Henry Miller, the famous writer & painter once wrote – “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” In the last 60 years, travel has evolved for the impatient. We board a plane, melt into our in-flight entertainment consoles, look out the window a couple of times, and arrive at our final destination. Journeys that once would have taken days, weeks, or even months can be completed in a matter of hours. While I’m not one to complain about the advances of technology, I can’t help but feel that flights have removed some of the romanticism of travel. To experience the “real” Canada, the vast distances, the picturesque landscapes, the topography changes from one corner of this country to the next, nothing can beat travel by train. Having spent over 200 hours on VIA Rail in the last 60 days crossing eight provinces, I have found a new way of seeing things. I have discovered 13 reasons to stop flying and travel Canada by VIA Rail.
Traveling for days on end can lead to exhaustion. While the economy seats on VIA Rail are massive, with enough leg room that would make a 6’8 basketball player smile, spending a little extra money on a 40+ hour train ride can make all the difference. Stretching out in a freshly made bed, and sprawling in your newfound privacy is something everyone can appreciate. Having your own bench seat during the day (or bed should you choose to leave it down), where you can properly lay back, read, and relax not only helps pass the time, but better lets you enjoy the sights from your window. Sleeping through the night in a comfy bed and waking up well rested and that much closer to your destination is easily worth the price bump.
Showering while traveling is important. No more so than when you’re in a train with 28 cars traveling for 2 days straight. While Economy tickets don’t have access to shower, all Sleeping Cars come with them. To wake up refreshed from a full nights sleep and to have access to a clean and hot shower is one of the best ways to start a morning.
Keep in mind, showers are reserved for anyone in the sleeper cars, so those of you taking economy I would recommend bringing along some soap or some resealable wet naps.
Time to Work
While Wifi is typically limited to the Corridor (between Windsor & Montreal), if you are able to continue to work disconnected from the rest of the world, you’ll have plenty of time to do so. During my countless hours on the train I was able to organize and edit all of my photos, consistently write new blog posts, and edited three videos.
If you have to stay connected for business, or just for updating your Facebook status to “I’m on a train!“, a decent cell phone data plan along with the ability to tether can keep you online whenever you’re in 3G coverage.
The Dining Car Food
VIA Rail’s incredible selection of fully cooked and prepared meals makes the thought of airline food sound like the gruesome meals that were likely prepared in the middle ages. You won’t hear a single moan coming from the dining car as VIA Rail’s helpful staff serve everything from smoked salmon to veal, with your choice of beer, wine, juice, or coffee.
The Lack of Anxiety
While I wouldn’t consider myself a very nervous flyer, there have been times where I couldn’t help but start thinking about the fact that 36,000 feet is a long way down. The closest thing to uncomfortable turbulence you’ll find on VIA Rail is the occasional bumpy line of track, which means nothing more than a gentle rock left to right. No sudden drops, no feeling your stomach in your throat, just a smooth & gentle ride.
The Space & Comfort
While I can’t stress how awesome an upgrade on VIA Rail is, even in Economy seats, the amount of room given is on average MUCH more than you’ll find on most airlines. Combined with the ease of getting out of your seat to wander to the Snack Car, the Lounge Car, the Obvservation Car, or just walking to get your blood circulating, having that ease of moving around simply can’t be beat.
My biggest pet peeve with flying is being stuck behind a giant line at airport security, anxiously waiting to get through in fear that I might not make it to my gate on time. Security on airlines isn’t just strict, it’s border-line de-humanizing. While VIA Rail has it in their right to check your luggage, their security is far more realistic for the average traveler. You show up, check your luggage, grab your ticket, board, and go. Removing the scans, the pat downs, the 20 questions of “Where are you going?“, “What do you do?“, really speeds things up and makes for a much more enjoyable experience boarding the train. I traveled between Montreal & Toronto with Riley of Riles For Miles, and she couldn’t stop saying “That was so easy!” after boarding the train.
VIA Rail trains will never win a race with airlines, but that’s not what train travel is all about. The slower pace of train travel on VIA Rail allows you to truly take in the size and scenery of Canada. You’ll be hard pressed to see moose, bear, deer, and a variety of Canadian birds from 36,000 feet up. Traveling by train, this becomes a daily occurrence! A seat atop the Observation car during the day (or night – with the lights off) offers an astounding view of the scenic landscapes Canada is so famous for.
Many people don’t know this, but VIA Rail offers free train rides to musicians for performing two 45 minute sets per day on the train for passengers. While this is a great way for musicians to get around the country and tour for cheap, it also gives passengers a unique experience. There’s nothing like watching as the rugged Canadian landscape goes by outside the Lounge Car and some of Canada’s most talented artists serenade guests from all over the world.
I was fortunate enough to catch The Bombadils performing on VIA Rails “The Ocean”, between Halifax & Montreal. I also caught Morgan MacDonald perform on “The Canadian”, between Toronto & Winnipeg. Discovering new artists performing on VIA Rail might have been one of my favourite parts of the entire journey.
The Social Side of Travel
When I fly I am a grumpy human being. I don’t want to talk to the person next to me. I typically want to scold parents for bringing children on the flight, and I am generally just not somebody anyone would ever want to talk to. Perhaps it’s the discomfort, the nerves, the terrible food, the state of fear the media has us all worked up in. But the last thing I want to do is talk to anybody I don’t know while I travel on a plane.
The opposite couldn’t be more true on train travel. There is nothing more common on trains than seeing people who didn’t know each other as they boarded the train disembark as newfound friends. Partaking in conversation with both young and old, about their jobs, their past travels, their future aspirations, and their general interest in how you ended up on this same train. During my journeys on board VIA Rail, I became a conversationalist. A suave, interesting guy who wanted to speak to anyone who would listen. I couldn’t have been more of the opposite to that grumpy human being I am when flying.
Airline staff can often times feel a bit robotic. Any conversing with staff can lead you with somebody (passenger or staff) glaring at you as if you’re putting the entire world in jeopardy. Staff on VIA Rail behave differently. They are relaxed, happy, comfortable, rested, and it all shows. From the way they’re happy to assist you, to the fact that they’ll spare an extra five minutes from their busy schedule to converse with a passenger about anything from beer preferences, to destination tips. Did I mention they’re hilarious as well?
The beauty of traveling slow is that you have time to look. Time to take in what you’re seeing, where you are, and who you’re with. In my opinion, one of the best parts of traveling with VIA Rail is the amount of wildlife you’re sure to see. Between bears, moose, elk, and even mountain goats, it’s hard to spend a day on the train and not see something out of the window. What I love is that the staff aboard VIA Rail take time out of their day to announce if there’s wildlife coming up. I scored this great photo of a mother and young mountain goat, a couple dozen kilometers outside of Jasper.
Trains are usually on par with your average budget flight, and at times even less expensive. Train travel isn’t as pricey as many people make it out to be. One has to remember that most legs of train travel are over an entire day and night, saving you a night of accommodation and giving you a comfy ride and a whole new experience.
Don’t believe me? I took a look at a one way Economy Fair on VIA Rail for September 8th from Toronto to Saskatoon. The adult pass came up at $273.46 ($242 fare + $41.46 tax). I took a same look at Air Canada for a flight on September 8th from Toronto to Saskatoon. The adult pass came up at $420 ($278 fare + $148 in tax). Making VIA Rail the cheaper choice by $146.54! Add on top of that the fact that you’re saving 2 nights of accommodation by sleeping on VIA Rail and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.
As you have probably figured out, I am a convert! Train travel is the bee’s knees, wearing cat’s pyjamas. It’s for those people who aren’t in a rush, who have learned that in life, it’s not only good, but essential to stop and smell the flowers. Canada was built by the railroads, and I think one of the greatest ways to honour this fact is for every Canadian, and every visitor, to see this magnificent country from coast to coast with VIA Rail.
Special thanks to the folks at VIA Rail for having me aboard their train and giving me access to shoot photos & video.