UPDATE (29 JAN 2014): Skipped the Auto Train this year and tried the Miami to NYC ‘Silver Meteor’. While slower than the Auto Train, thanks to many more stops, Amtrak’s Silver Service trains go beyond the Orlando and DC only destinations of the Auto Train, making things more convenient for traveling outside those two areas – though without the benefits of carrying your car.
UPDATE (2 JAN 2013): I tried the Auto Train once again this holiday season and found it much the same – the convenience, relaxation, pleasure at avoiding both I95 and the airports, all were just as enjoyable as last year. The restrooms can get a little gamey after a few hours, but still a solid way to get to/from Florida.
While not as classy as the City of New Orleans between Chicago and the Big Easy, Amtrak’s DC-Orlando Auto Train is convenient as hell for getting you and your car to/from Florida. You drive up to the station, hand your keys to an attendant, grab the stuff (change of clothes, toiletries, booze) you want to take on the train, then walk inside the station and prepare to board.
Once you drop off your vehicle (anything from a motorcycle to an SUV), an attendant will drive it onto an enclosed car carrier. This will be the last you see of your vehicle until arrival, so be sure and get everything out of it you want on the train.
Once inside the station, you wait in line to pick up your boarding pass and schedule dinner in the dining car – with nearly 500 people on the train, the evening meal is served on a rotation. And the dining car attendants do not take kindly to anyone arriving late or dallying through a meal.
While your car, and all of the luggage you care to leave in it, is stuck in its carrier, you have several options on where to spend your 17 hours on the train (though our train did get in 90 minutes early; when was the last time your plane did that?). Option one is spending the whole time in a seat. Amtrak seats are far more comfortable and useful (i.e. places to plug in your phone, laptop, etc.) than airline seating, but after a few hours, especially in the middle of the night, the sleeper cars start looking pretty good.
The sleeper cars come in a variety of sizes, from small “roomettes” for singles and romantic couples (you’re going to be very close, you may as well travel with someone you can enjoy), on up to rooms and family-sized rooms. The sleeper cars, and some of the larger passenger rooms, also have bathrooms with showers, though the arrival time is early enough (we got in at 8am) that most people seemed to skip the shower. The drawback of the sleepers is the cost, which can double or triple that of your original ticket, quickly hitting $700 one-way. Which is why many drive one of the trips, say, down to Florida, but then take the train back.
The travel itself is relaxing, with individual climate controls in the sleeper rooms, surprisingly decent food, plus large windows for looking out … or decent curtains for remaining hidden – especially useful when running along I-95. Outside is typical train travel fare: backyards, loading docks, and, north of Orlando, a large number of partially denuded Christmas tree farms.
There are only two places to board/exit the train: Lorton, VA, south of the DC beltway a stone’s throw from I-95, and Sanford, FL, north of Orlando near highways 4 and 417. The approach to Sanford requires a lot of quarters for the tolls, but does offer numerous opportunities to get a tattoo or visit a pawnshop. Lorton is all about quickly getting on/off 95.
If you’re planning to get snacks/drinks for the train (you should), get it well before arriving at either station, where the selections are limited.
Once the train starts, it essentially runs non-stop until you arrive at the other station – no getting off, or boarding, along the way. Our train actually left a little early, and boarded well before it started, so feel free to get there ahead of time, drop off your vehicle, and get on board. Both stations have decent-sized waiting areas, and even a playground, though in Sanford it’s oddly located right next to the smoking area. “Go play kids. The swings are over there, just through the cloud of smoke.”
Arrival will require patience – with over 150 vehicles to unload, it can take a couple of hours before you get your car. Picture a very long wait at airport baggage claim and you’ll have a feel for the wait and the atmosphere. Since the car carriers are repositioned before departure and after arrival, when you arrived and dropped off your vehicle doesn’t appear to make a difference for who gets what first. Coffee helps. A hangover doesn’t.
Once your vehicle gets unloaded, the number you were assigned when you dropped off the car will flash on a screen and get announced in the station, in case you don’t see it as it rolls off the railcar and into the arrival/departure area. Forgetting your number would be bad, though as long as you can recognize your car you should be ok.
Once you reclaim your car, you’re free to go – theoretically in a far better mood than if you’d just spent the last 15 hours crammed into your car and fighting traffic. God knows I was. Judging from the number of repeat riders, and how full the train was, I wasn’t the only one.