Nine Tips For Enjoying the Auto 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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Very fun! I would love to do this for vacation one year.
I would love to do this with my family. Great tips, great post, thank you for sharing.
This looks like a great trip..I would love to do this! Thanks for sharing this.. I hope to do this one day!
I think this sounds really fun! What wonderful tips!
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.
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.
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.
I love the Acela but never again on the auto train! And we haven’t even left Lorton yet.
We arrived at 12:20 pm at Lorton and were in our car for two hours in the line to check in. The line was out on the main road and lots of people just cut in. It was shameless and Amtrak did nothing to stop it. What do you do with kids and old folks in a car stopped for two hours if someone has to pee ? No surprise that we are sitting here at 5 pm with cars still loading when the train was supposed to leave at 4.
I thought this could be an alternative to Covid era air and car travel but it just as unreliable and risky, if not riskier, given small shared bathrooms, even in the sleeper cars.
My hubby would love to do this. He’s not much for vacations but this might be an idea he can tolerate. Lol
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?
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!
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!
Traveling by train is on my list of things to do. Thanks for the useful tips!
That sounds lije quite an experience. With all the waiting my kids need to be older before i even consided this! 😉
How fun! I’ve never heard of the Auto Train. Seems like a great way to travel.
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.
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!
I have never heard of the Auto Train. What a great idea!
This sounds so cool! Thanks for sharing your tips.
Great tips! I’ve never traveled by train before, but I totally want to!
Great suggestions for traveling on the auto train, I would totally love to do this someday! Looks like you all had a good time 🙂
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!
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.
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
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.
Interesting blog post. Thank you for thi info.
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.
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!
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.
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!!!
Your Autotrain fare includes dinner and breakfast. So some snacks should be enough.
Note meals are only included with sleeper tickets.
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.
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 😊
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!! 🙂
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!
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!!
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.
I love it, Dora! The train does offer something for everyone, doesn’t it?
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
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!
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?
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!!!
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 .
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.
Question….we are traveling (3 of us) in Feb. wil we be able to sit together???? I am stressing about getting seats together.
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.
Those are some great tips. Thanks, Karen!
Yes thank you for the good ideas
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!
HI, can somebody tell me if I can put luggage on the roof of my car to travel in the autotrain? Thanks!!!
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.
Amtrak is doing everything it can to make the Auto Train less enjoyable…I sincerely think they are working to put the Auto Train out of business. If you don’t book a room, eating is a nightmare. Roomettes are OK, but as someone else stated, they are not really big enough for two people. My husband and I have taken the Auto Train for years and each year there are fewer perks.
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.
Thanks so much!!!
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.
My wife and I made reservations to take the Autotrain at the end of February, 2022, and return two weeks later. We have received a flood of phone calls and Email messages from companies that will ship our car to Florida, and we wonder if Amtrak is selling the information that we are making the trip or if someone hacked the Amtrak website.
I’ve ridden the Auto Train many times. One clarification on an otherwise-excellent article: “First-on, first-off” is not how vehicle loading and unloading works. The reason is a practical issue—because the tracks in Lorton and Sanford are configured differently, you have a different number of autoracks on each track. The ONLY way to ensure your vehicle will come off the train quickly is to buy the Priority Offload feature (or, if you have Select Executive status in Amtrak Guest Rewards, to redeem the voucher they give you for one Priority Offload). There is no significant benefit to trying to be the first person there because it doesn’t help you get your car sooner and, as your article rightly notes, you’ll be bored out of your mind waiting. (Seriously, on one trip when we had just reached Florida and were driving out of SFA at 8:30 AM, we saw some idiot was already lined up to check in for the northbound trip. Check-in doesn’t begin until 11:30. Why would you sit there in your car for three hours, then sit in the station for three hours more?)
My husband and I took the Autotrain to Florida on Dec 27,2021 and again in our trip home to PA on Feb 27,2022. We loved it! No hassle,no traffic jams,etc.
Both times we arrived at 11:30 and boarded about 2:30 or 3 pm.. we didn’t mind the wait….I read my book,watched the people,etc. We had a Roomette both times and have no complaints! It was fine sitting and the beds were comfortable…..no problems sleeping! The meals were fine, coffee was good and we brought way to many snacks! Both times we waited about an hr and a half for our car,but anything beats driving 17 plus hrs and all the hassles that go with it! When you think about the wear and tear on your car,a motel room,gas and food,not to mention my husband does all the driving and was beat the first day we arrived….this year we were at our place we rent after 1 hr drive from Sanford……we unpacked the car,went for groceries and spent the afternoon at the pool! We will never drive again!
I have traveled with the Auto Train 10 times. I had a coach seat once – never again. Roomette is the best for me. I travel alone and its quite comfortable for me. I usually get about 6 hours sleep. Same as at home.
The Auto Train is the only way I fly. I recommended it to several friends and they all enjoyed it.
I book the trip at least 6 months in advance. My hint – Book early and ask for roomette 2, 3 or 4 or Bedrooms E or F. These are in the center of the car. The ends of the cars are over the wheels and can be noisy.
As a solo driver I loved the auto train. I prefer the lower seats because there is less commotion and plenty of room. It’s also the same level as the bathrooms which makes more accessible for my wheel chair family members. The seats are very roomy (nothing like air flight) and I preferred it to the compartments that made me feel claustrophobic. The time passed incredibly quickly and I was completely refreshed when I got home.