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.

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!