Traveling Across Canada by Train
March 4, 2010 12:35 PM   Subscribe

We're planning a cross-Canada train trip (between Vancouver and Toronto) this fall. In addition to some questions about logistics, we would love some general advice to help make it the "trip of a lifetime" we're hoping for.

This question was the catalyst for planning the trip. I assume, from the answers, that going west to east on the Canadian is better than the reverse. Verification of this, as well as advice for sleeper train n00bs, would be much appreciated.

And now the logistical questions:

If we fly out to the Pacific northwest (in the US) and rent a car to tour that area, how on earth do we get across the border to Vancouver? Rental cars we can drop off in BC are prohibitively expensive, and taking a bus from Seattle to Vancouver isn't especially appealing. Are there other alternatives I'm missing?

When would be the best time for us to make the trip? We're very flexible and can make the trip anytime from July to November. If there are weather, fall color, or wildlife considerations that would bear on when we schedule the trip, it would be helpful to know them.

How far in advance should we book (and pay for) our train tickets? Do they sell out fast? Are there coupons or discounts we can use?

Will there be an opportunity to see some of the sights in Jasper and other places where the train stops for a while?

How likely are delays? Should we be concerned that the train may be far enough behind schedule that we'll pass by the must-see things during the night?

Are there things (beyond personal items, cameras, and the like) that we should definitely bring with us or definitely leave behind?

(In case it matters, we are US citizens and my husband qualifies as a "senior".)
posted by DrGail to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There is Amtrak train service between Vancouver and Seattle.

Trees (aspen) start turning colour in the mountains by early September; Vancouver is really nice in mid October.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:41 PM on March 4, 2010

I don't know if you've seen it in your googling, but consider maybe taking the bus from Bellingham north, instead of Seattle. It'll save you 2 hours in a bus, and you might be able to drop your rental car off at the Bellingham airport. I've never taken it (but I always seen their busses around), but QuickCoach will take you from the Bellingham airport to the Vancouver train station for ~ $26/each. My parents have done this several times, to and from the B'ham airport, but I can't remember exactly what company they used.

As for Vancouver weather -- it should be okay up until October (when the rain really starts). Of those summer months, one will always be rainy and drab, but it's annoyingly never the same month.
posted by cgg at 12:46 PM on March 4, 2010

I remembered a ferry from Seattle to Victoria and it looks like it is still operating. You can then catch another ferry to Vancouver.
posted by Cuke at 12:47 PM on March 4, 2010

Stay out of the Rockies after October 1st unless you've got a 4x4 and mountain driving experience. 90% of the time it will be fine, but that 10% will kill you and everyone you've ever loved.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:49 PM on March 4, 2010

I remembered a ferry from Seattle to Victoria and it looks like it is still operating

Yep, the Clipper is still operating. I can see it coming into the Inner Harbour as I type this.

Stay out of the Rockies after October 1st unless you've got a 4x4 and mountain driving experience.

I believe they're taking the train across Canada.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:52 PM on March 4, 2010

blue_beetle - I'd say that's a bit extreme. Normal winter driving precautions should do just fine for anyone who's not off-roading.
posted by kitcat at 12:53 PM on March 4, 2010

Delays are guaranteed. You will have much better luck with your current plan of west-east than you would hoping to see the cool scenery [ie: BC] at some random time at the *end* of your trip.

There are definitely discounts available, but you would be best off phoning an actual VIA Rail person. They were very helpful in saving me piles of money when I went. Maybe a single trip would be harder to find a discount for. Ask around!

You can either see Jasper for ~1 hour or ~ 2 or 5 days. [The train runs tuesday and thursday, iirc]. The stop is brief, and unless you get a train breakdown at the exact right spot there isn't any option in between.

A ferry between seattle and victoria is nice [and then a ferry to vancouver], but will involve some bus travel because the ferry terminal is not right in victoria, and it's fairly far on the outskirts of vancouver, too.

Bring travel scrabble and some cards or knitting. It's a long, long trip.

On preview, a lot of this has been covered. Oh well.
posted by Acari at 12:54 PM on March 4, 2010

Via has a kind of cool "park car" that lets you see the stars. I think they also offer and "hop on, hop off" kind of ticket that may suit your needs.

The mountain parks look terrific in a different way at all times of the year. I like Vancouver and Victoria best in March-April due to the cherry blossums, but people differ on that and I guess it's outside your time frame. The train stops in Edmonton and as an Edmontonian, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that there's a tonne of interesting festivals (western Canada's best Folk Fest, Fringe, etc.) taking place here in the summer months, but not much going on any other time of the year.

I've only done the train between Edmonton and Jasper, but the freight trains have priority, so there are often delays.

Definitely leave behind: firearms.
posted by Kurichina at 1:13 PM on March 4, 2010

My wife and I did this trip in December, and it was totally worth it.

My recommendation for getting from Seattle to Vancouver would be to take the Amtrak Cascades. If you're flying into SeaTac, the Central Link Light Rail will take you directly from the airport to the train station in Seattle. And then, the train it drops you off in Vancouver at the same station you take the Canadian from (which is near downtown and right across from a SkyTrain station, so if you have a few hours to kill in Vancouver it's convenient). Amtrak Cascades is also a very scenic trip; much of it goes right along the coast.

We were kind of last minute about the trip, so didn't get any deals (the train was almost full). I'm pretty sure the earlier you buy your tickets the cheaper they're going to be, and VIA raises the prices as seats become more scarce.

I would highly recommend at least getting berths or a cabin. A coach seat for such a long trip would take much of the joy out of the trip. We had berths initially but due to problems with the shared toilets (they were freezing up; this was December) we got upgraded to a room (with private toilet). Nice thing about getting berths or a cabin is that all meals are included, and the food is great (especially the dinners).

Our trip definitely ran behind, at some points we were as much as eight hours behind but made up most of the time and arrived in Toronto less than an hour late. Apparently they build a lot of leeway into the schedule because it's unpredictable how much time the train has to wait on sidings while freighters go by (they have higher priority).

We ended up having about 2 hours in Jasper to walk around in the afternoon, and 3 hours in Winnipeg in the evening. We got into Edmonton really late so didn't have any time there. I recall reading somewhere that if you want to spend more time at one of the stops it doesn't cost any extra to get off your train and then catch the next train through, but right now I'm unable to find anything about that on the web site. Worth checking into though if you wanted to spend a few days in Jasper.
posted by Emanuel at 1:19 PM on March 4, 2010

Oh here's a hint: if you want to keep your electronic devices charged, be aware that power sockets are few and far between (this train was built long before laptops existed). Cabins do have their own power sockets, but berths don't. The only usable sockets I found (before getting upgraded to a cabin) ware in the park car behind the table with tea and coffee, and in the coach cafe car under one of the tables. The rest are all in the very narrow hallways and anything you try to charge there will probably get stepped on.
posted by Emanuel at 1:25 PM on March 4, 2010

I did this over ten years ago. You don't say how much time you are budgeting for this trip. We stopped a lot to visit people along the way and we did it in approx. one month, from Vancouver to Halifax. Of course, by the time we hit Ottawa, we were too tired of traveling to stop in Montreal and Quebec city. Luckily I've had lots of chances to see Quebec, the province, since.

We bought a pass from VIA and upgraded to sleeper cars for the overnight portions. I'm sure the passes have changed since then, but it allowed a certain amount of travel days for a month or too, you didn't have to schedule the whole thing right away, but you had to book ahead to guarantee the type of seat or sleeper you want.

You shouldn't have any problem with the views of the Rockies. They schedule that trip knowing that people are there for the view. The rest of the trip the scenery will last for hours. You won't miss anything. The prairies last forever, as does Northern Ontario.

I recommend traveling light because the sleeping cars can be small and can range from a private room to seats that turn into bunks. They told us a couple could share one level of a bunk bed - this was not true for us! My parents didn't sleep well because they were scared of falling out.

If you want to guarantee seeing a place you should get off the train for at least a day and stay in a hotel. That way you will have time to see some sights! Like the Olympic village in Vancouver.

You will have a great time!
posted by Gor-ella at 1:51 PM on March 4, 2010

I did Toronto-Vancouver a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I echo what others have said about getting berths or a cabin. The latter being preferable as you can set your own schedule more than having the people around you and/or the stewards deciding when you go to bed and wake up. The food and service that's included really is worth it if you can afford it.

The one thing I don't think anyone has mentioned above is: the earlier you go, the more daylight hours you can get. I did the trip in November and it gets dark pretty early then. Going in the summer or early fall may be more expensive but you can see the scenery for much more of the day.

If you have the time and money to stopover in Jasper that would also be good. Now that the train runs 3x / week the options are better.

It's worth noting that cabins don't lock from the outside, so leaving stuff in there (laptop charging for example) when you're not there is entirely at your own risk. We were in a private group / section of cars so it wasn't an issue. Not sure I'd do the same on a train full of people I didn't know. They do lock from the inside for security at night.
posted by valleys at 1:54 PM on March 4, 2010

The Seattle-Vancouver Island ferry is great-- I did that years ago and saw a big pod of killer whales! Vancouver Island is beautiful and well worth a couple of days if you can spare it-- the rainforests on the west coast around Tofino and Ucluelet are one of the most amazing places in the world. You can then ferry across to Vancouver to catch your train.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:38 PM on March 4, 2010

Having criss-crossed the country a few times by both car and train I can say:

Go in the summer if possible. The scenery in the Rockies will be great year-round, but once you're into the prairies it will be much more scenic, in my opinion, when the wheat is golden and the bluffs are green. Also, northern Ontario is endless and depressing no matter what, so you might as well see it in the summer and at least get all the sunlight.

Stop in Jasper if possible, but there's not much to see in Edmonton (although maybe I'm saying that only because I'm originally from Calgary;) and don't let anyone tell you that Winnipeg isn't worth seeing. It tends to be the butt of many a joke in Canada but it most definitely has a great charm.

I know you said that you're going to Toronto, but I would suggest carrying on beyond that if you can. Montreal is always fantastic, and a stop in Quebec City to see Old Quebec is not to be missed. Also, the Maritimes (my adopted home) are the most beautiful part of the country and are always overlooked. Get all the way to Halifax if you can. There's so much to see out east!!

Good luck with your trip!!
posted by fso at 4:22 PM on March 4, 2010

We did this for our honeymoon! A great trip. Spring for berths (we didn't and wished we had). We stayed in Vancouver/Victoria for a week, took the train to Jasper and stayed there another week. Just lovely.
posted by mdiskin at 6:35 PM on March 4, 2010

Edmontonian piping in to agree: no need to stop here. (Unless, as suggested above, you do want to catch the Folk Fest (Aug 5-8) or the Fringe Theatre Festival (Aug 12-22)).

If you can only stop in one place, make it Jasper.

While the prairies may be monotonous, they are indeed beautiful in the summertime. And Alberta sunsets are stunning.
posted by kitcat at 10:45 AM on March 5, 2010

I've done the trip twice, once in either direction, and enjoyed it both times.

One quirk of the VIA schedule is that the train goes through much of the BC mountain scenery at night. If you have money to spare, you might consider splurging and taking the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff, making your way from Banff to Jasper along the jaw-dropping Icefields Parkway, then catching the next VIA train from Jasper.

This will give you more sightseeing time in the mountains, take you on the southern CP track complete with spiral tunnels, and ensure that you spend a few days sightseeing in Banff and Jasper (the highlight of the trans-canada trip IMHO).
posted by anthill at 7:12 AM on March 6, 2010

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