The Amtrack Autotrain is a little-known but brilliant idea that shuttles thousands of people back and forth between the Orlando, Florida, and Washington, D.C., areas. More precicely, the Autotrain will take you and your car from Lorton, Virginia, to Sanford, Florida, overnight.
The stations are under construction and the seating can be cramped, but it is overall one of the best ways to travel the U.S. East Coast. It also happens to be a lucky coincidence that the train picks me up less than a four-hour drive from my house and drops me off three hours from friendsand family.
With that lead-in, I took the train down once and am writing this from the lounge car of a northbound Autotrain.
As stated above, train travel is not the most comfortable way to go. Airplanes are quicker, and driving lets you move at your own pace. However, if you need (or want) a pretty comfortable ride and access to your car, consider the train. There are several things you can do to ensure the Autotrain experience is a smooth ride.
1. Pack accordingly You have two options on the train – a regular seat or a sleeper car with fold-out beds. The beds are tiny – according to my own investigation and that of fellow riders – but comfortable enough for one night. The seats are “like first-class on an airplane” as another passenger described them. Again, comfortable enough for a night. The train leaves thee station around 4 p.m. and arrives at its destination around 9 a.m. the next morning. Know yourself, if you’re the kind of person who gets cold, bring a blanket. If you want a midnight snack, pack a cooler. And of course bring any medication on the train – don’t leave it in the car. Once you leave your car, it’s gone, loaded on a train car until the next day.
2. Don’t sleep on dinner The dinner is an unexpected treat on the Autotrain. Fish is creamy and flaky, and one of my fellow passengers assured me the beef was tender. Dessert options include ice cream and cheesecake along wth rotating specials. Dinner is also one of the best times to meet your fellow passengers, which leads us to…
3. Be social Talk to people. On this trip I met a woman who grew up minutes away from where I used to teach in Baltimore. Most of the Autotrain riders will be snowbirds, which is natural, given the location. There are hours and hours to kill on the train. By being social with other riders instead of being strapped to your phone or laptop you open up a whole new source of entertainment. In my case it was innapropriate jokes about the residents of The Villages community. “Google it!” the other rider told me. “I won’t,” I assured her.
4. Bring your electronicss Unlike a short hop on an airplane there are ample charging opportunities on the Autotrain. Be prepared to only have access to one plug at your seat (multiple device users). Also the lounge cars have wifi access and extra plugs. But, you need to …
5. Stake your claim The best seats go quickly. Whatever you do on the Autotrain, do it early. Arrive before the 2:30 p.m. deadline to drop your car off. Ask for what you want. You can ask for a seat near the lounge and dining cars or farther away if you don’t want to be disturbed. If you’re in a sleeper car, you can set the time for your cabin to be tranformed into beds. The best recommendation I have is to be one of the first people into the lounge. The lounge is where you can spread out and use the train’s wifi. It’s where people who don’t get seats in the lounge want to be. And it’s first-come, first-served. Hook into thewifi as soon as possible, as well. There are about 30 slots per loungs car (up from 10).
ESSENTIALLY, if you’re comfortable being in close quarters with friends and strangers (Autotrain friends) you’ll be fine. Try to get everything done as quickly as possible because once the sun goes down there’s not too much to be done on the train. Most of all, have a great trip!