Traveling the Canadian Rockies on VIA Rail

Overnight passenger train travel can be more expensive and slower than air travel today. So why should you go? And where?

After spending two nights traveling the Canadian Rockies on VIA Rail‘s Canadian, the ‘why’ is easy to answer: in an age when traveling to a destination has become only about getting from Point A to Point B in a rushed, often stressful manner, a few days (or more) aboard a passenger train is a vacation in itself. The pace is relaxed, the scenery can be fantastic, and the service is friendly. After my experience aboard The Canadian, I would venture to say passenger train travel is in fact the sole remaining mode of idyllic transportation from the golden age, outlasting air and cruise travel.

The Canadian

Incorporating a VIA Rail journey into a Canadian vacation itinerary will greatly enrich your trip. There are many routes to choose between, the longest being the four day journey from Vancouver to Toronto on the Canadian. We opted for a fraction of this trip, embarking in Vancouver and departing in Jasper, Alberta (then returning on the same route after days of sightseeing in the Canadian Rockies). The 20-hour one-way trip was spent taking in the scenery from one of several observation cars with 360 degree views, dining in the relaxed yet elegant dining cars, getting to know fellow passengers, and sleeping, reading, working, or napping. We found that the ‘rail level’ views and relaxed pace afforded a more intimate experience with the British Columbia and Alberta wilderness.

observation dome

Who to take with you:

If you’re bringing kids, I wouldn’t recommend this trip for kids under age six (though as always, parents know their own children best). During the rail trip, passengers are definitely confined to a series of train cars, and young kids would certainly get restless. Is there enough for older kids to do? Here’s what we found: a variety of board games in the ‘activity cars’, on-going snacks and juices in the lounges, and interesting sights out the window, whether it be scenery whizzing by or temporary stops at stations or through towns. In other words: not a lot of on-board entertainment.

If you travel with kids, we recommend downloading a few movies onto a computer, iPod, or iPad, and bringing plenty of reading material, activity books (such as coloring books) and card games. Plan on several hours between each meal that you’ll need to fill. Expect a primarily-adults-only passenger list: during our October trip, we saw only two children aboard the Canadian. This is not to discourage families from bringing kids: rather, know you’ll need to bring diversions and entertainment as needed. WiFi was not available aboard our train, though 3G and 4G service could be found via roaming off and on.

panorama car

Which fare to book:

Determining which fare is right for you can be tricky. On the Canadian, there are two basic options: sleeper or economy. In economy, you’ll get a seat that reclines, access to an observation car with upper deck, access to a lounge with tables and chairs, and the option to buy food at the Starlight Cafe, serving meals and snacks to go. Passengers sleep in their seats, and share bathroom facilities. Economy is obviously the more affordable option, but quite frankly, didn’t look too appealing (despite the fact that VIA Rail seats are considerably more comfortable than airline seats).

Sleeper fare offers three bed configurations (each a different price) in the Sleeper Plus category. Passengers can opt between a one-passenger or two-passenger private cabin, or a semi-private upper or lower berth (closed with curtains). We experienced Sleeper Plus in a two-passenger cabin. We had a tiny-yet-functional cabin space with two chairs and a large window, a private bathroom with toilet, and a sink. Also included: a small amount of storage space and two outlets (yay!). In the evenings, a train steward comes by to lower your beds, which in the two-passenger cabin is bunk-bed style: upper and lower single beds. Beds are fully made-up each evening, and very comfortable (provided you’re not quite tall).

two passenger cabin

The one-passenger private cabin features one bench-like seat that flattens to accommodate a bed, plus a sink and toilet (the latter of which features a cushioned cover to become an ottoman during the day, but is covered up by the bed at night…a definite downside). Both the two-passenger and one-passenger cabins share one shower per car.

The last sleeper option is to book an upper or lower berth. These compartments feature bench seats (two facing each other) during the day, which fold out to become a lower berth bed at night. The upper berth bed folds out from the wall by the ceiling. These berths are made up at night and feature thick curtains for privacy. They share a public toilet and shower (one per car).

VIA Rail food

All Sleeper Plus fares include meals in the dining car (breakfast, lunch, and dinner, depending on when you’re onboard), snacks in the lounge, access to several observation cars and lounges, and complimentary champagne and appetizers upon embarkation.

Here’s a photo depicting 1. a two-passenger cabin made up for bed, 2. a lower berth made up for day, 3. coach seats:

VIA Rail

Which to book will depend on your comfort level (how much privacy do you need?) and your meal needs. We absolutely recommend the all-inclusive dining: if you opt out of this, you can buy meals a la carte in the cafe, but this option would get old (and expensive) if traveling more than one night. We enjoyed the privacy of a cabin, but could have been comfortable in an upper and lower berth as well. Keep in mind that only up to two passengers fit in a cabin: families of four or more will need to book two (or more) cabins or opt for two or more upper/lower berths in a row. (The latter option will allow for more freedom of movement between beds as needed, but you’ll only have access to a shared bathroom.

View our VIA Rail experience video:

Tips:

1. Carry-on sized bags only are allowed onboard. Full-sized bags will need to be checked, so plan accordingly. Cabins have space for up to two carry-on bags, but if you opt for a berth, you’d be better off with only a large tote or backpack.

2. Bring a water bottle to refill. While coffee, tea, and juice is on offer at all times, I found the need to also keep a water bottle filled to prevent dehydration. If you like to sip coffee or tea all day, bring a small thermos or insulated mug.

3. Bring a hair dryer if you’ll need one: in cabins, towels, shampoo, and soap are provided, but not hair dryers.

4. Be prepared for plenty of motion and some train noise at night. We slept surprisingly well onboard, but you’ll definitely feel the movement.

Date last visited:

October 2013

Fare cost:

Calculate Via Rail fares here. Definitely plan early and check for fare discounts, offered several times per year. What we found: VIA Rail is not more economical than flying, so you need to consider the fare cost a part of your vacation experience, not part of your transportation costs.

Directions:

If embarking in Vancouver on the Canadian, you’ll depart from Pacific Station. Located next to Science World, it’s easy to get here from SkyRail from either the airport or the Waterfront station in downtown Vancouver.

As I disclose whenever applicable, we experienced The Canadian as guests of the VIA Rail, for the purpose of review. All opinions are our own, and we hope our experience inspires and equips other traveling families to make great decisions about rail travel.

About the author

Amy Whitley

AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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Comments

  1. Tiffany says:

    I found this extremely helpful as there is no info on what the the different fares entail on the via train website! Or pictures for that matter of each ‘class’ I think I can handle economy now:)

  2. Kayla Fink says:

    Very helpful as I am planning a trip for my in laws! Thanks for all this info!!

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