As I packed to move from Arlington, Va., to the Tampa Bay area in 2018, several friends asked whether I planned to use Amtrak’s Auto Train. The idea was intriguing. I would be a passenger with my car in another carriage, saving me from driving through the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida.
I opted to drive myself, arriving in St. Petersburg, Fla., after 19 hours on the road. The trip wasn’t terrible, but I encountered intense summer storms. I often tracked the same route as torrential rains. Going 35 mph on the highway with low visibility led to many miles of white-knuckle tension. It wasn’t a trip I wanted to repeat.
Working remotely gave me the flexibility to take a road trip this July to destinations north of D.C. This time, I decided to leave 855 miles of driving between Florida and the Washington area to Amtrak.
The most unexpected part of the 17-hour trip — departure at 4 p.m. and scheduled arrival by 9 a.m. — is how disoriented you can get while sleeping with pandemic protocols. I had my nose and mouth covered with a face mask, I was wearing a sleep mask to block out light, and I wore ear buds for ambient noise. A couple of times when I was jarred awake, I thought someone had put a bag over my head before I remembered where I was.
There were many takeaways during this long journey. I absolutely recommend booking in the sleeper car rather than in coach — especially if you are traveling with someone else. You’ll get more privacy and space, you’ll have a decent dinner provided by Amtrak, and you might even get a good night’s sleep.
Here’s what else to know before you book.
What to expect for your vehicle
The scarcity of rental cars this summer has driven up prices, and many people are wary of flying during the pandemic. The Amtrak route with daily departures between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla., is the only one on which passengers can travel at the same time as their vehicles.
Price depends on the type of vehicle. I paid $258 for my small SUV, booked five weeks in advance.
Regardless of departure point, vehicle drop-off begins at 11 a.m. The cutoff load time is 2:30 p.m. Special vehicles such as two-wheel motorcycles or small trailers must be at the station by 2 p.m.
A magnetic number will be attached to your vehicle for faster identification at your destination. An Amtrak employee will walk around the vehicle with video camera and a wand to point out preexisting damage. Another employee lays protective covers on the driver’s seat and floorboard before driving the vehicle to the double-decker train carriage. An Amtrak official said each departure can accommodate up to 300 vehicles, though passenger fares usually sell out before vehicle capacity is reached.
At the end of your train journey, be prepared to remain seated as crews disconnect the passenger carriages from those transporting vehicles. If you book early enough, you can pay extra to be among the first 30 vehicles off the train. Otherwise, you will wait at the station until your vehicle number flashes onto overhead TVs. In both directions of travel, my wait was about an hour, which is efficient considering the hundreds of vehicles they offload in that time.
What to expect in coach
Upon check-in at the station, you’ll receive a ticket with your seat assignment. Passengers may board starting at 2:30 p.m. Many travelers opt to bring pillows, and some covered their seats with bedsheets from home.
Coach is definitely the budget experience. Seats can be as cheap as $29, and they were $50 during Amtrak’s 50th-anniversary sale earlier this year. The earlier you start checking dates, the more affordable options you’ll find.
The seating space is similar to what you might encounter on the Northeast Regional trains. There’s no armrest to separate you from your seatmate (you probably will not be sitting alone), and seats all face the direction of train travel.
Regardless of whether you’re starting in Lorton or Sanford, the train is scheduled to depart at 4 p.m. The train makes only one stop about midway through the 17-hour journey: to switch out the conductor and engineers in Florence, S.C. That is also the only opportunity for smokers or service animals to step outside. Pets aren’t allowed on this route.
The route is all inland. You will get good views of swampland, farms and towns built up alongside the tracks. Seats on the upper level of the carriage have panoramic views and direct access to adjoining carriages. The lower level is where bathrooms are, so that level might be a better choice for anyone with issues navigating stairs.
Unlike a plane, there is more room to stretch your legs, so you can skip compression socks if you move regularly. While in coach, you’re restricted to other coach carriages and the cafe car. The cafe car has limited food options, including cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese. Beer, wine and liquor are also available.
Breakfast is available between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., and it’s complimentary for all passengers.
What to expect in the sleeper cars
You choose from three kinds of rooms: a roomette, a bedroom or a family bedroom.
The roomette has a maximum occupancy of two people. Until I boarded, I didn’t realize quite how small the space would be — especially if I had a companion. The roomette is slightly wider than a single seat, and you face the other seat. An unexpected feature was a dial to choose music that pipes into the room. Your options are Sirius’s Soul Town or The Blend.
The bedroom offers twice the space of the roomette and also accommodates up to two adults. The setup includes an in-room bathroom with a shower, toilet and sink.
The family bedroom is the most spacious as it spans the width of the train, with space for two adults and two children younger than 12. Passengers in the family bedroom or roomette have access to bathrooms — including a private shower — in the same carriage. Towels are provided, though they are thin and scratchy. Toiletries are available on request.
Five weeks out, I booked a roomette for $638. A coach seat was $143.
A sleeping-car attendant will ask when you would like the sitting area converted into upper and lower beds, a process that takes about five minutes. A sleeping pad is provided, and the linens were surprisingly silky. When you’re ready to fetch the free continental breakfast, you press a button to alert the attendant, who remakes the room into a sitting area for the remainder of your journey.
Traveling in the sleeping car means you have access to a hot dinner, which can be served in your room or in the dining car. Several entree and dessert options are offered, including kids’ meals. Self-serve coffee and tea stations are available throughout the journey in every sleeping car.
- Bring snacks and beverages. Hunger might strike before dinner service if you’re riding in the sleepers. If you’re in coach, you might want options besides the limited menu in the cafe car.
- Bring a long charging cord for your phone and/or tablet. In coach, the outlet is under the window, so if you’re in the aisle seat, you’ll want to be able to access your device while it’s charging. In the roomette, a single outlet is above one of the seats. If you’re traveling with a companion, you might want a multi-prong charger.
- The WiFi is spotty, so best not to rely on it. Cellular reception might also be low. If you’re planning to watch shows or do work on the train, download before you get to the station.
- Keep disinfectant spray and wipes handy so you can make sure your seating area is sanitized to your liking. Gel dispensers are in various carriages, including the cafe and dining cars.
- Prepare up to two carry-on bags per person for the train. Bags should be sized to fit under a seat as there won’t be easy access to wheeled suitcases that airlines consider carry-ons. You don’t need TSA-approved travel sizes for liquids or gels, and remember that your car is an extension of your luggage.
- Include an overnight kit with a toothbrush, toothpaste and maybe freshening wipes. A very cramped shower — as well as towels and toiletries — is available in sleeper cars.
- Pack noise-canceling headsets or ear buds — or ear plugs if you just want quiet. You’re unlikely to get much privacy (even in a sleeper room, which has a sliding door and curtains).
- Remember cash to tip attendants and dining staff.
- Have a Plan B once you arrive at your destination instead of sticking to a strict time table. Chances are that you — or someone else in your party — will be exhausted, so make allowance for that by scheduling an early check-in or finding a spot for a car nap. If you are headed to Orlando’s theme parks, keep in mind that you have an hour’s drive after you leave Sanford.
Doris Truong is director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute. She worked at The Washington Post from 2003 to 2018.
By The Way tips for travel
Planning tips: Why you need to make reservations more than ever | National park tips | Booking a campsite | Summer rental tips | How to book Europe | Bikepacking from the experts | How to cancel your trip