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Amtrak's AutoTrain Is Unique Way to Travel

12/13/2010 11:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Believe it or not, the romance and adventure of long-distance train travel 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 a passenger 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, especially, 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 seveteen-hour trip, we are strangers no longer. That is what is so memorable.

The AutoTrain is first and foremost transportation. It is not sightseeing train (and in fact, as much as you might like to just take the train, you cannot unless you have a car or motorcycle), 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).

Since rail lines developed as the main form of transportation and commerce, they invariably touch places with important history -- in fact, the timed train schedule that AutoTrain provides is like a tour. You can appreciate these places -- particularly the place names that jump out from Civil War history for their proximity to each other -- even passing through in the night, with the wail of the train whistle hovering in the air making that connection between us and the communities.

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 more 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 a roundtrip ticket you have purchased, the return is subject to a 10% penalty if you 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.

These are some of the reasons that bring you to the AutoTrain.

But even from the moment you arrive at the AutoTrain station, embark the train -- a massive double-decker -- and get settled in by the conductor, find your way to the lounge car, go through the process of hooking on the train cars that hold the automobiles, and then pull out of the station with that slow rumble, you find something so much more: a true experience.

The AutoTrain cars look giant from the street-level. They are awesome double-deckers with most of the passenger seating on the second level; the first level is for the bathrooms (very comfortable, clean; there is even a toilet that has a changing area; the fact they are in the car and on the lower level reduces the amount of back-and-forth traffic and opening/closing of doors all night). You pass through the cars at the second level to go to the Lounge Car and the Dining Car. (People with mobility issues are seated in the lower level and they will bring down food.)

The coach seats are fairly comfortable, more like first class seats on airlines and probably even better than that, with plenty of room to stretch out. There are also electric outlets at each seat, as well as throughout the Lounge car.

I spend hardly any time in my seat, though. I am off to the Lounge car and plug in my computer to the electrical outlets and get some snacks -- fresh fruit, baked cookies, coffee, tea and hot chocolate which are out the whole trip. There's also a bar where you can purchase drinks.

Strangers on a Train

Dining on a train always has its special allure, and it is especially interesting because you are seated with other passengers until the table of four is complete. And that's when serendipity takes over. The people you meet makes each trip unique.

The dining car is very pleasant -- flowers on the table, table cloths, fancy plastic "china" (sleeping car passengers, the equivalent of first-class, are served on real china). There is wine in a decanter.

In the Lounge Car, the steward has put out cookies in addition to the fresh fruit, and there is coffee, tea and hot chocolate available, in addition to drinks (sodas, liquor) and snacks you can purchase at the "bar". There is a nightly movie.

Finally, hoping I have stayed up late enough to make it easier to fall asleep, I make my way back to my coach seat where there are two pillows and a thin blanket waiting. I have come prepared with a mask for my eyes and ear plugs, and like most people on the train, have dressed in comfortable sweats.

Sleeping is not easy, despite the relative comfort of the two chairs and the space to stretch.

This is why most people who have taken the AutoTrain come back and take a sleeping accommodation: the Roommette, the least expensive, is a private accommodation with two sleeping berths, one on top of the other (you pay for one but get two); Bedroom, the most expensive accommodation, offers private accommodation with the two berths, plus chair and restroom/shower. Two bedrooms can be combined to accommodate four adults traveling together; Family Bedroom, a clever arrangement that has four berths in it (located on the lower level). A few accessible bedrooms accommodate passengers with limited mobility. There are public showers and restrooms in all the sleeping cars.

Continental breakfast is very pleasant -- cereal, bagel with cream cheese or jelly, a banana. The fresh coffee throughout the trip is terrific.

There are many advantages to scheduling your trip when it isn't busy -- not the least is that the less crowded the train is, the more likely you will have two passenger seats together, but the fares also are significantly cheaper.

Everybody pays the coach fare regardless if you take a sleeper accommodation, which is an add-on cost, and then there is the cost of carrying the vehicle.

In addition to cars, vans and SUVs, the AutoTrain also transports motorcycles (and there are motorcycle tours in Florida you can take), small boats, U-haul trailers, and jet-skis.

For schedules, fares and information, call 800-USA-RAIL or visit Amtrak.com, a very user-friendly site.

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