Traveling by train through the Canadian Rockies is a bucket-list experience. // © 2013 Rocky Mountaineer
Train travel in North America is experiencing a renaissance. It is relaxing, comfortable, environmentally friendly and convenient as well as a relatively inexpensive mode of transportation. These traveler-friendly aspects are helping to spark a resurgence of interest in rail trips.
“Rail travel has everything from nostalgia to romance,” said Frank Marini, president of Yankee Leisure Group, operator of Amtrak Vacations. “It’s a different way to see America, and some of the areas that the train travels to are the most beautiful in the country.”
In the U.S., ridership on Amtrak, which is the primary U.S. rail carrier, has been growing steadily. According to Amtrak research that has been analyzed by the Brookings Institute, U.S. rail passenger levels are at their highest ever, and ridership continues to increase. Coupled with offerings in Canada, where VIA Rail has enhanced its services with modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi access and electronic ticketing, North American rail travel is improved and more accessible than ever.
“There is something truly romantic about traveling by rail, which offers access to destinations and scenery unavailable by other modes of transportation,” said Karen Wiseman, director of sales, U.S. and Mexico for Rocky Mountaineer. “It connects the traveler to history, while carrying them in luxurious railcars with gourmet meals that are regionally inspired and attentive service and storytelling by talented onboard hosts. When traveling by train, the journey becomes just as important as the destination.”
Connecting one location to another is just one reason to ride the rails. While there is no high-speed rail system joining the East and West coasts of the U.S. or Canada yet, train travel is not an outdated mode of transportation. And North America has some of the most iconic train routes in the world. The amount of time that it takes to travel through these destinations on the train offers passengers unique opportunities.
“Lifelong connections are made among guests on the Rocky Mountaineer,” said Wiseman. “Guests enjoy meals together in the exquisite dining room, and the lively atmosphere onboard the dome coach, aided by the storytelling of attentive Rocky Mountaineer Hosts, encourages friendly interactions among travelers from around the world.”
Interpersonal connections are one of the many reasons why train travel is becoming more popular. But another reason is that the trials and tribulations of other modes of transportation make trains a good option.
“Train travel is generally hassle-free,” said Ryan Robutka, senior manager of sales and marketing, Americas for VIA Rail. “There is no need to show up at the station hours in advance or stand in line for security checks.”
There is also the convenience of stations that are, in most cases, very centrally located.
“VIA Rail’s downtown-to-downtown service in most locations also means saving on time and cab fares to airports that are located way out in the suburbs,” said Robutka. “Trains are usually on time, come with no baggage fees and travelers don’t have to deal with traffic and rest stops.”
There are many good reasons to take the train, but knowing which clients would be must receptive to this type of journey is also important.
“Train travel is a bucket-list experience,” said Marini. “Not all of the passengers onboard are train buffs. Travel agents should look at their book of business with an eye for clients who would be interested in experiencing a destination in a different way and suggest that they go by train.”
Marini noted that the ideal clients are generally older, but families and couples enjoy trains, too.
“Boomers are the target age for a rail vacation,” he said. “Sixty-eight percent of our travelers are age 40 to 70. This is our sweet spot. However, shorter trips are also good for families.”
While the over-40 crowd is a target market for Amtrak, the company also targets families with its new Amtrak Family Adventures, and VIA Rail also believes that trains are a great travel option for multigenerational groups.
“VIA Rail makes it easy for the entire family to share the magical experience of ‘land cruising’ together,” said Robutka. “The train journey is augmented by the convivial mingling among passengers from all over the world, the charismatic conductors and time for the family to relax together.”
Robutka also noted that a vacation by train may be one of the best, and certainly one of the easiest and most comfortable ways, for multi-generational groups to spend time together.
“Families love the mobility of the train, sleeping and dining onboard and stopping for a few days along the route to explore Canada,” said Robutka.
Because train travel is so flexible, when it comes to selling rail vacations, Marini recommends selling the client on the destination first and then discussing the benefits of taking the train.
“Explain to them the advantages of rail travel: The dates are very flexible, and the price is affordable,” said Marini.
In addition, rail providers offer travel agents a lot of booking assistance such as training, webinars and more.
“We can help agents with the complexity of booking,” said Marini. “Our agents are trained to help travel agents answer the questions that their clients will have. They will even handle conference calls with the client and agent if the agent allows.”
When booking a rail journey, Marini recommends ensuring clients understand that traveling by train is unique.
“Everyone can visit these destinations by plane or by coach, but it’s special and different to go by train,” he said.
Marini recommends Glacier National Park as one of these trips, noting that it is Amtrak’s top seller. The rail company has several options for exploring the park, from escorted journeys to short getaways.
The escorted Glacier National Park Discovery is nine days and eight nights and begins in Chicago. Clients overnight on the train and arrive in East Glacier Park in the early evening and spend the night at Glacier Park Lodge. After two days exploring the park, clients board the train again for another overnight journey to Seattle. A city tour of Seattle is included, as is an overnight at the Fairmont Olympic Seattle.
There are several independent rail journeys to Glacier National Park. The Great Outdoors with Glacier National Park is one example. The eight-day trip travels roundtrip from Seattle and includes two overnight journeys, as well as the city of Whitefish, Mont., a stay at Grouse Mountain Lodge, a tour of Glacier National Park and more.
Other popular independent journeys include the West Coast Spectacular, a 10-night journey that includes Seattle, Napa Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles and more.
Marini also noted that the Grand Canyon is one of the line’s most advantageous tours.
“Most people spend an average of 19 minutes at the Grand Canyon,” said Marini. “This itinerary is good for Amtrak partly because we stop at Williams Station and clients take the train right into the canyon.”
A 10-day journey to the Grand Canyon from Chicago includes an overnight train ride; Santa Fe, N.M.; Williams Junction, Ariz.; the Grand Canyon; Flagstaff and Sedona, Ariz.; and more.
In Canada, one of VIA Rail’s top trips is onboard The Canadian.
“It’s a legendary and remarkable four-day journey and the only regularly scheduled train in North America to be included in the Society of International Railway Travelers, 2009 ‘World’s Top 25 Trains,’” said Robutka. “From Toronto to Vancouver, no matter the time of year, the images are unforgettable: mountain sheep grazing in the Rockies, elk loitering outside Jasper, the skyline of Toronto looming on the horizon.”
Clients can also choose to add a touch of elegance to their journey with VIA’s Sleeper Touring class. The journey begins with a bon voyage reception and continues with onboard fine dining, accommodations and more.
Onboard the Canadian, passengers take in the scenery from the large picture windows at their seats or from the 360-degree scenic dome. From May until September, and between Edmonton and Vancouver, Sleeper Touring class passengers also have exclusive use of the train’s fully glass-enclosed Panorama cars, also offering 360-degree views.
Rocky Mountaineer offers a glimpse into the scenery of the Canadian Rockies on its classic journeys in Western Canada.
“Our flagship route is the First Passage to the West rail journey between Vancouver, B.C., and Banff, Lake Louise or Calgary, Alberta,” said Wiseman. “This is a two-day, all-daylight journey, and we are the only passenger rail service on this historic route.”
The route allows passengers to retrace the steps of 19th-century explorers and travel through the legendary Spiral Tunnels.
In addition, Rocky Mountaineer offers more than 45 Canadian vacation packages and five unique rail routes.
These classic journeys are just a sampling of what is available to clients who can traverse North America’s extensive railway network in style.
“There are so many reasons to go by train,” said Marini. “It’s relaxing. There’s less hassle and there is room to roam around.”
Most of all, trains offer unparalleled access to places cars and planes just can’t get.
“Unlike in a car,” said Wiseman, “where you miss most of the scenery while driving, the train has unique access to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.”