The only cross-Canadian train, Via Rail’s The Canadian, isn’t anything like Amtrak. Yes, it crosses North America, and yes, it’s constantly delayed, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. For one thing, The Canadian is enormous, with 24 cars, and almost entirely one level (apart from the observation cars). For another, the staff is either actually happy to be there, or much better at faking it. They were so communicative and friendly that it was like being in, well, Canada.
The Canadian shares Amtrak’s need to yield to freight, and it’s subject to some outrageous delays. My westbound train was 10 hours late leaving Toronto because eastbound freight delays prevented the actual train from arriving in time to prep and clean it. We gained a little time back on the westbound journey, arriving in Jasper before 10pm: early enough to give me a good night’s rest before a morning bus trip to Banff, but not early enough to give us a 360-degree view of the Rockies from the sleeper-only Panorama Car.
I traveled in Sleeper Plus class in a berth (a bunk bed) from Toronto to Jasper (2-3 nights), and in a seat in Coach or Economy class from Jasper to Vancouver (1 night). Here are some tips for booking and enjoying your trip in either:
If Traveling Off-Peak, Book Late
Via Rail posts their best deals online every Tuesday morning, but they’re only good for the next month or so of travel. If you need to take a train on a specific date, it’s probably best to book early. But if you’re flexible or traveling off-season (fall, winter, or spring), then it’s a good idea to wait and nab one of these. I paid around $700 USD for a lower berth (Toronto-Jasper) in mid-September and I traveled from Jasper to Vancouver in coach for about $100 USD. Via Rail makes a certain number of “Escape” fare tickets available for each train, and they’re cheaper than the regular economy prices.
If Your Train Is Delayed, Ask for a Room
I booked an extra night at the Bed & Breakfast I was staying in and was compensated, but it turns out that Via Rail will put you up somewhere much nicer and closer for the night if you ask.
Expect to Meet Awesome People
Unlike Amtrak’s trans-national trains, the Canadian isn’t a route anyone would take to get from Point A to Point B. Everyone I met, whether at meals, or activities, or in the berth area, was there for the experience. Most of them were retirees, but there were a few younger people also staying in berths, and everyone was an adventurer, traveler, or outdoors enthusiast.
The Activities Help Pass the Time
Most of them involved alcohol (beer tasting, wine tasting, champagne toasts), and the informational sessions about the cities we were passing through left something to be desired, but the live music was something special.
Get Off the Train When Possible
The station stops weren’t long enough for exploration (a couple of them are scheduled to be, but the train makes up lost time by shortening them), but most of them were long enough to take a short walk, use a stationary toilet, and attempt to connect to the station’s wifi (a mainly futile exercise). At Winnipeg and Edmonton getting off the train is encouraged because of equipment changes (the Panorama car is added at Edmonton).
You May See Wildlife, But You May Not
I saw some deer and some livestock, and heard reports of a bear, but otherwise I had to be satisfied with the often incredible scenery. One car attendant said that on the previous train she’d been scared out of her wits by a black bear that crawled out from under the train just as she was opening the door for a stop.
Wait in the Right Place
I had trouble finding out anything about my train when I got to Toronto’s Union Station early in the morning (we were advised to be there by 6am to board). I found a place to line up, but it gradually dawned on me that because I’d booked a sleeper class ticket I was supposed to be able to wait in the business lounge. I finally found it tucked into an alcove near the front doors, and jam-packed with people waiting. They provided a breakfast of pastries, checked us in, and gave us our meal time assignments.
Berths Don’t Have Outlets
Coach seats have outlets, and rooms have outlets, but the berths do not have their own outlets. This was the single most annoying thing about them. I’d read about this problem before booking but I figured I wouldn’t need much power because I wouldn’t have wifi or be glued to my computer screen. But I forgot about how many photos I’d be taking, and that I didn’t have any physical books with me, so all my reading and audiobook-listening would be sucking up power. I picked up an external phone battery that helped a little, but mostly I ended up in the Cafe or Activity car plugged into the one outlet with a seat next to it. It was like the worst workfrom.co spot ever, with no wifi, one low voltage outlet, and multiple loud card-playing games in session, although there was free coffee and shortbread.
The Lower Berth is Worth It
The upper berth is cheaper and probably just as comfortable for sleeping, but it lacks a window and isn’t a great place to be when the berths haven’t been made into seats yet. The only disadvantage to the lower berth that I could see is that everyone bumps against it while walking through the train at night. That can get noisy, so earplugs are a good idea.
Booking a Berth Gives you Access to Everything Sleeper
The berth, like the Amtrak roomette, may be the low-budget option, but it gives you access to everything that is glamorous and cruise-like about sleeper class. The food in the dining car was, with few exceptions, fantastic, but the best perk was having full run of the train. You’re free to walk the entire train, whereas Economy class passengers are limited to the front end. The opposite, back end of the train is Prestige class, which has fancier rooms, plus a plusher lounge with bar and Skyline Dome Car (there are 3-4 dome cars total).
Book the Early Meal Sitting
Breakfast is first-come-first-serve, and I was usually there at opening time (6:30am), because of an early bedtime and the time difference. That also made it convenient to eat lunch and dinner early (at 11:30am and 5pm). There were usually snacks available in-between in the Cafe car: fruit, cookies, juice, and tea and coffee. The best thing about eating first is getting first pick of the meals, although after one dinner the staff changed over at a station stop and the later sittings had a whole new staff and menu for their dinner.
The Bathrooms and Showers are Clean, but…
The faucets are incredibly frustrating because you have to hold them on with one hand. The shower faucet stays on by itself, but only for about 30 seconds. The car attendants provide passengers with shower kits that include towels, soap, and shampoo.
Coach / Economy
Bring or Buy a Blanket and Pillow
I didn’t, and I had a freezing, uncomfortable night. The vents periodically blasted us with cold air, in spite of it being pretty cold outside the train. I felt like I was in economy class on the Snowpiercer train. The seats do recline and have sizable foot rests, and I had two seats to myself, but I still found it difficult to sleep.
I went to get a hot breakfast from the service car (rather than the dining car) on my last day on the train and found that there was none. I had to settle for cold banana bread. They seemed to have run out of everything else edible.
Overall, I’d highly recommend taking the train if you’re planning to visit the Rockies or transverse Canada and can fork over the cash for a Sleeper Plus ticket.
Trip taken September 2015. A huge thank you to my train buddy Ying RL for lending me his trip photos for this post.