Your Ultimate Guide to Train Travel

train travel resources by Her Packing List

There’s something romantic about traveling by train. You can relax and watch the world go by in a way that you can’t on other forms of transportation. Even with the speed advantage of flying, train travel has an appeal that can’t be beat.

Traveling by train is a lot less stressful than flying. You don’t have to be at the train station so far ahead of your departure time. Trains rarely have security checks, and when they do, they still don’t require you to limit your liquids, take off your shoes, or prohibit items like nail scissors and butter knives. Trains are also more roomy, and it’s easier for you to get up and walk around than on a plane.

While road trips can be fun, someone always has to be in the driver’s seat. On a train, you can look out the window and admire the landscape without worrying about watching the road ahead. And you can take a bathroom break without having to pull over!

Can you tell we love train travel here at Her Packing List?!

train travel resources

The World’s Great Train Journeys

Sometimes a train is simply a way to get from one place to the next. But often a train is the journey itself. To experience the adventure of train travel, try one of the world’s greatest train journeys. Since some of the fancier ones tend to be just as fancy in price, we’re listing out a few of the more accessible ones for our readers.

1. Trans Siberian Railway

Trans-Mongolian Train in Mongolia
Trans-Mongolian Train in Mongolia

The Trans Siberian Railway is an epic journey through Russia. There are actually three routes that are often referred to as the Trans Siberian, though they each have their own name.

Trans Siberian – This is the route between Moscow and Vladivostok. The entire route is within Russia.

Trans Manchurian – This route travels between Moscow and Beijing, crossing from Russia into China or vice versa.

Trans Mongolian – This route also connects Moscow and Beijing but by traveling through Mongolia in between.

These trains are used by locals as a normal mode of transport. Most tourists start in Moscow and travel east on one of these routes, but if you start in Vladivostok or Beijing and travel west, you’ll encounter few, if any, tourists.

It helps to know a few phrases in Russian as most non-tourists you will encounter will not speak English.

The train tickets are not flexible, so you have to plan out your stops ahead of time. If you can read Russian or you want to try using Google translate, you can book tickets yourself through www.rzd.ru or www.poezda.net. Otherwise the most recommended company to help plan and book your journey is Real Russia.

2. The Blue Train

The Blue Train
The Blue Train (from official website)

The Blue Train was originally meant to connect Cairo to Cape Town. Though that dream never became a reality, the train does travel through South Africa between Cape Town and Pretoria and offers a spectacular view of the country. It is one of the most luxurious trains in the world, so it might be tough on a tight budget.

3. The Canadian

Canadian train line

Canada’s VIARail has routes throughout the country, but a journey from one side of the country to the other is more of an experience than simple transportation. This route connects Vancouver with Toronto, can be taken in either direction, and has several stops across Canada’s varied landscape.

4. Great Southern Rail

The Ghan
The Ghan train.

Australia is a big country, so most people fly to save time. But for those looking for a slower adventure, seeing the country by train will give you a different perspective. Great Southern Rail has three routes showing you different sections of the country.

The Overland: This route connects Melbourne and Adelaide. It is a daytime train that allows you to admire the scenery along the way.

The Indian Pacific: A truly transcontinental journey, this train connects Sydney and Perth on a 4 day, 3 night experience.

The Ghan: This is an Australian favorite. The route runs between Darwin and Adelaide, straight through the Outback.

5. Kiwi Rail

View from the Tranzalpine train.
View from the Tranzalpine train.

New Zealand’s railway consists of three major scenic trains, one on the north island and two on the south island. A train journey here is the perfect way to get from one part of the country to another while enjoying spectacular views.

TranzAlpine: Probably the most scenic of the three, this train runs between Christchurch and Greymouth. From Greymouth, you can take a bus to Franz Josef Glacier.

Coastal Pacific: This train takes you along the east coast of the south island from Christchurch to Picton, where you can connect to the ferry to the north island. (Does not operate during winter months.)

Northern Explorer: The longest of the three, this train connects Auckland and Wellington, taking you almost from top to bottom of the north island.

>> Check out the Ultimate Female Packing List for New Zealand in summer and in winter.

6. The Orient Express

Orient Express

The Orient Express was made famous by Agatha Christie in her novel Murder on the Orient Express. The official route has been retired, but today you can choose one of several different routes on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express to cities such as Budapest, Bucharest, Vienna, Venice, Paris, and London. The Belmond company also operates train routes in Southeast Asia, Peru, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

Get Inspired by Epic Train Journeys

Planning and Booking Train Travel

Sometimes it really is about reaching your destination. If you need to get from one place to the next without the stress of flying, train travel might be the way to go depending on where you are in the world.

For information about trains throughout the world, the best place to start is Seat61.com. The site has advice, schedules, prices, pictures, and links for nearly every train in the world.

Train Travel in Europe

European train travel.

My personal favorite for checking train schedules in Europe is the German rail site. Schedules for almost every route in Europe are loaded into the site, allowing you to see how long it takes to get from one city to another as well as where and how long the changes are.

The site will give you prices for trains within Germany and most trains that start or end in Germany. However, it won’t give you prices for other trains. In that case, you’ll have to go to the corresponding country’s train site.

>>Check out the Ultimate European Train Travel Packing List.

Here are a few train sites from around Europe, in English:

train travel resources

Train Passes are a popular way to travel around Europe. If you are a European resident, use Interrail.eu, and if you are not a European resident, use Eurail.com. Passes vary from country-specific ones to passes that allow you to travel throughout most of Western Europe.

Do plenty of research to determine if a pass is right for you. In general, if you’re going to be traveling quickly, you want to be spontaneous and flexible, or you’re traveling to several countries, a pass might be worth it. But if you’re traveling slower or you have set dates, a pass might not be the best idea.

If you are 26 or older, you will be required to get a 1st class rail pass. Some trains require reservations, and the cost is not included with the pass. Some trains also have a limited number of seats available for people traveling on passes.

Train Travel in North America

amtrak in USA
The size of an Amtrak passenger train.

North America is not known for its trains. In the US, in most cases, the cargo trains have priority, which often leads to delays for the passenger trains. Make sure you aren’t on a tight schedule when traveling long distances on trains in the US. You’ll have better luck on trains in the northeast and northwest as compared with cross-country trains.

Brooke rode Amtrak in 2014 on two separate occasions: Los Angeles to New Orleans, aboard the Sunset Limited, and Chicago to Boston, aboard the Lake Shore Limited. On both occasions, the trains had issues, and she was late to New Orleans by a couple hours and finished the trip to Boston on a bus.

However, if you don’t have tight travel times, the train can be an adventure, and affordable at that. For two people from LA to New Orleans (a 48-hour, 2-night trip), it cost ~$700, and that included all meals and a small sleeper room for 2. The value was immense considering flights and accommodation and food for those two travel days would have been more.

Amtrak dinner car
Amtrak dinner car.
amtrak breakfast
A typical breakfast on the Amtrak long-distance trains.

Train Travel in Asia

Japan

  • http://www.japan-rail-pass.com

Vietnam

Thailand

Malaysia

Singapore

India

China

South Korea

Train Travel in South America

Peru

Argentina

Ecuador

Rail Passes

We’ve already mentioned the ins and outs of rail passes in the European train travel section, but it’s good to point out that rail passes are often available in many countries. For example, you can get a rail pass for Amtrak trains in the US for 15-day, 30-day, and 45-day increments. Rail Australia offers a rail pass through NSW TrainLink for 14-day, 1-month, 3-month, and 6-month increments.

Some things to consider before buying a rail pass:

  • Find out if a pass is worth it for your intended travel plans. Does the cost of the normal train rides run higher when purchased individually?
  • Is there an age restriction?
  • Do you need to book extras (like a sleeper bed) or reserve a spot in general when using a rail pass?
  • Are there any specific trains or lines that are excluded from use by the rail pass?
  • Are there extra routes, such as ferries and busses, that are included with the rail pass?

Some countries or regions offer passes for travel within specific areas. For example, in Germany each state offers a pass that allows you to travel throughout the state on the slow trains for a flat fee all day long. Restrictions vary by state, but typically the passes work for up to five people, include local city transportation, and are valid from 9am to 3am.

Train Travel Etiquette

Following some rules of etiquette will go a long way in making sure you, and those around you, enjoy the train journey. In general, be polite and considerate of others as you would anywhere else.

More specifically, here are some tips for a better train experience:

  • Speak quietly so you don’t disturb other people. Remember trains are a confined space.
  • Don’t sit in someone else’s reserved seat.
  • Don’t talk on your cell phone. If you need to, move to the lobby area near the doors.
  • If you bring your own food, don’t bring anything smelly.
  • On night trains, keep noise and lights to a minimum once others in your compartment start to go to sleep.
  • If you are on a specialty or luxury train, read up on the dress code or other rules that apply to your train.

Entertainment on Trains

Sometimes the passing landscape is all the entertainment you’ll need. But you might want a little more to occupy your time. Trains in some countries have TVs, but I wouldn’t count on this.

Entertainment on long-distance trains.
Entertainment on long-distance trains.

A book or e-reader is your best option on a train because it’s small and quiet. If you want to listen to music or watch a movie on your laptop, use headphones. Make sure your electronics are charged up before you get on the train since not all trains have electrical outlets.

For long-distance journeys where you’ll be sharing a cabin with others wanting to use electrical devices, it may be wise for someone to bring a power strip, which is something that Brooke said was very useful on the Trans-Mongolian train journey.

train travel resources
A wise traveler brought an extension cable to run under the hall rug on the Trans-Mongolian train journey.

On longer journeys, the bar car or restaurant car can be a good place to go for a change of scenery or to chat with other travelers. Some long-distance trains even have lounge carriages specifically for a place to stretch your legs and talk without disturbing other passengers. Just don’t leave your valuables unattended back at your seat.

Food on Trains

It’s always best to check ahead of time if your train has food options. Many long distance and fast trains have a bar car where you can order drinks, snacks, and full meals. There is often hot water available, so it’s useful to bring items like tea sachets, cup of soup packets, instant noodles and instant mashed potatoes.

train travel resources
Food car on Mongolian train carriage as part of the Trans-Mongolian train journey Brooke took.

For trains that do not have a restaurant, bring your own food if necessary. Food that does not need to be heated or kept cold is best. Sandwiches, granola bars, fruit, salads, and bottled drinks are good options.

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How to Book Train Travel around the world by Her Packing List

Written by Ali

Ali Garland is a freelance writer, blogger, and travel addict who made it to all 7 continents before her 30th birthday. She enjoys travel planning, encouraging others to see the world, and packing carry-on only. She and her husband are expats living in Berlin. You can find Ali at Ali's Adventures and Travel Made Simple.

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Comments

  1. Thegindrinker says

    This is a great article. We just took our first long train journey in the US from Seattle to LA on the Coast Starlight. While there were delays, the fact that we were drinking wine at the edge of the pacific and watching whales spout made up for it. They had wine tastings, a national parks volunteer and a movie theater – so there were plenty of entertainment options.

  2. Melody says

    Definitely be prepared for time delays when travelling with Amtrak! Last summer 3 friends and I took the Amtrak train to Chicago for a vacation. Both directions our 6 hour trip turned into 9+ hours. It wasn’t actually problematic for us since we didn’t have connections to make, but it certainly was for other passengers.
    But, for the price of the ticket, a person really cannot complain! We live in Canada, just across the border from Port Huron, Michigan. A one-way, economy ticket departing early on a Wednesday morning is a measly $26. $26 of gasoline will not get you very far on a road trip.
    Via Rail’s prices are shocking in comparison.
    I’ve done three overnight trips across Ukraine (Kiev to Krivoy Rog). First trip was second class. Nicole and I had the top bunks, with an elderly couple below us who had no qualms about stripping down to their skivvies right in front of us. Second trip was also second class, but the train was fairly empty so Yaris and I had the cabin to ourselves. Third trip was third class. All was ok, except for the undisciplined, yelling, crying children below me. No one slept on that trip.

    The best train trip I’ve ever taken was Algoma Central Railway’s Tour of the Line combo tour train. Depart from Sault Ste Marie, Ontario on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, disembark at the Agawa Canyon and catch the regular service train that runs to the end of the line at Hearst, Ontario. The next morning, get back on the service train and return to The Soo. You can also stay in Hearst longer and just take the train back on another day. The service train is tiny, just an engine, a power car, a baggage car, and a passenger car. It travels through very remote areas that are only accessed by train. Hunting and fishing camps are strung out along the line and the train will stop to drop you off or pick you up.
    My friend Chris and I spent both days hanging out the windows and the back door, taking pictures. The atmosphere is super relaxed. Open the dutch doors at the front of the car and hang out the windows, open the back door and watch the world go by, walk sock footed into the baggage car and roll the door open while stopped. Water, coffee, and a microwave are provided. It’s slow travel being that the top speed on that line is 40 mph, most of it being below 30 mph.
    If you love train travel and undisturbed nature, it’s an amazing trip.

    • Ali says

      Melody, that does sound really amazing! I haven’t taken a lot of trains in North America, but I love train travel in Europe. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Kelsey says

    This is awesome and so comprehensive, I will definitely be referring back to it in the future. The trans-mongolian is high on my list!

    • Brooke says

      It’s very worth it Kelsey! I recommend planning a route that allows for time to stop off along the way, not just sitting on the train for 6 days straight.

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