Train across Canada

New Thing #23:

LONG DISTANCE TRAIN JOURNEY - TRAIN TRIP ACROSS CANADA

Imagine this: Slowly rolling across the fields, towns, and forests with a book on your lap. The rhythmic clanking sounds that almost hypnotize you so that all you can do is just leisurely stare and be amazed by the world slipping by.
That’s my vision of long-distance train travel. I know it’s somewhat romantic. So it’s time for a reality check. It’s been on my wishlist for years. And finally, it’s high time to take the plunge!

Have you done it? Was it as dreamy and relaxing as I expect it to be? Let me know!

Train across Canada - the experience

So we boarded The Canadian - the long-distance train that runs 4,5k km across Canada in 5 days and 4 nights. And let me tell you - it was amazing even though not entirely as I imagined. Here are some of the random highlights:

  • Being on the train, crossing time zones, you lose track of time & distance. You just keep staring at the views, taking lots of naps, talking to the fellow travelers, thinking about the things that really matter in life, being grateful for living on Earth.
  • There’s no wifi and even no cellphone reception for most parts (which I knew). So it's a forced digital detox. I didn't even read my book as much as I thought I would. Being fully emerged felt oh-so-good.
  • Because you sit with strangers during all of the meals, in the end, we knew pretty much everyone. And let me tell you, it's not the crowd that we usually hang out with. We met an artist who travels wherever the gigs take him, a retiree who took this train 18 times already, two friends who flew all the way from Mexico just to take this train, and so many more interesting people. We listened to amazing stories, were collectively amazed by the beauty of the Canadian Rockies and shared the breathtaking sunrise views. Yes, it was that romantic.
  • Obviously, it's not all rainbows and butterflies.
  • As an introverted extravert, I felt the weight of small talk after a few days.
  • I missed my workouts a lot. We only had a few short stops when we got off the train.
  • Eating plant-based was a challenge. While other passengers were getting huge stakes and nice burgers, we were left with a very limited choice. We really missed beans, lentils & tofu scrumbles while eating oatmeals and salads. But that's okay. At least we didn't put on weight with all that eating and no sports.

Was it worth it?

All in all, the trip was a fantastic experience and I totally recommend it! We came back home relaxed, rested, amazed, and grateful. Not to mention the hundreds of stories & pics we brought back.

Rolling across The Canadian Rockies

Views from The Canadian

Panorama Cart

The Canadian - Train Review

If you are considering taking the Canadian, you may have a lot of questions. When we were preparing for this trip I searched the Internet back and forth and still had questions. So I gathered all of the questions I had before boarding as well as the ones I got on my Instagram posts and Stories. And here it is! A more detailed Canadian train review. 

Where can I buy the tickets for the train that runs across Canada?

If you want to travel between Toronto and Vancouver by train, the Canadian is your answer. What is the Canadian train? It's a train operated by Via Rail, and we bought our tickets directly on their website (viarail.ca)

When is the best time to take the train trip?

It all depends on what you're looking for. We're more into off-peak seasons and avoiding crowds, so taking the Canadian train in winter was perfect for us.
However, here are a couple of things to consider when booking your tickets:

  • I worried if the short days would impact the experience, but honestly, it wasn't that much of the case. The sun was rising pretty much when we had our breakfast, and setting just in time for dinner.  And most of the days we were turning in early. So it was fine. But you may want to consider how much daylight you want to experience.
  • There may be bigger crowds in the warmer seasons. Which will impact your trip! On the first day, despite regular travelers, there was a big group of about 30 people, and it was already difficult to find a seat in the dome car. Once they left in Jasper, we didn't have to worry about finding a place anymore. There were times when we were literally the only people in the cart. The same thing with getting breakfast on the first-come-first-serve basis - we never had to wait as there were not too many people on the train. Which may not be the case in summer.
  • In the winter there are no leaves on the trees. I mean DUH! But hear me out. It's not as colorful as during the spring or autumn, but you get better views as the leaves don't get in the way. Again, it depends on what you like.
  • It seems that passengers who are not in the Prestige Class have restricted access to one of the dome cars (that is attached to the Prestige Class) in the peak season. In the winter we could use it whenever we wanted. And honestly, it was our favorite place to hang out, so I'm happy we traveled in winter.

What's the cross Canada train trip cost?
When is the best time to buy the tickets for the Canadian? 

It all depends on the class and the length of the trip.
When it comes to the class, there are pretty much 4 ticket options:

  • Economy: where you sleep in the seat & bring your own food or can buy some snacks (also no showers).
  • Sleeper Plus - Berth: the seats fold out into beds at night but it's not a separate room, you're sleeping in the corridor behind the curtain; 3 freshly cooked meals included; the downside - no electrical outlets.
  • Sleeper Plus - Cabins (for 1, 2 or 4 people): this is a little room with a bunk bed, sink, and a tiny washroom, you share showers with a few other cabins (which wasn't really an issue in the off-peak season), you get 3 freshly cooked meals included.
  • Prestige: this is a relatively new option and it's the true first class; you get a room with its own bathroom and shower, a concierge, first row seats in the scenic cart, and all-inclusive food options including alcoholic drinks. I'd say the biggest upsides are the private shower and a regular bed (not a bunk) which may be important for many people.

What exactly is included in Sleeper Plus on via rail?

  • Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, coffee/tea
  • Access to the lounge in Vancouver or Toronto train station upon departure (with light snacks and drinks)
  • Access to 2 panorama cars with glass ceilings
  • All the bedding and towels
  • Onboard entertainment - it's not much, but honestly, the views are so captivating that you don't need much more than that. There are scheduled musical acts, bingo games, beer tastings, etc. There are also a few cardboard games that you can play with. We didn't participate in most of the stuff, but we enjoyed the live band.

The Canadian: Prices:

You can check current prices at the Via Rail website.

Economy class for the whole trip starts at CAD 500. We paid somewhere around CAD 2200 for the Via Rail Sleeper Cabin for 2 with all meals included. But it was Black Friday deal that was something like 40% off.

They also have Discount Tuesdays and other special offers that are worth checking out. But honestly, Black Friday / Boxing Day deals were the best I've seen.

Views from the train

Stopping in Jasper

Canadian Rockies

How long does it take to cross Canada by train?

We went West to East - from Vancouver to Toronto (flew to Vancouver first & then took the train back home). It took us 5 days & 4 nights without any overnight stays. But not everyone travels the whole way.

The part between Vancouver and Edmonton is considered the prettiest (Canadian Rockies). So a lot of people board the train only for one night (Vancouver to Jasper), and then they head to Banff and Lake Louise.

The train runs all the time - day and night, as it is 4,500km. So you sleep on the train. There are a few sleeping options to choose from - as described above.

One thing to remember - reserve plenty of time for delays which are normal as the priority is given to freight trains & there is congestion on the way. So you never know. Don't plan any connecting flights or trains on your arrival day. When we took the train, we arrived in Toronto pretty much on time (maybe 1hr later), but we've heard of the trains being 12-20 hrs late. So be aware that this may happen.

Where does the Canadian train stop? 
How many stops did you make where you actually got out?
Were any stops overnight (off the train?)

Okay, so this is important. When you look at the schedule, there are usually two stops a day- one very short 10-15 min & one longer (up to 3 hrs in theory). But in reality, we only got 45 minutes in Jasper & 1 hr in Winnipeg because of the delays. When the train arrives late, the time is made up during the stops. So you never know.

However, here's a couple of really cool options:

  • Some people break the journey by getting off the train in Jasper or Winnipeg & re-boarding the next train in a few days. We didn't do it, because this means you need to add a few more days to your holidays which we couldn't do.
  • If you have time, you can make it even better and take another train from Jasper through the Canadian Rockies or from Winnipeg to see the polar bears & northern lights. I’ll be exploring the last two for sure as a next step. But all of those trains have their own rules. Some stop for the night, some have different dining /sleeping options, etc.
  • Another option: if you're into trains, take it even further and go to Montreal and from there you can board the train that travels all the way to Halifax. We met two guys on the train, who were going all the way to Halifax for the 18th time already!

Is crossing time zones a problem? Are mealtimes hard to follow?

So here are the two things that you need to know.

  1. Train time does not follow the time zones precisely. It's because they need to serve meals to everybody and sometimes you are asked to adjust the time before it actually happens.
  2. As you don't have the reception all the time, and you never know if your phone already adjusted or not, relying on your phone may be confusing. Having a watch would probably make it easier.

Having said that, we didn't have a watch, and we managed to eat out meals on time. So don't worry too much.

How did it look like? For the first part of our journey, everything was super smooth, as the crew made all the announcements on the intercom. They called us for meals (there were two seatings for most lunches and dinners, and we were choosing one in advance), announced the time changes, entertained us with facts about the places we were passing, even told us when they spotted deers in the fields, which was super cool!

But the whole crew changes in Winnipeg and the second crew had a different approach. They walked around the train announcing the meal times and time changes were announced during the meals. It was less convenient, as you could accidentally not get the info or get up too late. But worked out just fine for us in the end. However, we had to be more alert and make sure to get up early.

I preferred the intercom approach, but it all depends on the crew that you'll get. So grab a watch for the sake of your sanity.

Would it have been easy to bring food with you? 

It all depends on the journey you choose. On the Canadian, there are two ticket options: Economy where you bring your own food or can buy some snacks; and all the other classes with 3 cooked meals included.

We got ourselves the cabin, so we didn't have to worry about the meals, snacks, coffee, tea, etc.
Honestly, we walked to the Economy carts only once, so I can't really say a lot about the food options there. I saw they do have a snack shop there with chips and burgers but don't expect too much. I saw people in Economy class getting some takeouts from Subway during the stop in Jasper, so that's also an option for a hot meal. From what I read online, some people travel with small coolers as a carry-on.
For all the other classes, you get breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks included in the price.

The Canadian - Sample Menu

The Canadian train lunch or dinner menu is pretty much 3 dishes (soup or salad, main, and dessert), and you get to choose the main. The meals were different every day and included burgers, steaks, and wraps, from what I remember. Usually there were two desserts to chose from. 

As vegans, we didn't really have a choice. We couldn't have most of the soups nor desserts. There was usually only one main that we could have. Somedays it was good (like fried tofu, hummus, or a vegan patty), some days it was just a salad.

There were a bit better options for vegetarians (like omelettes) but don't expect too much as most soups and mains were meat based. On the bright side, they do carry soy milk (but you have to ask for it).

Breakfasts were something similar to the things you can order in B&B. They usually had few choices (toast, eggs, omelettes, etc.). Again, if you're a vegan, you're left with oatmeal and fruit salad. 

Two times there were brunches + continental breakfast served instead of regular breakfast /lunch. This happened when we were arriving at a destination around the lunch time so all the meals had to be served before that. This means that you could grab muffins, fruits, and coffee in the bar carts for breakfast and then you got your brunch served earlier that the lunch time. Brunch menu was pretty much a few breakfast and a few lunch items that you could chose from. 

The Canadian - Special Meals

You can also request special meals before the journey if you need to (call Via Rail at least 10-day before your trip).

However, be aware that special meals may not be s satisfying as regular meals. Mind you, we ordered our vegan meals way in advance, and still, the crew seemed unprepared and tried to accommodate our needs on the go. So we wished we had some healthy vegan snacks with us at some point.

Dinner time

Dining Cart

Live Band down in the Panorama Cart

The Canadian - Practical Tips
How to get prepared for the train trip across Canada?

  • If you plan on reading ebooks or listening to podcasts or audiobooks, download them in advance. There is no wifi and most of the time no cellular reception.
  • Pack light as there is not much space in the cabins. At first, we wanted to take only small backpacks onboard and take one bag as checked baggage. However, we were allowed to bring our bag onboard (not sure if that was an exception) and we realized that it could be stored partially under the bed. It takes up a bit of the space though as the folded chairs are also stored there, but it was quite convenient to have all our staff with us.
  • I was concerned that it might be cold on the train as the temperatures outside were reaching -30C, but in general, the air on the train is hot and dry in the winter. We asked if it gets hot in the summer and the crew confirmed that it does get super hot sometimes despite the air conditioning. So make sure you take light layers of comfy clothes and something to keep you warm when you walk between the carts or just sit in the dome car when the train is not moving. It does get chilly sometimes. For us, hoodies turned out to be perfect. We could always pull up the hoods to cover our heads and carry our wallets & phones in the pockets.
  • Shoes. For safety reasons, you cannot walk around the train without shoes on. We had comfy trainers to walk around the train, plastic Birkenstocks to wear in the shower or the cabin, and winter boots to put on when we were getting off the train during the stops (as it was -30C in Winnipeg when we arrived). It worked well, and there was a tiny space to hang the jackets in where we managed to keep our boots too.
  • Sleeper plus is like a hotel. You get all the bedding, towels & shower essentials. We even got earplugs (never had to use them though). Probably need to grab a blanket & maybe a pillow if you plan to travel in Economy.

Carry-on essentials: What to take on board of the Canadian?

  • Hoodie or something else to keep you nice & warm,
  • Beanie or cap (sometimes a hoodie is not enough; I always carried one with me),
  • Sunglasses (especially in the dome cart),
  • Headphones (if you want to listen to music, podcasts, etc.),
  • Eye mask for sleeping (if you use one),
  • Phone charger or even a power bank (you'll be taking tons of pictures & the battery most likely won't survive the whole day),
  • Reusable water /tea bottle (I use Contigo mugs all the time, and I hate the thought of using paper cups throughout the entire trip; it's also super convenient as they don't spill),
  • Hair dryer or dry shampoo if you use any of that.

O wow! That's a really long post! Hopefully, you can find all the answers you need to board the Canadian.

Do you want to know anything else? Let me know! I want to make this blog post as practical as possible.

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