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Looking for a rail ‘cruise’

SmarterTravel

If we ride trains at all, most of us Americans are either commuting between suburbs and city centers, taking short trips on one of the domestic rail “corridors” with decent service, or making short hops around Europe or Japan. A few travelers, however, are looking for something more on the rails—a several-day “land cruise” that re-creates the rail experience in the days when trains were the best means of long-distance travel. One reader recently put it this way:

“I am a healthy, active senior who wishes to take a trip on/with the train service. I’ve traveled mostly by plane, but I have always loved riding the trains. I would like to start with a short vacation package and possibly go on to a longer train trip.”

Fortunately, the travel industry offers you rail enthusiasts quite a few alternatives, here and abroad, ranging from all-out luxury to plain, functional transportation.

Luxury rail in North America

Several operating companies specialize in “land cruises” that try to replicate the experience of the great luxury trains from the 1920s to the 1940s. You travel in either restored “vintage” cars from the original trains, new cars designed to look like vintage models, or more recent U.S. cars from the 1940s and 1950s. A few even use steam locomotives. Typically, the trip includes elaborate dining car meals as well as overnight accommodations in sleepers; many provide onboard showers, either individually in each compartment or down the aisle. Some tour packages include brief off-train sightseeing excursions and some combine train accommodations with overnight accommodations in hotels.

  • GrandLuxe Rail Journeys, formerly American Orient Express (and still using the same website), operates luxury trains, mainly with “streamliner” cars from the 1940s and 1950s. Most of the trips operate around the major National Parks and visitor centers of the western US and Canadian Rockies, but the company also runs trips through Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Most seven- to nine-day trips cost about $5,000 per person, double occupancy, though early booking can reduce fares significantly.
  • American Rail Excursions also uses vintage U.S. streamliner equipment for trips of varying length in diverse parts of the U.S., including the East as well as the West. Rates are lower than on many of the luxury trips, starting at about $300 per person per day.
  • Rocky Mountaineer runs two-day, one-night excursions between Vancouver, British Columbia, and either Jasper or Banff/Calgary. The railcars used are all day coaches, and the travel is entirely by day; you stay overnight in a hotel in Kamloops, about the halfway point. The Banff/Calgary route has the superior scenery; rates start at about $1,000 per person based on double occupancy.
  • Several operators run excursions in Mexico’s popular Copper Canyon route and in the Yucatan. Most trains run by day, with mid-trip overnight stays in hotels. Several agencies handle such tours, including Rails NW.

    Luxury rail worldwide

    Europe may have invented the luxury long-haul train, but Europeans exported their approach to other parts of the world:

    • The most authentic European classic rail travel is provided by the Orient-Express group, which operates namesake trains in Europe and the Far East. Its primary packages are “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” trips in Europe, and the group’s crown jewel package replicates much of the route of the original—and classic—Orient Express as featured in so many movies. It travels either direction between Paris and Istanbul via Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest in six days, five nights. The cost? This year, a mere $7,380 per person, double occupancy, or $8,975 single. (And despite the name, it doesn’t go through the Simplon Tunnel.) The train also operates a handful of shorter itineraries. And the Orient-Express group also runs short-trip excursion trains in the U.K. and Peru.
      • The Orient-Express group’s Eastern & Oriental Express operates between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, over three days, two nights; rates start at $1,780 per person, double. The train also does some other regional routes.
      • The Luxury Trains sells several high-end trips in India. The most famous, the “Palace on Wheels” and “Deccan Odyssey,” are also the most expensive, at $240 to $485 per person per night, for three- to eight-day excursions around India’s top visitor centers. “Heritage On Wheels” rates start at around $150 per person per night.

        Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that The Luxury Trains operates the trips mentioned above. In fact, the rail journeys are operated by the Government of India and sold to passengers by The Luxury Trains and other travel agents.

      • Rovos Rail operates a restored “classic” train from Cape Town to Pretoria and from Pretoria to Victoria Falls (partly by air, in refurbished DC3, DC4, and CV440 planes until a new rail link is completed). Rates for the 48-hour (one night) Cape Town-Pretoria trip start at about $1,100 per person, double.
      • The modern Blue Train in South Africa between Cape Town and Pretoria is one of the world’s most renowned. Rates for the 27-hour trip (one night on the train) start at about $1,200 per person, double.
      • The Trans-Siberian route in Russia is the ultimate in long train trips. Although you can buy ordinary tickets for this train, I suspect most Americans would be happier riding the deluxe Trans-Siberian Express tourist train operated along the route. Among the booking agencies is Luxury Train Online. With hotels at both ends, plus meals and some overnight stops along the way, the trip takes about 14 days; prices start at around $4,900 per person.

      Ordinary trains

      If you just want a good, long train ride, you don’t have to pay luxury rates. Here are a few ideas:

      • Amtrak‘s most scenic long-haul routes are the “California Zephyr” between Chicago and Oakland (three days, two nights); the “Coast Starlight” between Los Angeles and Seattle (two days, one night); and the “Empire Builder” between Chicago and Seattle or Portland (three days, two nights). Fares are very low if you’re willing to sit up in a coach all night. The seat rate for the California Zephyr is as low as $168. But if you want a sleeper, add $586 for one or two travelers. Rates are similar on the other trains. Shorter Amtrak routes you might enjoy are the “Lake Shore Limited” between Chicago and New York or Boston and the “Cardinal” between Chicago and Washington, overnight. Amtrak’s longest haul, the “Sunset Limited” between Orlando and Los Angeles, is temporarily curtailed due to hurricane damage. You can just buy tickets, or Amtrak also operates tour packages.
      • Up north, VIA Rail‘s “Canadian” is one of the longest continuous train trips in North America. It runs between Toronto and Vancouver (four days, three nights). You can also connect to the “Skeena” from Jasper to Prince Rupert instead of going on to Vancouver. Other long Canadian trips include the “Ocean” from Montreal to Halifax and the “Hudson Bay” from Winnipeg to Churchill.
      • If you’re happy with an ordinary first-class ticket (rather than a luxury tourist train), you can ride the Trans-Siberian trip along with the Russians. It takes six days plus between Moscow and Vladivostok, for about $900, and seven days plus between Moscow and Beijing, but you can stop off along the way if you wish.
      • Great Southern Railway runs two marathon train rides in Australia. The “India Pacific,” between Sydney and Perth in four days (three nights) or the “Ghan” between Adelaide and Darwin, in three days (two nights). The cost of sleeper accommodations on the India Pacific starts at a bit under $1,000 per person.
      • The Sunlander on Queensland Railways operates along Australia’s East Coast between Brisbane and Cairns (two days, one night). An economy berth costs about $150, a first-class berth about $290.
      • Although not as famous as the Orient Express, quite a few European trains operate long-haul one- or two-night routes from Northern Europe to Italy or Spain and from Germany to Eastern Europe. Most of those trains provide sleeping accommodations. Check with RailEurope for details.

      Of course, if you aren’t looking for one long journey, you can travel around Europe on a rail pass and take a lot of shorter trips, some overnight but mostly by day. Ditto Japan. Both are outstanding train ride opportunities, especially if you’re interested in the latest high-speed technology rather than nostalgia.

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