Travels with Bob

Vacation Idea: Riding the Rails 

Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner offers a unique view of Southern California’s coast.

Some 50 or 60 years ago, before completion of the Interstate Highway System and discount airline tickets, trains dominated travel in America connecting cities, small towns and people. Over time, as the pace of our daily lives quickened and air travel became more accessible, passenger rail travel declined substantially – except on a few routes connecting northeast corridor.

Today, however, a growing number of American vacationers are returning to trains for leisure travel – perhaps out of nostalgia or due to a desire to capture the American experience rather than fly over it.

Amtrak serves 46 states with more than 500 rail stations and now offers a variety of vacation packages in addition to transportation. Although you might have to travel to the departure point to join one of these low-impact adventure travel packages, they are well worth considering. National park enthusiasts, for example, have more than 100 Amtrak itinerary options ranging from three to 15 nights and most include hotel accommodations, tours and other sightseeing options for one-way or round-trip vacations.

Independent travelers have even more options along iconic rail routes, including the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited, Crescent and Capitol Limited. Train accommodations range from coach to sleeper compartments, which I recommend for multiple overnight journeys.

The Alaska Railroad represents excellent option for independent travelers desiring to explore America’s last frontier on a 480-mile custom itinerary from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Denali, Talkeetna and Seward. It’s also a good way to add a pre- or post-cruise land option to a one-way Alaska cruise to or from Vancouver.

I also recommend the Rocky Mountaineer (RM), which provides several itineraries exploring western Canada between Vancouver and Calgary from May and October. A privately held company, Rocky Mountaineer offers silver and gold service packages across British Columbia and Alberta’s Rockies, including stops in Kamloops, Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff. Budget permitting, I recommend the RM Gold Service for travel in dome-top rail coaches and five-star hotel accommodations.

Most of Europe is connected by an excellent network of railroads that enable travelers to visit multiple countries economically on custom itineraries. Rail passes for multiple countries for travel up to two months are available. However, point-to-point tickets may be more economical depending on your itinerary. First-class or premier class provide the best accommodations and amenities. I especially recommend the Eurostar for London-Paris vacations.

Meanwhile, Japan’s famous bullet trains speed travelers from ancient city to ancient city at 200 miles an hour and represent the best way for independent travelers to explore the country. Avoid peak travel times and select least crowded top service level. 

The more adventurous traveler seeking a luxurious and iconic journey has a variety of rail options, including these customizable private rail tour packages:

  • The Glacier Express – 12-day rail tour from Zurich to St. Moritz with stops in Lucerne, Interlaken and Zermatt, featuring the world’s best chocolate, cheese and magnificent vistas.
  • Trans-Siberian Moscow to Beijing – 14-day journey aboard the luxurious Tsar’s Golden Train, combining the elegance of old-world rail travel with modern amenities and superb cuisine.
  • Peru and the Inca Empire – 10-day rail itinerary following the Incan civilization along the Pacific from Ecuador to northern Chile aboard South America’s first luxury sleeper train. This journey explores the culture of colonial cities, archaeological sites and natural wonders of the Andes.
  • Cape, Rovos Rail & Kruger – 10-day luxury train safari across South Africa, exploring Cape Town, South Africa’s diamond-mining rush in Kimberley and tracking the fabled Big Five in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve.

Riding the rails is clearly back in style, especially for vacationers seeking enriching cultural experiences and adventure travel close to home or around the world.