Canada by Rail
January 23, 2017 2:30 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I are visiting Canada for 11 days in late April. Our plan is to stay in Toronto for several days, then take the trans Canadian train that arrives in Vancouver 4 days later, and stay in Vancouver for several days. Is the train the best fit for us?

We HAVE to start in Toronto, and HAVE to finish in Vancouver. The end points are non-negotiable.

We are both European cities people, in which we dislike driving. We have rented cars to get around places that we visit, but on the whole, driving brings both of us some level of stress. So an entirely cross-country drive is not preferable.

Our options are: rail, rail and car mix, rail and flight and car mix.

We looked up the trans Canadian rail, which seems perfect for us. We like train journeys, although the longest we have been on so far has only been one day. We don't mind a relaxed train journey through the flat empty lands.

Unfortunately, we will be missing a lot of of day trips and National Parks that we'll miss along the way. There's the option of getting off the train, but the train stops for 1 hour only, and the next train comes along 4 days later, which does not fit in our schedule. I **think** that this is an acceptable compromise, as we're more city and culture type people, and less National Parks type people, but tell me if I'm wrong or if there are ways of getting around this (like flying to a city, renting a car for a day trip, and then continuing on with rail).

Also any tips for Vancouver and Toronto would be appreciated! Obviously, I have read all the guidebooks and wikitravels, but if you have any personal recs for a young couple that likes technology, food, and culture, that would be great.
posted by moiraine to Travel & Transportation around Canada (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I did a similarish Canada trip a few years ago - except I flew in and out of Vancouver and didn't make it as far east as Toronto (just grazing the edge of Ontario.)

I so wanted to take VIA rail! I tried really hard for it to fit into my schedule, but it did not. A big thing that messed with me was Saskatchewan- I wanted to go to Manitoba, Alberta and BC, (visiting people) and Saskatchewan was "in the way". Instead, I flew - Vancouver to Winnipeg, Winnipeg to Edmonton (and on to GP), Edmonton to Calgary (if you are there during the Stampede, check it out!) and then- I caught the bus between Calgary and Vancouver, winding through the Rockies, Banf, and on. I had 10 minutes in the car park at Banf, and while I really loved seeing the Rockies, I wished I had way more time than the sniff I got. I would have loved an hour- but you will probably feel the same way! (I think the train goes via Jasper instead? It's been a while since I was trip planning.)

I don't exactly recommend the bus, by the way- I was younger than I am now and a small person, and I still got achy and uncomfortable before the end of the trip- but maybe a shorter section (say Jasper to VC?) might be workable (or of course car hire.)

I guess what I'm saying is Canada is big- like, really big. Toronto to Vancouver is a huge amount of distance to travel, with some amazing things to check out in between. However, if you want to traverse Canada and 'see' it rather than pinging around on a plane, the train is a good option rather than driving.

Good luck with the scheduling- the train looks like an amazing option, and I wish it had worked into my schedule.
posted by freethefeet at 2:55 AM on January 23, 2017

Oh! and I really like Toronto on a separate trip- a big tip there was mind the local norms if taking the bus- lining up is a thing.

I also really really loved Vancouver- it was awesome. The public transport is weird in that the trains are driverless- so you can sit up the front and pretend you are driving! I liked the big public park there.

(Both cities reminded me of Melbourne in odd ways.)

Also, if you're training, make sure you get the bed option- I can't imagine sleeping in a chair for 4 days.
posted by freethefeet at 2:58 AM on January 23, 2017

(oh my goodness I'll stop after this I promise- this question is reawakening fond memories!)

Definitely check out Niagara falls (it's not too far from Toronto)- and make sure you do the walk behind the falls and the Maid of the Mist. I admit to being slightly underwhelmed when we got there, feeling it was as good as seeing it on a HD TV with a good sound system- but getting on the boat and feeling it was an incredible experience.
posted by freethefeet at 3:04 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Since there are three nights on this trip, if you can afford an upper/lower berth or a cabin for two (both of which include meals), the train would be a much more civilized experience.
posted by fairmettle at 3:24 AM on January 23, 2017

Toronto and Vancouver are both great cities to visit and both very walkable. Taking the train between them should be a good fit for you, but be aware that this train has run up to a full day late in the past (the tracks are shared with freights most of the way, and the freight schedules have priority over humans) so make sure you don't have a tight schedule in Vancouver.

At stops, you'll be able to get off the train, but depending on the schedule, you may only have a few minutes. You usually won't have time to go any farther than the platform or maybe into the station for a local newspaper (recommended - they're a good window onto the cities your passing through) on most stops, but ask your porter. He or she is the expert and your ally on the train (and will almost certainly deserve a tip at the end).

At a minimum, get the sleepette, which is two seats facing each other which turns into a pair of bunk beds at night. You really don't want to try and sleep in coach class for the whole journey. If you do, you'll be too stiff to enjoy Vancouver or really any of the journey beyond Winnipeg. And with the sleeping accommodations comes food and a porter to help you. Well worth it, in my experience.
posted by DaveP at 3:29 AM on January 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have done Minneapolis to Seattle by rail in the US, which is about 38-40 hours. Some quick research suggests Via's coach class is the same as Amtrak's. I found the sleeping arrangements in coach to be acceptable, however you should definitely spring for a roomette (or whatever) if you can afford it. The tiresome part was not so much sleeping partially upright, but the lack of showering facilities. (We took a bunch of our own food, but eating the same thing at every meal gets old. Having meals in the dining car included is also nice.)

I assume there are forums of Canadian rail enthusiasts, much as there are forums of Amtrak enthusiasts. I found the Amtrak forums useful reading for tips that we wouldn't have thought of, like bringing an eyemask for sleeping and the fact the trains get quite cold at night (no idea if this is true of Via). Although you probably don't much care if your train is seriously delayed (other than if you end up needing to let your accommodation in Vancouver know you're late--I'd anticipate no cell service for large chunks of the trip), the forums also probably have knowledge of where the train tends to lose and make up time. The route is so long that you can lose two or three hours and make almost all the time up again by the time you get to the west coast.
posted by hoyland at 4:25 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, the Dick Francis book The Edge takes places on the Canadian (well, a special train on the same route). I've consequently wanted to make this journey since I was about 12.
posted by hoyland at 4:26 AM on January 23, 2017

Rode this years ago and it was memorable and great fun, met interesting people. The stops are at best good for stretching your legs and grabbing take out, the stations are not close to much.
posted by sammyo at 4:54 AM on January 23, 2017

Yeah, Canada is not small. I've done road trips across the country stopping in national parks, but never the train. An option might be to take the train up until either Calgary, Edmonton, Banff, or Jasper - I'm not sure where your train would stop. From there, you could spend a day exploring a park - and, if you're in the Rockies, they're nice parks - and then take the next day to rent a car or otherwise get to Vancouver.
posted by sagc at 6:26 AM on January 23, 2017

So I've driven the trans-canada twice, westbound both times and honestly I'm not sure what you're worried about missing. It's a long, empty, boring drive. It will be a long, empty train ride.

That said: The stops on the Via rail web site I see are:
- Sudbury Junction
- Sioux Lookout
- Winnipeg
- Saskatoon
- Edmonton
- Jasper
- Kamloops

and Toronto & Vancouver.

There are a few northern Ontario parks you'll miss I guess but nothing that's internationally unique I think. The cities are nice and worth a short visit, but it's not a huge loss. Jasper is glorious and very scenic and it would be nice to drive from there to Banff and back, but if you can't, you can't. Jasper is fairly remote so it's a pretty rare journey for those who don't live in Alberta or BC. I'd spend more time there if it was me, but if the choice is an hour or 4 days, enjoy the hour.
posted by GuyZero at 7:50 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would recommend renting a car for the trip across the Rockies and the B.C. interior -- it's amazingly scenic country and it would be sad not to be able to stop and see things. You could either take the train to Edmonton (or Jasper), or fly to Calgary or Edmonton (probably a lot cheaper).

If you decide to do this, plan on stopping over in the B.C. interior somewhere -- Calgary to Vancouver via the Trans-Canada takes about 12 hours.
posted by irrelephant at 7:56 AM on January 23, 2017

Oh, as for tips on Toronto or Vancouver - there's a lot to see and do in each city. The Jays are playing already so go see a baseball game in Toronto and be puzzled by it if you're not baseball fans.

Toronto has more museums and arts events, Vancouver leans more on the natural beauty side although there are some great museums there too. Id suggest the UBC Museum of Anthropology which is a really unique collection of First Nations artifacts. For Toronto travel guides are easy to find but don't shy away from the big highly recommended places like the ROM or the Bata Shoe Museum - they really are very good.

If you have enough time in Vancouver you could spend a day going to Victoria by ferry or seaplane and back - the journey is half the fun, Victoria is apparently very quaint and nice.

You can get around both Toronto and Vancouver pretty well by public transit.
posted by GuyZero at 7:56 AM on January 23, 2017

I did exactly this 20 years ago (sitting up all the way, but I ws 20 years younger then). It was wonderful, but I read a lot of Robertson Davies along the way. Best bit was passing Mount Robson under a full moon--spectacular. If I were 20 years younger I would do it again now. But it would definitely be a good idea to get a sleeper (however you say that in VIARail-ese).
posted by Logophiliac at 8:16 AM on January 23, 2017

It's a long, long way from Toronto to Vancouver. The first day you'll see nothing but this, and the second day is nothing but this. The third day is this, though.

My recommendation, if you're interested in train journeys, is to fly to Calgary and skip the two days of boring scenery and take the Rocky Mountaineer. They do trains from Calgary to Vancouver, which is the part with the incredible scenery. Looking on their website right now, they do packages from Calgary to Vancouver that start with a day or two of bus-based sightseeing in the Banff/Lake Louise area so you get to enjoy the mountains a little more, then a couple days on the train. (They do train during the day and hotel at night, which means you miss out on the sleeping on the train part of a long train journey, but you don't sleep past the scenery, either.) It's not cheap - although our dollar is good value right now - but (based on the quick price check I did) it's actually not much more expensive than a cabin for 2 in the VIA train the whole way. Calgary's easy enough to spend a pleasant day without car in the downtown - memail me if you want tips, restaurant reccs, etc.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:16 AM on January 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

I've taken the Canadian in the other direction (Vancouver-Edmonton only), and the Rockies were an incredibly memorable and beautiful segment. I'd recommend skipping the flat bits and flying from Toronto-Edmonton or Toronto-Calgary (you may wish to build in a day or two for day trips around Alberta -- I ended up renting a car to drive down to Calgary and the Royal Tyrell Museum (dinosaurs! badlands!) in Drumheller. I'd then get on the train in Edmonton to Vancouver. The train will stop in Jasper briefly, and will also slow down during the most scenic parts so you can snap some photos from the observation car.
posted by betafilter at 8:53 AM on January 23, 2017

Do you really want to spend 1/3 of your vacation sitting on a train staring at basically nothing? I agree with those who suggest flying from Toronto to Calgary and then taking the train from there -- during the day if you can manage it, because the scenery through the Rockies is breathtaking. The Rocky Mountaineer is on my bucket list despite having driven through those same mountain passes approximately one zillion times, so if you can afford it, definitely consider it for the last leg of your trip.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:56 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Google "The Man In Seat Sixty-One". Best advice for trains, worldwide. No kidding. Take a look.
posted by John Borrowman at 9:26 AM on January 23, 2017

I would love to take the cross-Canada train one day. If you can do it, do.

That said -- it usually books up pretty quickly. I would definitely check out availability NOW, as you may already be too late for April.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:27 AM on January 23, 2017

I have never done anything like this, but I've always wanted to take the Rocky Mountaineer. Basically it's a train designed to maximize the view and experience: so you'll stop in the evening and stay in mountain hotels and get to look at things, and all the travel time through the rockies (where you want to see the view) would be during the day when you can actually see. You might consider doing this train through the Rockies and the regular VIA through the prairies. Hell, you might just fly to Calgary and do this from there to Vancouver.

p.s. Lining up vs. not culture for buses and streetcars in Toronto is very street-specific. Even time of day specific. Sometimes people line up and sometimes they don't. Just do what other people are doing.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:55 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

As someone who has traveled Amtrak around the US for a bit and Via Rail on the western part of the route you're interested in, I'd be careful extrapolating from one service to another. And I'd strongly advise against coach. Amtrak seats are larger and more comfortable and less likely to be broken. In the carriages at night, Amtrak turns the lights way down and attendants often hush any passengers who are active at night - Via Rail slightly dims the lights and attendants are very overworked, mostly allocated to the sleeper classes and don't intervene with noisy passengers at 3am in coach. Even with earplugs and an eye mask, I wouldn't expect to sleep much in coach on Via Rail. Additionally, the food is not nearly as good in coach - you're not usually allowed access to the dining car in Via Rail coach. You may also have to fight to get a seat with your travel companion on Via Rail in coach. Despite buying tickets together for a recent trip out of Vancouver and arriving for the train 3 hours early, my partner and I couldn't get seated together. That shouldn't happen if you get a sleeper.
posted by congen at 12:16 PM on January 23, 2017

I took the that train with a friend from Toronto to Edmonton in 2001 (2 nights). We enjoyed it so much that the next year we took the train from Montreal to Moncton (1 night). It is nothing like a boring Canadian highway. The tracks are almost always close to a body of water: we saw bears, herons and other wildlife! There was a rail car with board games and a movie. There was also the famous “dome car” to view the scenery from up high. We talked to fellow travellers and I played with a little girl who had brought an entire suitcase of legos. The Saskatchewan prairies are mostly scheduled for nighttime travel but I’ll never forget sitting in the dome car watching the stars and the expanse! Honestly, it was the quickest 50 hours of my life! We had the cheapest sleeping ticket: a top bunk each. That gave us full meal and shower privileges. The meals were fantastic and fresh!
But we really wanted to visit the Rockies so we took a guided bus tour for backpackers (we were university students at the time) that showed us around Jasper and then made its way to Vancouver via Kamloops.
Oh and read the Pierre Berton’s books on the history of the Canadian railway. It will give you great insight on how such a large and young country was built.
posted by nectarine danish at 6:35 PM on January 23, 2017

That is a huge chunk of Canada you'll be traversing. Having taken VIA from Kamloops to Winnipeg in the past I'd also recommend flying past the prairies unless you either _really_ like train travel or hate flying. The Saskatchewan section especially is hours of mostly flat grain fields (though at night heading West) and IMO there are better ways of spending time in Canada.

The Rocky Mountianeer takes the old VIA route through the mountains and does so during the day time. VIA gets into Kamloops at 11PM meaning a big chunk of it's mountain route after Jasper is after dark.

If you aren't familiar with mountain driving I'd be a little wary of driving Calgary or Edmonton to Vancouver. The route is much better than it was but there are still some long steep grades and long stretches of undivided two lane (IE: one lane each direction), sometimes both with 100km speed limits. And an outside chance of winter weather in April. It scares some people. If the train doesn't fit your schedule there are lots of bus tours that stop and hit the high spots between Calgary or Edmonton and Vancouver.

If you do end up overnighting in Kamloops (happens when you take the RockyMountaineer) shoot me a metamail if you want to have a mini meetup.
posted by Mitheral at 8:55 PM on January 23, 2017

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