Have you used the Canrailpass?
August 22, 2009 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Have you used the Canrailpass? Or traveled across Canada in a similar way, by train or bus?

I'm thinking about doing a last-minute 3 or 4-week Canrailpass trip around Canada. Anyone have any pointers/stories?

In particular:

1. I'd like to travel through the northern provinces if possible. Does the Canrailpass cover that? I'm finding it hard to find coverage. 'Anywhere VIA Rail goes', it says, but I don't know where that is.

2. I'd like to zig-zag all around, and it's not like I know which towns to stop in, other than a few of the major cities. How do I decide where to book my destinations, such as my first one out of Toronto? Has anyone done this? Can anyone offer an example itinerary? Even a few stops would be useful. Basically I want to cover as much of the country as possible in let's say 30 days. How do I even begin to plan this.

3. I guess I'll be staying in hostels mostly, when I'm not sleeping on the train. By the way, if you've used the Canrailpass, is it practical to sleep in 'Comfort class' (the lowest/worst class)?

4. Doing this all last-minute, will I have problems with everything being booked?

And whatever else you think I should know...

Thanks very much.
posted by skwt to Travel & Transportation around Canada (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've done a canrail trip in the winter, so I can't tell you about booking problems [I can tell you about every bathroom on the train freezing up, though].

Without looking at maps or doing anything the smart way, I'll tell you:
1. via rail goes as far north as churchill, manitoba. but only there, and it's a straight shot from winnipeg. Otherwise, your northernmost point is either jasper or prince rupert or something western. I believe there is no rail coverage at all in the territories. There is also very little bus coverage. It's irritating.

2. The way my pass worked [I think there are options. I don't remember], It was a one month pass, but only good for something like 10 actual days of travel within that month. It made zig-zagging a thing to plan in advance [like with a ticket agent, maybe?] and not to do on a whim. You might run out of days and get stuck in northern ontario. The east [well, quebec, mostly] has by far the best train coverage and also fancier trains. If you want to stop and go, that's going to be the best bet. The train from toronto to vancouver runs twice a week, so there's no checking out a town for a few hours and getting back on the next train. Once you're headed west, you have few options until BC [where the best scenery is, by far].

3. In the winter time, they will put four seats together to make a little bed for you if you're headed a long way. If the train is more full, the seats recline and have calf-rests and there are pillows and blankets and gentle side-to-side swayings to help you sleep. I had an easy time sleeping at night when going from toronto-vancouver and back. Outside of major cities, you will likely not find hostels.

You will save a ton of money if you do this by bus, but sleeping in a bus is so miserable that it's worth considering taking the train. Being able to walk up and down the train and play board games and watch movies really takes the edge off of the monotony of long distance land travel. The greyhound also gives you much more flexibility about where you can go and when you can go there, I suppose. For certain itineraries, even flying would be cheaper than the train. I don't think that's the point, though.

Every via rail employee I've talked to has been super friendly. You should call them and try to figure out if/how they can help you do what you want.
posted by Acari at 10:14 PM on August 22, 2009

Best answer: I did a go-anywhere-by-Greyhound-Canada pass about 12 years ago, and I really liked it. Greyhound has excellent service from Montreal west towards Vancouver and through all the provinces; it doesn't do eastern Canada at all (or didn't at the time), and I don't know what the service in the territories is like, though I met a woman who was using the same kind of pass I was to go up to the Yukon as well as through the prairies. You didn't have to book anything - just show up, show your pass and get on the bus. I carried some information about Hostelling International hostels, and just showed up (again, without booking).

One thing to think about: how often do you want to get off? If what you want to do is just travel and watch, you've got a much better view from a VIA train with their observation cars (glass ceilings and windows). But how many times will it stop? Whereas the buses stop lots of times in the Prairies - and you can go to smaller, more remote places.

Sleeping in a bus can be pretty miserable - but not so bad if you have two seats to yourself, which often happens on the less popular routes (I was alone from Prince Rupert to Prince George, maybe all the way to Edmonton). I did from Toronto to Edmonton just sleeping on the bus (stopping in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg for the day), and then took a night off by staying at the Edmonton Hostel (pretty good place - not far from the bus station).
posted by jb at 10:58 PM on August 22, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, those answers are both very helpful. Right, I didn't think about how hostels might not be everywhere. jb, did you find hostels in smaller towns/cities?
posted by skwt at 11:18 PM on August 22, 2009

I took the scenic route from Ottawa to northern Alberta via Greyhound, and I slept on the bus for the ride there. I am not sure I would recommend the bus, or sleeping on the bus. If I was going to do it again, I'd definitely get a VIA pass.
posted by Jairus at 11:30 PM on August 22, 2009

Speaking of someone who grew up in a small town along the VIA line and has done Greyhound and VIA trips between and betwixt various points from Edmonton to Halifax many times - have you considered how incredibly uninteresting most Canadian small towns are? They're not likely to have hostels, because few people would visit without having a family member to stay with, although the hotels should be cheap.

Seeing Canada by train is fantastic, but I'd stay on the train except for any major city. A few times along your journey the train will stop in some tiny village to refuel and everyone gets a chance to stretch their legs for an hour or two. That's really all the time you need to understand that these places have little to offer an outsider (or for that matter, a resident).

BTW, if you want to know where VIA rail goes, there's a map on their website. Please consider anything between Edmonton and Toronto to be marked "Here be dragons".
posted by Gortuk at 7:30 AM on August 23, 2009

I spent most of my time on Vancouver Island - there were hostels in Nanaimo and Cortenay, and a cheap b&b in Campbell River. But that's BC, so there are many more tourists than the prairies.

Hostelling International (HI) Hostels tend to be the most reliable - here is a map of all their locations in Canada. And here's a directory of which includes other hostels - the Cortenay one I stayed in wasn't HI, but still was very nice. But they aren't showing anything for the NWT, and haven't even updated to include Nunavut. But apparently there is a hostel in Whitehorse and in Dawson City.

If you really want to off the beaten track, you could consider tenting it, but that can be expensive to set up if you don't already have the equiptment (lightweight tent, propane stove, camping knapsack, etc).

on preview: as someone born and raised in Toronto, I would respectfully disagree with Gortuk. I found tiny towns fascinating and wonderful. I didn't stop in them on my trip to BC, but travelled for 8 weeks on Vancouver Island doing nothing but visit small towns and logging roads, and I loved them (both). It's what you're used to which is boring - Yonge Street, what a yawn.
posted by jb at 7:36 AM on August 23, 2009

Oh - if you take the bus all the way west, go via Banff and not Jasper. Jasper is a disappointing pass. But that's the only way the trains go (less steep).
posted by jb at 7:37 AM on August 23, 2009

oh - I should have mentioned that I was walking in Vancouver Island - I would hit a human settlement about once a day. That's medium dense for Canada - less than southern Ontario - which even in the rural bits is several settlements a day - more than just about anywhere else. Obviously in the praries you could go longer between settlements walking - but busing is fine. I wouldn't stop at just random places, but there are lots with interesting things - Prince Rupert, for example, is interesting. I didn't make it to the Queen Charlotte Islands opposite, but I wish I had gone. Also, I've heard Kitimat is the most perfect place in Canada.
posted by jb at 7:41 AM on August 23, 2009

Best answer: I did the Canrailpass in May. You get 12 rail days in a 30 day window, and you can add up to three more for something like $50 each. I took the 12, did my whole tour in 21 days, and saw every province you can't swim to.

I went east in Comfort class, and I had the four-seat maximum-comfort-stretch-out-fest, but let me tell you, once I hit Toronto, I upgraded, and it was entirely worth it. I got a little room on the Ocean (Montreal to Halifax) and a lower berth for the return on the Canadian (Toronto to Vancouver). When you look at the price difference, note that all meals are included in the upgrade, and this is excellent food, not foil wrapped sandwiches.

In Comfort class on the Canadian, there are three electrical outlets per car, one of which is not in the bathroom, and you will have to battle Australian backpackers to charge your phone or computer. Tip: if your machine can handle a lot of open windows, set up 100 pages of news or Mefi or whatever, and scan madly for open networks when you hit the station. This kept me happy. Once you get to Toronto, the trains have wifi and everybody gets a nice electrical outlet.

I took the Greyhound for a 24-hour trip through the prairies in the winter, and I have to say I'd rather eat poison than do that again. If you like the smell of wet smokers and partly-tended babies, and can survive on bad doughnuts and things from a sack, you might feel differently.

Take the train -- and get off in Jasper to stay a few days. It's worth it. Tour the Icefields Parkway by bus and see Banff, then come back and get on the next train. There are plenty of hostels in this corridor.

Also, there is a hell of a lot more than dragons in that 1/12 of the circumference of the earth mentioned above!
posted by Sallyfur at 9:08 AM on August 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hostelling International (HI) Hostels tend to be the most reliable - here is a map of all their locations in Canada. And here's a directory of which includes other hostels - the Cortenay one I stayed in wasn't HI, but still was very nice. But they aren't showing anything for the NWT, and haven't even updated to include Nunavut. But apparently there is a hostel in Whitehorse and in Dawson City.

Dawson City yes (seasonal only). Whitehorse, no (but there is at least one non-HI one there).

Dawson is the only one HI has in the Territories.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:20 AM on August 23, 2009

Best answer: I did my whole tour at the last minute -- I thought about it on the third, waffled on the fourth, booked on the fifth, and left on the seventh.

Since I assume you are starting at Toronto, that gives you at least three days headstart to prebook a hostel in Jasper/Banff or in BC.

Itinerary tips on the Canadian:
- The train stops in Winnipeg for cleaning/staff change. You can pretty much see everything you'd want to see during the stop (I think it's four hours) on a 90 minute tour bus available from the station, so you don't need to disembark unless you have deep longing to see more. There is also a nice farmer's market style mall called The Forks, where you can get something to eat or some postcards or souvenirs.
- If you aren't planning to side-trip to Banff, the same would go for Jasper, but it is so beautiful you will want to take more time. You can also take a train to Prince George from there.
- If you are a smoker, you will need some nicotine gum or you will go mad.
- Rail days count for a 24-hour period or any portion. If your train leaves at 11:45 p. m., that's a rail day. Even if it's late.
- Take a water bottle. Comfort class gets a free washcloth, soap, and sleepmask, but if you need towels, upgrade to a better class or bring one from home. If you upgrade, you get a nice sack of towels and delicious shower condiments.
- Comfort class passengers are only allowed in the rest of the train at mealtimes when called to the dining car. If you are caught sneaking a shower in a Silver and Blue car, you will be frowned at. Chances of being caught: 4%, if you are careful and do it on your way back from or instead of a meal, or close to Winnipeg when the car attendants are new. PS: tip your attendant before the end of their three-day shift. Ten bucks. Otherwise you suck.
- You will want to stake out a dome-car seat for the Rockies. Get one within an hour of Edmonton on your westbound trip or somebody else will already have it. Eastbound from Vancouver, it's probably worth it to skip breakfast to get one. If you are in Comfort class, there is one dome car. The other three are not for you.
- There is a little town called Melville, Saskatchewan. There is a small grocery store right across from the station. You will have time to run and get something, but do let your attendant know you're going to try it.
posted by Sallyfur at 9:44 AM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have travelled by Canrail pass as well as making a couple of other transcontinental trips. It is a wonderful mode of travel if you want to get a broad-brush, impressionistic sense of our vast landscape, with stops in the big cities and plenty of contemplative time in between.

There is a lot of good practical advice here already, so I'll just add this: for legs of the journey outside the Windsor-Quebec corridor, do not plan anything that depends on the train being even remotely close to on time.
posted by Urban Hermit at 1:31 PM on August 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Currently in full-blown wafflying stage.
posted by skwt at 1:50 PM on August 23, 2009

Response by poster: ...waffling
posted by skwt at 1:50 PM on August 23, 2009

for legs of the journey outside the Windsor-Quebec corridor, do not plan anything that depends on the train being even remotely close to on time.

True, this. On my own Canrail-pass-fuelled journey, the train I was waiting for to arrive at Brandon North station was five hours late. And this being western Manitoba, I could see it the whole time.

By the way, all sallyfur's points are great, and save me the trouble of posting them myself. The one caveat I would add, though, is that if you are doing the Rockies by rail, the most spectacular views will be at night, alas. Take a trip during the full moon and hope for a clear night...
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:34 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can't speak for the rail pass, but as a former farm kid from a small Canadian prairie town, I can say that both jb and Gortuk are right about small town stopovers. If you like strolling about in cute locales, checking out wee family-run shops, sampling home-baked cookies at the bakery and whatnot, you're likely to have more luck in BC and those parts of Quebec/Ontario that are more tourist-traveled and conventionally scenic. (I imagine the Maritimes are good for this as well but have no firsthand experience.) Towns throughout the prairies are, with some exceptions, pretty bare-bones, and although fields of canola and wheat and flax are lovely there's not much else to break up the landscape for a good long stretch of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Now, I'm not saying you can't enjoy burgers at the diner or chicken balls at the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant, or that you can't meet interesting characters if you try, or that you won't have fun hanging out at the town's only bar (or staying upstairs from the bar at the town's only hotel, which would likely be as cheap as a hostel in some places). Just don't expect storybook villages with artisanal cheese shops and the like, or much else in the way of tourist traffic.
posted by nicoleincanada at 6:07 PM on August 23, 2009

If you really want to see the BC/Alberta scenery by rail, and you have money to spend, you might consider taking a side trip on the Rocky Mountaineer instead. It's a tourist train scheduled so as to pass the most spectacular scenery in the daytime. Also, they run on the southern (Canadian Pacific) track to Banff, which gets you though the famous Spiral Tunnels. Driving from Banff to Jasper (to get back on the VIA train) is one of the most spectacular sights in Canada, and well worth doing anyhow.
posted by anthill at 8:40 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Help me interpret this postmortem toxicology...   |   I just want to work, for Christ's sake. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.