Amtrak's AutoTrain is wonderfully family friendly, and kids are utterly enamored with trains. At the Lorton,VA station - the northern terminus - there is even a playground.
The train goes to Sanford, FL, just outside Orlando © 2010 Karen

The idea of long-distance train travel invariably evokes a sense of romance and nostalgia for the golden years when trains were the high-tech way to travel.

That spirit is still alive here in the United States in perhaps the most unexpected of places: Amtrak's AutoTrain, which travels nearly 900 miles between Lorton,Virginia (about 45 minutes outside of Washington D.C.), and Sanford, Florida (near Orlando).

This service, where you take your own car with you on the train, is unique in the United States, and possibly the world. Another distinction: between the passenger cars and the vehicle-carrying cars,
AutoTrain is actually the longest passenger train in the world.

For rail buffs, and this includes young children who are endlessly fascinated by trains, these aspects would qualify for a must-do trip.

But a trip on AutoTrain will make anyone a rail buff, with a new appreciation for the possibilities of this seemingly old-fashioned mode in this new age of transportation.

I have now taken the AutoTrain three times, and each time have been delighted with the experience.

Because it is an experience. A serendipitous adventure of change encounters with strangers on a train.

By the end of the 17-hour trip, we are strangers no longer. That is what is so remarkable.

The AutoTrain is first and foremost transportation. It is not sightseeing train, and yet, it is so interesting to see the landscape in the few hours of sunlight after you depart at 4 p.m., and
from when the sun rises until the departure at 9:30 a.m. (the time schedule is
the same going south as well as north).

But when you have a need for your car and it is not cost-effective to rent, and you are skittish about driving through snow, ice, sleet, rain or even traffic on that endless I-95, slogging through more
than 1,400 miles of whatever, AutoTrain a wonderful alternative, basically cutting down 855 miles of the drive (I still had to drive the 5-6 hours to Lorton and the next day, 3-4 hours to West Palm, but these were manageable distances).

People also find it a cost effective way to travel, especially if you can schedule your trip during the less popular times, which is essentially whenever the snowbirds have come or gone and school is in session. The earlier you book, the better fare you will get because the cost of everything goes up as space becomes less available.

Amtrak also offers more value than the airlines, particularly with the family fares, and consumer-friendly cancellation and change policies (you can cancel without penalty up until you take your tickets, which is at the counter before you depart, but if it is aroundtrip ticket you have purchased, the return is subject to a 10% penalty ifyou cancel, and if you lose the return ticket you are basically out of luck).

And many are finding it a very, very satisfying alternative to the less-than-friendly skies for airline travel.

Those are just the reasons that bring you to the AutoTrain.

But once you arrive, you find something so much more: a true experience.

I am very impressed with the whole operation, and how smoothly and pleasantly it ran.

In the first place, the procedure for checking in and giving over your car is so efficient and pleasant. (Note: you should arrive 2 hours before but if you arrive after 3 p.m. for the 4 p.m. are out of luck because there is a whole process to taking the cars, loading the cars, hitching up the train together).

After you present yourself at the gate and they find your name on their list, they stick a magnet with a number on your car, photograph it on all sides (so you can't claim that the ding you gotbefore you arrive was their doing), put papers in where the driver will put hisfeet, and take the car away. You take out what you need overnight on the train(people take pillows and blankets, reading material, computers, toiletries,etc.). Security people with dogs sniff the cars before they whisk them away. I
am amazed at how fast and easy this whole process is.

Then you go to the ticket counter and get your coach seat (the cheapest accommodation), or your number for your sleeping car. This is another important reason to get there early - your seat assignment, because there are great differences.

Many who travel on AutoTrain the first time and take the coach seat say it was pleasant enough but that the next time, they will opt for some sleeping arrangement (it can be as inexpensive as an extra
$217 for a roommette accommodating two people).

There are several options, ranging from the most inexpensive roommette to a bedroom; there is an accessible accommodation and a family accommodation, with the charges in addition to the lowest
applicable rail fare.

I for one will likely still take the coach seat.

At the check-in counter, you will also request a seating time for dinner - 5 or 7 p.m. when the trains are not so crowded; a 9 p.m. seating is added when the trains are crowded, and you'll find out which movie they are showing in the Lounge car. By the time I check in, at 2 p.m., the 7 p.m. is already filled, so I opt for the 9 p.m. seating (that gives you some clue as to how early you should arrive).

The dinner, as well as snacks that are out in the Lounge Car all the time, and a continental breakfast in the morning are all included in the rate.

Sleeping car passengers, the equivalent of First Class, have their own Lounge and Dining cars and are treated to a wine tasting and cheese.

When the trains aren't so crowded (and this is a critical issue when you are planning your trip) they will do their best to give you an empty seat next to you, so you can stretch out more comfortably.
(Inside tip: ask for a seat that is not directly in line with the stairs because the light will be in your eyes all night; another tip, take a mask and earplugs.)

The train stations at Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, are both very comfortable (Sanford's is actually being expanded) - there are TV monitors and snack bars. You can usually board after
2:30 p.m., and you will likely find snacks put out in the Lounge car - munchies, fresh fruit, and coffee, tea and hot chocolate. You need to be aboard by about 3:30 p.m., because at that point, the train cars are being moved and assembled.

And then the adventure begins. Read more

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