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Monday, April 15, 2013

Tips for Traveling with Children on the Auto Train

If you are like me, spring weather equals vacation planning!  This spring/summer my family will be heading to the beach, the mountains, and Williamsburg.  Three very different locations, but all packed with fun for our children (and mom and dad too). 
Our last family vacation was to Orlando, FL.  We went for Thanksgiving and to celebrate my grandmother's (not the one that just passed away) 95th birthday.  Our big dilemma for this trip was how to get there.  We had a 5 month old at the time, so driving didn't really seem like an option.  Flying was going to be too expensive for our 7 person family. 
I could remember that once as a child my family had taken the Auto Train.  I don't remember anything from that trip beyond the fact that I loved the train.  I knew my boys would probably enjoy this adventure, and so I began to price it out.  I was overjoyed when I realized it would be cheaper than flying and renting a car.  Plus all our meals would be included, and my husband and I could just rest. It would also be much easier on the kids.

For some, this may raise the question; what is the Auto Train?
* Amtrak's Auto Train runs from Lorton, Va to Sanford, FL.  It is the only train you can take that allows you to bring your vehicle along with you.  The train runs through the night (about 18 hours), so when you wake up, you are in sunny Florida! 
I will tell you about our trip, and then I will leave some tips for you at the bottom of this post.

Upon arriving at Lorton's station, we checked in our vehicle (a painfully easy process) and then unpacked our overnight bags to head inside and wait for boarding.  Through the windows of the small cafe, we could watch all the cars being loaded onto the train.  My boys really enjoyed this.  In the cafe we all grabbed some snacks and goodies and ate a quick lunch. The station also had play areas for the kids outside.
Around 3:00pm they began to board the train.  We had reserved coach seats on the upper level (all the cars have an upper and lower level.  Bathrooms as well as smoking sections are on the lower level, but all dining and lounge cars are on upper level.) 
As the kids made themselves comfortable in the over sized seats, we began our journey.

The train offers an assortment of snacks, fruit and coffee for free in the lounge cars.  Additionally a variety of items can be purchased including alcohol. 

Dinner is served in the dining car at 3 different times; 5pm, 7pm, or 9pm. Since we had small children we choose the 5pm seating.  7pm seemed to be the most crowded meal time. 
Moving down through the cars was an adventure in itself, but we had fun.  The food was actually really good, and they offer a pretty nice selection of items to choose from. 
Around 9:30pm lights go out in the coach cars.  Movies are shown in the lounge cars usually around 7pm and 9pm.  Families gathered in the lounge car to play games, talk, or just visit with new found friends. 
Breakfast is served from about 6:30am until around 8:30am.  It is just a light continental, but enough to fill you.  Don't forget to take a little cash with you to tip the wait staff in the dining cars. 
Lights are turned back on in the morning around 7am.  Depending on track conditions etc. the train should arrive in Sanford around 9am. 
Once off the train, we had to wait about 30-45minutes for them to get our car unloaded.  We drove about 50 minutes to Orlando.  We stayed at Westgate Lakes Resort.  My parents own a timeshare there and it is just lovely!  My kids would probably be content to just stay at the resort because there is so much they can do!  Below was the view from our room.  This was actually taken through a screen on the porch, so not the best quality.

Of course while there, we had to hit the heated lakeside pool!  Beautiful!

Even though we were there to visit with family, we did manage to sneak in a trip to Disney.  ;)
If you have not seen Disney lit up for Christmas, you must add this to your bucket list!  It is breathe taking!

OK now what you really are here to see
Tips for Traveling the Auto Train:
  1. Book as far in advance as possible!  We booked ours 9 months in advance and still ended up paying about $100 more than if I had bought our tickets the first time I looked.  Amtrak does not offer much in the way of promotions for the Auto Train, however they do have standard discounts that are always available.  Children are always half price which was a big help.  In addition I got a Student Advantage Card (you do not currently have to be a student to get this)which saved 10% off my ticket price.  AAA, Veterans, and Seniors also can get discount pricing.
  2. Be sure to eat before arriving at the stations, or bring food with you. While there are cafes at both stations, we found out the hard way that they are throw up expensive! In addition you are not permitted to bring outside food into the café. You may however bring it into the station, and onto the train with you.
  3. We did travel coach, but I would have preferred to get a sleeper car instead.  Having a bed and private room for the kids would have made the trip more comfortable for us.  The largest sleeper car they have holds 4.  You can however request two rooms with a push back divider to make one large suite.  You will still pay for two rooms, but if you have a family with small children this works much better than having rooms spread out all over the place.
  4. Bring your own pillows and blankets.  While the train does have both, you will be more comfortable with your own. 
  5. Be sure to bring headphones for any laptops, Ipads, or gaming system. 
  6. Bring coloring books, games, cards, etc. to help keep kids entertained.  This is a great time to give them some new toys.
  7. While walking on the train, hang onto to your small children.  The train does a lot of bouncing and jostling.  It is very easy to get thrown off balance when walking.
  8. Watch little fingers near the entrance to each car.  The doors open and shut very quickly.  (They are also rather loud)
  9. If you ride coach, do not expect to get a great night of sleep!  You will rest, but just not well.
  10. Have fun!  This is an adventure!  Soak up the memories!  Years from now, this may be the only thing your kids remember about your trip!  ;)
***Updated 6/13/2013 - As of June 1, 2013 smoking is no longer permitted on Amtrak Auto Train.  Electronic smoking devices are also not permitted.  A scheduled smoking stop will be made during the overnight trip.

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  1. How awesome was that? I have never been on a trip by train, that would be really cool! May have to look into that. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes it was a lot of fun. Not sure who enjoyed it more, my kids or me! ;) The train is a great way to travel!

  2. Replies
    1. We really enjoyed it! The kids keep asking to do it again.

  3. Thank you for sharing! I knew about this, and have had other friends use this since they live in Orlando. It's great to have your amazing perspective.


  4. Sounds like an ideal way to travel with children. I am sure your's will tell this story when they grow up.

    1. Hi Ms. Lemon,

      Thanks for stopping by! I sure hope they remember it. They really seemed to enjoy it. They have already been asking when we can do it again. :)

  5. I just found this when searching for info about traveling via autotrain with kids (I have 4 children ages 7 and under.) Anyway, a few questions: Did you use portable DVD players? If so, is there somewhere to plug them in? Is there wi-fi for use of Ipads? And my biggest concern of all....If we get coach seating and not a room, what would I do with my 18 month old? Would I have to hold her during the entire trip? Thanks!

  6. Hi Becky,
    Great questions! One of the nice things about the train is that you can get up and walk around. I assume that your 18 month old would not be content to just sit that whole time, I know mine wouldn't! So it is nice to know that they can walk the train with you. You can also take the baby to the lounge car and sit at a booth for a bit to get a change of scenery. The seats are rather large and do recline. They also have large foot rest that can come all the way up level with the seat making the bottom portion of the seat more bed like.

    You will also find that even on the most crowded trains, there are still empty seats. You can move to one of these after the train starts to get a little more space. Since we brought our own blankets, my boys slept on the floor under the seats and that gave me enough room to lay down with my baby.

    Many families like to request seats near the rear of the car. There is space behind the last seat and families will make little tents there for smaller children to sleep in. I don't recommend this for the baby, but putting older children there may give you more space to spread out on your seats. With that said, if you can afford it, go for the room! Your trip will be so much more comfortable, and you do not have to worry about your kids bothering anyone or vice versa.

    There are outlets at ever seat, so yes you can plug things in, however Wi-Fi is hit or miss. There is talk of bringing it to the auto train, but as of right now, it is not available. My husband was able to pick up Wi-Fi from passing towns numerous times during our trip. Not sure it would be enough to stream a movie though.

    We took our Kindles, and laptops. The kids were able to play games, read, watch movies, etc. on those. You just have to be very cautious to sound. They really like to keep it quiet after 9:00pm (although many people kept their sound on long after that)

    I hope that you find this information helpful. Enjoy your trip!


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