Off the beaten track


SUMMARY – I have taken the Auto Train four times. I did not take coach but three times was in a room and once in a roomette.

A room or roomette comes with dining choices, coach does not. A roomette is for sleeping only and one must exit the room and use a restroom in the car. A room has a private bathroom. All are very small. Pro Tip: There is Wifi on the train and it is pretty good. There is one power outlet in the rooms and no USB ports. Plan accordingly.

While this is a cycling blog, this post is a little different. Just a little off the normal track so to speak. Off the beaten track.

Car at Lorton

In 2021 I was headed to Florida with my mother for the Pan-Florida Challenge, a 200-mile cancer charity cycling event. Rather than drive, I decided to try the Auto Train.

Auto Train Station, Lorton

The train departs from Lorton, Va., which is about 10 miles from my home and about 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. It goes to Sanford, Florida, which was about 80 miles from our first destination. We couldn’t do much better as far as those logistics.

My car is in one of those train cars

I am not going to do a true cost comparison. The Auto Train is more costly than driving, especially for multiple passengers. I also think I got nailed with a fare jump by not booking the day before when I looked at the fares. But I paid $1000 for two with a sleeper car. Amtrak calls this a room or a bedroom.

Sleeping car corridor

Driving would have been 812 miles (30 mpg) and gas was averaging $4.15 per gallon. We would have stopped en route and needed a hotel. ($111 / $160 – Call it $300)

James River, Richmond, Va.

The train has coach seats in its coach cars as well as sleeper cars. If you are willing to be in coach the train can be cost-efficient, as opposed to driving, for a party of one. Coach passengers have wide reclining seats, but they don’t lie flat. No meals are provided but one can go to the cafe car and order food there.

Auto Train Lorton, Va. – March 13, 2024

The sleeper car is an upgrade in service. One can get a private room or “roomette” plus dinner and breakfast in the dining car. In 2021 we traveled during a time COVID restrictions were in place, the main one was wearing a mask while in the public areas of the train. If we were in coach we would be subject to wearing a mask the entire time. I wasn’t going to subject my mother to wear a mask for 16 hours straight. In our room, we did not need a mask.

Take a picture (of your car), you’ll remember the number better

For rooms, we had a choice of a smaller and cheaper roomette that did not have a private bathroom. Or, as we did, a room that sleeps two or a family room that sleeps four.

Lorton, Va.

The train was scheduled to leave at 4:00 p.m. Check-in was between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. This is for loading cars. We were in line by 12:30 p.m. I checked in at the counter and was not required to show my reservation on the app or an ID. I simply gave my name. My mother never presented herself to the agent. It was a beautiful day so we waited outside until 2:30 at which time we boarded.

Double seating in the sleeper car

We had to go up the steps to the second level of the car. The corridor was small and we found our room – B. Inside, the main “sofa” was two seats side by side that would open down into a bed. There was a rear-facing seat as well. The bathroom was a one-seater and had a shower as well. There was a sign stating that it might be easier to shower seated (on the closed toilet). Maybe if one was traveling for 2-3 days but this would be an overnight trip. No shower was necessary.

Rear-facing seat

Our car attendant was Rob, a very nice young man from Fort Washington, Maryland. He came to our car to get our food orders after we were underway. We had an option to eat in the dining car or in our room. In the dining car one would need to wear a mask except while actually eating because the virus does not transmit while one is chewing. Apparently. We chose to dine in our car.


The train pulled out of the station at Lorton around 3:50 p.m. We seemed to be on a siding for 45 minutes before rolling. I imagine that was coupling the cars carrying the automobiles to the train.

Shortly after 6:00 p.m., Rob brought dinner to the car and then came in at 10:00 p.m. to convert the room for sleeping. The dinner was surprisingly good.

Top bunk

The top portion of the cabin was pulled down and formed a top bunk. The bedding was comfortable enough but we were on a train. There was rocking and rolling, not quite violently, but shaking at times.

James River, Richmond, Va.

Breakfast was ala carte and was four cars back from ours. I donned the mask and went for a walk, returning with two hot breakfast sandwiches. There was coffee in our car. Rob came in removed the bedding and restored the seats to their upright position.

Waiting in line at Lorton

The train is direct except for a stop and a crew change and refueling in Florence, South Carolina, around 11:30 p.m. The train runs on freight train tracks and is at the mercy of freight schedules. It may or may not be on time. We were pretty close, arriving 15 minutes behind schedule.

Breakfast car

After we got off the train and gave a generous tip to Rob, we made our way outside and waited for our car. It costs $75 for priority unloading. By 2024 priority offloading would cost you $95.

Sanford, Fla.

They would take up to 30 cars for this service. I think that works out to be two car carriers on the train. For everybody else, they announced the cars would be offloaded in completely random order. It did not matter if your car was loaded first or loaded last. It was in one of those 19 auto carriers all parked side by side. I saw six on our train that were being unloaded.

Sanford, Fla.

The first cars rolled off at 9:47. Our car took 52 minutes and was near the end. Is priority offloading worth it? Of course that depends on your day’s itinerary. My sister-in-law took the train from Sanford to Lorton with all the snowbirds and waited four hours for her car.

Car rolling up at Sanford

So it was expensive. But it was stress-free. The average moving speed (52 mph) wasn’t great. One could drive faster but is subject to weather, road, and traffic delays. If it were free it certainly would be the way to go. But there is a lot to factor in whether it’s right for you or for me the next time.

The stats

I took it one way because my return trip was going to be direct to Somerset, Pa. and included bike riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But I’m glad to have it as an option.

Since the initial trip from Lorton to Sanford, I have made the trip three more times. On October 31, 2023, my mother and I traveled again on the Auto Train. This was a return from Sanford to Lorton. And it was Halloween. I went to Spirit Halloween for a costume but everything was expensive and picked over. We had talked about bringing a costume but I didn’t bring anything.

Like our first trip, we booked a room for the two of us. There were no COVID restrictions in place. In Sanford, I checked in for the both of us. Name only. No ID was required.

Unlike our ride during COVID restriction, dinner was in the dining car. Thankfully it was only one car behind our car. I was worried about my mother having to walk the corridor and losing her balance.

Dinner was in the dining car. They don’t have many empty chairs or tables and fill up all the tables with ones or twos. We were seated with another couple.

In the morning my mother asked me to go to the dining car and bring something back for her.

In January 2024 I was traveling alone and jumped on an Amtrak Flash Fare sale. This time I booked a roomette to see what it would be like.

Sanford Auto Train

Before checking in I went to Sanford for a bike ride. Once around Lake Monroe was just what the (Bike) Doctor ordered. I swung by the train terminal to check it out. Someone (NY plates) was already in line at 11:28 a.m. even though check-in did not open until noon.

Some donkey from New York was in line at 11:28 a.m. in Sanford

I checked in at 1:30. Once I said goodbye to my car I went inside the terminal to check in. I was given the choice of dining times, 6:00 or 8:00 p.m., and handed a boarding ticket and meal ticket. Again, no ID was requested.

Great weather in Sanford

Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, I sat outside until they announced boarding at 3:30 p.m. Amtrak has a food truck vendor on site but also offers a shuttle to downtown Sanford.


I did neither but would encourage early arriving passengers to check out Sanford. I had checked it out on a bike so I wasn’t feeling the need to go back into town.


I went to my Roomette. And that is it. Two wide bucket seats facing opposite.

Neighbor’s Roomette

The most comfortable position was to sit back and put my feet on the other chair. If you are traveling double, wash your feet and hope you like your travel partner. In the evening the attendant, mine was Max, comes in, flips the seats into the bed position, and makes the bed. There is a fold-down bed up above and I assume it’s the same as in the room. One attendant in the dining car told me some couples get two roomettes and each takes one.

There is no bathroom in the roomette so you must use one in the car itself. But the three bathrooms serve the four or xix or eight roomettes in that car so I never saw anyone else at the same time.

My car in Sanford

I chose the 6:00 dinner. To spice things up I wore my “tuxedo” cycling jersey. The dining car people loved it. I was seated with Diane, a married woman from near Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Joining us was Ed, who was also from near Wilkes-Barre. We had a fourth person come later but we didn’t bother asking his name and he wasn’t in a hurry to learn ours.

Amtrak Lorton

On this trip, there was a long delay in Florence. They may have swapped out locomotives or did a minor repair.

I went to the dining car for breakfast. It was first-come, first-served seating and I hurried to get a seat. I was the second one there. Ultimately there were five of us, including Ed and Diane from last night’s dinner. The guy across from me told me of the time that he took the train and road in coach. He said some college guy kept leaning his head on him. A scene right out of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

We arrived 1:15 late at 11:15 a.m. I got off the train at 11:28 and the first of the priority cars drove up 10 minutes later. It took about five minutes for the remaining cars to be unloaded. I counted five families remaining in the terminal when they called my number at 12:03 p.m., or about 35 minutes after the first priority offload that cost that guy $95.

There is Wi-Fi aboard the train that is pretty good. I can’t speak to the coach section but I think there is a power port at each chair. In the room and roomette there is one power outlet. There are no USB ports.


I jumped on another Flash Fare sale for the AutoTrain. This was one-way from Lorton to Sanford on March 13, 2024.

Cars waiting in line at Sanford, Fla. – March 14, 2024

I was traveling solo and booked a roomette. I don’t think I would travel without a sleeping berth and for a solo traveler the roomette was enough. The room has more space and is more comfortable even for one traveler plus there is the added benefit of a bathroom in the room.

Private bathroom in a car – March 13, 2024

Two weeks before I departed I got an email from Amtrak asking if I would bid on a room upgrade to a “bedroom.” My thought was the family rooms were not being used and this was what I was bidding on.

Bids started at $150 with a suggested bid of $450 for an upgrade ( a complete ripoff by the way). I bid $151 – just one dollar more than the minimum in case there were those who bid the minimum. Two days before the trip I was notified that my bid was accepted.

Auto Train Room – March 13, 2024

Living so close to the station I decided not to arrive too early. I arrived at 2:23 p.m. Although I knew the train would be relatively empty, I was taken aback when I checked in and was told my dinner would be at 8:00 p.m. All the 6:00 slots had been taken. The attendant offered me dinner in my car at 7:30 p.m. I accepted that.

En route. Passing Woodbridge, Va. – March 13, 2024

I boarded at 3:18 p.m. anticipating going to a family room. Instead, I went to a room. Or bedroom. I was disappointed mostly in that I hadn’t read the bid carefully enough. I wouldn’t have bid $151 more for a bedroom but was glad to have the extra space.

Sink in the room. These are not modern train. March 13, 2024.

These are not modern cars. Perhaps in the 70s they were. There are no USB ports. I brought my own adapter/power cord. There is only one power outlet in the room.

View of a sleeper. One power outlet, no USB outlets. Bring your own adapters.

The announcements in the room were barely audible. I always enjoy the statistics offered as the train is underway. They always tell how many people are on board and how many vehicles are being transported. And add that this is the world’s longest passenger train.

Boarding documents

The attendant came into my room. He never introduced himself but his nametag said J. Hill. I would later learn it was James. I told him I could not hear the announcements and he said he would check on it. He never did. I also told him the shower/bathroom had a cigarette smoke smell and he said he would come back with some spray. He never did.

James, the attendant. (back turned) March 14, 2024

He brought my meal to me at 7:50 p.m. in a paper bag. It was complete with plastic utensils. During COVID when they brought the meals to my mother and me we had real plates and real utensils. The steak was good but hard to cut with a plastic knife.

Flat Iron Steak – March 13, 2024

I was planning to go to the dining car for breakfast but he told me he would bring my breakfast to me. I didn’t push back on this but should have. It was as though by agreeing to dinner in my room I signed up for both meals in my room. When it was 7:50 p.m. and my dinner hadn’t yet come I almost just walked to the dining car. 7:30 is not the same as 7:50 p.m. except maybe in government travel.

Sanford, Fla. – March 14, 2024

Dinner at 7:30 p.m. in my room was a better option than dinner in the car at 8:00 p.m. Dinner in my room at 7:50 p.m. (actual) was not a better option than dinner in the dining car.

My trip – March 13-14, 2024

The train was on time. I disembarked at 9:55 a.m. The priority cars started off at 10:13. Mine came off at 10:44 a.m.

My car coming off the train in Sanford – March 14, 2024

It’s a fun way to travel. But it kills my recovery. My Whoop band said I only slept 2:20 and my recovery was just 11%. Ouch.

Whoop does not like this ride

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