Nothing against Amtrak, but the United States is not exactly renowned for its rail system. Canada however seems to have a great thing going. It’s not the cheapest ticket you’ll ever buy, but it’s a phenomenal experience, one you’ll savor just as much as your final destination. Here’s some pointers you need to know before booking your trip:
If you’re traveling overnight, spring for the sleeper car. Going from Toronto to Vancouver will cost about CAD$970 for the four-day trip, but going from Montreal to Halifax is more like $330 for the one-day journey. Always check for discounts on ViaRail.ca. Cabins sleep up to three people, depending on the train service and season, and if you’re traveling solo, you’ll have the cabin all to yourself.
Not only is the sleeper cabin cute as a button, but it could easily be nicer than the hostel you’re headed to next. The basic amenities include bunk beds with warm blankets and pillows, plugs to charge your phone and other devices (wireless in the dining car), compartments to stash your gear, climate control, and a space-efficient bathroom. You have your own toilet, sink, mirror, and shower, and the shower actually has hot water with decent pressure! In addition, the sleeper car is very safe and secure. Your door locks, there’s a friendly Via Rail attendant riding in each car, and you’ll likely find everyone you meet to be gregarious and helpful.
If you sprung for the sleeper car, head straight to the dome car. The best part about a sleeper class ticket is that you get access to the “dome car,” which is elevated with windows on all sides, offering killer panoramic views, and hopefully a great sunset. This is also a convenient place to meet people, especially if you’re traveling solo. But if you’d rather have a little privacy, your cabin has its own window too.
Don’t bring extra toiletries just for the sleeper car. There’s complimentary lotion, soap, shampoo, conditioner, and towels in your sleeper cabin, so use them, and then take them (not the towels!) to your next destination. If you’re in coach, then you won’t be showering, so bring your hand sanitizer and tools for primping in the shared bathroom. Bring more tampons and pads than you think you’ll need, as you may not have an opportunity to get off the train and buy some. Eye drops aren’t a bad idea either, with the dry recycled air.
Bring earplugs and an eye-mask. The sleeper cars are very quiet and dark at night, but you never know what will keep you up, and these two items take up so little space anyway. If you’re in coach, definitely bring them, and a neck pillow.
Bring fresh fruits and vegetables. The dining car isn’t half bad, and it’s less expensive than you might expect (CAD$2 for tea, $3 for soup with crackers), but they mostly serve food that keeps. Fresh fruits and vegetables will keep you energized and maintain your immune system while you travel. Just bringing some carrot sticks, apples, and one leafy salad will make all the difference. Don’t worry about water, there’s plenty available for free on the train.
Bring a book, but don’t be surprised if you don’t read it. You might just find yourself mesmerized by the passing scenery, so the book may only come out when the sun goes down. Or you can get local and grab a newspaper from the dome car or dining car.
Have you traveled by Canadian Rail? If so, what was your must-have gear?