A few months ago, I had the unique problem of needing to find a way of transporting a car by train. I was traveling down to Florida from Northern Virginia, and wanted to make sure I had a car with me when I arrived at my destination. At the time, I assumed my only options were: 1.) leave my car behind, and rent a car in Florida, or 2.) drive my car down myself. The first option would be too expensive and difficult, particularly with the current shortage of rental cars across America. The second option was one I dreaded, because I was not looking forward to the prospect of driving for 14 hours from Northern Virginia to Florida.
Then, a good family friend suggested using the Amtrak Auto Train to transport a car by train. I knew next to nothing about the Auto Train, but after a little research, that definitely looked like the best option for me to get my car down to Florida, and then back up to Northern Virginia again.
I recently had the unique experience of taking the Amtrak Auto Train from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida (about a 30 minute drive north of Orlando), and I wanted to share my experience and insights to help you plan your future travel.
I was planning a trip from Northern Virginia to Florida to escape the winter up north, and I knew I wanted to have a car with me. At first, I thought my options were: drive down to Florida (about a 14 hour drive, to get to my destination in Clearwater, Florida), or fly down to Florida and rent a car from there. With high rental car fees and limited availability, I decided not to depend on a rental car.
I was bracing myself to drive the arduous 14 hours (which I planned to split up over two days, stopping somewhere in South Carolina or Georgia along the way), but then a friend told me about the Amtrak Auto Train. Believe it or not, I didn’t even know this was a thing, or how it worked, or how much it would cost. I was a little intimidated about the experience at first, but after going through it, I completely recommend it as a much more carefree way to transport a car over a long distance.
Below, I’ll share my insights into the experience, and try to answer any questions you may have about the process.
First, here is some information regarding the logistics.
What is the Amtrak Auto Train?
The Amtrak Auto Train is an Amtrak train that transports both yourself and your vehicle (car, oversized car, or motorcycle.) It is the longest passenger train in the world, and measures three-quarters of a mile in length. It can transport up to 650 passengers and 330 vehicles. It travels 855 miles between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida, with a journey in each direction scheduled each day.
When Does the Amtrak Auto Train Run?
As of January 2022, the daily schedule is:
Departs Lorton, VA at 4:00pm –> Arrives at Sanford, FL at 8:58am (the next day – it is an overnight train ride)
Departs Sanford, FL at 4:00pm –> Arrives at Lorton, VA at 8:59am (the next day)
Please note that these times are subject to change, and you should refer to Amtrak or the Amtrak app for the latest schedules.
Who Should Take the Amtrak Auto Train?
The Auto Train is for any travelers interested in transporting both themselves and their car along the east coast. Some people take the Auto Train because they are taking an extended vacation down to Florida. Other passengers are permanently moving and want to transport themselves and their car as part of the move.
Where Does the Amtrak Auto Train Go?
The Auto Train runs daily between Lorton, Virginia (17 miles south of Washington, D.C.) and Sanford, Florida (27.7 miles north of Orlando, Florida). It also runs daily in the reverse direction (leaving Sanford, Florida, and arriving at Lorton, Virginia.) Both the beginning and end points of the train make it an ideal route for travelers all along the east coast. Though I had an easy trip from Northern Virginia to get to the Lorton train stop, I met other travelers along the way who were coming from New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Similarly, the end point in Sanford, FL is a very central location that allows travelers to easily continue to other Florida destinations, including Orlando, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Daytona Beach, and others.
As a point of reference, after arriving at Sanford, FL, it will take you approximately the following amounts of time to arrive at other destinations in Florida:
Orlando: 30 minutes
Daytona Beach: 45 minutes
Tampa/Clearwater: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Ft. Lauderdale: 3 hours, 37 minutes
Miami: 4 hours, 6 minutes
How Much Does the Amtrak Auto Train Cost?
The price of the auto train of course varies based on how early you book your ticket, and when you are traveling. You are most likely to find the best discount fares the earlier you book. The cheapest Auto Train ticket (for the ticket alone, and not the car) is $89, and you can generally find this price as late as 1-2 months before your trip. If you book a trip later than that, then the price is likely to be higher.
There are also different seating arrangements for the Auto Train. The cheapest ticket is a seat, which is essentially a train seat (either window or aisle). You can also select whether you want to be on the upper level or the lower level. The main difference is: the lower level is where you will access the bathrooms (if you are on the upper level, you will have to go down to access the bathrooms), and the upper level is where you access other cars, such as the café car. In either case, you will have to go up and down stairs during your trip. I personally recommend the upper car – I think it has better views and more light than the lower level, which can be lovely when you are driving through the landscape.
The other seating options include rooms of various sizes. These are all private (you can close the door to your room.) Some of the rooms are very small (about the size of four regular seats, without much room to sleep and stretch out. Other rooms are larger, and include a chair and a couch-like bed. The largest and most luxurious are rooms that actually stretch across the whole width of the train, which is pretty cool (and also much more expensive).
Below is a general breakdown of seat/room types and prices (please note that these prices are approximations as of January 2022. Please refer to Amtrak.com or the Amtrak app for the latest information.)
Saver Coach Seat = $89 (Non-refundable)
Value Coach Seat: $115 (Some refundability and change options available)
Flexible Coach Seat: $280 (Fully refundable)
Superliner Roomette (two comfortable seats that can be converted into upper and lower berths for sleeping, access to a private restroom and shower down the hall): $301 – $382
Bedroom (a sofa and armchair that can be converted into upper and lower berths for sleeping, plus in-room sink, restroom, and shower): $499 – $821
Family Bedroom (spans the width of the car; includes two sofas that can be converted into lower and upper berths for sleeping; plus a private restroom and shower down the hall): $611 – $1,043
Vehicles have a separate cost associated with them. Generally the cost is:
Standard Vehicle (maximum length = 192 inches or 16 feet): $208 – $285
Extended Vehicle (maximum length = 216 inches or 18 feet): $239 – $297
You can also add Priority Offload service for $60, which means that your vehicle will be one of the first 30 vehicles offloaded from the train when you arrive at your destination.
The total cost for the Auto Train ride (one-way) is generally around $297 at a minimum, if purchased several months in advance.
Please note that all of the prices above are subject to change. You can find more information on all of the seat and room options, including videos, on the Amtrak Auto Train website.
What Meals are Available on the Amtrak Auto Train?
If you have a seat (not a bedroom or roomette), then you can purchase food from the Café Car, generally located near the center of the train. The Café Car is generally open from 4pm until 11pm for dinner. There are also booths nearby where you can sit and eat, though these are available on a first come, first serve basis, and they’re usually occupied by other passengers.
Below is a sample menu of food available for purchase:
For breakfast, there is a free continental breakfast available in the Café Car from 6am till 8am. The continental breakfast is surprisingly yummy, though it is pretty small. The items available for the continental breakfast are:
- Cereal boxes (corn flakes, raisin bran, apple jacks)
- Coffee cake (these are very yummy and moist)
- Milk cartons
- Orange juice cartons
If you have a roomette or bedroom, then you have a complimentary chef-prepared dinner provided as part of your trip. Wine is also included in the dinner. A continental breakfast is provided for breakfast.
Below is a sample menu:
Is There Wi-Fi on the Amtrak Auto Train?
Yes, there is wi-fi on the Auto Train, however it is typically not very strong. I have often had issues using wi-fi on Amtrak trains, including the Auto Train, to do even simple tasks like check email or browse basic websites. if you’re planning to stream shows on apps Netflix, it can be almost impossible to do without buffering every few minutes.
For my recent Auto Train trip, I tried using the Amtrak Wi-fi to stream shows on Netflix, and found the constant buffering to be too frustrating. I then switched to my cell phone’s data instead (5G on the Verizon network), and found that it worked much better. In fact, I was able to watch Netflix with only a few minor buffering interruptions over the course of several hours. If you have 5G service on your phone; iPad; or other device, I recommend using that instead of the Amtrak wi-fi.
Another great option is to try to download the shows or movies that you want to watch before your trip, and then you’ll have full access to them on your device before you leave.
So How Does the Amtrak Auto Train Work?
So how exactly does the Auto Train work, from a logistics standpoint? I’ll describe my recent experience with it so that you know what to expect.
First, before you even leave your house, you’ll want to load up your car with everything that you’ll need on the trip. For me, this included suitcases, other items that I would want in Florida, plus food items, including perishable food items like milk and eggs that I wanted to bring with me on my trip to Florida. You’ll also want to pack a smaller bag that just includes what you’ll personally need for the night that you’re on the Auto Train. It’s best to keep this pretty minimal, just so you don’t have to worry about lugging too many bags around for just one night. Think of this as what you would typically bring in a carry-on item and handheld item on a plane.
For me, my carry-ons consisted of the following:
- One purse, which was filled with: my wallet, ID, phone, charger, headphones, extra portable charger for my devices, earplugs (to help with sleeping), facemask (also to help with sleeping), face masks, and a small bag of toiletries (hand sanitizer, tissues, some medicine like Advil and Imodium.)
- One backpack, which was filled with: my iPad, iPad charger, my neck pillow for sleeping, a small bag of overnight toiletries (deodorant, travel toothpaste, travel toothbrush, and floss), extra underwear, extra socks, and an extra t-shirt, a water bottle, and some snacks, which consisted of two protein bars.
- For my clothes, I wore comfy layers for the actual train ride: sweatpants, a sweatshirt over a t-shirt (in case it got too hot or too cold – the temperature on the train tends to be very cold), comfy socks, and comfy shoes.
Next, you’ll head out to the Auto Train station in either Lorton, Virginia or Sanford, Florida. The Auto Train begins receiving cars at 11:30am the day of your departure, and stops receiving cars at 2:30pm. This 2:30pm is a strict cutoff – if you arrive after this time with your vehicle, then your vehicle will not be loaded onto the Auto Train, and so you definitely want to make sure you meet this deadline.
When you arrive at the Auto Train station (in either Lorton, Virginia or Sanford, Florida), you will get in a line of cars at the entrance waiting to check in. You will pull up to a booth to confirm your name as a passenger. Then, you will be given a ticket with a number on it, which is assigned to your car. The booth attendant will tell you to pull up to one of several lines of cars ahead of you, then another attendant will affix a sticker to the side of your car corresponding to the number your were assigned to the booth. You will take out only what you need on the train from your car (in my case it was the purse and backpack that I mentioned above). Leave everything else in your car, including food.
Next, enter the Auto Train station, and walk up to the large Check-In counter (it is to the left-hand side in the Lorton, VA station). Here, you will again say your name, and you will be issued a formal seat assignment. It is important to go to the Check-In counter as soon as possible, because seats are issued on a first come, first serve basis. If you want to ask for a window or aisle seat, now would be the time to do so, if any are available.
Next, I recommend using the bathroom at the Auto Train station, as it will be much bigger than the bathrooms on the train.
While you are waiting for the train to board, you can sit in the large open seating area, or walk or sit around in areas right outside of the station. There is also a small mini mart that you can visit, which includes basic snacks for purchase (chips, granola bars, candy, bottled water, sodas, etc.). The mini mart also includes magazines and books for purchase, as well as a small selection of travel accessories (portable chargers, neck pillows, USB cables, etc.)
Regardless of where you wait for the train to board, it is important to stay close to the station, because boarding will begin around 2:30pm, and will end soon after that timeframe generally around 2:40pm. Even though the train ticket states that the departure time is 4pm, this is not when the train leaves the station. The boarding of all passengers occurs from 2:30pm till around 2:40pm. Then, the train leaves the station (generally before 3pm), and rides a few miles at a slow pace away from its departure point. During the timeframe of 2:30pm till about 4pm, all of the passenger vehicles are being loaded onto separate train cars. Then, those train cars are attached to the main Auto Train. After that, the train continues on its route.
When leaving from Lorton, the train will pass south through Virginia. There are some lovely views of the towns and scenery in Virginia, including a ride through Quantico; historic Fredericksburg, Virginia; and Ashville, Virginia, which features some lovely historic Victorian homes right near the train tracks. The train then continues through Richmond, Virginia.
As mentioned above, the Café Car is open for food (dinner and snacks), starting at 4pm. It stays open until 11pm. I recommend getting a chance to walk around a little bit to stretch your legs on the long train ride. I took a walk around 6pm, once it got dark. I walked down to the Café Car, and stood around there for a little while to stretch my legs. Then I bought dinner and walked back to my seat to eat. Then I watched some Netflix shows for a few hours. Before going to sleep, I went to the restroom (which is located on the lower level of each train car), and I brushed my teeth. Then I tried to go to sleep around 10:30pm. I generally found it difficult to sleep much on the train. The seats recline a little and have a nice foot rest, however it was generally like trying to sleep on a plane, which I also have trouble doing. Having a face mask and ear plugs helped a little, but I still didn’t sleep much during the ride.
I woke up the next morning when an announcement was made regarding breakfast. I then went to the Café Car for the continental breakfast (described above).
The Auto Train arrived at Sanford a little before schedule, around 8:30am. At that point you are allowed to disembark and wait for your car to be offloaded. People who paid extra for the Priority Offload Service are guaranteed to have their cars unloaded among the first 30 cars. Their cars will be offloaded generally within 10 to 15 minutes. For the rest of the cars, it is generally a random draw in terms of when your car may be offloaded. It could be one of the first, or one of the last, or anywhere in between, and it doesn’t seem to matter how early or late you arrived to have it loaded onto the Auto Train at the beginning of your journey. It takes about two hours total for all of the cars to be unloaded. My car was finally offloaded around 10:30, and so it was definitely among the last groups to be unloaded.
You can wait for your car to be offloaded in either the train station lobby or in an outside area nearby. The lobby in Sanford is very similar to the one in Lorton, with restrooms, ample seating (though it does get crowded), and a small Mini Mart with snacks, water, and souvenirs. You will want to make sure that you wait in a location near the loudspeakers. An automated announcer will read off your car number (which was assigned when you first arrived with your car to be loaded onto the Auto Train). Note that they will only read each number twice, after which point they will immediately move on to the next number. They will also post the most recent numbers on screens in the lobby, in case you may have missed a number. As a result of this, it’s good to pay attention to the announcement at all times. However, if you happen to miss your number, they will announce that your car is still waiting to be picked up on an intermittent basis.
Another fun means to find out when your car has been offloaded is to wait outside in the front of the train station (on the opposite side of the building from the train tracks), and watch as the cars are offloaded from the train cars. This is a pretty cool thing to watch, as each car is driven out of the train cars. Some cars are driven out from ground level, and some care are driven out from the second level of the train car, with the use of a large ramp that has been set up beside each train car. It is very neat to watch. This was how I got to see my car just as it was being driven out of the train car (from the second level and down the ramp). Each car is parked in a nearby parking lot. I walked to my car, got the keys from the cupholder, and then prepared to take off for my final destination in Florida.
The return trip from Sanford, Florida to Lorton, Virginia was pretty much identical as the trip down to Florida. The timing works out just about exactly the same. You can arrive at the Sanford, Florida Auto Train Station as early as 11:30am to have your car loaded and check-in. You must have your car checked in by 2:30pm at the very latest in order to have it loaded onto the Auto Train. The train then begins boarding right around 2:30pm, and finishes boarding around 2:50pm.
The only small difference between the Sanford station and Lorton station is that Sanford had a food truck outside where you could purchase food for either lunch or dinner. The food truck stays open till 2:15pm, and so you’ll want to make sure to purchase food before then. They had sandwiches, cheesesteaks, salads, soups, and some dinner meals, which mostly consisted of fried fish, french fries, and coleslaw. It is not the most healthy fare, but I purchased a fish and shrimp dinner, which I then ate later on the train. It wasn’t hot when I finally ate it, but it was a bigger meal than what you will get on the Auto Train.
In conclusion, I highly recommend taking the Auto Train if you need to travel generally between Virginia, the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic and Florida, and you need to take your car with you. It is a little more expensive than driving yourself. However, you have to take into account that driving yourself would cost money in gas, tolls, potentially a hotel and meals if you decide to stop along the way. Also, and this was the bigger factor for me, driving is a much more stressful and dangerous activity, particularly over such a long distance, and especially along the chaotic I-95 route. At any given time, you may have to deal with construction, bad weather, traffic, accidents, and any number of other hazards along the way. This fact was essentially what led me to make the decision to get an Auto Train ticket. And in fact, the experience was so good, that I immediately purchased my return ticket onboard another Auto Train.
Feel free to ask any questions in the Comments section below!