As my most loyal readers may remember, I really, really didn’t want to fly with Sienna for our Christmas trip this year – airports and airplanes are always crowded, stressful and germy. Plus, since it was a Christmas trip, the luggage limits would have meant we would have to mail gifts back and forth or lug and check heavy bags.
Rare dad remembered that there is an overnight train from Virginia to Florida with sleeper cars and room to take your car along as well. Sold! We packed up the car, gifts and all, and were on our way. I joked that it was either going to be the best decision we’d ever made or the worst one. Now that it’s behind us, I deem it a huge success! Sienna loved every minute of it and both of us were pretty stress-free. Since we arrived Christmas Eve morning and it took us to sunny Florida, I have nicknamed it the “Solar Express.”
I wanted to share some tips we learned because it was such a fun, relaxing option that other weary Florida-bound east coast travelers might want to consider it. And if we do it again, we’ve learned a few tricks we want to remember.
Tip #1: If you bring your car, pay to be priority
We learned in advance is that you can pay $50 to have your car be one of the first 20 cars off the train. Our train carried about 190 cars, so car # 190 probably had to wait several hours until their car came off. Ours was off in about 15 minutes.
Tip #2: Priority car boarding closes at 2:30
The train leaves at 4pm. Check-in begins at 11:30, and cars are loaded between 2 and 3pm. We aimed for a 2:30 arrival to be safe and got there perfectly at 2:27. We rolled up and the valet looked shocked and told us we had three minutes to get out of the car with our things. It turned out that priority cars are only accepted until 2:30, so we just barely scraped by! It would have been nice if they had noted that on the ticket!
Tip #3: early dinner seatings book up early
There are three dinner seatings in the dining car: 5pm, 7pm and 9pm. When we checked in at 2:35 the first two seatings were booked. I know how the 9pm seating would have gone with a 3-year-old whose usual bedtime is 7pm. I’m pretty sure the other passengers wouldn’t have appreciated dining to the sound of stray cats screeching on the night of a full moon. We ended up able to get dinner delivered to our room at 7pm, which wasn’t terrible, but we would definitely check in earlier next time to get the 5pm seating. We might check in at 11:30 and then go eat lunch before coming back for good.
Tip #4: Your booked cabins might not actually be your booked cabins
We wanted to book a large family room that would fit all of us, but those were sold out when we made our reservation, so we settled for two “room-ettes” which each have two chairs and convert into bunk beds. We booked them next to each other, but when we checked in we discovered that our two roomettes were actually in separate cars. 8 cars away from each other! Turns out that happens frequently and with two phone calls and without too much fuss, the check in agent nicely fixed that. However, he could only get them in the same car – one upstairs and one downstairs. When we got to our car, there was a very friendly attendant. We explained our situation and he was able to help. Another family had the same issue so he musical-chaired our whole car and made it work. We ended up right across the hall from each other which made it feel like one big room. We tipped him well!
Tip #5: Tip well
Our attendant was super friendly but it’s just good policy to tip well, especially on a christmas eve train. I think our nice tip might have also helped us get the 7pm dinner delivery rather than having to wait until 9.
Tip #6: Bring (all!) your own stuff
Unlike air travel where everything you bring on the plane with you is scrutinized and you wouldn’t even dare to bring a bottle of water, there is no security on the auto train. Literally, no security. No metal detector, no underpants-exposing, cancer-inducing X-ray machine, no bomb-sniffing dogs, nothing. We brought a bunch of large waters and even our own whole bottle of wine. It was super convenient to just hop on, no unpacking of bags necessary! There isn’t a ton of storage in the room-ettes, but that is the only restriction. Only bring what you need.
Tip #7: Two parents and a toddler probably only need one room-ette
The room-ette has two big chairs. Sienna and I fit comfortably together on one chair and Rare dad sat in the other. It was still close to have him across the hall, but it was more fun to be together. Plus, you can close the door to your room-ette which cuts down on train noise and eliminates germs (I forgot to mention that I boarded with a giant container of wipes and wiped down both of our rooms before we settled in).
Tip #8: There are bumps and bends in the road
After boarding, we were enjoying some wine (us) and juice (Sienna). We mix Sienna’s dinner medicine with juice since she’s not old enough to swallow pills yet, so we put half a cup of orange juice aside for her in our other room-ette. When we went back into that room to grab something else, the orange juice had spilled on the wall (luckily not on our luggage). Also, luckily, we had a grip on our wine!
Tip #9: Scenery is better than TV shows
This may not be true for every toddler, but while it was light out, we needed none of the 80 activities we brought on board for Sienna to do. She loved sitting in the big chair, operating the “machinery” (the curtains, the tray table, etc), eating snacks and just sitting pressed up against the glass watching the country go by. After dark, our dinner arrived and Sienna ate an entire steak and most of a piece of cake. We watched one or two TV shows on our Kindle Fire and Sienna was ready for bed.
Tip #10: Bathrooms are still gross
Train bathrooms are the same as plane bathrooms. Enough said. Although the family rooms we initially wanted to book are supposed to have their own bathroom, so that would make all the difference.
Tip #11: Train sleep is surprisingly good sleep
The low white noise of the train and gentle motion lulled Sienna right to sleep and she slept all night. The beds are actually pretty comfortable. We worry about Sienna bonking on any hard surfaces (which could cause an FOP flare-up), but we were able to take extra pillows and surround her on three sides with pillows on the bottom bunk. I then shared her bunk with her, which was a little snug but I slept well knowing she was safe. The train room-ettes also have locks on the doors and curtains on both the inside and outside walls so we slept well in our own cozy dark bubble. The locked door also helped me relax as I was falling asleep remembering that there was no security at all before boarding the train…