There has always been a certain romance that comes with taking the train, from the cross-country trip to the Orient Express. Not everyone can afford to take that time off, or can afford the costs that such a trip entails, but for those of us heading to the Northeast for a vacation, there’s a shorter option, that lets you keep your car with you.
Leaving out of Sanford, Amtrak operates an Auto-Train that travels to Northern Virginia, an hour outside of Washington, DC. It makes no other stops, and does not accept passengers who are not traveling with their cars. The train offers a variety of seat options, including coach seats, two-person cabins, and family cabins. There is a lounge/club car, serving snacks and drinks for most of the trip and offering gorgeous views out of large windows, and there is a dining car which offers dinner by reservation, and pastries at breakfast.
The food at dinner was a lot better than I expected it to be. We had an option of beef, pork, chicken and a vegetarian option. While the food won’t win any awards it was fine for one night. The dessert, in particular, was surprisingly good – my lemon bar tasted like one that I would expect to get at a restaurant. There was also a kid’s menu that featured a lot of the normal kid’s menu faire.
Note: Everyone traveling on the auto train receives dinner and breakfast. This is not the same on other routes.
Your Room or Seat Onboard
We stayed in a Superliner Roomette, which convert from two seats facing each other into two beds on top of each other. During the day the cabin, while not spacious, was enough room for one adult and one child. My husband was in a cabin across the way, so we switched off watching my son. There are tables that pull out of the wall when you want to use them and retract when you want more space.
The ride was a little rough, and the top bunk can be difficult to get out of (it also includes a safety belt and webbing for the top bunk so you don’t fall off in the middle of the night). While the seats were fine, the beds weren’t very comfortable. The train car also shook a lot from the wind overnight, making it a bit of a rough ride.
There is a shared bathroom and a shared shower for all the guests staying in rooms, with 4 or so rooms sharing one bathroom and shower. We didn’t shower on board the train. We figured it was one night and we would shower when we got to our destination.
If you don’t want to pay the extra for a room for the night, you can also just buy regular seats. While not as comfy, you will save big on the cost of the ride.
When to Arrive
You need to arrive early – an hour and a half before the train leaves – so they can load the cars. Be prepared, with things to do while you wait. Even once you are on the train, it will generally be a half hour or so before it gets going and there is no air conditioning during that time. It can also take about an hour to an hour and a half after the train arrives for them to get the cars unloaded.
Note: The cost of transporting your vehicle is additional to that of the seats or room. You MUST be transporting a vehicle in order to ride the auto train. You do have the ability to pay extra for priority offloading of your car.
What to Bring
The train does have wifi but it won’t be fast enough for streaming. Plan to bring some family activities and games; Magnetic Games are awesome for the train as you don’t have to worry about pieces falling. Picking up some cheap cards and toys from the Dollar Store are also great for little ones. For older kids and adults, this a great time to get some reading done.
If you are in a regular seat, you will definitely want to bring along a blanket as it gets very cold on the train. Some fuzzy socks wouldn’t go amiss even in the summer. If you have space a pillow would also be useful.
I would also recommend bringing along snacks and water or juice as kids will definitely get hungry along the way and there is a limited selection of snacks onboard and they are a bit pricey as well.
Go – No Go
Overall, this is a convenient way to get to Washington, D.C., Baltimore, or even Williamsburg, VA or Philadelphia, with your car, for a vacation.
Photos courtesy of yelp users Ed W, Dan I and Jazz F