small sleeping-bags for the kids and let them sleep on the floor in front of you. There is plenty of room and they can stretch out. Train is very clean so I didnt feel disgusted doing so. I wish there was enough room for me to do the same actually! It was a restful sleep for my husband and I as the seats are comfortable and recline pretty far back. I personally didnt want to spend the extra for the roomettes. That $ had better use at Disney. Anyways thats my review. Looking forward to doing it again in 12 days

    • cgnormand September 22, 2019 at 3:20 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Jaime! The sleeping bags are a great tip – we’ll have to try that next time we go! Have fun on your next trip!

    • Judie Lehman October 9, 2019 at 10:00 am - Reply

      We are taking our first train ride Oct 22, so excited. We’re 82 and 73 so we won’t be noisy. No sleeper as we’re stretching our budget already.
      Are there places to charge our devices?

      • cgnormand October 9, 2019 at 10:32 am - Reply

        Hi Judie – so excited for you!
        Yes, there are plugs you can use to charge. I kept my phone plugged in for the entire trip!
        Have a great time!!!

  29. David December 8, 2019 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Excellent experience, we purchased a suite and priority off loading for 2 vehicles. We arrived in Lorton at 1:30 pm and our vehicles were the first 2 offloaded in Sanford . The one thing I disliked however is you cannot lock your suites from the outside (can bolt them from inside) so if you have valuables you better bring them with you if you go to the dining car, unless you feel comfortable leaving valuables unattended .

  30. Lbsel December 21, 2019 at 7:47 am - Reply

    We are taking the auto train next week for the second time. Great tips! We do go coach – I find the seats comfortable and I find it less confining than being in a sleeper car.

  31. Amy Montee December 28, 2019 at 12:01 am - Reply

    Question….we are traveling (3 of us) in Feb. wil we be able to sit together???? I am stressing about getting seats together.

  32. Karen January 19, 2020 at 7:16 am - Reply

    I have taken the auto train twice a year for 5 years and love it. As for the unloading of cars, there is no rhyme or reason to what order they come off unless you have priority. Early arrival down not necessarily mean early unloading. What I do us arrive at the station by 11. Instead of checking in at the booth, I go around it and park in the parking lot. I walk in, check in and get seat and dinnervasdignments. Then I leave in my car and go have lunch and some shopping. Then I make sure I am back at the station by 2 and then go through the check in booth and leave the car. That cuts down on the sitting time in the station. Another tip, if you have trouble walking about on the train as I do, you can request your meal in your compartment and they will bring it to you.

    • cgnormand January 19, 2020 at 8:59 am - Reply

      Those are some great tips. Thanks, Karen!

    • Chris Marcotte April 3, 2020 at 9:40 am - Reply

      Yes thank you for the good ideas

  33. Robin Johnson February 10, 2020 at 11:01 am - Reply

    This has become the best way to travel for me and I have my own vehicle to get around in during my vacation. Highly recommend!

  34. endry August 7, 2020 at 10:36 pm - Reply

    HI, can somebody tell me if I can put luggage on the roof of my car to travel in the autotrain? Thanks!!!

  35. Lynne August 23, 2020 at 3:04 am - Reply

    I also suggest if you are going coach, try to get lower level seating which is where restrooms are and you won’t have to maneuver up and down the narrow steps. Also the lower level has less seats and are a lot quieter, not a lot of people up and down aisle.

  36. Keith June 16, 2021 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    This is fun and I am so thankful for sharing your blog. You know you’re in good shape when you become uninterested in thinking back.

    • cgnormand June 16, 2021 at 6:58 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much!!!

  37. Morris Hensley August 17, 2021 at 6:27 pm - Reply

    I’m getting ready to travel south to Florida (home)on the auto train. I am 66 years old and have never ridden on a train. I am so excited about this trip. We will drive to Tennessee to visit Chipamaqua, Cleveland to visit R&R Hall of fame, visit my grandson in Detroit, Gettysburg PA, and Niagara Falls NY, all in 2 weeks. I will be delisted to park toe truck and ride the train home. Thanks for the tips.

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