Buy your car a train ticket: A complete AutoTrain user guide

by Ned Levi on June 22, 2009

Last month I took Amtrak’s AutoTrain from Sanford, Fla., to Lorton, Va., the train’s only station stops. The train stops in Florence, SC, at night, but only to refuel, fill its fresh water tanks, and change engineers and conductors.

Amtrak's AutoTrain bedroomI enjoyed my AutoTrain trip. The stations’ personnel were efficient and professional, as were the train’s personnel. The passenger portion of the train is comprised of Superliner coach cars, and Superliner II sleeping cars, considered the finest in the world by many. My dad and I stayed in a Bedroom, which was great. The food in the dining car was excellent, and harkened back to my youth when I rode the rails in overnight Pullman cars with superb dining car service, just like in the Hitchcock movie North by Northwest.

The AutoTrain’s scheduled departure is 4 p.m. daily from each station, and its scheduled arrival is 9:30 a.m. the next morning. Amtrak requests everyone arrive at the station by 2:00 p.m., and requires check-in no later than 3 p.m. (2 pm for motorcycles and SUV’s/Vans).

Amtrak's AutoTrain vehicle check-inWhen you arrive at the station, you stop at the check-in booth. If you’re picking up your ticket, you need to have your reservation number, so the attendant can check their list. You’ll need a photo ID to show the attendant, whether or not you already have your ticket. A numbered (It’s the number by which your vehicle will be identified when unloaded at the other station in the morning.) magnetic plaque is put on your vehicle.

Next, it’s vehicle check-in. You’ll leave your vehicle here after Amtrak videos it to document preexisting damage. You must take with you everything you need from the car for the overnight trip. You won’t have access to your car until the next morning after you arrive at the station.

Amtrak's AutoTrain loading vehicles at Sanford, FLYou then proceed to the station’s ticket counter to get your get your dinner seating assignment and your ticket, if necessary. Then your wait until boarding commences. The Lorton station has a modern, spacious waiting area. While they build a large modern waiting area, the Sanford station only has a small permanent waiting area and a larger temporary one. Ticketed passengers may walk the platform to gaze at the train while personnel are getting it ready, and it’s great fun to watch the vehicles loaded into the train. Boarding generally begins between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Amtrak's AutoTrain awaiting boardingThe AutoTrain travels 855 miles each way. Our train included 7 sleepers, 4 coach cars, 3 dining cars, and 2 lounge cars, for the 468 passengers, plus enough vehicle carrier cars to hold 253 vehicles. The train had 27 staff members, plus 2 engineers. The trains are pulled by a pair of diesel powered engines, and are generally more than ¾ of a mile long. Ticketed passengers on the train are entitled to a 3 course dinner plus breakfast. The dinner menu and steak option is more upscale for sleeper than coach passengers. Breakfast is continental; fruit, cereal, juice, rolls and beverage. Often there’s little time between first call to breakfast and arrival at the station. We arrived early at 8:30am.

The Superliner cars are all double deckers. Most passengers are on the second level. Disabled passengers, and those with mobility problems, can take coach or sleeper accommodations on the lower level.

Coach passengers sit in wide reclining seats with foot rests, similar to first class on airlines. Sleeper cars, in which everyone has a fully made up bed on which to sleep, offer a choice of roomettes for up to 2 passengers, family bedrooms for up to 2 adults and 2 small children, and bedrooms for up to 2 adults with a private washbasin, toilet and shower. There are a few connecting bedrooms. Accessible Bedrooms for a mobility-impaired passenger and a companion are available with a communal ADA bathroom and shower. Sleepers have comfortable upholstered seating during the day, and are made up with lower and upper beds at night.

Amtrak's AutoTrain LoungeAfter boarding, wine, cheese, nut mix and crudités are served in the lounges. We took plates back to our room to enjoy in private, along with beverages from the bar. Lounge cars are available for reading, playing cards or simply relaxing. Movies are shown there twice each evening. There are apples, oranges, coffee, tea, cookies and snacks available, but the snack bar closes at 11:00pm. Alcoholic beverages and soda, pizza, peanuts, and other foods are available for purchase from the bar. The top floor of the lounges are non-smoking, but smoking is permitted on the smaller first floors.

Amtrak's AutoTrain Dining CarWe took the 7 pm dinner seating; the most popular. Each table is for 4, and we had 2 interesting table-mates to share dinner. I had a fresh salad, roll, strip steak, fresh green beans, baked potato, and a sundae for dessert. The food was excellent, as was the service. It was fun to watch the beautiful countryside go by as we enjoyed our meal.

In the sleeping cars, attendants keep an urn of coffee and hot water for tea, warmed up into the night, and at your request will bring coffee, tea and juice to your room in the morning.

At 10 pm we had the beds made up. Our excellent attendant was right on time. The sofa became the lower bed, and the upper pulled down from the wall. The beds were surprisingly comfortable. There is a ladder to the upper bed so you don’t have to be an acrobat. While all bedding is supplied for sleeping car passengers, coach passengers get only a blanket and small pillow. Many coach passengers bring their own pillows.

Amtrak's AutoTrain bedroom toilet/showerBefore bed, I showered, taking advantage of the shower in our room. The bedrooms have a combination toilet/shower. You enter the stall, shut the door, snap the shower curtain in place to prevent flooding the room, make sure the toilet cover is down and turn on the water. There was plenty of hot water.

In the coach cars, many stay up very late, and go back and forth to the lounges. It can be tough to sleep there for some. In the bedroom you have privacy and only hear the noise of the moving train and the occasional muffled blast of the engines’ horn. We slept through the night.

Up at 6 am, after a quick shower, we were dressed and went to the dining car for breakfast. There was plenty to eat. Everything was fresh, and the service was excellent. The attendant had made up our room for daytime by the time we returned to it from breakfast.

Amtrak's AutoTrain unloading the vehiclesWe arrived at Lorton early. Shortly after getting off the train, the vehicles began being driven out of the train. As each vehicle comes off, the vehicle number (Remember you got the number when you checked in at the booth.) is announced. You get your vehicle and depart. It takes from 15 minutes to 2 hours to get your car after arrival. We got ours after an hour.

If you live in the Northeast, and need a car for an extended time visiting Florida, this is a great way to get down and back. It avoids the hassles of flying and TSA, and the tiring hours of driving to travel between the Washington, DC area and Florida. For youngsters, the AutoTrain can be a marvelous adventure.

Here’s some tips for the AutoTrain:

• Eat lunch before you get to either station as there is no food service there. If you’re traveling with children, bring snacks and beverages for the wait, and until food is available on the train.

• Arrive at the station between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. Yes I know that’s a long time prior to departure, but you’ll get in before the rush, and your early arrival likely ensures you’ll get your choice of dinner seating (5 p.m., 7 p.m., 9 p.m.), which is assigned at the station on a first come, first choice basis.

• Don’t leave valuables in your vehicle. Keep anything in the passenger area of the car packed in a bag or container with a lock or seal. Amtrak is not responsible for anything left in the car. While theft is a rarity, it’s not unknown.

• If you need a family bedroom, connecting rooms, or an accessible bedroom, book well in advance as there are very few of them.

• While smoking on the train is only permitted on the first floor of the lounges, you can’t miss the smell of smoke on the second floor throughout the trip. The lounges are next to the dining cars and used for overflow seating for dinner and breakfast when the train is packed. To avoid the smell, make sure you sit in the dining cars, so be sure to arrive for your dinner seating a few minutes early. For breakfast, (no seatings) which starts typically at 6:30 a.m., get there early too.

• The lower bed is essentially a full size bed, but the upper is shorter. Six footers will have their legs stick over the end of the upper bed unless they curl up a bit. Keep that in mind when choosing who sleeps where. As the temperature outside warms up, it can be considerably hotter on the upper at night, so don’t forget to adjust the air conditioning vent to blow more air there, and for heaven’s sake, don’t sit up quickly or your head will crash into the ceiling.

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  • totravel

    Interesting info. Wish they had more of these trains. This would really be helpful in other areas of the country as well.

  • Amy

    I remember thinking highly of bringing your own vehicle when Hawaii had their ill-fated Superferry last year. I’m glad to know Amtrak does this and hope it hits the west coast fairly soon.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Amy, I don’t think you’re going to see a west coast AutoTrain any time soon. Unlike the east coast with its consistent significant traffic between the Northeast and Florida, heaviest in Spring and Fall, there is no equivalent on the west coast. Moreover, Amtrak doesn’t have nearly the capital necessary, nor could they raise it, for a west coast AutoTrain.

  • Bill

    I thought about taking this train. Then, I found out that it is the only Amtrak train that still allows smoking. As you mentioned, it does seep up to the non smoking areas – so one would wonder why they still allow this?

    Having a smoking area on a train is like having a peeing area in a swimming pool!

    I’ll be glad to take the train once they ban smoking.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Bill, if smoking is the only thing bothering you about the train, I wouldn’t let it stop you from taking it, unless you’re traveling alone. It only affects the lounge car. You can’t smell it in the sleepers, the coach cars, or the dining cars, hence my suggestions about smoke. If you’re traveling alone and need to make sure you’re not next to someone who’s been smoking you’ll need to at least take a roomet on the train and pay for two.

    I hate the smell of cigarettes myself, in the air, on clothing, and on people. The lounge held nothing I was interesting in, except for passing though, or getting the initial snacks and wine. Our bedroom had a nice small table for cards, and I have lots of movies on my iPod, or in my computer for self entertainment, plus I always have a good book.

    With the ride being about 17½ hours, with no opportunity to get off, it’s hard for those with the addiction, but I wouldn’t be surprised that the ban is extended at some point soon. Hotels realize that smoking in rooms causes extra expense, and those costs are not lost on Amtrak.

  • Bill

    Ned, thanks for the information update.

    I’ll have to think some more about it, The fare looks enticing – however, if they are “soon” going to get rid of the smoking, even better. Unfortunately, this has been the only smoking train for years.

    thanks again for your advice.

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  • Mary Y

    Ned The photos are great! How were you able to get behind the scenes?
    I’m glad they video your car for any damage. Are they responsible?
    I have a 2008 and I do not want any damage.

    We are leaving in two weeks. My husband does not like to fly
    and driving takes way too long. With the price of gas,
    22 hours on the road from NYC and a stay over,
    the auto train was a good option.

    We took the auto train in ’98 and 2000 with my 3 children and we loved it.
    We bought our 88′ Olds Custom Cruiser a train ticket and we were off for
    ten days to Disney. Its good you can load up the station wagon or car.
    I SLEPT in coach and had my own double seat. They spread us out for comfort.
    The train was not crowded. We were all able to get a good nights sleep.
    The food was good and the personnel were very helpful and courteous.
    Will bring my own pillow, blanket and snacks.
    I Will let you know how things went.

    Thanks Mary and Family

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Thanks Mary.

    I was able to generally get behind the scenes by explaining to the station master that I am a travel journalist and photographer doing a story on the Auto Train for travelers, and was told to just make sure I didn’t get in anyone’s way who was working. Even so I did have a run in with their security who told me, “Photographs of Amtrak trains are forbidden by federal law, and by taking photographs of the auto-train you are subject to arrest and imprisonment.” Of course it isn’t true. I just walked away, and when she went away I continued my work.

    Amtrak is generally considered responsible if they damage your car, which is why they go to great lengths to document preexisting damage. Apparently damage to one or two vehicles is not out of the ordinary on each train. Most of the damage is if they don’t secure the car properly underneath and choose a weak spot instead of where the cars are supposed to be secured, which is generally where you use a jack to change tires. Amtrak tries to be as careful as possible, but they are moving a great many cars each trip.

    My parents took the train for years and loved it, and never had any damage to their car.

    This time of the year the train is not normally too crowded so you’ll probably be able to spread out again. Have a great time. I’ll look forward to your report.

    Thanks for your readership and taking the time to comment.

    Regards,

    Ned

  • mark hanna

    Is there a secondary mkt. where I could find a sleeping room for the auto train which is currently sold out

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Sorry Mark, but I personally know of no secondary market for Auto Train tickets and accommodations. We’re coming up to a time during which many travel to Florida for the winter (Nov.-Dec.) and we’re coming up to the holiday season. Many families use the Auto Train to go south to Florida for the holidays and get their car down there too. Many at this time of year are using reservations made 6 months or more in advance.

    Good luck.

  • http://Toptris.com Vito Spagnola

    I live in West Palm Beach area and I plan to travel to York, Pa. next Summer may be in July 20010.

    I would like to know where is the nearest amtrak station, And how much
    is the cost per person, and how much for my SUV.

    Thank You,

    Vito Spagnola

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    Check with a travel agent or call Amtrak or go to amtrak.com.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Vito, the Auto Train has only two stations; Sanford, Florida, and Lorton, Virginia. So for you to use the Auto Train, you’ll have to drive from West Palm Beach (That’s where I was when I used it earlier this year.) to Sanford, to pick up the train, then drive from Lorton to York, PA the next morning. Neither drive is particular long or hard, to me at least.

    The cost per person and the SUV depend on the accommodations you choose and the size of the SUV. To determine your costs, go to the Auto Train area of Amtrak’s web site. There you’ll have to click on “Round Trip,” then put in Sanford for the “from” station and Lorton for the “to” station. Put in your departure and return dates and the number of people. Then click “Go.”

    Then click on “Buy Rooms” for the departing and returning trains and choose what type of accommodations you want. I shared a bedroom with my Dad. Choose what you want of coach or a room of some kind.

    After that you have to know the size of your SUV to determine whether it’s a regular or oversize vehicle. Make the appropriate choice then click next.

    You will then have a detailed pricing of the trip.

    Good luck.

  • Oneita

    Thanks for all the information. I’m traveling with my 97 year old Mother. We booked a deluxe bedroom. Any advice other than what you have typed on this site. Also, I noted about nothing in passenger area of car unless locked, etc. What about boxes? I do take some groceries and generally have them behind the driver’s seat. Do you think they will be ok.

    Your notes are very helpful and loved your pictures, can’t wait to show them to Mother.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Hi Oneita,

    I don’t know what kind of shape your 97 year old mother is, but if she would have trouble climbing a narrow set of stairs, you might need to change your reservation to one on the first floor. My dad is 93 and in pretty good shape for someone his age. He easily made it up the stairs. I carried his bag up. Once you’re up on the 2nd floor, until you leave the train the next morning, everything is on the 2nd floor, including both dinner and breakfast. You may have to walk through several cars to get through to the dining car. There is a snack, for right after you leave. It’s very nice; cheese, crackers, veggies, etc., and something to drink. It’s included. Sometimes they start serving prior to the train departing. You can go to the lounge car yourself for that and bring it back to your bedroom. There is no need for your mother to trek down to the lounge, unless she wants to.

    Be prepared to sleep in the upper berth. I’m sure you want your mother below. You’ll need to use the shower/toilet room in your bedroom and the sink in shifts, as once the beds are made, there’s not a lot of room.

    We had lots of stuff in the car itself, in the back seat. It was all in locked suitcases, or in locked boxes. We had no problem. My mom and dad have used the train for years and never had anything taken from the car. That being said, if it’s valuable, put it in the trunk. If it’s really valuable, take it with you in your small bag for the overnight trip.

    You only want to take into the train what you may need for the night and the next morning. I had my small carry-on (airplane size) and my camera backpack. That’s it. My dad had a small carry-on, and nothing else. Have something to do on the train. You’ll be on it for a long time. We each had a good book we were just starting, and some cards. I also had my laptop and a couple of DVD movies. (My dad and I love old movies.) I had my iPod for some music with my small portable speakers. (I’m into electronic toys too.) With regard to the laptop. I had ATT internet service most of the way, but not late at night after about 9:30pm going north. After that it kept cutting out. The Verizon people I met said the same thing. There were a few spots with no cell service too.

    About the shower. It worked great for me, and I really enjoyed getting cleaned up prior to bed after a long day driving to the train. The one caveat about the shower I would point out is that you need to snap the curtain in place with every snap or the shower could flood the room out the bottom of the door and you don’t want that or your rug will stink. Your mother will have to snap it herself if she’s going to use it. She can sit on the edge of the toilet seat cover if she has trouble bending down to do the lower snaps. You can’t help her with this as there’s only room for one at a time, and once snapped, you can’t get out without undoing the whole curtain.

    If you have more questions, let me know.

  • Oneita

    Thanks for all the info. Mother loved seeing your pictures. I plan on taking one pull along suitcase, 25 inch aboard. I will put night things for both of us in the one case. Hope that will work. Maybe I can get a Redcap to help me with Mother up the stairs or with the suitcase. We have word books, magazines and cards for the evening. Also laptop for games. That should keep us busy. Since it gets dark early with our time change, won’t be much to see for hours. Have nothing of value to pack in the car, just pack groceries, cleaning supplies and junk in boxes for the back seat of car. Mother’s walker in trunk or backseat. Email with any other info or post here, I will keep checking.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    You’re welcome Oneita.

    I’d seriously consider a smaller suitcase. While the 25 incher will fit, these are very narrow staircases, and you probably won’t be able to roll the suitcase in the aisle in your bedroom car. You’ll probably be carrying it. You only should bring what you need for the night on board. Leave the rest in your car.

    It sounds like you’ll be fine on board and well entertained with what you’re bringing on board.

    I always suggest getting to the station early. You want to choose the 7 pm dinner seating, but it’s the most popular. The earlier seating is just to early for me, as the late one is too late. A big advantage of the 7pm seating is it breaks up the evening better.

    Enjoy the ride. It sure beats driving all that way.

  • Arlan Keller

    How re cars secured on the auto train? Parking brakes, chains, etc.

  • Kathy

    Any comments about how comfortable are the coach seats – they don’t look very roomy…….are their coach seats on the upper level or only the bottom level? Are meals included with coach tickets? Amtrak website is confusing regarding meals – one page says they are included and another page says they are not.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Hi Kathy,

    The seats themselves are comfortable. They are similar to business class seats on non-Acela Amtrak cars They have good legroom, better than most airline and typical Amtrak coach seating. The coach cars have this type of seating on the top and bottom levels. They DO NOT fold down flat. When you try to sleep at night, you’ll have to go to sleep sitting up. Also while things do quiet down at night in the Coach cars, people still do move around (if only to go to the bathroom) and lights are on in the car so those who are staying up can read, etc. If you take one of the various sleeping options, you get to lie down to go to sleep, you have a door to close to keep out the noise, and you can turn off all lights.

    As the Amtrak website states, “Meals are included in the price of all Auto Train tickets, no matter which class you travel in.” You can’t choose which dinner seating you get until you get to your departing station and check-in. (I think you were getting confused because of Amtrak’s website organization. You can click on a link to “Meal & Dining Options” from within the Autotrain area of the website, which actually takes you out of the Autotrain area. That link takes you to the general meal and dining option page for all Amtrak trains.) All Autotrain tickets include dinner and breakfast.

    Glad I could help.

  • Kathy

    Thank you for your comments It was very helpful.

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  • Joseph

    We will be takling the Autotrain in midmarch from Sanford to Lorton. The recommendation is to take personal items with us. My question is as to security how safe is keeping our luggage and assorted items locked in the trunk of the vehicle? Your artilce has answered a great many of my questions and I thank you for your insight.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Hi Joseph. Thanks for the complement.

    Frankly, like travel anywhere, on any public conveyance, it’s always best to keep your valuables and breakables with you. I also suggest that if you don’t exactly have to have it when you travel, and you absolutely can’t afford to loose it, for financial or sentimental reasons, then leave it at home. Of course, on the Autotrain, you should try to limit the amount of luggage you bring on the train. For most passengers, you’ve got to carry it to the 2nd floor of your train car, and do it via a narrow stairwell. Leave as much as you can in your vehicle.

    With regard to your specific question, I think that your luggage and possessions left in the trunk of your car are generally safe. Personally, I’d help that by only giving Amtrak your valet key to drive the car. That’s the key you get which only can go into the car’s ignition. It can’t open the trunk or glove compartment.

    Once you turn over your car to Amtrak, they almost immediately drive it into one of the car carrier train cars and park it, then move to the next car. Loading the vehicles into the train is a very busy time for them, so they can finish the job on time, so these cars can be attached to the train, so you leave on time. Once loaded, the vehicle cars are locked. At the end of the trip, Amtrak employees reverse the process. In an effort to get you your car as quickly as possible, they again move at a frenetic pace.

    They really don’t have much time to try to steal your belongings during loading and unloading.

  • K in Philly

    Are the roomettes such that they have an actual door? We will have a 1 1/2 year old by the time we go to Orlando, and if she can play on the floor and walk around, without chance she falls/walks out into the hall then that would be good.

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