Taking the Amtrak auto train to Florida from the northeast is an option for traveling to the Sunshine State. But is it worth it? What are the pros and cons? Is it really cheaper to take the train? This post explores these questions and shares the author’s experience traveling on the Amtrak auto train from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida.
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Why take the Amtrak auto train to Florida?
The main reason travelers take the Amtrak auto train to Florida is because they prefer not to drive. We go back and forth from New York to Miami every once in a while and the driving can be exhausting. Traffic on the I-95 can be daunting and just sitting in a car for hours on end is exhausting. Friends had taken the auto train and recommended it. “Let’s check out the auto train,” we said. So we began our research and explored options on the auto train.
Auto train cost, tickets and reservations
I have to admit I had a bit of trouble nailing down the price of my ticket. I first identified what I thought was a pretty good price of $89 for coach. A coach seat is one which reclines a bit but not totally flat. You can doze on it but it will be like sleeping on a plane, not very restful. I thought the price seemed reasonable but when I plugged in the date on the Amtrak site, the price shot up. After trying several different dates, I did find a $89.00 coach fare but that was waaaaay in the future. The lesson here is, a good way to save money is to book as far in the future as possible. The $89.00 does not include the price of transporting the car which is an additional $200.00.
The prices for other accommodations also depends on how far in advance you book. The closer the date, the more expensive the fare, similar to what some airlines do.
You can buy your tickets online or at the station.
From a cost perspective, it is not necessarily cheaper to take the train, although it could be. There are many factors to consider. Will you go coach or sleeper accommodation? If you drive, will you linger and take a leisurely, several-day road trip from the northeast to Florida or try to make it in one non-stop drive?
For stark comparison purposes, we were two people in a “roomette” on the auto train. We paid $742.00 for 2 people to go from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida. That’s $542.00 plus $200.00 for the car. We also had a bicycle attached to the back of the car. We were originally coming from New York so we had to drive to Lorton to get on the train. That cost needs to be factored in if you are coming from somewhere other than Lorton. For this comparison, however, we’re just starting from Lorton.
Had we driven from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida, the cost for two people would have been about $350.00 including gas and tolls, one hotel night and food. That’s a $392.00 difference compared to the auto train. Of course there’s the wear and tear of the car and of the passengers. For us it was worth it for the experience but we wouldn’t do it every time we take that route.
Amtrak auto train route.
The train travels non-stop from Lorton, Virginia in the Washington DC area to the city of Sanford, in Central Florida just outside of Orlando, a major tourist destination since that is where Disney World is located. The return route is in the opposite direction, Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA.
How long does the journey take?
The trip takes 17 hours and 29 minutes. That’s just the travel time and does not include the time involved in loading the car into the train at the departure point or unloading it at the destination.
Cars begin loading at 11:30 and loading closes at 2:30. Once you get to the loading area you leave everything in your car except your valuables and a bag or two for what you will need on the train. Then you check-in in the waiting area and are given your ticket to board, dinner menu and dinner time. You wait in the waiting room until boarding. The train actually leaves at 4: pm.
On the other end, it takes another good chunk of time to unload all the cars. Once we arrived in Sanford, it took us an hour and a half before our car was unloaded.
As can be expected, the first cars to load will be the last to unload. For that reason, it makes sense to load your car closer to the loading deadline of 2:30. Just to be on the safe side, being on line at 1:30 to load your car, would mean you won’t have to wait so long to receive it on the other end.
Accommodations on the Amtrak auto train.
Amtrak provides several options for the Lorton, Virginal to Sanford, Florida route. The first is “coach.” This is the most economical option and doable for the almost 18 hour ride but you are still sitting all this time so, if you can afford it, upgrade.
The next option is basically two coach seats in a tiny compartment that pull out to form a bed. The shelf above it pulls down to create a bunk bed so there are two beds in this compartment euphemistically called a “roomette.” This is suitable for two people (two people who really like each other because it’s very small) or one person who wants to sleep in a bed vs a reclining seat. The bathroom is in the hall and shared with other passengers.
Another option is a “family room” suitable for 2 adults and 2 kids. It has private bathroom and shower.
The final option is a “bedroom” which is twice the size of a roomette with in-room bathroom, sink and shower. This is for people who want ample space.
It’s difficult to get a good photo of the compartments because they are so small. The dimensions of the roomette is 3’6″ X 6’6″. We chose the roomette and although yes, it’s cramped, we were fine for the length of the trip.
All sleeper accommodation options come with towels, linens, turndown service, meals, access to the lounge and dining car. There is free wi-fi throughout.
Our cabin attendant, Keith, was very pleasant asking when would be a good time for our turn-down service and answering general questions about the journey.
It is a pleasant ride to Florida as you sit by the window and see the marshes, rivers, farms and towns go by. This was certainly more pleasant than driving and constantly focusing on the road and traffic.
Auto train menu, dining car and lounge.
When you check in you are given a choice of different times to have dinner in the dining car. We chose 7PM. I wanted to check out the lounge so I went there and had a pre-dinner cocktail. The price was a reasonable $8.00. The lounge was inviting with good music – Motown -piped in.
At dinner the menu was certainly adequate with options of steak, fish, chicken, and pasta. All meals come with wine, non-alcoholic beverages and dessert. There is also a children’s menu. All meals are included in the price of a ticket if you choose a sleeper accommodation. If you chose coach, the meal must be paid for separately and you eat in your seat although we were told that in future, holders of coach tickets could eat in the dining car.
Breakfast was a “grab and go” affair of coffee, cereal, milk and juice with a little pound cake eaten in the lounge or at your seat. Again perfunctory and fit for purpose.
Tips for enjoying your Amtrak auto train journey,
- Bring your own pillow or blanket, the beds are a bit hard.
- Download movies and/or a book. Remember the journey is over 17 hours.
- Bring snacks. The meal selection is not large so you might want a snack after the food car closes.
- Bring comfy slip on shoes or flip flops to make bathroom runs.
- Needless to say, if you are in a roomette where the seats turn into bunk beds, the person who uses the bathroom the most at night should be in bottom bunk.
Arriving the night before
If you are arriving at Lorton from a different destination and don’t want to be rushed in order to make the loading time, you may want to consider spending the night in Lorton. There is plenty of accommodation in Lorton, Virginia. We stayed at the Lorton Holiday Inn Express which was 7 minutes away from the train station.
There are also tons of attractions in the area. We visited the old Lorton reformatory which has now be transformed into artist studios called The Workhouse Arts Center which you can visit to see the artists at work and performing. The complex also houses the Lucy Burns Suffragist Museum that tells the story of how women fought for the right to vote. The museum is very well curated and interesting. Behind the museum are the cells where the suffragists were imprisoned and tortured for demonstrating in front of the White House. The museum is free but the prison cells have a $5.00 entrance fee.
We visited attractions in the Lorton area because we didn’t want to travel too far from the Amtrak auto train station, but the area around Lorton is packed with things to do. Visit Fredericksburg, Virginia, an hour away if you love Civil War history. Washington DC is only 30 minutes away. DC is a city you could spend a lifetime in and not get bored.
If you ae going further south beyond central Florida to Miami with its trendy and eclectic Miami neighborhoods or South Beach, that’s an additional 3 and a half hours. Of course there are also tons of cool things to do in the national parks and cities near Miami and the beaches in the area.
What are YOUR thoughts on the Amtrak auto train to Florida? Have you been? Was it a good option for you? Let us know in the comments.
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