My parents are down in Tampa, Florida for the next few months from New York and we had two options for their car: I drive it down, or take it down on Amtrak’s Auto Train. If you read the title of the post, you know what we chose.
We decided that my sister and I would take the Auto Train and my parents would fly down the next day. (Why have all of us suffer on when only two of us can?) Here’s how it works: You drive your car to the Auto Train station in Lorton, Virginia, which is right by Washington DC, and the train takes you and your car down to Sanford, Florida, right by Orlando.
You have to get to the station by 2:30PM since that’s the cutoff for getting your car on the train. Because my mother loves to get to airports and such HOURS before departure, she made my sister and I leave New York at an ungodly hour and we got to the station at 11AM. Yes, that’s right, 11AM. Because we were there so early, we had to wait in our car (sitting in a short line of cars filled, I’m sure, with early birds) for the booth to open at 11:30AM to let cars in.
Once we drove up to the booth, a magnetic number was placed on the driver’s side door and we were told to drive up to a marked lane. Once there, turn off the engine, leave the keys in the ignition, roll down the passenger side window, grab a maximum of two carry-ons per person for the train ride, and leave your car right there.
The Auto Train drivers will load up the car onto the train.
Go inside the station and pick up your tickets at the check-in counter. You get your boarding pass with your seat or room number and pick a time for dinner. You get to pick 5PM, 7PM, or 9PM. A perk of getting there 3.5 hours early (!) is getting to pick the dinner time first. We went with 7PM.
You can opt to pay extra for a bedroom instead of a seat, which we did. For two people, our options were to get a Superliner Roomette (two seats that convert to beds) or a Superliner Bedroom (a sofa that converts to a bed and a berth that folds down from above plus the crucial private bathroom) and we chose the latter. The ride is over 16 hours so I have no idea how people just riding in the seats are able to handle it.
Ok, so you know how I mentioned you have to get to the station by 2:30PM? Well, you don’t even leave the station until 4PM. OMG. SO. MUCH.TIME. WAITING.
At 2:30PM, an announcement was made to start boarding. Since we were in a bedroom, we got to board first. Let me give you a tour of the room. Look to your right, you see a two seater sofa. Look to your left, a sink and seat behind it by the window.
The sink juts out and tucked around the corner from it is the bathroom complete with a shower.
A note about the bathroom: The toilet flushes like the ones on the plane using very little water and a ton of suction. They have instructions for the shower and that is that it’s best to take one sitting on the toilet since there’s no room to stand comfortably. Uh, PASS on the shower.
IT IS TINY. They say the room can accommodate up to three people (!) but I don’t see how that’s possible without ending in a murder-suicide.
As my sister noted, my enthusiasm level dropped each hour I was on train.
There is a little coffee and ice station in the middle of the train where I drank three cups of coffee within 3 hours. (This will come to haunt me when I’m trying to sleep at 2AM.)
We were starving by the time we boarded so we ate our packed lunch (thanks to mom) on the train after the 5 seconds it took us to settle in. I took a nap with the lull of the train putting me to sleep right away. Before I knew it, it was dinnertime! Remember the two pink tickets? We took those with us to the dining car for everyone in the sleeper cars when they made the announcement for the 7PM dinner.
By the way, since the door to our room only locks from the inside, I had to take my laptop and camera with me to the dining car.
If you hate people like I do, dining on the train may prove to be a little difficult. After handing in your tickets, they seat you at a table WITH OTHER PEOPLE. Since it was just the two of us, they sat us side by side and seated two strangers across from us.
On the table is a pitcher of water and another with unsweetened iced tea. Because I just had three cups of coffee earlier, I thought it would be a wonderful idea to fill my body up with more caffeine by chugging the iced tea. We had a few entree items to choose from: Braised Beef Short Rib, Baked Sea Bass, Chicken Stew, or a Lasagna. Everyone starts with a small salad and a dinner roll. I ate it all.
I got the short rib and dammit, it wasn’t half bad. I really like my side dish of sour cream which I ate with some baked potato. It was a lot of food and I was able to eat only half of everything. (All the plates are plastic by the way.)
Time for dessert! Choice of tiramisu, Jell-o, vanilla ice cream, or New York Style Cheesecake. I got the cheesecake with a strawberry topping. It was delicious.
Dinner and breakfast are included in the price so we weren’t sure how tipping worked so we left a $5 on the table.
Now back to our sardine can. Keith, our sleeper car attendant, stopped in at our requested time of 9PM to make our beds. The top berth was folded down to reveal a bed with straps you hook to the ceiling so you don’t roll off the bed and die. A little ladder hooks to the side of the berth so you can climb up to your bed and you can pretend you’re living in a dollhouse. The bottom bunk is slightly roomier but once the beds are made, there’s only about 6 inches of space between the sink and the bed.
Maybe it was all that caffeine or maybe it was the 3 hour nap I took earlier, or maybe it was that the whole bed felt a little gross but I didn’t sleep too well. Sleeping in the bed reminded me of sleeping in hostels where you can’t really get too comfortable because it feels, for a lack of a better word, icky. PRO TIP: Bring a small blanket since the thin sheets and the scratchy blanket they provide are not enough to keep you warm even though we had the room temperature set to high.
They do make a stop at around 11:30PM somewhere to change conductors and to refuel. I heard a passenger say they got off the train during that stop to get some fresh air and to stretch their legs for a few minutes so I guess that’s an option.
Breakfast is served in the same sleeper dining cars from 6-8AM. They make announcements and you just show up and get seated. No need for tickets and no set dining time. You get a packaged crumb cake (bleh), banana, cereal, milk, warm bagels with cream cheese. I had some orange juice but it was basically orange colored sugar water so I switched to coffee. I had a bagel with cream cheese and overall, the breakfast was eh. We left a $2 tip on the table.
While we were at breakfast, Keith came to our room and remade the room so the beds were tucked away. We were scheduled to arrive at 9AM, but arrived 30 minutes early at 8:30AM instead. Yay! We gathered our things and made our way off the train when they made the deboarding announcement. We tipped Keith $10 when we got off the train.
Ok, ready for this HUGE PRO TIP? (Get ready, this paragraph is mostly all caps.) MAKE SURE YOUR CAR IS ONE OF THE LAST TO LOAD. It’s first in, last out. PEOPLE, it’s FIRST IN, LAST OUT. Since we were one of the first 15 cars, we waited AN HOUR AND 30 MINUTES for our car. 1 HOUR and 30 MINUTES.
There were 142 cars on our train. We had to wait for 130 cars to unload before we got ours. Learn from my mistake. A kid waiting near me said to his mom after the hour mark, “Well, that’s what you get for getting here early.” My sister and I repeated those same words for the next few hours.
Lord, help me, I need to do this in reverse when I take the car back up to New York in a few months.
The entire trip for two people in a Superliner Bedroom and a vehicle was $742.00.