Royal Scotsman train advice
August 12, 2022 11:47 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I are planning to head to Scotland for our honeymoon at some point and we love the idea of riding the Royal Scotsman. I'm curious if anyone has anything to share or advise on this, be it which tour to take, timing, or setting expectations. To be clear at the outset we know it is expensive!

I have searched for reviews but many seem sponsored or in GQ or Vogue or whatever, and others are helpful but not very specific. We are wondering which of the several trains and tours we should do — probably the "classic" one but it's up in the air for now. Some are more expensive than others but we can't figure out why.

We will be spending several days in Edinburgh and surrounds so this is not to be our entire Scotland experience! But we love the idea of a beautiful train ride hitting some of the best castles and lochs.

Have you taken this tour or one like it? Any thoughts or advice? Little-known facts or additions/alternatives of this sort? We are quite ignorant.
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Have you had a look at seat61's guide? He's an independent train guru, I've used his website for many long distance train rides across Europe and USA, so I'd trust what's written there.
posted by sarahdal at 12:38 PM on August 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Man in Seat 61 is a good place to start
posted by dum spiro spero at 12:42 PM on August 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, hey, I did a trip on the Royal Scotsman! It was about 20 years ago, and I'll admit I got it as a freebie because I was a journalist and wrote a travel article, probably much like the ones you've read. I'm looking at how much it costs now and feeling extraordinarily lucky!

But based on my experiences then: It was very fancy, as you'd expect at that price.

The lounge carriage at the back was furnished like something out of a stately home or hunting lodge, if it happened to be a very long and thin hunting lodge. There was a 'verandah' out the back where you could step out into the open air while the train was moving, which was a fun novelty.

The beds were incredibly comfortable, IIRC. On nights where we pulled into sidings I slept like a log, less so for the periods we were moving at night (I feel like we maybe travelled part of the night and then stopped, but can't quite remember). Some other people who were on the trip had done quite a few similar journeys and said the beds were much better than the Orient Express - though this was a long time ago, so who knows now.

The food was incredible - they had a Michelin-starred chef and I remember the peculiar experience of eating a truffle omelette for breakfast while some of Glasgow's more deprived housing schemes flashed by out the window.

I would say it was somewhat on the stuffy/formal side - there was a "host" called Quentin who wore tartan trousers and charmed the older ladies; I had no idea I'd have to dress for dinner and was a not-very-well-paid 25-year-old or thereabouts, who'd never dressed for dinner in my life and hadn't packed accordingly, so trying not to let the side down there was a bit of a challenge but everyone was so posh as to be quite kind about it. (I was also caught unawares that we were expected to leave a tip for the staff in an envelope in our cabin at the end - I'm British, we're not big tippers, there was no possibility to visit a cash machine during the journey, so I just had to stuff the £40 I had with me in the envelope and apologise mentally to the staff who were presumably get way more than that from my wealthy fellow travellers. Anyway. I digress.)

The journey I took went from Edinburgh up the west coast to Mallaig, taking you over the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct (since become better known as the Harry Potter viaduct...) though of course the best view of the viaduct is from the hillside, not the train on top of it! But there were loads of photographers out on the hillside who'd come specially to try and take a pic of the Royal Scotsman crossing it. Mallaig is not especially exciting but it happens to be the end of the line and you go there basically because the scenery along that line is absolutely spectactular. We just got out for an hour or so in Mallaig, not too much to do but it was fun coming back to the train to see all the non-passengers peering in with excitement from the platform, and being met with champagne and allowed to actually get on board while everyone else gawped at our splendour.

At one point we decamped to a coach and took a trip to the Inverawe Smokehouse for a tour and buffet of smoked food, which was delicious. Our trip went down as far as Wemyss Bay where we got the ferry to Bute, for a nice-if-you-like-that-kind-of-thing tour of Mount Stuart (stately home).

I seem to remember thinking that one of the best things about it was the rather eccentric characters on board, but a. They were mostly American, so if you're also American they may not seem as exotic b. I was, as previously noted, not well off, so by default anyone who could spend that much money on a holiday seemed pretty exotic to me. But note that they will all be other tourists (obvs!), perhaps mostly American, so it won't be quite like stepping into an Agatha Christie novel.

It was all very fancy and luxurious, but the real star of the whole thing is the scenery passing by outside - would I pay £7000 for it when I could pay £89 or £149 and see the whole thing from a regular train, book some gorgeous hotels along the way and still have £1000s left over? Absolutely not. But that's me and I don't have £7000 to spend on a 4 day trip - only you know whether you have the money and are dying to spend it on 4 days on a fabulous train!

Happy to sift my memory to try and answer any specific questions you might have.
posted by penguin pie at 12:48 PM on August 12, 2022 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the info, and I totally forgot about seat 61. Yeah we probably wouldn't even be considering it but for that we are mitigating the cost with a honeyfund type thing.

It sounds amazing and part of the draw is it's all inclusive and would be very "on rails" so to speak. I love the idea of traveling by ordinary train and staying in neat inns in cool places but I have never been and I'm afraid it would end up a more complex and stressful endeavor (endeavour, I suppose) than a honeymoon ought to be.

I was worried about the possibility that, say, certain times of the season are better than others, or that certain castles or tours are unavailable or have gotten worse, etc. I noticed for instance that the northbound "western" trip these days makes a stop midway back at Edinburgh while the westbound one doesn't — probably the better deal (though far more expensive than the one we were looking at). I always like to learn about these little "you might never notice but.." details before booking anything let alone a trip costing as much as a car.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:24 PM on August 12, 2022

There are probably some in-between options where a package company provides all your reservations including accommodation and train travel which would mitigate against you having to micromanage every bit of it (for example - found by googling organised rail tour of Scotland). If nothing else, those would give you something to compare the RS with and you might get a gut feeling for whether you want to spend the extra to feel super-fancy and trouble-free.

In terms of seasons - best weather is probably May/June, and it's light until about 11pm then and light again around 4am, so you get nice long days. July/Aug are also nice but tend to be a touch more rainy (though not this year). Don't come in winter, it's dark by 3.30pm, and cold and wet. I'd say definitely avoid November to March, and probably also October and April if you want to be sure.

Midge season is around June, July, August - tiny biting insects that will make time in the countryside unbearable without protection if you happen to be in a midgey area with no wind or smoke to see them off, especially by water. Being on a moving train means you're pretty safe from midgies! But one to bear in mind if you're envisioning sitting by a loch in June. They tend to be worse in the west and the Highlands. That said, I was in Skye in June and no midgies - probably because there was a decent breeze. Couple of weeks later I was camping by a loch in the Trossachs and we had to be covered head to foot including midge nets over our heads. Just something to be aware of.

I've not poured over the current itineraries - I do notice that the only thing you seem to do on that extra stop in Edinburgh mid-tour is to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia, which costs all of £18 if you do it yourself.

That said, I think with the Royal Scotsman there's a £££££ mark-up that bears no relation to actual costs, for feeling fancy and not having to worry about anything, and it's marketed at people who have the budget to not compare "what would this normally cost with what am I paying the RS to do it" and maybe for this once-in-a-lifetime trip you do just want to feel fancy and not worry? I think we can say without a doubt that you'll have a fantastic trip if you decide to do it.
posted by penguin pie at 2:55 PM on August 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

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