Overnight on Amtrak

It’s October, which means Autumn has arrived in places that are not Florida. I’ve never experienced the crisp fall air, the brightly colored leaves, or any of the other environmental pleasures that people who live north of the I-75/I-10 intersection brag about between September and December. So, this week we decided to pack our bags and head north. 

I’ve always wanted to drive the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and I imagine it is gorgeous in the Fall, but with only four days off from work and a one-year-old who requires a lot of rest area breaks during road trips, it sounded stressful to make this adventure happen this year. 

That’s where Amtrak comes in. The Auto Train runs daily from Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA. It is a roughly 16-hour train ride (allegedly – more about that later) that allows you to bring your car on the train. We decided to book a roomette for our family of three and ride the rails. 

Logistics: 

When we arrived at the Amtrak station in Sanford we were directed to leave the keys in our car and pull it forward. Some people came by to inspect our vehicle before driving it onto a two-level train car. (Note: You do not have access to your car once it is on board. It is in a completely separate part of the train.) 

We grabbed our carry-on bags and headed into the train station to check-in and wait for boarding. I carried Konnor in the Tula to prevent him from crawling around on the dirty floor. We had about a one hour wait from the time we arrived until we were allowed to board, so I was  glad that we brought lunch to occupy the three of us. 

We knew from the description of the roomette that it would be cramped quarters, but we didn’t realize how cramped until we arrived. We like each other a lot, so we made it work, but Konnor is right at the border of being comfortable in such a confined space. If your child is walking or likes to have a lot of personal space you should book a full-sized sleeper cabin rather than a roomette. The room is 3’6 by 6’6. Two comfortable chairs are pressed between the wall and the sliding door. An attendant stops by in the evening to turn the chairs into a 24″ wide bed. A storage area in the top of the roomette also folds down to become a 20″ wide bed. Needless to say, the roomette is not designed for large people.

Kevin took the top bunk because it was too chilly for me thanks to an air conditioning vent on the ceiling, I took the bottom bunk and Konnor slept on a pallet on the floor. Amtrak provides sheets and blankets, but we were glad we brought extras. We brought Konnor’s sleeping bag as one of our carry-on items, which gave him a comfortable place to sleep on the floor. 

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Cramped quarters! This is how Konnor slept.

Two meals are automatically included on the Sanford to Lorton Auto Train. Dinner had a small menu of four entrees to choose from. Kevin had lamb, Konnor had cod and I had pasta. There is also a lounge car where you can get alcohol. ($8 for a bottle of Sam Adams, OUCH!) Breakfast consisted of Continental basics: cereal, banana, muffin/bagel, orange juice and coffee. 

When we arrived in Lorton, VA the next day the train was SIX HOURS late arriving. This had a huge impact on our vacation since we only had four days to do drive the Blue Ridge. We basically lost an entire day and now have to choose whether to skip most of the parkway or forfeit hiking and camping. Anyway, I’ll complain more about that later. When we disembarked the train we stood on the platform to watch them begin to unload the cars. It look about an hour for us to be reunited with my Suburu. It was a cool process to watch. Basically, a parade of drivers show up and drive all of the automobiles off of the train cars.

Overall, the Auto Train is an interesting blend of cruise ship and airplane. The service reminds me of a cruise ship, but the quarters are more like an airplane. There is no entertainment, but you do get sit-down meals. You sleep in a cramped space, but there is turn-down service.  I would definitely do this again, but with some changes. 

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Why I recommend taking the train: 

The Auto Train is not quicker than driving. In fact, in our experience, it took nearly twice as long because of debris on the rails left by Hurricane Matthew. We were on the first Auto Train to travel since the storm pummeled the coast one week ago. However, it is worth it to not have to stress about traffic and potty breaks. Also, we had a good night’s sleep and have the energy to enjoy the rest of our trip. I got to walk around and stretch my legs, read a book, write a blog, take conference calls, watch Netflix, and let Konnor crawl around instead of being trapped in a car seat. Konnor enjoyed looking out the windows and exploring the train. It also taught him a good lesson about adventure and how to deal with bedtime and meals away from home. I feel relaxed, happy and excited for leg two of our journey. 

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Onto the Blue Ridge Parkway…