If you’ve got the time, taking the train across Canada is the best way to get across the country. This scenic journey will take you by the Atlantic Coast, Ontario’s great lakes, through the prairies to the stunning Rocky Mountains.
I’ve been on the train trip across Canada twice and loved every second of it. If you’re traveling through Canada, taking the train as part of your journey is a wonderful choice. Find out everything you need to know about the train across Canada, including routes, prices, and why this experience should be on your Canada bucket list.
How I Took the Train across Canada Twice (for free)
Taking the train across Canada is something I always dreamed of doing, but I could never justify it on my budget. Then, the most serendipitous turn of events happened to me.
I was mid-way through my trip around the world in Vancouver for a family wedding. I wanted to spend my summer going across the country to my hometown in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on the East coast of Canada. I was trying to figure out the cheapest way to get across the country by land, actually out looking at used cars to buy. Then I get a call from VIA Rail marketing, who told me that I had won their 40th-anniversary contest! The prize was two round-trip tickets across Canada on the train. It was perfect.
I couldn’t believe my luck. Even though I had until December 2019 to use the tickets, the timing to go at that moment couldn’t have been better. VIA Rail was surprised at how quickly I wanted to redeem my prize, but they accommodated me, and before I knew it, I was off on an adventure across the country and back!
Train trips across Canada
To get across Canada by train, you have to take two different train routes. The Canadian, which is the Vancouver to Toronto train (or visa versa), and the Ocean, which is the Montreal to Halifax train. To get between Toronto and Montreal, you can take a regular VIA Rail commuter train. They aren’t as nice but run every day, and it only takes about five hours. By Canada distances, five hours is basically next-door.
The Canadian Train from Vancouver to Toronto
The train that brings people between Vancouver and Toronto (or vise versa) is The Canadian. It starts in Toronto at Union Station, or in Vancouver at Pacific Station.
Vancouver is one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, sitting at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, especially with so many options for weekend trips from Vancouver.
During the train ride from Vancouver to Toronto, you will pass through the rocky mountains with stops in Kamloops, Jasper, and Edmonton. The views are breathtaking, it passes through many of the most beautiful places in Alberta.
After leaving Alberta, you enter the province of Saskatchewan. The train journey across Canada was my first time seeing Saskatchewan, and I was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the landscapes were. The bright green endless canola fields are gorgeous in the summertime.
From there, the train stops in Winnipeg, Sioux Lookout, and a long but beautiful journey through Northern Ontario with a stop in Sudbury before arriving in Toronto.
I loved The Canadian train ride, especially the part between Vancouver and Edmonton. They add an extra panoramic window train cart for this part of the journey. The giant glass windows allow for stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and Canyons through British Colombia and Alberta.
The Ocean Train from Montreal to Halifax
The train journey between Montreal and Halifax is called The Ocean. It starts at either Montreal’s Central station or Halifax station. The route has many stops throughout Quebec and New Brunswick. This train route only takes 23 hours, which doesn’t give you as much time to get to know the staff and other guests as compared to The Canadian.
The train they use for the Ocean route is also slightly different than the Canadian. It’s a newer train, but the rooms felt smaller, which I didn’t know was possible. That said, I still loved my time on the Ocean train.
The food is excellent (yay seafood!), and the scenery is stunning—especially the section closer to Halifax, which goes along the water. I loved my experience on both trains, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the Canadian train route.
Accommodation on the train
Your accommodation on the train depends on the ticket class you have. There are three tiers:
Economy. An economy ticket will get you a regular seat on the train. Economy passengers don’t have access to the dining/activity carts in sleeper class. There is a place to buy food onboard the economy section, but it’s an additional cost.
Sleeper class. All passengers in this class have access to the dining/activity cars. Plus, meals come with the sleeper class ticket, which is great because the food on the train is so good. There are various bed options in sleeper class.
The best (and most expensive) option within the sleeper class is the one or two-bed private cabin with a bathroom. The other sleeper class options are only semi-private. One of them is a bench seat that folds out into a bed, with a curtain to close at night. The bathroom is shared.
I also saw semi-private rooms with a similar bench/bed combo, but with a toilet inside that has a lid that goes over it to turn it into another seat. Sleeping/sitting next to a toilet all day just didn’t appeal to me, so I’d probably go with one of the other options.
Prestige Class: The ultimate class. The private cabins used to be first-class, but recently VIA Rail has made upgrades with new prestige carts. As far as train travel goes, these rooms are luxurious. They are soundproof, which is a massive plus on the train because it can be noisy. They include a double bed that folds out, a TV, and massive windows to take in the view. And the best part, they come with unlimited alcohol.
The catch? They cost $10,000. The prestige class carts are only available on the Toronto to Vancouver train (the Canadian). VIA Rail was kind enough to let me see inside one of the prestige carts for a bit. It was awesome.
Unfortunately, my prize didn’t come with a prestige class room, but I did get a two-person cabin which, for a backpacker, felt prestigious. It had a set of bunk beds, a sink, and a separate room with a toilet (showers are outside of the room). It’s a tight fit with two people, but coming back as one person, I found it just perfect.
Another perk of being in prestige class is that they have an exclusive lounge just for prestige passengers. This cart is much nicer than any of the other viewing carts on the train. BUT don’t be discouraged if you can’t afford prestige class. After 4 pm they allow all the other sleeper class passengers access. There are limited seats in the prestige cart, so it’s a good idea to get there at 4 pm or even a few minutes before if you want to guarantee a seat.
The best part about the cart is that it’s at the back of the train, so you get views like this.
The Scenery on The Train Across Canada
The scenery is, of course, the best part about taking the train across Canada. Getting to see the changing landscape of Canada from coast to coast is a fantastic experience. I feel lucky to come from such a beautiful and diverse country.
Some of my highlights on the train across Canada were passing through Jasper, Mount Robson, and Fraser Canyon in British Colombia, the Canola fields of Saskatchewan, the never-ending lakes and trees of Northern Ontario, and along the ocean near Halifax. All of the sunsets on the train across Canada were magical.
The best part about taking the train both ways across Canada is that you get to see parts of the country where it may have been dark before. For example, coming back on the train from Toronto to Vancouver, we passed a beautiful stretch near the border of Manitoba and Winnipeg, which I hadn’t seen before.
The most beautiful part of the train ride is between Vancouver and Jasper. If you can only do one section of the train, this is what I’d recommend. As a bonus, VIA Rail attaches a special panoramic dome cart in Edmonton on the train from Toronto to Vancouver so that guests can take in the views of the rocky mountains.
The Food on the Train Trip Across Canada
Dining on the train across Canada was one of my favorite parts of the whole experience. I wasn’t expecting much, considering we were on a train, but the food was incredible. They serve you three meals a day and do not skip out on quantity or quality.
At each meal, you get a menu with four options. Lunch and dinner both come with a starter and a dessert. Some examples of the entrees we ate included veal, braised lamb, duck, and salmon. They always include one vegetarian option on the menu.
They tailor the menu to the region you’re traveling through in Canada, which adds to the experience. Expect great beef through Alberta and fantastic seafood on the East Coast. Dessert comes with lunch AND supper, which almost felt cruel because the desserts are SO GOOD. Like millions of decadent calorie good. Train calories don’t count, right?
They also provide snacks on the activity cart 24 hours a day, including fruit, pastries, juice, and water. You likely won’t even get hungry between meals because the food is filling, and being on the train is a pretty sedentary activity.
Activities on the train across Canada
The staff on the VIA Rail train across Canada are awesome. They go above and beyond to make sure you have a great experience. There are two activity carts on the train where the staff will do onboard activities, many of which alcohol-related.
When you depart from Vancouver, Toronto, and Jasper, the staff organize a champagne departure toast (Pro tip: you can get seconds, or thirds. Just ask). They also have a daily beer and or wine tastings where you can get a chance to sample local brews. There is also a paid bar on the train, but it’s not the cheapest. A beer is $10 CAD.
In the activity carts, there are board games and cards to play. Sometimes they play movies or host trivia and bingo games with prizes of Canadian souvenirs. Not going to lie, I got pretty into bingo on the train.
They also sometimes have live entertainment on the train in the activity carts. If you are a performer of any kind you can apply to VIA Rail to come on as a performer. If you get accepted you’ll get free accommodation and food in exchange for performing a few sessions on the train. I didn’t know this before going on the train. What a great opportunity for traveling artists!
There is no wifi on the Canadian train, and there are many points where your cell phone reception won’t work. During the stretch through Northern Ontario, I didn’t have any signal for about 24 hours. You will have plenty to see and do during the day, but it’s a good idea to bring some entertainment for nighttime after dinner. I recommend a Kindle E-reader with a Kindle Unlimited Subscription, which gives you access to 1 million titles for just $9.99 a month. As a frequent traveler, I love having the Kindle unlimited subscription since it gives me access to so many books for less than the cost of one.
Admiring the beautiful scenery along the train ride is the best way to spend time. One thing I loved about the train ride is that the staff will come on the intercom and give visitors information about any points of interest you pass through. They even slow down for scenic spots, such as gorgeous pyramid falls below
How long does the train across Canada take?
To go from Vancouver to Halifax, you can expect to be on the train for five to six days. The train from Vancouver to Toronto is three night/four days, and the train from Montreal to Halifax is one full day (24 hours). The commuter train between Montreal and Toronto takes about five hours.
Delays on the train are common because CN Railway, which runs the freight trains that go across Canada, owns the railway tracks. VIA Rail just rents the tracks from them. Since there is only one track, CN Railway has the right of way, and therefore VIA Rail has to stop to get out of the way when a freight train is coming.
They don’t know how much freight traffic there will be, and therefore delays are common. On my first trip across the train from Vancouver to Toronto, we ended up being 12 hours delayed by the scheduled time.
However, in November 2018, they updated the schedule so that it now more accurately reflects how long it will take to get across the country. The new times were in effect when I came back on the train from Toronto to Vancouver, and we were right on schedule. Just prepare yourself that you will frequently stop because of freight traffic and that a delay can still occur. VIA Rail doesn’t advise booking any onward travel the same day as scheduled to arrive.
You can view the most recent train schedule times on the VIA Rail Website.
Can you get off at stops?
Presuming the train is on schedule, they allow you to get off at some stops. Because we got so delayed on the train from Vancouver to Toronto, we only had time for quick 10-minute stops to stretch your legs/have a smoke break.
However, coming back West from Toronto to Vancouver, the train was on time, and we got to get off at places. The two main stops on the train ride from Toronto to Vancouver are a two-hour stop in Winnipeg and a three hour stop in Jasper.
Both train stops are in great locations for exploring. The train stop in Winnipeg is right downtown. They even make arrangements with a tour guide in Winnipeg that will meet you at the station for a walking tour of the downtown area for an additional $10.
Jasper is a small town, and the train station is right off the main strip, so you will have time to explore the charming downtown area of Jasper. You can even head into some nearby trails if you feel like a hike. If you can, I suggest getting off at Jasper and spending a few nights. It’s one of my favorite places in Canada/the world.
Best time to take a train ride through Canada
The train across Canada runs year-round, and there’s no “perfect” time to take it. All the seasons have pros and cons.
I love summer, so taking the train in June/August was perfect for me. I loved the sunny days and long nights, allowing lots of time to soak in the scenery. On the other hand, taking the train during wintertime would be a pretty magical experience. Imagine seeing the snow-covered mountains while being warm and cozy inside the train.
Then you have fall when the leaves are changing color. One of the staff members on board told me this is their favorite time to be on the train, and I can imagine why.
One of the best parts about Canada is that we truly experience all four seasons, so pick your favorite one and take the train then!
Cost of taking the train
Taking the train in Canada is not the cheapest thing to do, but there are ways to make it work even on a budget. The cost of taking the train varies significantly between economy, sleeper class, and prestige. Economy class is the cheapest but has the fewest amenities. I haven’t taken the train in economy class so I can’t speak too much about it, but I know others who have and said that they enjoyed the train experience. You get the same scenery, and it’s easier to meet people since you’re all on the same cart.
Check the VIA Rail website for the most recent prices. They frequently have sales, so it’s a good too keep your eyes out (and for contests)! Tuesday is the cheapest day of the week to buy train tickets on the VIA Rail website.
Tips for Taking the Train Across Canada
- Book on Tuesday. VIA Rail has the cheapest offers posted on Tuesdays, so wait to book then. They also run promotions frequently, so keep an eye out for deals.
- Pack light! The cabins are cozy so there won’t be much room for extra luggage. We shared a two-bed cabin with a 75L backpacking bag each and managed, but there wasn’t much additional space.
- Expect delays. Although the train times are updated, delays are still prevalent due to the unpredictably on the freight trains.
- Don’t book onward travel for the same day of arrival. Given that delays are common, don’t book onward travel for the same day you arrive. Spend a couple of days exploring these amazing Canadian cities!
- Be prepared to disconnect. The train does not come equipped with Wi-Fi, and there are large parts of the journey where your cell phone won’t work. Embrace this time and enjoy the views!
I loved my experience taking the train across Canada. I can’t thank VIA Rail enough for this incredible opportunity; it made my entire year! Taking the train across Canada is the best way to see the diverse landscapes of this country without having to worry about driving.
Have you taken the train in Canada before? Or do you have a similar train route in your own home country? Let me know in the comments below; I’d love to hear about it!
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