(You really should) Explore Canada by train

Explore Canada by train and see this beautiful lake

Why is it better to explore Canada by train instead of stepping onto a plane and disembarking a few hours later? The answer is one simple word that’s synonymous with the Great White North – scenery.

Summer or winter, there’s always a spectacular vista to drink in. Snow capped mountains, pristine lakes, and fields of green grass and wild flowers swaying in the breeze.

Sure, I could have jumped on a plane in Ottawa and kicked back for an hour and a half before being safely deposited on the outskirts of Toronto. But that’s a missed opportunity.

I first got the idea to explore Canada by train from my dad, who went on a big trip with my aunt and uncle before cruising over to Alaska.

They did a few legs of the trip on the Rocky Mountaineer train and the holiday snaps they brought back from the rail journey were breathtaking. I was hooked from that moment and was just biding my time until I’d get my own chance to experience it myself.

EXPLORE CANADA BY TRAIN

More than 12,500 kilometres of railway tracks traverse Canada, hitting almost all of the country’s major cities. The government-owned VIA Rail service doesn’t just offer your usual commuter-style train service.

VIA Rail’s train carriages include sleeper, dining, luggage, and economy or business cars to meet the needs of a wide array of travellers.

VIA Rail train driving over a bridge in Canada
VIA Rail takes advantage of a long history of train travel across Canada. Picture: VIA Rail.

The railway has been an integral part of travel through Canada since 1867, although the number of passengers dropped with the introduction of the car and, later, passenger planes. But in 1977 the government created VIA Rail with the mission of reducing costs and improving service.

The second service that allows you to explore Canada by train is Rocky Mountaineer. It’s specifically aimed at travellers, offering more than 65 vacation “packages” across four different rail routes.

Explore Canada by train. View from the Rocky Mountaineer
No matter which class you choose, there are enough windows that you can see everything from the Rocky Mountaineer.

Rocky Mountaineer is a privately owned ‘luxury’ train trip company, that has been placed in the top 10 Best Rail Experiences in the World, as well as countless other awards. You can choose between gold and silver leaf service, which basically determines the type of carriage you’re in and whether you get a private dining room.

Still not convinced? I’ve got 10 reasons why you should explore Canada by train right here for you.

The Scenery

I could wax lyrical about the clear blue lakes, the towering mountains (even the rocky ones), the feats of engineering such as bridges and sky scrapers, or the forests of upright trees.

Scenery from the Rocky Mountaineer train window
You never really know what you’ll come across as you gaze out the Rocky Mountaineer train window.

But the best way to tell you about the beautiful scenery is to show it to you. So get ready to scroll through a few nice photos. The extra sunny ones are my dad’s from his trip from Vancouver to Kamloops with the Rocky Mountaineer.

River bend on a train trip through Canada
Despite being the middle of summer, this river looks a little chilly.

The somewhat chillier snaps are from my journey from Ottawa and Toronto during February, which is apparently the coldest time of the year.

Explore Canada by train to see this beautiful river during winter
Even in the depths of winter, during a trip from Ottawa to Toronto, there are beautiful things to see from the VIA Rail train.

The countryside was covered with a thick blanket of snow, interrupted only by bare trees, farmland and half-frozen rivers. Oh, and the beach. There’s something slightly disconcerting about seeing snow and the ocean in the same vista.

Snowy plains through the VIA Rail window
Even in the middle of winter, the snow can’t contain the grass from peeking through.

The Comfort

It feels as though plane seats are continually shrinking so that I can hardly contain my relatively-compact frame within the confines of the “personal space” I pay to occupy.

Let’s face it, if you bring a small carry-on to stuff beneath the seat so you don’t have to worry about finding overhead locker space, you’re going to confine your leg room even more than it is.

And when you’re stuck in the middle seat of a row there’s almost a guarantee that you’ll be fighting for armrest real estate on both sides.

The Canadian train from Toronto to Vancouver
The cross-country train that VIA rail runs from Toronto to Vancouver, called The Canadian. Picture: VIA Rail

Not on a Canadian train. Depending on the length of your journey, VIA Rail offers some very comfortable-looking dining and sleeping cars. As well as the day carriages with enough glass for you to properly see the sky.

A VIA Rail train sleeper cabin
The VIA Rail sleeper cabin on the Winnipeg to Churchill route. Picture: Uli Kunz, www.uli-kunz.com

Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountaineer stops at comfortable (and gorgeous) hotels for the night so you are almost guaranteed a quiet, restful night’s sleep. The seats are spacious, and the windows either cover the ceiling, meeting at a ventilation strip, or wrap up to give you a quarter view of the train’s top.

The Gold Leaf carriage on a Rocky Mountaineer train
The GoldLeaf carriage on the Rocky Mountaineer. Picture: Rocky Mountaineer.

It’s Environmentally FriendlierΒ 

We all know that hopping on a plane blows out your carbon footprint and driving yourself to a destination isn’t the most environmentally friendly way of travel either since it’s another car on the road instead of pooling resources.

Even for the short journey that I took from Ottawa to Toronto, catching the train instead of flying can make a huge environmental difference.

A table showing the difference in C02 emissions for a flight, drive and train ride
This graph shows the CO2 emissions made by different modes of transport. Picture: VIA Rail

Of course the longer the trip, the bigger the emissions, so if you’re looking to explore Canada in an environmentally responsible way, the train could be your best bet. Public transport is a great alternative to having all of those people sitting in cars, individually sending exhaust fumes into the atmosphere.

Work While You Travel

This is where VIA Rail really comes into its own. I was able to work a full day while travelling to my next destination. Travelling mid-week for work can be a bit of a pain because, inevitably, you’re going to be needed when it’s most inconvenient to you. Whether it’s driving, standing in line at security, or up in the air on a plane.

When I booked my Ottawa to Toronto train trip for midday on a Wednesday I was a little worried. What if the promised WiFi didn’t work? Or my laptop battery ran out? What if the bandwidth wasn’t good enough to allow conference calls?

VIA Rail's table seats are perfect for working from.
You can book a “table” seat in VIA Rail’s economy carriages, or a normal seat with a drop down table. Otherwise there are the Business Carriages.

Frankly, I should have stayed on the train longer. The internet there was way better than the Furnished Apartment that was advertised for business travellers.

Connecting to the WiFi was simple with the instructions provided and I didn’t have a drop out the entire five hour trip. I even put the connection to the test with a couple of conference calls while I worked. Each seat features a power outlet for you to recharge as well.

I booked an economy seat, which was fine for my purposes (and budget) but there are also business carriages with more amenities that you can take advantage of.

Is Air Travel Quicker to Every Destination?

Sure, the flight is relatively short compared to a train journey, but what about all those other parts involved in flying? There’s the time spent filling in all your details and scanning your ID 5 times at the self-check-in console.

Checking the boarding gate board in an airport.
You can forgo the nightmare of finding your flight on the boards at an airport when you catch the train.

Then you have to wait in line to drop off your baggage. Give me a train any day over the rigmarole of airport security. Slowly snaking through lines that just seem to eternally fold back on each other, finally reaching the front in a flurry of shoelaces, zips, belt buckles and laptops. I spent an hour just in the Toronto Airport security line.

After that it’s the long walk to the gate and waiting for boarding, waiting for the plane to take off, and sorting through bags after you’ve landed.

Dodging all that hassle and waiting time was a no-brainer for me.

From City to City

Airport transfers are usually a perk thrown into hotel stays because, let’s face it, airports are usually a fair way from city centres or the places you want to get to for work or a holiday.

Toronto Train Station
The Toronto Central Railway Station is within walking distance of many hotels and hostels.

If you’re not lucky enough to be staying at a hotel with free transfers, you’ll have to work out bus, train or taxi transport to get you there.

That means spending extra money to get to the airport. The best thing about train travel is that you leave from a city centre and you usually arrive in a city, making life that little bit easier.

Diverse Destinations

Apart from city to city service, trains usually go where planes don’t have routes or airports, and where driving means navigating country roads that aren’t as well maintained.

The Northern Lights in Manitoba
If you’re lucky, you might just see the Aurora Borealis while on the train from Winnipeg to Churchill. Picture: VIA Rail

VIA Rail has more than 450 stations across the country and it goes places that you can’t get to by car, like Churchill, Manitoba – home of the polar bears in spring and beluga whales in summer. A plane ride to Churchill will set you back at least $1300. But the train journey, which takes two days because the constant freezing and thawing of the ground affects the tracks, starts from $207.

So if you’re penny pinching or just can’t fathom the idea of spending an extra $1000-odd to get to Churchill and the wildlife a few days faster, the train is definitely the way to get there.

The Cost

Speaking of penny pinching, vacations can be expensive, and forking out extra money just to get to your destination might not be part of the plan.

Especially when it’s money that could be spent experiencing a new country or city. Train travel is not always going to be the most economical way to get somewhere. Sometimes it’s the most expensive way to travel.

The snow covered shore.
I don’t often get to see snow-covered shores during a trip.

But not always, so it does pay to do your research (as in the case of getting to Churchill in Manitoba above). It can save you a fat wad of cash and give you more spending money to play with at your destination. And don’t discount the opportunity that train travel gives you. Break up your trip and stop at a few stations along the way to experience towns and cities that you hadn’t planned on seeing.

Checked Baggage

If you’re looking to explore Canada by train as part of a bigger international trip, don’t start to worry about the amount of luggage you’ll be carrying and whether it’ll fit on the train.

Rocky Mountaineer train
The Rocky Mountaineer takes in Mount Rundle and Vermillion Lake. Picture: Rocky Mountaineer

From personal experience, I can tell you that VIA Rail has baggage racks to accommodate both big and small bags, so that you don’t have to worry about fitting them in awkwardly next to you. They’re easy to use and easy to get your luggage into and out of. I tend to travel heavy, especially in winter because I need a tonne of layers to keep warm, and my huge bag easily fit into the baggage racks.

As for the Rocky Mountaineer, passengers are allowed two suitcases each with a combined weight of 30kg (66lb) and no one item of luggage can weigh more than 23kg (50lb).

Punctuality

I nearly died of shock when my train rolled out of Ottawa station at EXACTLY 12pm. Sure, it was slated to leave at that time, but you know how public transport is. You’re more likely to leave late, especially if you’re catching a plane. My flight from Toronto to San Francisco left an hour and a half late, for example.

The Departures board at Toronto Train Station
See how easy it is to explore Canada by train? You don’t even have to search through tens of listings to find your departure.

So I was surprised when we boarded the train and it left exactly on time. I feel like that never happens any more and so I was probably more impressed than I should have been. It gave me the impression that the trains run like clockwork. Which is not a bad impression to have at all.

It’s also gives you peace of mind if you’re exploring Canada by train and have connecting trains to catch.

Explore Canada by train | Train through Canada | Rocky Mountaineer | VIA Rail | #SeeCanadabyTrain | #Canadabytrain | #CanadaRail | Ottawa | Toronto | Travel to Canada | #SeeCanada | #DiscoverCanada | #CanadaTrip

60 thoughts on “(You really should) Explore Canada by train

  1. Sold! Train travel it is – you do put together a winning argument! πŸ™‚ I don’t travel by train much but have always wanted to take a VIA Rail across the country (ie, Canada) from QuΓ©bec all the way to the Rocky Mountains. From your article, though, sounds like the Rocky Mountaineer may be the better way to go. Great article; really enjoyed reading it. Keep up the good work! #FlyAwayFriday

    1. Hahaha, I’m glad that I could persuade you! I will definitely do a Rocky Mountaineer train trip one day. Hopefully sooner rather than later, but it might take a bit of saving to get there!
      The trip from Quebec to the Rocky Mountains sounds amazing! I can’t get over how gorgeous Canada is. My photos definitely don’t do it justice.
      Thanks so much for your encouragement as well!

  2. THis is so high on my bucketlist, but unfortunately not on my husbands list. I’ll let him read your post. I hope he’s convinced after that. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. I get the feeling that my boyfriend is in the same boat as your husband. Maybe we should just ditch them for a week and go anyway πŸ˜‰

  3. Oh, the Canadian looks great! I’ve been on a rail trip like this in Switzerland, some years ago. I’ll never forget that scenery. Canada is so beautiful. I wish we had more time to travel by rail. We are always in a rush to get to a destination, so plane is our only option. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Oh wow, Switzerland would be absolutely amazing for a train trip as well! You’re so right though, it does take a lot longer by train which is difficult when you don’t have much time up your sleeve.

  4. I love to travel by train! It is my favorite transportation mode. Here on the West Coast it is not that common to use the train to travel from one city to another even though it is possible. I still need to take the train to Santa Barbara or San Diego (for a different experience). I have used the train on the East Coast and the experience is similar to Europe. Having said all that, I would like to use the train in Canada. I would like to travel to Vancouver and take the train to the Rockies. I know that would be an awesome trip! #FlyAwayFriday

    1. I don’t think that I’ve been on a proper inter-city train in the US before. You’re right, it’s not that common on the west coast. Although now maybe I should look into an east coast train. You should definitely get the train from Vancouver to the Rockies though! It’s a great alternative to flying πŸ™‚

  5. You make many good points, but the item about punctuality is seriously misleading. Anyone planning a train trip in Canada needs to understand that the freight railways own most of the tracks and they give priority to their own trains, to the detriment of passenger trains. In particular, the schedule of VIA Rail’s Toronto-Vancouver train, the Canadian, is pure fiction. The eastward train almost always leaves Vancouver on time, but it’s doing well if it arrives in Toronto only 8 hours late. Delays of 12 h are commonplace, and longer delays not unheard of. The westward train sometimes leaves Toronto on time, but it’s quite often 12 h late even before it starts out. Then it accumulates further delays en route. It can still be a very enjoyable trip, but one needs to plan for extreme delays. Don’t schedule anything important for the planned day of arrival of the train. Other routes don’t suffer as badly, but one shouldn’t expect the sort of punctuality you find on Japanese or Swiss trains.

  6. I’ve been nervous to travel by train in the past because of my motion sickness. However, I’ve found that train travel from Seattle to Portland and San Diego to Los Angeles happened to be some of the best experiences. The scenery in Canada by train has me convinced I need to try Canada next!

    1. I’m glad that you had good experiences on some trains Brooke. I get motion sick on car trips and on planes but I don’t seem to be bothered by train travel, which is great.

  7. Argh I would love to do the Rocky Mountaineer route sooo much! And then spend a while hiking in the mountains! πŸ˜€

    We moved to Canada (to Vancouver) last summer, but all my holidays have been used up with travelling to weddings. I would loooove to travel more on canadian trains once we have some space vacation days!!

    Gorgeous photos from your dad as well as you. It’s awesome that your dad is involved in your blog!!

    p.s. I just found you through #FlyawayFriday

    1. I feel your pain! I have a wedding back in Australia this year and another one next year. And there was one last year that I couldn’t get to. It sucks up your travel time for sure. I really hope that you get to do a Rocky Mountaineer trip while you’re in Vancouver Josy!

  8. How cool! I’ve never traveled by train, but your post is convincing me that I absolutely need to plan a trip. I love the gorgeous views, and can’t even imagine how incredible it would be to wake up with the Rocky Mountains out your window. Thanks for sharing your awesome experience!

    1. I started travelling by train in Europe. It was way easier to make a city or town your base and book train tickets to explore the places around you. So I guess I’m used to it, although this was my first train trip in North America.

  9. I’d love to travel across Canada in a train! The scenery looks amazing! And what a great idea, stopping at a hotel for the night so riders can get a good night’s sleep. And I agree with you about train vs plane. People often say it’s only a 2 hour flight. But they don’t take into account getting to the airport, going through security, waiting, then getting from the airport. A 2 hour flight turns into 5 hours. Trains are so much more convenient. Beautiful photos.

    1. Thanks April, the scenery was beautiful and I should have put up a photo of one of the hotels that my dad, aunty and uncle stayed in while they were there. It was gorgeous, I’m so jealous!

  10. What a pleasure it would be to sit comfortably as a passenger on one of these trains with my travel companions alongside and be able to gawk and comment on the glorious scenery passing by, especially on routes through the Canadian rockies. Even takingthe same train route but at different seasons of the year would be interesting. Canada is blessed with great natural beauty. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Isn’t it though? It must be such a lovely place to live. I think you’re right about the different seasons as well.

  11. I don’t know why, but I somehow find sleeper cars on trains very exotic, maybe it’s a Murder on the Orient Express thing. I’d love to see Canada this way! You’re right–it looks super comfy in some of those cars! #theweeklypostcard

    1. Hahaha, every time I hear the word “sleeper cars” I think of Murder on the Orient Express! It’s so old-world! I would love to experience it one day… just without the Agatha Christie murder-mystery part.

  12. This is a brilliant idea! I visited Banff last year and realized that there is just so much more beautiful places to explore in Canada. Definitely saving this to hopefully use on a future train trip through the country!

    1. My Aunty keeps telling me that I have to get to Lake Louise, and she’s right, it’s gorgeous, but there are just so many places on the bucket list!

  13. Yes please! I agree the scenery in Canada is amazing. I hadn’t really thought of doing a train trip but it sounds like a great idea. I love all the glass in the trains, never been on one like that. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  14. OOh yes I’ve been wanting to do this for aaages – I love train travel and can hop on and off to see all my friends across Canadia but I need a good three month stretch of time minimum to do everything. Thanks for reminding me πŸ™‚

  15. This combines two of my favourite things – train travel and Canada!! I’ve never taken a train in Canada, but I’ve always been intrigued by the Rocky Mountains line! Thanks for sharing!!

  16. This looks absolutely stunning. I’ve recently watched a TV show in the UK about rail travel in Northern Europe and some of the destinations I saw in Canada took my breath away. Absolutely want to do this one day – such a great alternative for flying or taking a road trip. Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

    1. Ooh nice! Completely off-topic but I’m watching a show about incredible houses in Northern Europe/America at the moment and they are just spectacular. I want to live in the mountains with a plane wing for a roof now πŸ˜‰

  17. This make me want to jump on the next Canadian train to sightsee around the country. What a beautiful way to explore Canada. We love train travel especially in Europe and it really is so much more relaxing than air travel or even road trips at times. Riding the Rocky Mountaineer is one of my travel wish list. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. We all just need to save up a bit and we’ll get there! I was talking to someone about the Rocky Mountaineer last week and they were saying that it was one of the best experiences they’ve had overseas.

  18. WOW! Your pics are fabulous and can I just say bucket list! This is an awesome post and thanks for sharing. We definitely want to explore Canada by train – it’s just a matter of when!!! πŸ™‚

  19. Wowzers…this was just a wonderful way to travel. Canada has so much beauty on offer it would seem wrong not to check it out. I would find that kind of train trip most engaging. When I was a kid/teen I often caught a train from Central to Dapto to visit my grandfather and aunty and I loved seeing the ocean once you come out of the tunnel under the escarpment leading to the coast.

    Thank you for linking up for #ltw 12/52. Next week’s optional prompt (& marking 1/4 of way through 2018!) is “origin of my name’. Denyse x

  20. I didn’t know absolutely nothing about this possibility. It looks very comfort and safe. You can enjoy different landscape from your seat and this is pretty awesome. I like it even more considering the fact that it’s environmentally friendly.

  21. We did a trip on the west coast of Canada a couple of years ago, by car. We were driving parallel with the train in many places, and the rocky mountaineer looked very grand! Best scenery I have seen anywhere! #citytripping

  22. Gosh, those wide windows and the views! I have heard so much about rail travels in Canada that I reckon it’s worth the moolah to spend. Glad to know that WIFI is working fine and there are adequate luggage spaces available. I was in Portugal last year and was disappointed to find that WIFI keeps dropping off and there wasn’t much room at the back of the carriage to place big luggages (I travel heavy too). 3 cheers for Canada! πŸ™‚ #Citytripping

  23. First off, beautiful photos! Second, I took my first train ride from London to Paris and wished all travel could be so comfortable and easy! Will have to look into this if I make it to Canada.

  24. Traveling across Canada via train is actually something that I’ve always wanted to do! The cost has prevented me thus far, but I hope to try this (or maybe try a leg of it for now) one day!

  25. Oh….. you don’t need to twist my arm about travelling around Canada by train! That is so on my bucket list, especially the glass roof carriage…. how stunning that must be. I’d love to do it in the winter. And the sleepers looks super comfy!

  26. I love the windows on these trains – the views sound amazing and being able to lounge and watch them pass (or lie in bed) would be amazing. I would definitely enjoy sitting back and watching the scenery, one time when slow travel definitely pays off. And a thousand times better than standing in endless airport queues. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

  27. I love travelling by train, in fact, it’s my preferred mode of transport. We’ve made a couple of train journeys in the States and a few years ago travelled from Vancouver to Seattle by train. It may take a little longer but it’s a lot more comfortable, scenic and less stressful than flying. As for the Rocky Mountaineer, it’s high on my travel bucket list!

  28. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t travelled by train in years, but I can’t get over the ceiling windows! Very cool. There is nothing like a sleeper train and waking up to the chug-chug of the train amongst beautiful scenery. #farawayfiles

  29. I have never traveled by train before but I am in love with the idea! The rocky mountaineer looks like such a nice train too, I think I will have to add this to my list of trips I want to take.

  30. Great post on the trains! My Grandfather’s dream was to do the Rocky Mountaineer. I hope to fulfill his dream someday. My home country is very large so trains definitely cover quite a bit! Thanks for coming out on Fly Away Friday! Hope to see you this week!

  31. Ok I am doing this next summer definitely now! Haha thanks for sharing this informative post! I dream of going to Banff. I’ll look into getting there by train from Toronto! πŸ˜€

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