Packing everything — including your car — for vacation – Daily Press

It’s midday on a Tuesday and I’m Florida bound, white-knuckling along I-95 North with a full tank of gas but running low on luck.

I’ve spent gallons of good traffic karma breezing through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel gridlock. I sped right past Fort Eustis and Fredericksburg, too, my little red ragtop bullied along the way by monster rigs and SUVs.

Now an ominous row of red taillights twinkles ahead. But if I can make it to Lorton on time, no more white knuckles for me. I’ll sleep all night and wake up in sunny Florida.

I’ve got a ticket on Amtrak’s Auto Train.

I frequently ride the rails between Norfolk’s Harbor Park and Washington, D.C., a smooth, hassle-free glide that can cost as little as $18 — and from Newport News, even less.

But what I’m about to do is different. The nonstop, overnight route from Lorton, Virginia, to Sanford, Florida, near Orlando, was launched in 1983. Today, Auto Trains depart at 5 p.m. daily from both directions, carrying up to 325 vehicles, more than 300 coach customers and 175 sleeper rooms. Last call for loading a vehicle is 3 p.m. Trains leave at 5, and should arrive at 10 the next morning.

Fares vary wildly and are usually best booked far in advance. At deadline, one-way vehicle fares for mid-June ranged from $146 to $239, coach seats as low as $143 and roomettes for $652. In mid-September, coach fares were as low as $89, roomettes nearly half off at $382 and vehicle prices about the same.

Deciding whether the auto train makes financial sense makes for interesting math. Sure, there’s the gas expense. Add a night in a hotel for us nonmarathon drivers. There’s vehicle wear and tear. And Amtrak’s website adds another wrinkle — the reduced environmental impact of traveling by train.

But how to weigh a nightlong snooze and a swing through the Superliner club car against 800 miles of I-95 drama? For me and my little ragtop, the decision was easy.

So that Tuesday, just as my good karma ran out, I peeled off the interstate at Lorton and joined a line of cars outside the Amtrak station, a glass-fronted building with a line of soaring fake palm trees out front. An SUV with Jersey plates and bikes on the back edged ahead of me, but no matter. Fifteen minutes later I stood on the curb with my overnight bag, watching the roadster disappear into the maw of a double-decker train car that looked a bit like a looming Quonset hut.

There’s a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller “North by Northwest” where Cary Grant, suntanned, square-jawed and wearing a gorgeous gray suit, relaxes in a dining car, sipping a martini. The glass is stemmed. The tablecloth is white. The flowers are fresh.

This is not like that.

Here on the top level in coach the lights are low. Rows of two seats each flank the aisle. It’s clean. Like me, many of my fellow travelers have the row to themselves.

My seat is spacious. There’s a tray table and a footrest, and the seatback goes way back. A platform leg rest extends from under the seat for even more stretched-out sleeping comfort.

And then, there’s this.

Catty-corner from me a man begins eating from a crinkling bag of snacks. Fifteen minutes later, he lapses into a slobbering snore. Like prairie dogs, heads pop up from seat rows. What to do?

The wail of the whistle and slight jostle as the train begins to move don’t disturb the snoring man. Luckily, I had been warned: In coach, earbuds or headphones are a must.

A federal standard mandates that 80% of train passengers should arrive at their destination within 15 minutes of the scheduled time. The rule aims to force freight trains to give way to less lucrative passenger traffic, but compliance is spotty. According to a 2021 Amtrak report, just 44% of Auto Train customers made the mark.

So how to fill 17 hours, maybe more? Reading a book. Watching the scenery pass by through big picture windows. Surfing the internet. I’ve brought my dinner, so no need to partake of the counter service Cross Country Cafe menu that includes hot dogs, short ribs, a vegan enchilada and barebones wine and spirit selections. Instead, intent on one of the pleasures of long-distance train travel, I pop into the cafe car, where I while away an hour with a couple from New York, he a former double-A New York Yankees pitcher, she a college athletic director.

Back at my seat, the snorer snores on. I tuck in earbuds and pass the night peacefully, awakened only by the occasional jostle and wail of the whistle. Until this:

“Dad! There’s a palm tree! Dad!”

It’s the kid in the seat behind me.

“Dad! Wake up! I think it’s a palm tree!”

The conductor announces the complimentary “grab and go” continental breakfast service — cereals, fruit, coffee and such — and we pull into Sanford a few minutes ahead of schedule. Soon, I’m on the curb watching vehicles emerge from the Quonset cars. It’s a bit like watching the luggage carousel at the airport, only with way more at stake.

For $79, Amtrak guarantees your car is among the first 30 off the train. But my wait isn’t long and I’ve had plenty of rest. In a half hour I’ve got the top down and I’m tooling my way toward the Florida Keys.

One month later I’m back in the car line at the Sanford station, having endured six hours of intense South Florida traffic. The team checking in cars takes an all-around video to document any prior damage and puts a paper protector on the floor, and the Miata soon heads back into the maw.

Me? I’m traveling deluxe this time.

Amtrak offers four sleeper car options on many of its trains, not just the Auto Train. There’s the cozy roomette for two, the bedroom for two with its private bathroom, a family suite as wide as the train that accommodates four, and rooms accessible for people with disabilities.

I’ve booked a lower-level roomette, a sort of cocoon on rails with two facing seats and a tray table that together convert into a single bed. There’s a drop-down bunk overhead, a tall wall of windows, clean towels, slots for carry-on luggage and an interior sliding glass door with privacy curtains. Three bathrooms, a shower and a changing room serve the four roomettes on this car. Just upstairs, a self-service corner offers coffee, tea and ice at no extra charge.

At check-in, the clerk hands me a Dining Car Menu that offers Amtrak’s Signature Flat Iron Steak with a Cabernet reduction sauce, grilled salmon and for dessert, flourless chocolate torte, cheesecake and carrot cake.

More like the movies. Or so I imagine.

Once aboard, the conductor announces that two diesel locomotives will pull 15 passenger cars and 31 car carriers with 524 vehicles, 276 coach passengers and 266 sleeping passengers. He adds that there are two conductors and two engineers and that if the WiFi goes down, “Don’t give up, just keep trying.”

Prescient pals in the Keys packed me off with a soft cooler of snacks, sodas, wine, wine glasses and even cocktail napkins. I tune in music on my portable speaker, settle back to take in the view and feel almost smug about skipping the driving. Later, the attendant returns to make up my bed, which was clean and as comfortable as at home. I sleep right through the night to the gentle rock of the train.

Still, there are drawbacks. The two most serious: My window is completely spattered, ruining the daytime view, and the dining car is closed. An attendant delivers my Signature Flat Iron Steak lukewarm in a cardboard to-go container with plastic cutlery and a miniature plastic glass of wine. The salmon and the chocolate torte that I crave for dinner are not available. For me, a former food writer, this is a major disappointment.

Amtrak officials said traditional dining service should resume later this spring when staffing issues are resolved. Additionally, in 2021 Amtrak began a $28 million upgrade that includes “an extensive interior refresh” of the Auto Train, including new seat cushions and upholstery, carpet, LED lighting, and tables and curtains in coach, sleeping and food service cars.

There will be hot food in the dining car and white tablecloths, too. Like in the movies. Maybe. It’s worth a try.




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If traveling coach, bring a pillow and headphones or earplugs.

Pack an overnight bag with toiletries, medications, etc.

Visit the club car. Meeting fellow travelers is one of the pleasures of train travel.

Bring cash to tip attendants.

Treat drop-off and pickup of your car as if it were a rental vehicle, noting any damage. All damage must be reported to Amtrak personnel before leaving the pickup line.

Shop fares: They change frequently.