Half the trip by car, half by Amtrak's Auto Train. I don't love trains. And I don't love cars. But I've come to hate planes.

Not just the bad-weather delays, but wretched service and deceitful business practices. Like the time an airline sold us seats that didn't exist on a connecting flight out of Detroit two days before Christmas.

So as we planned last summer's grand tour of northern relatives, we decided to reclaim our independence with our new van. We mapped out a route that would take us from Tampa through Charleston, S.C., to western Pennsylvania, to the eastern end of Long Island, to Washington, to. . . .

That's when my wife, Alliston, interrupted.

As the person who would provide the in-car entertainment for 17 days (read: we have no DVD player), she knew instinctively that by Washington she would have exhausted her repertoire of distractions. Three boys ages 4 to 7 can do that to you.

"We should take the Auto Train home," she said.

We'll get on just outside of Washington. We'll sleep on the train, and the next morning we're outside Orlando. The kids will love it, she said.

But it's Amtrak, I was thinking. If there's anything worse than unregulated airlines, could it be a quasi-government-run train?

She was on the phone and booking our tickets before I could respond.

After an hour of cajoling the Amtrak operator, we had secured two adjoining compartments with bathrooms on Train 53, departing Lorton, Va., at 4 p.m. on Aug. 3, arriving in Sanford, Fla., at 9 the following morning. Total cost for our one-way journey: $1,044 - $346 for the van and $349 per room.

I remember Alliston asking the Amtrak lady about reserving seats for dinner. Alliston wanted to make sure we got an early seating (there are three: 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.).

"Don't worry. You'll take care of that at check-in," the operator said.

The vacation proceeded exactly as we had hoped. All of the eventfulness occurred in the right places, namely the destinations. We covered 2,135 miles by car, and visited forts from three American wars. But as predicted, after Washington we felt as though we'd been on the march long enough.

We said goodbye to the last relative and pulled out of D.C. Thirty minutes of traffic-free driving later, we arrived at the vehicle queue at the Amtrak station.

We left the keys in the ignition and removed a couple of overnight bags and a small cooler stocked with fruit, cheese, hummus and crackers we'd bought at a nearby supermarket. The value of this became clear moments later. Standing in line, I saw that the 7 p.m. dinner seating was already full. The family in front of us grabbed the last table at the 5 p.m., leaving us with about five hours before dinner.

Inside the two-level train, we discovered what appeared to be surprisingly spacious compartments, especially when Sallie, our steward, unlocked the pass-through door. She sorted out the lights, the call button, the timing of the movie in the lounge car, and when the bar closes. She asked when we wanted the beds turned down for the night.

The boys romped freely. Alliston and I happily ceded control of Cabin M and relaxed in Cabin L. Just before 4 p.m., the train, pulling 15 passenger cars (387 people, 160 of them in the sleeper cars) and 17 auto cars (144 cars, 40 vans and one motorcycle), lurched gently forward.

By 4:40 we were passing through Fredericksburg, Va.

The first nosebleed occurred at 4:50 p.m. I wrote it down, with the observation that the one advantage of traveling in a car is that the children are restrained. On the train, there's enough room for youngsters to really mix it up.

We implemented a quiet-reading policy that lasted until Richmond, when we decamped to the lounge car to play a card game and watch Dreamgirls. But the boys were more interested in eating than watching the movie, so we gobbled up the food from our cooler.

At the stroke of 9, we sprinted into the dining car. We wedged into a table made for four and attacked the rolls and salad. The food came quickly (my steak perhaps a little too quickly, given that it was still purple). After dinner, we swayed down the aisle back to our compartments, where Sallie had pulled out the four stowaway berths and made them up with sheets, blankets and pillows.

With five people, a couple of us taller than average, it was extremely cozy.

The train jounced along through the night. If the train was rhythmically clacking along the tracks, it was doing so to a beat I didn't recognize. We all awoke at first light, tackled a decent continental breakfast in the dining car, and were in Palatka - 30 miles southwest of St. Augustine - by 7:30.

The last hour of the ride featured an uninterrupted view of backyards, back doors, kudzu and conked-out cars. Scenery is not why you travel this route, I determined, but it was a nice change from the monotony of the interstate.

We arrived 45 minutes ahead of schedule. The first car rolled off at 9:13, and our van appeared 17 minutes later. The vehicles come off in random order, so we got lucky.

Months later, I asked the boys what they remembered about the train. They answered:

  • Kicking the big button to open the door between the train cars.

  • Standing on the toilet to take a shower.

  • Sleeping behind a net in the top bunk.

No one remembered the bloody nose, the late dinner or the lackluster scenery.

My wife was right. They loved it.

Riding the Rails

The Auto Train operates nonstop service between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla., near Orlando. Prices vary according to season and holidays. Next week, a one-way fare is $414 on weekdays for a regular-size car and a reserved coach seat, with higher fares on weekends. Sleeper accommodations are additional. AAA and senior discounts are available.

For reservations, call toll-free 1-800-872-7245 or go to www.amtrak.com (select Lorton and Sanford as the stations - they're strictly for the Auto Train).

SOURCE: Washington PostEndText