As part of Little C’s Traveling Friends series, the Snow Family recently told us all about how they use miles and points to travel with their three boys ages 8 and under. They have had to learn how to adjust their travel style some to meet their need of their current family, and one of the ways they did that was to use Ultimate Reward points to take the Auto Train down to Florida. This sounds like a really cool option, so I asked them to share more details about their experience. Here it is!
Recently, we were invited to spend time with my husband’s aunt on Amelia Island in North Florida. When looking at the price of air tickets for five of us, then the rental price for a full size car, it made me consider other options. I didn’t want to pay $1500 or use 125,000 miles for airfare (even if I could find tickets at the saver levels). We had driven the trip in the past, but it is a good 19 hours without traffic, and when considering the I-95 corridor from Connecticut to Florida, there would most likely be traffic. In that case, we would need to split the drive into two days, and would need a hotel either with points or cash to crash in overnight.
A few years ago, my in-laws took the Auto Train for a month long visit to friends in Florida. They raved about the experience, so we decided that we would incorporate the Auto Train into our vacation this year.
The Auto Train’s northern station is in Lorton, Virginia (about 15 miles south of Alexandria, VA, right out of DC). The Auto Train’s southern station is in Sanford, Florida, about 25 miles north of Orlando. The cost of a one way ticket on the Auto Train depends on the season and how far in advance you purchase your ticket. Everyone that rides the Auto train must have a car or motorcycle on board, and must also have a ticket. You can also purchase private rooms for an additional fee.
We booked the Family Bedroom which consisted of a large couch, a small closet, and two small tables next to each window on either side of the train. At night the couch converts to a just-smaller-than-full-size bed, a bunk on top of that, and there is an additional bunk as well as a very small child’s bed. They advertise that the room sleeps 4, but if you don’t mind cozying up to your spouse, it fits a family of 5 with small children just fine. We were sure to pack light since there really isn’t much storage in your room. Other than a few books, an iPad, a duffel bag of clothes, and a newspaper, the rest stayed in the car.
We had planned to arrive early in the day to the DC area to spend some time in one of the many museums, but horrific traffic outside of NYC put a stop to that. Instead, we arrived at 2pm and had a half hour wait prior to boarding. When you drive up, they give you a number which is like a claim check for your car. They also offered priority unloading for an additional $50. Since we were in no hurry when we got to Florida, we decided to pass on it.
They then video tape the outside of your car and you sign liability forms for anything on the car such as bikes. We then went to check in and the sales agent was very impressed said “Whoa, that’s a lot of points! What do you do, ride the train to work everyday?” We said no, we are just very good at collecting points! At this time you also make reservations for your dining time at 5PM, 7PM, or 9PM. With the small children we have, we asked for and got the early seating. Just a warning, if you are traveling with the “snowbirds”, be aware that they will also likely take the early dining time (from what we were told). As it was late May, and we were heading South, we didn’t have to worry about much competition for the early dining slot.
We then boarded and were shown to our room by our porter. They asked at what time we’d like to have our beds made and we asked for 9pm. Then while we waited for the train’s departure at 4pm, we enjoyed a complimentary wine and cheese tasting in the lounge car. As it was very popular and crowded, we got ours to go and enjoyed it our room with the boys. I was very impressed that their selection featured local Virginia wines. They were surprisingly tasty! Our boys enjoyed the cheese and crackers and carrots and celery. There was a little bit of jostling as the passenger cars were coupled to the auto cars. We could look out the window and see the shunting of the cars. My boys were entranced! We learned that the Auto Train is the longest passenger train in the world, and this particular one had 48 cars, 456 passengers and 258 vehicles on board!
Then we were off, heading South. The boys colored and read and stared out the window at scenic Virginia while my husband and I both read and relaxed while sipping wine! At 5:30, we headed up to the dining car, passing through 3 separate sleeping cars to get there. We were seated at a table set with white table clothes and white china with Amtrak written on it. A giant window gave us a wonderful show to look upon as we ate.
A chef’s salad, warm rolls and wine is served with dinner and there were several entrees to choose from. My children all ordered the Choo Choo Chewies which were actually pretty tasty chicken tenders with a side of macaroni and cheese and steamed assorted vegetables. My husband had a flat iron steak and I had salmon in a mustard sauce that was pretty tasty. It was definitely better than airline food! For dessert the kids all got Jello, and the adults enjoyed the chocolate peanut butter torte. We enjoyed cups of decaf while we finished up, then we headed to the lounge car.
There is a bar in the lounge car selling drinks and snacks. There are also large tables with lots of seating. There are several flat screens mounted and they play a complementary evening movie. We brought our iPad loaded with UNO and played that for awhile before heading back to get some sleep.
Our beds were all made and we took our toiletries to one of three restrooms for our sleeping car. There are also two showers, though I didn’t attempt that. There was complementary milk and water for the boys before bed. We all slept pretty well that night, there were times I woke up as the train stopped or jostled around a turn, but I was able to get right back to sleep. In the morning, they serve continental breakfast with your choice of cereal, banana, warm muffins and bagels, orange juice and coffee. The train arrived right on time at 9:30am. They announced that it would take some time to unload the train as the Sanford station is not big enough for all of the passenger cars. They unloaded several at a time, then moved the cars and train so that others could get off. All this time, they were also moving the auto carriers to prepare them to be unloaded. We were told it could take up to an hour and a half to get our car once we got there. And wouldn’t you know it, our car was one of the last ones off at the hour and a half point. There is a little playground for the kids to play on while waiting, but it was still a long wait! Our car was in perfect shape and we were ready to start our fun vacation in Florida!
The trip back was a little different. We had heard that several days prior to our return trip, the Auto Train had a maintenance problem and ran 10 hours late! Well, they were still making up the time: when we arrived to check in at 2pm, the Northbound train had just arrived and was unloading! I hadn’t thought of checking on the status of the train, something I would usually do with a flight. We were told that they were running two hours behind and would depart at 6pm instead of 4pm. The town of Sanford has a free shuttle service that will take you to their downtown area with restaurants and shops while you wait. I didn’t find out about this until we were about to board! Next time, I’ll try to take advantage of that. The crew on the train couldn’t have been more amazing.
We found out that due to the delay, the 9pm dinner that we were given for the trip back wouldn’t be served til 11pm! I asked our porter if there was any way we could get an earlier seating and she said there wasn’t, but she must’ve seen the despair in my face as she returned a little while later with menus and told us she’d bring food for the kids to our room. She brought little while cloth napkins to make into a tablecloth and the boys got to eat. She asked us what we wanted to eat and after the boys were all done, she brought our meals and a whole bottle of wine! We were all fed and in bed by 9:30 that night.
The train was able to make up some of the time and we arrived in Lorton just 45 minutes late. We were going to meet up with family in Alexandria prior to driving back home to Connecticut, so we paid the $50 for the priority unloading of our vehicle. By 10:40, we were getting on I-95. A nice bike ride on the Mount Vernon bike path with our family was a great way to stretch our legs and enjoy some fresh air before driving on home.
We are already planning on our next Auto Train trip as it was such a fun way to travel. It was great for bringing all the toys you need for your vacation; we had golf clubs, 5 bicycles and toys along with suitcases all loaded in our car and there was no worrying about car seats! Sure, you could get there faster by flying, but we looked at the train as being part of our vacation and not just a way to get to our vacation.
We paid for our train trip purely using our Chase Ultimate Reward Points. My husband got the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with the 40,000 point sign up bonus and an Ink Bold® Business Card with a 50,000 point sign up bonus. We transferred the points to his Amtrak Rewards program and used 80,000 total points (15,000 points for vehicle, 25,000 points for the bedroom each direction). If we were to have paid cash for this trip it would’ve been $2400! I’ve already gotten the Chase Ink Bold and am planning on getting the Sapphire Preferred as well. I’m on my way to another Auto Train ticket!
Thanks so much to the Snow Family for sharing about this awesome Ultimate Rewards point redemption option! I’d love to hear if anyone else has used their UR points for a similar Amtrak trip!
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