Auto Train_Loading_AutoEvery once in a while even a seasoned Traveling Mom –like myself- can stumble upon something she has never heard of. Something that makes you say to yourself, “Hey! Why didn’t I know about that?” My most recent “something” being, the Amtrak Auto Train.
Nestled in a cozy little corner of Lorton Virginiasits a train station, offering stops to but one destination.  That destination; Sanford Florida. Not terribly revolutionary, though a single-stop train that travels nearly the full length of I-95 seems a novel idea. What sets this particular conveyance apart is the fact that you can drive yourself to the station and, rather than leaving your car in paid parking, you can have it loaded onto the train and take it with you. Brilliant!

autotrain-logoFor around the price of a last minute airline booking you can secure yourself a reclining chair (with a foot rest and enough leg room for the Miami Heat), a meal in the dining car and a spot for your car as well. No more waiting in line at the rental counter, schlepping car-seats and luggage through the station to rent a car of questionable quality.  Simply take your “Mom Taxi”. Sounds like bliss, but is it?

The short answer is, no. Why? Well for starters, you’ll need to arrive at the station about 2 hours before departure, sit in a long line of cars to get a number for your car and then sit for an hour or more waiting to hand your keys over for boarding. That said, these things –when weighed against the usual “headaches” of long trips- can balance out if you are prepared for the good and the bad ahead of time by being an informed traveler.

The Good:

Bonus points for traveling families: The Lorton station is spacious, has TVs, a café, large restrooms and lovely courtyard complete with a train themed playground.

  • No checked bags. Simply load up your car as you would for a road trip.
  • The price is right.
  • Meals (typically two) are included.
  • Large seats that recline and have plenty of legroom.
  • Sleeper compartments available for an additional cost. (TMOM TIP: The earlier you book these, the less expensive they are. So try to plan your trip well in advance)
  • Wine included with meal. (a plus in my book)
  • No rental car hassles.
  • The end of the line is not far from Orlando and all the attractions there.

The Bad:

  • The 16 hours on a train.
  • Long wait times both for getting your car on and off the train.
  • Separate floors for restrooms on board.
  • Even though the seats are big, they aren’t beds, so be prepared for a restless sleep (if you can sleep over the droning snores or late-night chats of your fellow passengers and the noises inherent to train travel).
  • Smoking is allowed in the club car, which you may have to walk through to get to the dining car.
  • Little to no customer service on board.
  • If you are in a party of less than four people, you will be seated with strangers in the dining car for meal service.
  • If your meal card is for the last meal of the day, your children may not eat until after 9pm.
  • If your destination is anywhere other than Orlando, you’ll have a trek waiting for you after a 16 hour train ride.
  • You may have to wait up to two hours to retrieve your car. (Though some car rental places take this long as well).

In the end our trip was nothing if not a new adventure. What was my takeaway from this jaunt? If we choose to travel aboard the Amtrak Auto Train in the future, I will;

  • Secure a sleeper car.
  • Only take the Auto Train if traveling to Orlando.
  • Pack my own meal(s) for the family.
  • Bring lots of extra pillows

Happy travels, no matter where you go, or how you choose to get there!