Helpful Tips for Train Travel in North America
I love trains – they are probably my favourite mode of transport.
They are so much more spacious and comfortable than buses and you will often get a bed that you can lie down in and sleep if you pay a bit more for the sleeper class. You can get up and walk around the cabin, or sit and watch the world go by. Because train lines often cut straight through the wilderness and the small towns of the countryside, the view from a train window is usually quite beautiful and relaxing.
When you picture traveling by train, Europe might be the first continent to come to mind. However, it is also possible to travel extensively by rail through North America.
The huge wide open spaces of Canada and the USA were tamed by an enormous railway network that still operates and you can take train journeys through some pretty spectacular landscapes. I think it’s one of the best ways to see the incredible expanses of prairie, jagged mountains, dusty deserts and vast grasslands that North America has to offer.
Before you start planning your North American rail adventure, there are some important things you should know.
Amazing North American Train Routes
Looking for ideas of where to take your train journey? Here are some of the most spectacular train trips you can take in the USA and Canada.
The Grand Canyon Railway
This journey has been in operation for more than a century and it will take you through thick pine forests, dramatic desert landscapes and alongside the breath-taking Grand Canyon. You’ll travel this awe-inspiring eight hour journey within beautifully restored 1950s train carriages. When I learned about this train journey I instantly put it on my bucket list – wouldn’t it be such a great adventure?
The Rocky Mountaineer
Jagged snow-capped peaks, the Canadian Rocky Mountains have some of the most stunning scenery in the world. The Rocky Mountaineer Train operates four rail routes through British Columbia, Alberta and Washington State in the USA.
The First Passage to the West route will take you along the banks of the rushing Kicking Horse River, through the Spiral Tunnels and to the point where the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven. The Journey Through the Clouds travels through the Fraser Canyon and the beautiful Coastal Mountain Range, offering stunning views of Mount Robson – the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
The Rainforest to Gold Rush route will take you through the desert-like Fraser Canyon and the vast ranchlands of the Cariboo Plateau. Last but not least, the Coastal Passage route connects Seattle in the USA with Vancouver, British Columbia and travels through lush rainforests and gorgeous coastline. Last
The California Zephyr
Follow the routes of the 19th century settlers as you travel through seven different states on a 51 hour trip. You’ll start in Chicago, go west along the Continental Divide and into the stunning and dramatic canyons of the Colorado River. Then, you will continue into the Rockies and through the Utah and Nevada deserts, passing through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into California. This journey captures some of the excitement and sense of adventure that the early settlers must have felt as they moved west.
Rail Passes Might be Worth Your While
If you are planning a long trip and intend to take several journeys, you might save money overall by purchasing an Amtrak or ViaRail pass. They will have restrictions on the number of train journeys you can take within a certain period, so take a look at your travel plans and work out whether it is the right choice for you.
If not, you can simply purchase individual tickets a few weeks in advance. Just keep an eye on the prices online to spot the best deals. In some situations, it can be advantageous to not have your journey booked too far in advance. When Lee and I were travelling across Canada we sometimes were able to get very cheap deals on last minute train tickets because we were flexible with our dates.
Via Rail Canada offers a Canrailpass and Amtrak offers a U.S.A. Rail Pass. There is also a California Rail Pass, which is available on any trains within California (although not the long distance trains such as the Sunset Limited and the California Zephr). Take a look the rail pass options for Amtrak and Via Rail and see if they fit with your travel plans and would work out cheaper for you.
- Rail passes don’t necessarily allow you just to hop on any train at any time – you will need to make a reservation and pick up a ticket for each segment. You may need to do this by speaking to an agent, as sometimes it cannot be done online.
- Don’t feel like you have to stick to the routes laid out – often you can piece together segments of different train routes.
- If the pass only covers the lowest priced coach ticket, you may have to pay the difference if all of those tickets are sold out.
- When planning your trip, consider the fact that sometimes it will be cheaper to pick a stop off point along the route and get a hotel room for a night or two rather than paying for the first class sleeper car.
Use Your Train Time Well
North America is really big and there will be long train journeys. We took a train ride from Winnipeg to Toronto that took 38 hours. We boarded the train on Tuesday night and arrived on Thursday afternoon – without passing through a major city at any point in between.
That means that you will have plenty of time on the train – so think about how you will use it. You may want to read ahead in your guidebook and make plans, write in your travel journey, go through your photos, write postcards to your friends and family or catch up on your recreational reading or podcasts. You will want to ensure that you have plenty of books, music and podcasts downloaded, as you may not have internet access or phone reception when taking trains through remote areas.
You might also want to take a deck of playing cards with you – so that you can while away the hours playing games with your travel companions or with new friends you make along the journey. Sometimes train travel can be pretty slow and your train may need to move off the track and pause for a while to let another train pass – so be patient and go with the flow.
Online Resources for Planning Your Train Travel
Ready to start putting together the ultimate train odyssey across the USA and Canada? It might seem a little overwhelming at first to plan out your route, but there is a lot of useful information available online. Here are some helpful resources.
- For train travel in Canada, ViaRail is the place to book your travel online.
- “The Man in Seat 61” is one of the most comprehensive websites devoted to train travel out there on the web. Check out his USA and Canada specific train guides – they are packed with helpful information.
- Check out this cool interactive route planner by Amtrak which will help you to map out your trip.
- Technomadia wrote a very comprehensive and helpful post about their Amtrak travels in the USA.
Would you like to travel in North America by train? Where is your dream train route? Let us know in the comments!
More USA and Canada Posts you might find interesting:
How to Travel Without a Car in North America
Helpful Websites for Planning a Cross Canada Trip
Canada – An Amazing Travel Adventure
How to Get a Canadian Working Holiday Visa
A Few Things Brits Should Know Before Visiting the USA
Thanks for your tips about the train journey, it will be helpful for me sure.
Traveling by train is definitely cheapest, safest way to travel around Europe, it is the best way to get from one city to another especially if there is a problem with parking, it’s worth trying!
Thanks for sharing very informative post for me,
Thanks for writing such a nice article.
Thanks for sharing such a nice post. please keep posting.
Impressive trip and by train must be unforgettable, thank you for sharing your experience!
Totally love these sorts of post where there are different suppositions and decisions!! Train travelling is amazing with scenic.
It was really nice work. I got some new things to enjoy in my life in a new way. I will definitely try it.
Thanks For sharing this.