This post has been updated with one additional tip since it was first published.
When I left Miami last February to come up north and play Mary Poppins for two of my friends, I dreaded the thought of returning to winter — and possibly driving for hours in the snow. But my besties needed help, so I had to get back somehow. And then I remembered: I didn’t have to drive most of the way after all.
Amtrak’s Auto Train is the only of its kind in the country. Both you and your vehicle get to forego tolls and gas stops for 855 (relatively) stress-free miles, traveling between Lorton, Virginia (close to Washington, DC), and Sanford, Florida (just outside Orlando). Roughly a quarter-million people make the trip each year, many of them multiple times.
I enjoyed my first trip so much more than driving that the day after my two-week post-vax wait was up, I was once again on board and installed in my own roomette, armed with a ton of reading, as I knew from previous experience that the train’s poor Wi-Fi wouldn’t allow me to get much work done. And back down to Florida I went, ready to snorkel and catch up with dear friends.
If you’re considering hitting the rails instead of driving, I’ve compiled some tips from my own experience and those of passengers I met who are Auto Train regulars.
1. Hold the price — then check.
I was surprised by how affordable the trip was. My trip up north was only $501, which included my roomette (more expensive than coach), travel for both me and my Prius, and two meals. One of the couples I met on my first trip told me that they buy in advance to hold the price, then keep calling to check prices to see if they’ve dropped. One traveler reported that prices reset at midnight Eastern time; another said Pacific time.
2. Choose your accommodations.
The Auto Train offers several passenger options: Coach (just a regular ol’ Amtrak train seat), Roomette (your own sleeping space but with shared bathroom), Bedroom (sleeps two, with private bath), Family Bedroom (same as Bedroom, but sleeps four), and Accessible Bedroom (accommodates wheelchairs). Roomettes are obviously the more affordable private option (you won’t have a stranger with you). Note that some rooms on the end of a car are angled, meaning they have less room. Plus, since those rooms tend to be near the stairs and bathrooms, they’re usually noisier. So if you book by phone, ask the rep to put you toward the middle of the car.
3. Bring cash for tips.
I totally screwed this up because I’m used to traveling short distances on Amtrak — usually just a quick jaunt from Philly to New York. Traveling via Auto Train, however, is like being on a ship or a plane, with cabin attendants. So be sure to come prepared with appropriate denominations of bills.
4. Plan ahead about what to bring on the train.
You can store as much as you can fit in your car, but the space for your belongings in roomettes can be tight, especially once the seats are converted to beds. You’ll end up squished between your suitcases if you don’t board with only the barest essentials. Keep in mind that the cars in which the autos travel is not climate controlled, so don’t leave anything in there that could get damaged due to extreme temperatures (high or low). Since the rooms lock only from the inside, you probably don’t want to leave valuables behind when you got to the dining car or bathroom, so consider leaving those in your car. (Just make sure they’re well hidden.)
5. Pack a mattress cover.
Although the rooms come with linens, only a wafer-thin sheet will be between you and a mattress that has accommodated multitudes of travelers (of various hygiene levels). Next time I ride, I’m bringing a blanket or mattress cover as a layer of protection between me and the bodily secretions of untold numbers of travelers.
6. Make sure an Amtrak employee is in view if you decide to take advantage of the late-night stop.
The Auto Train stops for roughly 15 minutes at about 2AM, allowing passengers to stretch their legs, have a smoke, or even walk their dog. No announcement is made when the train stops (so as not to waken sleeping passengers), so you have to pay attention to the train’s movement and then ask if this is indeed the rest stop, as the train often stops for other reasons. Similarly, no announcement is made when the train is about to continue its journey, so if you miss the train, you’ll be stuck there in the middle of the night. One passenger told me this is why she always makes sure to keep an employee in view when she walks her dog during the stop.
7. Call ahead to request your special meal.
Dinner and a glass of wine are part of the fare, so if you follow a special diet, you’ll want to make sure you can partake of your railway feast. I was able to request a vegetarian meal at check-in the first time I traveled, but a vegan request required a call several days in advance. (The first rep assumed vegan meant “gluten-free,” so make sure the rep understands what you’re requesting.)
And even though steak is the default meal option, you may want to request vegetarian anyway. Two die-hard carnivores I met on my first trip told me that they always request vegetarian: The steak is that inedible.
Note that the vegan pickin’s were slim at breakfast, but I was lucky in that the hostess was very accommodating and went out of her way to get me some almond milk for my cereal and coffee. I was glad I had a stash of pistachios back in my roomette.
Share your Auto Train tips in the comments below.