Taking the train across Canada was a dream come true for me. I do not remember when I first learned that it is possible to ride a train across Canada, but I was young and it remained a dream of mine for many years. After my good friend from college and main travel companion decided to get married and raise a family (good for her, not so good for me), I figured the timing was right for me to make that dream a reality. Taking this solo voyage taught me a lot, so I figured I would share my train travel tips for Canada in the hopes that you might learn something for your own trip across Canada via rail.
I had two weeks and very little experience with train travel. Luckily, VIA Rail Canada made planning easy. The hardest part was deciding where to go! After extensive research, I settled on the following itinerary:
• Fly: Boise to New York City
• Train: New York City to Montreal
• Explore: Montreal
• Train: Montreal to Quebec City
• Explore: Quebec City
• Train: Quebec City to Niagara Falls
• Explore: Niagara Falls
• Train: Niagara Falls to Toronto
• Explore: Toronto
• Train: Toronto to Vancouver
• Explore: Vancouver
• Ferry: Vancouver to Victoria
• Explore: Victoria
• Ferry: Victoria to Seattle
• Fly: Seattle to Boise
Train travel tips for Canada
My typical agenda included taking a short (less than one day) train ride to a city where I would stay and explore for a couple of days. The only multi-day train ride I took was from Toronto to Vancouver. Below are some train travel tips specific to my experience. Plenty of these apply to train travel in general, but you will find most only apply to an epic journey across Canada via rail.
Tip #1: set realistic expectations
Canada is huge. It is the world’s second largest country behind Russia. Granted, because something like 85 percent of Canadians live with 100 miles of the U.S. border, rail service is limited to certain areas. Regardless, unless you have a month or two, you are going to have to pick and choose where to visit. On my two-week voyage, I was able to cover a good portion of the populated areas of the country. However, in the interest of time, I had to make the tough choice to eliminate certain places (e.g. Nova Scotia) from my itinerary.
Tip #2: travel in the off-season
I began my voyage the last day of October. This is not the warmest time to visit Canada. But it did have the advantage of being smack dab in the middle of the railway’s summer and holiday seasons. I paid a lower fare for my train tickets, I sat on trains that were not remotely full, and I was often one of the few people wandering around places like the Butchard Gardens. I gained a lot by traveling in the off-season.
Tip #3: go east to west
Originally, I planned to begin my trip on Canada’s west coast—probably because I live in the west. Then I read that if you are planning to ride the route between Vancouver and Toronto (known as the Canadian), it is more enjoyable to do so from east to west. You want to end with the Rocky Mountains. Not that there is anything wrong with the views of the Great Plains. But they get a little tedious since you spend the majority of the trip traveling across them. It really is best to go through them first and I am so glad I switched things up. Capping it off with the Canadians Rockies was the pièce de résistance. This is one of my top train travel tips for Canada!
Once you finally get to the mountains, you will want to keep your eyes open. If you are sleeper class (see Tip #5), then you will have access to the park car and observation deck. Make sure you arrive early and secure a seat. In addition to the gorgeous landscape, we saw a lot of wildlife including big horn sheep and mountain goats. My favorite part was watching those from other countries exclaim and comment on things we take for granted here in the west.
Tip #4: bring something to do
There is nothing I enjoy more than staring out a train window. It is my favorite way to pass the time. However, there are times when the train does not move. My train from New York City to Montreal was stopped at the border for three hours while they checked passports. In addition, freight trains in Canada have the right-of-way, so you spend some time stopped while they pass. Then there are the times when the sun has set but bedtime is still hours away. And my all-time, least favorite viewing experience: rain. Sometimes it rains so hard that you cannot see more than 20 feet out the train window.
Times like these are inevitable and you are going to get bored real fast. Luckily, with modern technology, it is easy to find something to occupy yourself. I managed to read half a dozen books and watch several movies during my time on the train—most of it while stopped on the tracks or while it was dark outside.
Tip #5: upgrade to sleeper class
Of all the train travel tips for Canada, this is at the top (I should have made it number one). Most of my train tickets were the cheapest fare I could find. Of course, most legs of my journey were less than a day. Luckily, I made the decision to purchase a “sleeper” for the four nights I traveled from Toronto to Vancouver.
Best. Decision. Ever.
The cost of a berth was more than I have ever spent on a train ticket before, but it was still a price I could afford. (Again, it helped that I traveled in the off-season.) When you take into account the food and lodging component, it is even easier to justify. At the time I booked it, I had no idea any sort of sleeper fare puts you in sleeper class, which is essentially first class. I just wanted to be able to lie down at night and take a shower. But the perks started from the moment I checked in and entered the sleeper class waiting room.
You may not want to show up at the station looking like an unwashed backpacker. That is what I did and after I was escorted to the “first class” waiting room, I felt a little out of place.
Once on board, champagne and hors d’oeuvres are served in the park car (see the photo below). The park car is essentially a lounge in the back of the train and yes, with a sleeper fare you have access to it as well as the observation deck, which are both awesome. The best part of the experience however, may be the meals they serve in the dinner car. How they create such delicious meals in such a little kitchen in beyond me.
We left Toronto in the evening so it was not long before it was time for bed. There were six berths available, but only I and another woman booked one (score another point for traveling in the off-season). We had plenty of room to move and even after they turned down our beds (another great perk), we had the option to sit if we wanted to. Since there were just two of us, we were the only ones using the bathroom and shower. Another bonus: my companion did not ride all the way to Vancouver. She disembarked in Edmonton so for the rest of the trip, I had the entire berth area to myself.
You will not regret purchasing a sleeper. Look for deals online and if you have to delay your trip in order to save up, do it!
Tip #6: if you want to sleep well, get a berth
Several staff members told me that the berth is the most comfortable bed on the train due to the direction it rocks. I do not have anything to compare my experience to, but I can tell you that I slept great and I am not the kind of person who can sleep just anywhere. A berth is not as private as the other sleeper options, but that was okay with me. I much preferred getting a solid eight to nine hours of deep sleep every night.
Tip #7: lose a little weight before you go
I mentioned the food earlier. To reiterate, it was amazing. But amazing food combined with sedentary days does not do great things for your waistline. A nice couple from England who I met on the train told me that they try to lose a little weight before they embark on a big train trip because they know they are going to eat like kings. They have traveled on trains all over the world and experience has taught them this valuable lesson. Also, do not bother packing snacks. You will not need, want or eat them.
Tip #8: find out who smokes
There are planned stops in which you can get off the train to take a breath of fresh air. Some are long enough that you can do a bit of exploring. However, there are plenty of times the train stops and you have no idea if you will be for two minutes…or 20. Smokers will make friends with the staff who will let them know when they can get off for a quick cigarette. Usually, they are approached by a staff member shortly before the train stops. If you keep your eye on them, you can follow them to an open door, step outside and breath in the fresh air…assuming you do not stand right next to the smokers themselves.
Tip#9: brush up on your yoga
I would recommend working on your balance before a long train trip and yoga is one of the best ways to do so. Walking on a moving train is not the hardest thing I have ever done, but I am far from graceful. And showering is particularly challenging! Working on a balance pose or two before you go will go a long ways in helping you stay upright.
Tip #10: be prepared
We harp on this a lot, but being prepared is one of the best ways to ensure you enjoy your vacation regardless of the weather. Being prepared is especially important if you are traveling in the off-season. I knew the temperatures would be on the chilly side in Canada during my time there, so I made sure to pack warm clothes and lots of layers (read our post about what to pack for cold climates).
I also read that rain is common in certain parts of Canada during the fall (I even saw a little snow). So I packed my rain boots. It did not rain on me continuously, but it rained enough that I was grateful for those rain boots. In Niagara Falls, the place I stayed had one other visitor: a gal from Finland. She was prepared for the cold but not for the rain. And she was miserable. She did not even bother leaving our accommodations because she did not have anything dry to wear. Poor thing.
Also, it is not particularly warm inside a train car so layers were critical to staying comfortable. I imagine that summer train travel is a whole other ballgame when it comes to the weather. However, the same principle still applies: be prepared.
Tip #11: get ready to interact
Although you can spend the majority of time keeping to yourself if you would like, you are still going to have to interact with people during the meals at least. And if you want to enjoy the park car and observation deck, you are going to have to do even more interacting. I tend to be an introvert but still, I met some wonderful people on this trip. One of my best memories was the night a couple busted out a guitar and accordion and entertained the park car with pirate songs. Train travel brings together some of the most interesting people. But you will only figure that out if you make an effort to talk to the people around you.
Tip #12: brush up on your French
Strictly speaking, this is not necessary. The majority of Canadians speak English and even in Quebec, all of the official signs and announcements will be in English as well as French. You will get around just fine. However, it is polite to offer a “bonjour” or “merci” and I found “Je ne parle pas français” (I do not speak French) to be very useful while visiting Quebec.
Well there you have it, some train travel tips for Canada. It is a wonderful and unique way to visit a country with such a diverse landscape. In fact, it is my favorite way to see Canada. I recommend you stop waiting and book a train ticket today!