Sometimes it's about the journey and not the destination. That’s what Robert Martin, age 70, a retired nurse from Louisville, Ky., says about the 13-day, 3,000-mile train trek he took last year through southern Ontario, the Prairies and the Canadian Rockies. “It wasn’t a continuous train slog. We spent half of the days and nights on the train. But I could nap, read, talk to fellow passengers, go to the dining car, and get off and stretch my legs every four or five hours,” says Martin, who traveled alone while his wife stayed home. “The scenery in Canada east of the Rockies is breathtaking. It felt like we were speeding through a tunnel bored through the middle of the dense forest.”
Fueled by travelers 50 and older, tour operators in the U.S. and Canada report that train travel in North America is growing in popularity and at all price points. For example, educational tour operator Road Scholar offers “Scenic Railroads of Arizona: Sedona and Grand Canyon,” a six-day trip that starts at $1,199 per person plus airfare. The trip features red rock vistas, a ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad through Arizona’s rim country and an overnight adventure to Grand Canyon National Park.
On the high end, Louisville, Ky., travel agency The Society of International Railway Travelers, which specializes in luxury trips, offers a 13-day “Trans-Canada Rail Adventure” aboard two top trains: Via Rail’s Canadian and the Rocky Mountaineer from Toronto to Vancouver. Highlights include a tour of Jasper National Park in Alberta and an overnight stay at Lake Louise in Banff. For 2019, prices start at $8,900 per person plus airfare. “We stay at great hotels and travel top class on the trains, where the cabins are 70 square feet, with double beds, en suite bathrooms with showers, and preferred seating in both dome and dining cars,” says Eleanor Flagler Hardy, the agency’s president.
With train travel gaining steam, trip options are increasing as the number of passengers rise. “We offer 200 trips a year, and we’ve had strong growth over 14 years in business,” says Todd Powell, chief executive officer and co-founder of Vacations By Rail, a tour operator that offers independent rail vacations, escorted tours and custom vacations in North America, Europe and other continents. Although only 4% of Road Scholar’s tours involve rail travel, the number of train passengers is up 34% since 2014, says JoAnn Bell, senior vice president of program development. In 2017, more than 3,200 people took train trips with Road Scholar. The newest trip, starting in 2019, is “America’s Musical Roots: Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City by Train,” which lasts eight days and costs $2,149 plus airfare. The trip combines train travel with blues and jazz history and live shows.
If the thought of sleeping in cramped quarters is a deal-breaker, there are ways to avoid it. For many itineraries, train travel occurs during the day, with check-ins at hotels for sleeping. Some tours offer a mix of sleeping in hotels and on trains. And some passengers, such as Martin, enjoy the sleeping cars. “Personally, I slept like a rock, with the gentle rocking back and forth, and the soothing noises,” Martin says. Often, the configuration of a sleeping cubicle involves a Murphy bed that when pulled down covers the toilet, which usually necessitates walking down the hall at night.
Travelers with special needs can be accommodated, but tell the tour operator in advance. “Anyone with medical concerns should book through a tour operator like ours,” says Katherine Foxcroft, product manager at Fresh Tracks Canada, which offers personalized tours that are mostly train trips for Americans 50 and older. She notes that arrangements can be made in advance for refrigerating medications, accommodating dietary needs and booking trains accessible by wheelchairs—but some trains are better equipped than others.
Foxcroft also advises basing your itinerary on what you want to experience. Choose eastern Canada if your main focus is history and culture versus western Canada for wilderness and natural beauty, she says. And consider how active you want to be. “Some itineraries emphasize getting on and off the train every day, while others are mostly looking out the window,” she says. “We do both.”
Preparing to Ride the Rails
While you may be able to economize by booking train trips yourself, tour operators say that they provide added value, such as customizing itineraries for private groups, and backup 24/7 if a problem arises. “Our prices are competitive with doing it yourself, yet our trips can have many components and transfers,” says Powell. “Certain trains may only run a few times a week, but our trips are timed out, and all the services connect,” he says, so you won’t get stranded.
Vacations By Rail’s “Alaska the Greatland,” for example, is a nine-day escorted tour that starts at $3,725 per person plus airfare. Modes of transportation for excursions on the trip include riverboat, dog sledding, the Alaskan Railroad Denali Star, a tram, a cruise and sightseeing by bus.
Jettye Lanius, 69, who calls herself a “full-time RVer” went with her family on the Alaska Greatland tour last July. “What I liked best was when the conductor would announce ‘There’s a moose outside,’ and the train would stop so we could get out and take photos,” she says. As someone who spends a lot of time driving an RV, she says she loved the convenience of not having to stop and park every time she wanted a drink or snack or to use the bathroom.
Ask about senior discounts. For instance, travelers 65 and older can receive a 10% discount on the rail part of Amtrak Vacations packages, but there are exclusions, such as the Auto Train and USA Rail Pass.
And unless you’re on a luxury tour, pack lightly. It may be hard to find porters at some train stations, and you will have to negotiate luggage and stairs.
If keeping to a strict schedule or always being connected is important, traveling by train may not suit you. American and Canadian trains often experience delays. “Train travel is for people who enjoy the ‘days of old’ experience,” says Bell. And that also means the days before Internet access was a given. “Bring plenty of books,” she says. Assume that you will be cut off from Wi-Fi during train travel, especially as you pass through mountains and along lakes. Martin says that he considered that a plus, “but it’s not easy for folks addicted to their cell phones to go cold turkey.”
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