Jump on the train for the next trend in travel—literally. With airline bankruptcies and delays multiplying (and the threat of inspection-related flight cancellations lasting through June), we’d like to usher in the Summer of the Train.
The US is already planning to celebrate its first-ever National Train Day on May 10, and with Amtrak boasting record ridership, it’s clear that Americans are catching on to what much of the world already knows: train travel is a viable (and fun) method of transportation. It’s also, according to mcbabe, a way to “really feel like you are traveling.” And traveling light, at that: the US Department of Energy has found Amtrak to be 18% more energy efficient than commercial airlines. So you can curb your flight-induced headaches and shrink your carbon footprint at the same time.
We pored through your train stories and condensed your experiences into IgoUgo’s top tips for riding the rails. Then we selected the world’s nine most exhilarating train rides, all straight from the pages of IgoUgo reviews. So choose a trip, grab some tips, and hop aboard. Listen to the BartonFamily: “Amtrak is my family's favorite mode of transportation and is a very addictive way to travel. Whenever I'm in my car and get stuck at a railroad crossing, I stare at those bedroom cars with outright envy and I think ‘man, it sucks to be me.’”
Thinking about a train trip?
Consider taking the train on long trips when you have kids in tow; it can be much more relaxing than driving and a better opportunity to spend quality time talking or playing cards.
Check to see if you’re visiting a city with a historic or notable train station; if so, arrive by train. Whether you’re a train enthusiast or a total novice, it’s a special experience to roll into a landmark like Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station or Union Station in Los Angeles.
If your flight is canceled, booking a spot on a train may be your best bet.
If traveling a long distance, consider an air-rail trip: fly to your destination, then take the rail on the way home (or vice versa).
If you’re a nature lover, consider a US route participating in Amtrak’s Trails & Rails program, which provides educational opportunities to passengers, and research national parks and scenic areas serviced by trains. One example: Glacier National Park has two Amtrak stops with daily service in summer.
Booking your ticket?
Plan any train trip ahead of time; prices rise as departure dates near, and deluxe cabins sell out quickly.
Get a seat high enough to see out of the windows, and consider that choosing your seat’s class might make the difference between an open-air ride and a spot behind sealed windows.
Consider that different classes may offer vastly different amenities: if a Western-style bathroom is important to you on train trips abroad, learn which class offers that before booking.
See if your accommodation at your destination will provide train-station transfers; you may be able to avoid renting a car or taking an expensive cab ride upon arrival.
Travel light. You may not have much storage space or much time to get organized and disembark at your stop.
Bring a sleeping bag or blanket; trains can get cold at night.
Make sure you know what time meals are served in the dining car, and arrive early to get a spot. You’ll most likely share a table with other passengers. If you don’t feel like being social or are a picky eater, pack your own food.
If you become frustrated by delays, remember to think of your train ride as a “trip within a trip” or “just as much a part of the vacation experience as the actual vacation itself,” in IgoUgo members’ words.” Relax!
Do not lose your ticket—some rails will collect them well after you board.
Listen carefully to station and train announcements, or you might miss learning of delays or departures. Some announcements are made only once.
If you’re on a stopover or day trip, double-check the departure board when you arrive at the train station so you know at what time you must return.
The Best of Member-Recommended Train Trips
St. Petersburg to Shanghai on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railways
sararevell: “I love sleeping on trains, and trundling through the chilly, unchanging Siberian taiga wrapped up in a warm duvet has to be one of the coziest ways to travel. The ride on the Trans-Mongolian through the desert is far more dynamic than the Russian landscapes and once the train passes into China, the scenery transforms again into misty green forests where you get your first views of the Great Wall of China.”
Auckland to Wellington on the Tranz Scenic Overlander
Tallulah_B: “Although you can get to Wellington faster by plane, I thought this would be a scenic/cheaper way to see the countryside. The train runs through the Waikato region known for its lush hills and dairy production. It rises through the mountains and you get views of Mt. Ruapehu (the highest mountain on the North Island). The train descends through the Waiarapa area but by then the sun had set. There is an observation deck on the train, so you can step outside while the train is zooming along to get photos.”
Fairbanks to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad Denali Star Train
runarut: “Riding the train is its own special experience. In populated areas, the tracks guide the train through backyards. Bear, moose, deer, and other wildlife are commonly seen along the way. On the Fairbanks to Denali segment, the views are especially amazing. The train clings to cliffs, creaking along mountain gorges, rivers raging below.”
Toronto to Vancouver on the VIA Canadian
amandabeth: “The scenery through Ontario was trees, trees, and more trees. Lots of faded autumn colours and small towns. It was interesting being in the north, though—it is such a part of Canadian consciousness, even though many of us never or seldom are in the north. By the time we had hit day two on the train, still in Ontario, there was snow outside. None of us had expected to see snow so soon. Later, we saw the Northern Lights from the train—it was amazing.”
Zurich to Vienna on the OBB
haslo04: “The train ride was very interesting for two reasons. First, it gave me a first-hand look at the changing landscape of Austria, as it shifted from the western Alpine regions to the eastern lowlands. Everything from architecture to the size of the cities followed that change, making western Austria more beautiful and the eastern part of the country more populated. Second reason had to do with the highlight of the ride, which was lunch in the stately dining car. We indulged ourselves to a fine meal, paid a small fortune for it, and went back to our cabin to await Vienna.”
Los Mochis to Chihuahua on the Chihuahua al Pacifico
Shauna: “The train trip is worth far more than the meager price of the ticket! It's an engineering marvel that took nearly 100 years to complete, and winds its way through the Sierra Madre mountains, from low desert scrub, across bridges, through tunnels blasted through mountains (80 or more tunnels and bridges altogether!), along precipitous cliffs, alpine meadows. Your train ticket is good for any amount of boarding/disembarking, so as long as you've bought a fare from your start point to end point, you can get on and off and enjoy the scenery off the track. It's possible to make the spectacular route in a day if you direly need to get from Los Mochis to Chihuahua, but take your time if you can. The memorable moments are innumerable. Your jaw will be hanging open for hours on the train ride. This is sure to be one of the greatest train trips of your lifetime!”
San Francisco to Chicago on Amtrak’s California Zephyr
Steve4031: “On Saturday, the Zephyr climbed over the historic Donner Pass. I enjoyed the mountain vistas as a commentator from the California Railroad Museum provided background information. We learned how Emigrant Pass got its name, why the Chinese laborers functioned so well, and what happened to the Donner party. On Sunday, I enjoyed an early-morning ride over Wasatch Mountain while finishing breakfast in the dining car. A fresh layer of snow gave a sense of crisp cleanliness to the mountains and valleys. By 9am, the sun was out as the Zephyr raced across the Utah desert. After lunch, the Zephyr twisted and turned its way through Colorado River Canyons. The conductor provided warnings to passengers about wildlife so that people could take pictures.”
Tokyo to Nagano on the Shinkansen
jemery: “When introduced in 1964, Japan’s Shinkansen were the first trains in the world to exceed 125 mph. Now, the world has plenty of other super-fast trains...but when the conductor walks to the front of the car and BOWS to his passengers, you know this won’t be an ordinary train ride. This is easily the most scenic of the three Shinkansen routes to northern Honshu Island. Nagano was the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, and the city itself is quite attractive: large, but pleasantly uncrowded and relaxed on the Saturday afternoon I was there.”
Kalka to Shimla on the Shivalik Deluxe Express Toy Train
sbmalik: “The ‘toy’ train twists its way gradually through the hills up to the alpine, approaching the Himalayas. Through the way some of the awesome views of the landscape can be cherished at Kushalya River, Koti, Barog, Kanoh, and Jabli. Chugging through dense oak forests, the train reaches Taradevi. The temple set on the top of a peak here is truly a legendary temple. The train then winds its way under Prospect Hill to Jutogh, finally arriving via Summer Hill at Shimla. The coaches are equipped with reversible, cushioned chairs; wall-to-wall carpeting; and wide windows. Meals are included in the train fare.”
If you need any more train inspiration, consider these words from tmhhmt, who crossed California by train on a whim when he saw an offer for a 25% discount: “All in all, it was an almost freakishly stress-free travel experience that I will definitely repeat—only next time I'll take the train-only route.”