By Bob Ravitz
As snowbirds, we discovered the Auto Train several years ago and found it a great way to ride to Florida. It’s perfect for families or anyone really, who doesn’t want to fight the road battle on I-95. The folks at Amtrak obviously figured this out, too; the toll-free number is 1-877-SKIP-I-95.
BOARDING THE AMTRAK AUTO TRAIN
The train leaves from the Washington, DC suburb of Lorton, VA (just off I-95) at 4pm and arrives in Sanford, FL (north of Orlando) around 9:30am the following morning. You, your car (loaded with everything you need) and your kids (if you’ve got ‘em in tow) arrive well rested, well fed and ready to start your adventure in Florida. The return trip is a reverse of the same schedule. With the auto carriers, the train is the longest passenger train in the world measuring over half a mile long.
We boarded at a very modern station in Lorton, checked in, selected a time for our dinner (there are three options) and relaxed with some TV and other guests in the waiting area. In less than an hour, we were on board the train relaxing in the bar car with a free wine tasting from Barboursville Vineyard, with lots of cheese, crackers and vegetables. The Cabernet Franc, which they were tasting, was excellent and has won several awards in wine competitions. If you’re not a red fan, you would have been very attracted by the vitality of their light, spring-like white, a Sauvignon Blanc.
Meanwhile, our car, which we left just outside the door, was carefully loaded onto the train car carrier. The drivers are careful and photograph the car upon loading to insure that there is no visible damage. All you need to take with you is an overnight bag. Everything else is safely left in your car. (Except, the children of course.)
DINING ON BOARD
After late afternoon cocktails, we returned to our bedroom to read and relax and view southern Virginia from the window until dinner. We had a 7pm reservation and were seated with another couple like ourselves, snowbirds en route to Florida. The conversation was animated as we compared notes about our forthcoming adventure in Florida, our grandchildren, our careers and nearly everything else you can imagine.
I’m a steak and potatoes guy and the beef offering was both tasty and tender. Micki, my wife, tried the fresh fish, from Chesapeake Bay of course (which we could see out our window). It was tasty, too. We also had an option of three other meals and kids’ meals as well, plus more free wine. Best of all, the food service staff was pleasant, helpful and always smiling. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this in most restaurants I visit.
After dinner we could have stayed in the bar car for a movie (but we’d already seen the one being shown) and instead returned to our bedroom to watch videos on the laptop. At about 9:30pm, our conductor turned the beds down and we slept soundly until about 6:30am. Then we enjoyed a continental breakfast with cereal, fruit, coffee and bagels and by 9:30am, we were in Florida, ready to start our adventure.
As we walked the train, we saw people enjoying themselves in all the accommodations. In the coach section the little ones found imaginative places to play and pretend they were in their own hidden compartment. In the roomettes and bedrooms, parents read, played video games and board games to entertain the kids.
PROS AND CONS
The only downside to the trip is that with over 200 cars on the train, yours could be the first or the last to unload at the destination, possibly delaying your trip by an hour. So keep your fingers crossed that your car is one of the first ones off. It’s random, so you can’t predict.
Your travel options are numerous, depending on your budget and family size. There are regular coach accommodations where you sit up and sleep, roomettes with two turndown beds but you share the bath with others in your train car and finally, several larger bedrooms with in-room bath and shower facilities. It all depends on how much you want to spend. However, regardless the price, you’ll probably save money versus the options. After all, to drive with a family can mean two or three days driving, lots of gasoline, one or two nights in a motel and finally meals and snacks along the way. A family of four with airfare plus a rental car can be expensive as well. On the Auto Train, all of your travel expenses are covered and you have your own car in Florida.
If you’re a snowbird, the other fringe benefit is that you get to load up all your clothes, gear, even presents for the family and golf and tennis equipment in the car and it’s with you when you arrive.
Auto Train is a fun way to get to Florida and back, it may save you money and will definitely save you the tension of a long family drive. Visit www.amtrak.com for fares or call 1-877-SKIP-I-95.
Bob and Micki Ravitz have been lifelong neighbors of Johnny Jet and live part of the year in Connecticut and the rest in Florida, hence the snowbird designation.