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Amtrak Auto Train: Pros & Cons

In my previous post, I provided some tips on taking the Amtrak Auto Train. This time out, I’ve got some factoids for all you rail buffs (or just general nerds), as well as the pros and cons of taking the Auto Train versus driving the same route. For me, the pros completely outweigh the cons, but I still sometimes make the drive just so I can stop and see friends and family along the way.

Amtrak Auto Train Facts

Amtrak Auto Train sign with statisticsAt the Lorton station, a large sign proclaimed some rather interesting facts about the Auto Train. I also did some digging and found some of my own:

  • The train can accommodate up to 650 passengers and 330 vehicles.
  • Traveling the 855-mile route between Lorton and Sanford takes an average of 17.5 hours.
  • In 1983, Amtrak began operating the Auto Train three times per week, upping the service to daily the following year.
  • It’s the longest passenger train in the world, stretching three-quarters of a mile.
  • Although the sign states it carries more than 250,000 passengers annually, I found that the totals dipped a bit during a few years, but only about by 20,000 or so.

Pros of the Auto Train

Unless they start pairing me with a surprise roomette buddy, I’ll continue taking the Auto Train every chance I can get. Here are some of the main reasons why.

The price covers more than just the fare for you and your car. When you get a room, it comes with two meals! And a glass of wine! (They were smart not to have an open bar, at least in my case, because that would’ve been a losing proposition for them.) Just make sure that if you want a special-diet meal, you order ahead of time. And make sure they truly understand the limits of your special diet. When I called to ask for a vegan meal, I was assured that I could order one on the train. Then when I checked in at the station the day of, the woman insisted that the manicotti was vegan, so I asked if it was made with vegan cheese, and she said yes, it was made with ricotta and mozzarella. After I mentally facepalmed myself, I explained (very calmly) that vegan is not the same as vegetarian. She blinked at me as if I’d just told her that Titanic was based on a true story and she didn’t know whether or not to believe me. I mentally patted myself on the back for packing snacks.

The second time I traveled, the phone rep was more well-versed in veganism. However, I had only one choice: enchiladas. You’d think that they’d come up with something a little more travel-friendly, especially when shared bathrooms are involved, but that’s what I was stuck with. A couple I met on my first trip told me they always ordered vegetarian even though they were carnivores: The meat options sucked that much. So pack some snacks and be prepared to feed yourself if the meal isn’t up to your palate’s standards.

It’s faster (unless you’re cannonballing) and less stressful than driving. The train trip averages 17.5 hours, although my first trip was two hours longer than that due to a middle-of-the-night delay. Yes, the 812-mile drive between Lorton and Sanford can be done in just over 11 hours, but when you factor in quick stops for gas and meals, it’s roughly the same, especially if you don’t have someone to split the driving with.

The cost is usually very reasonable. If you book far enough ahead of time, you can secure a pretty good rate, roughly $500 for a vehicle and one person in a roomette. When I calculated that the cost of a halfway decent hotel, gas, tolls, and two meals would be at least $275, it was a no-brainer for me: I’d gladly spend $225 to be “chauffeured” while I slept and read.

Rooms come with linens and towels — and a steward. No need to bring your sleeping bag (although I do recommend a mattress pad). The seats in roomettes convert into beds while you’re off in the dining car, thanks to the magical abilities of your steward (one per train car). If you’re taller than six feet, the beds in the roomettes won’t allow you to stretch out full-length, but it still beats sleeping in the parking lot of a Flying J.

An Amtrak employee in a coronavirus mask waiting for the train to resume.
An Amtrak employee waits for the train to resume at the lone stop along the Auto Train route.

Cons of the Auto Train

I will take the Auto Train over the ~17-hour drive any day. I just want you to know what you’re in for, because some of the disadvantages are rather unusual, given that we’re traveling in the 21st century. Hopefully, some of them will be improved soon.

Wait time before departure and after arrival. You have to arrive at least an hour and a half before the departure time. Vehicle loading begins as early as 11AM, with check-in ending at 2:30PM, but passengers generally don’t board until roughly half an hour before departure. Part of the bonus of train travel is not having to wait around like you do in an airport, so this is a bit of a drawback.

Then, once you arrive, it’s like waiting for the lottery to see when your car comes off — unless you’re one of those passengers willing to pay extra (roughly $100) to ensure yours is one of the first vehicles off the train. The train gods were with me during each of my first two Auto Train trips: Although I didn’t fork over a single extra cent, my car was off the train within 45 minutes each time.

The roomettes are tiny. You can’t get to your car while the train is in motion, so you have to bring anything you need for the overnight trip on the train with you. Once the seats are converted into beds for the night, there’s practically no room to stand, let alone for luggage. But, hey, if the roomettes were larger, they’d cost more, and then I’d be kvetching about the price instead of the size. Plus, you only have to feel like an entombed mummy for one night. You’ll survive (unlike the mummy).

Charging stations in roomettes are limited. One outlet per roomette?!? Someone’s gotta fix that. Amtrak trains from Philly to NYC have two outlets per seat, so I’m not sure why the Auto Train has fewer than that standard.

The Wi-Fi (or lack thereof). Seriously, I don’t know why they even bother offering it. On both my trips, neither I nor anyone I asked was able to get online. Ever.

Despite the drawbacks mentioned above, I’d still opt for the Auto Train over driving, as long as I snare a decent fare. As the Amtrak slogan said back in the day, “There’s something about a train that’s magic.”

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