* RESEARCH QUESTION: There's only one rail service in the United States that lets you include the family car in your checked luggage, and it just happens to shuttle back and forth between Washington and Orlando. Amtrak's Autotrain leaves every afternoon and, with the exception of a midnight crew change, doesn't stop until it hits central Florida the next morning. Is this leapfrog over 817 miles of I-95 traffic too good to be true?
* METHODOLOGY: My family booked four coach seats and one station wagon on the Autotrain in early April for a trip to Disney World. We booked one way, planning to drive back and visit family along the route. Cost: $573.
* RESULTS: The Autotrain actually goes from Lorton, Va. (20 minutes south of Washington), to Sanford, Fla. (30 minutes north of Orlando). So our drive-free trip began with a short drive. Just off I-95, we pulled up to Amtrak's lavish new Lorton station and joined the queue of vehicles. A clerk checked our names off her list and slapped a big magnetic number 42 on our car. We gathered up the carry-ons we'd need for the train, and a staffer circled our car with a video camera, recording every ding in case we later claimed one had been added by the guys who drive it up the loading ramps.
Inside the station, we checked in and booked our meal seating times -- a full dinner and a continental breakfast in the dining car are included in the basic fare. This was also our last chance to upgrade to a sleeper, adding $365 for a "Family Bedroom." But we decided the roomy, deeply reclining coach seats would be fine. Further, the train wasn't very full, so we were able to spread out expansively. According to Amtrak, the Autotrain's busiest times are around the holidays and when the snowbirds are migrating south in the fall and north in the spring.
The train rolled out on time at 4 p.m. For a while, the kids ping-ponged from cows on one side of the train to Quantico's Marine Corps helicopters on the other. But soon they disappeared into nests of coloring pads, Harry Potter books and plush toys, leaving to us the subtler railroad charms of old barns, quaint Main Streets and shabby back yards.
The Autotrain is Amtrak's only long-distance train on the East Coast to use the bi-level passenger cars. Downstairs is a small compartment of additional coach seats and several roomy bathrooms. Above are the main coach compartment and the passage to other cars. Heading caboose-ward were several sleeper cars, where we caught glimpses of the private enclaves. A few cars forward was the club car, the standard Amtrak fast-food shop where free snacks and paid sandwiches, sodas and beer are available. We spent an hour in the diner-style booth with games and magazines spread out on the table.
Dinner was a proper sit-down dining-car affair, albeit a mass-market version with foam plates and paper napkins. The pot roast was far superior to anything I could have had handed to me out of a drive-through window along I-95. And the plastic glass of wine, too, would have been an interstate no-no.
Sometime around the hour I would have been scanning for AM radio rants to keep myself alert on the road, I settled back into a cloud of our own pillows and blankets. Morning brought muffins and coffee somewhere near Jacksonville, Fla., and then Sanford at about 9:40, just over an hour late. Unloading all the vehicles can take up to two hours, we were warned. But it was only about 30 minutes before they announced number 42 and we were reunited with our station wagon.
* CONCLUSION: For us, the Autotrain was a delightful alternative to 13 hours of road warrior-hood and launched us into the rigors of Orlando feeling fresh and a day ahead. It would have been cheaper to drive, but taking the train one way made it affordable at $573. Even round trip, it compares favorably to flying and renting a car (about $970 for four, if you bag a bargain fare and special weekly rate).
-- Steve Hendrix
Amtrak's Autotrain goes from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla., every day at 4 p.m., arriving around 8:30 the next morning. Coach fares range from $96 to $187, including a full dinner and continental breakfast; half-price for kids age 2 to 15 (under 2 are free). Book early: Prices climb as cheaper seats sell out. The vehicle fee is $140 to $281 for cars, $228 to $455 for SUVs and trucks. Reserve by Aug. 22 for travel through Aug. 27 and two children ride free with adults (promotion code H400). Info: Amtrak, 800-872-7245, www.amtrak.com.