If taking the train across Canada isn’t on your bucket list, it totally should be! Seeing the entire country, from Halifax to Vancouver, by train is an unforgettable experience like no other. You will go to sleep in one province and time zone and wake up in a completely different part of Canada. With this year being Canada’s 150th birthday as a country, there is no better time to book your train across Canada. We have put together some things you should know about a trans-Canadian journey so you are fully prepared for the epic you are about to experience!
15 Things To Know Before Taking The Train Across Canada
#1: Via Rail is the only company to offer cross-Canada train travel
Via Rail Canada is owned by the Canadian government and is the only company to offer train travel from one end of Canada to the other. If you are looking to travel between Halifax and Vancouver, you are going to have to book through Via Rail. Worried about only having one choice? Don’t be! Via Rail Canada has been operating for decades as the trusted name in train travel across Canada!
#2: The entire journey will take between 5-6 days, with no stops
Depending on the time of year you decide to take the train across Canada, the whole trip will take between 5-6 days. This is because you have to be sure that the train schedules match up with your connecting train! If you are riding on “The Canadian” which runs between Toronto and Vancouver, the trip will be four straight days if you don’t get off. If you want the true transcontinental experience and start in Halifax, you will take “The Atlantic” to Montreal and then take a commuter train down to Toronto. If this sounds confusing, it really isn’t and Via Rail staff are just a phone call away to help with the planning.
#3: Winter is the best time to take the train across Canada
You may be thinking that Canada in winter is a frozen tundra, but you are overreacting! We saw temperatures that ranged from 30-35*F in the mountains and 38-55*F everywhere else. During the winter, you can book a trans-continental train journey for much cheaper than high season and will enjoy huge benefits including less people to compete with for views on the train. If you are planning to stopover at some cities like we did, the cities will be free from loads of tourists and much cheaper as well. Most importantly, traveling by train across Canada during the winter actually gives you the best views of any season! Since many trees have shed their leaves, you can see through them and out to the landscapes beyond! If you traveled during the summer, the trees would have their leaves and you would be stuck in a “tree corridor.”
#4: Delays are a very real thing…plan accordingly
Because of our booking process [we booked over the phone and the HR representative was leaving for surgery and 5 weeks of recovery the day after we booked], we did not know that Via Rail would experience serious delays during our journey. If we had known in advance and planned accordingly, the delays would have been no big deal. Since we had not, the delays had a big impact on a large part of our trip. To be fair to Via Rail, they do have disclaimers on their website that you should not book onward travel or activities the day your train arrives into your station. Delays are unlikely to happen every trip and our experience was extreme, but it is never bad to be prepared!
Our train was from Toronto to Jasper left 5.5 hours late which resulted in us arriving in Jasper 3.5 hours late [considering time change]. Our train from Jasper to Vancouver [we did a stopover] was a whopping 9 hours late which cost us an entire day of sightseeing. The moral of the story? If we had known about the possibility of delays, we would have simply added an extra day to our itinerary at each destination and would have expected delays at each stop. Then, if we arrived at a reasonable time, it would have been unexpected. If you are planning to travel across Canada on Via Rail, simply build one extra day into your itinerary at each stop and do not book any flights the day you arrive. You can keep abreast of on-time performance on Via Rail’s website. Don’t let delays keep you from taking the train across Canada, simply be prepared!
#5: Passenger trains share the track with freight and do not have priority
The main reason for all the delays? In Canada, freight trains bring in more money than passenger trains do so they get priority on the track. The freight company also owns the train tracks so Via Rail trains must often head over to a side rail to wait while freight trains pass. Each train that passes may take up to 20-40 minutes because some freight trains can be 3 miles long! Since passenger trains are a lot shorter, they must wait on a side track until freight passes. It is pretty neat to see the giant freight trains pass your train and count how many cars make up the train.
#6: Sleeping on a train is magically relaxing
We have slept in cars, on planes, and on cruise ships, but sleeping on a train was something special. The sound of the cars traveling over metal tracks coupled with the relaxing movement of the train rocked us to sleep in under five minutes each night. The motion was perfect enough to feel completely relaxed without feeling anxious about constant movement. Traveling by train across Canada made for some super restful nights!
#7: Not stepping foot outside the train for days on end is not a problem
You can get off the train at pretty much every stop if you want so not getting off for three straight days is totally on us! We are homebodies and it was winter so we didn’t mind hanging out on the train for over 72 hours. We got plenty of exercise trekking between all the cars multiple times a day [these things can be long!] and loved being cozy inside at all the stops our train across Canada made!
#8: Only some trains have Wifi
“The Atlantic” and the corridor train that connects Montreal to Toronto both come equipped with Wifi in certain cars, but “The Canadian” [the longest train you will be on] does not. The connection on our trains from Halifax and Montreal were great and it was nice to have access to the outside world. It would have been nice to have the option for Wifi on “The Canadian” but you won’t die without it and it’s a great way to detox digitally. If you plan to take the train across Canada, pack or download some books in case you want to read them!
#9: You will find plenty to do and will rarely be bored
In our entire 6 days of traveling by train across Canada, we can safely say that we were not bored one single time. The whole beauty of trans-Canadian train travel is getting to stare out the window and watch the world go by. We are an introvert/extrovert couple and the experience was delightful to both of us. Via Rail Canada has activities onboard such as wine and beer tasting, live music, discussions about what is going on outside and more. There are also magazines and books and a constant supply of coffee, tea, and snacks. We also downloaded movies and watched them at night while relaxing on our bed.
#10: Train food is actually very delicious
If you book a “sleeper plus” class ticket on “The Canadian” and “The Atlantic”, you will have access to three very yummy meals a day in the dining car. For each meal, you are offered a soup or salad starter, a choice between a variety of entrees, and a choice of dessert. We were thrilled that there was a vegetarian entree offered with each and every meal for Victoria.
The food you will eat during your cross-country train trip is high quality and home cooked by Via Rail chefs in the kitchen. They have the ability to make minor substitutions since everything is cooked right in the dining car. During one of our delays, the only vegetarian food left on the train was a salad, so the chef cooked Victoria a delicious grilled cheese with soup and salad. We were really impressed by the flexibility and range of food offered on a train across Canada!
#11: You can choose accommodations based on your budget
With a little saving, everyone should take the opportunity to take the train across Canada. Fortunately, Via Rail offers a bunch of options for each price point. If you are on an extreme budget, you can travel in economy class, but you will not receive meals and you have to sleep in your [comfy] seat. Looking for more room? You can book a “roomette” on the “Canadian” which is a cute semi-private bunk bed that lines the hallway in the sleeper car. The beds are huge and you have a curtain for privacy.
Alternatively, you can book a private cabin for one, two, or three, depending on your needs. Finally, if you are looking to go all-out, you can book the pricey Prestige Class which offers a full bed, unlimited liquor, a TV and more. Although it is expensive, prestige is already fully booked for the summer so it is quite a popular way to travel by train across Canada. We stayed in a cabin for two it was super roomy and comfortable for the journey! You can keep track of the lowest possible fares on this page!
#12: The “Dome Car” offers the best view on the train
The “Dome Car” was our favorite part of the train and one of the best parts about traveling by train across Canada. It is equipped with very comfortable seating that elevates you above all the other train cars, giving you a 360 view of your journey. This car is by far the most popular so we suggest getting there early if you want to a good space [but don’t leave items to “save” your seat]. This car is perfect for photographers [or smartphone photographers] because you can see the entire train, what is ahead, what is above, and what is behind.
#13: You will meet a ton of new people
Even if you are very introverted like Terrence, you are most likely going to meet a bunch of new people when riding the train across Canada. We met people from different parts of Canada, America, Australia, England, and Korea. Simply by virtue of sitting together and admiring the scenery, you will start to connect with or chat with others. People were intrigued by our camera which opened us to a lot of conversations.
In addition, you may not always get to sit at a private table for meals. Since the cars are so small and there are a lot of people, you may be put with other groups to dine. Other diners can tell if you are open to talking or not but some will befriend you anyway. Out of all the meals we ate with others, there were only two where we didn’t chat with our meal partners very much. By the end of our train travel across Canada, we had given away every business card save one to all our new friends!
#14: You will travel through 5 time zones and getting used to a new one is super easy
If you choose the entire transcontinental train trip, you will pass through five time zones [Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific] from Halifax all the way to Vancouver. Some people online seem to think that traveling losing time while your train is going forward will mess with your mind. It actually won’t and this is truly the best way to cross time-zones that we have experienced. When traveling out west, we usually have a difficult time adjusting to the time zone. During our trans-Canadian train trip, we didn’t have a problem at all and our sleep was right on target the entire time! If this is something you are worrying about or considering, don’t fret! There is something about taking the train across Canada that makes time zones a lot easier to adjust to!
#15: You won’t want to say goodbye to the train
You just rode a train across Canada which is something not many people get to do! When it comes time to pack up your belongings and say goodbye to the train and your journey, it is going to be really hard! The experience is so unique that you will instantly begin to miss the motion, the meals, the views, your accommodations, and more. We genuinely felt a little sad everytime we had to step off our train, but especially when we arrived in Vancouver and had to leave for good. Make sure to make the most of your travel so you can remember every detail!
Is a Canadian train trip on your bucket list? Make sure to let us know if you decide to see Canada by rail! Let’s chat in the comments.
Please note: We were hosted by Via Rail for the purpose of this review. Our views are all our own and do not reflect those of Via Rail Canada. We were not paid to write this post.
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