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If you’ve got the time, taking the train across Canada is the best way to get across the country. The ride starts will take you through the Atlantic Coast, Ontario’s great lakes, through the prairies all the way to Canada’s Rocky Mountains, culminating in Vancouver city.
I’ve done the train trip across Canada twice and loved every moment of it. I wrote this post to share everything you need to know to prepare for taking the train across Canada. It will go over the two main train routes in Canada, what to expect when you’re on the train, and some additional tips for making the most of your train experience.
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 yearlong trip around the world, in Vancouver for a family wedding. I wanted to spend my summer going across Canada all the way to my hometown in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I was in Vancouver, trying to figure out the cheapest way to get across the country by land. Then I get a call from VIA Rail letting me know 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
There are two main trains that take you across Canada. 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 city you just on a regular VIA Rail train. They aren’t as nice but run every day, and the distance is just over 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 either Toronto at Union Station, or in Vancouver at Pacific Station.
Both Toronto and Vancouver are wonderful cities to explore. I call Toronto home and never get bored of being in the city with so many things to do in Toronto.
If you’re visiting Toronto, check here for the best rates on accomodation in Toronto.
Vancouver is one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, sitting at the foothills of . the Rocky Mountains. For outdoor enthusiasts it is a paradise, especially with so many options for weekened 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. After Alberta, you get into the Saskatchewan.
This was my first time in the province and was pleasantly surprised at how much beauty there was outside as we passed through on the train. The bright green endless canola fields are beautiful 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 in an extra panoramic cart in this section. The giant glass windows which provides 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 ocean train is also slightly different then the Canadian. The train is newer but the rooms felt smaller, which I didn’t know was possible. That being said, I still loved my time on the Ocean train.
The food is excellent (yay seafood!) and the scenery is stunning, especially the part as you get 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. This is just a regular seat on the train. Economy passengers don’t have access to the dining/activity cars, and no food is included with the ticket. They do have their own viewing cart section and a place to buy food.
Sleeper class. In sleeper class, you get a bed to sleep, and access to the dining/activity cars. Meals are included with the sleeper class which is a huge advantage. Within sleeper class there are different options. The best and most expensive option is a one or two-bed private cabin with your own bathroom. The other sleeper class options are only semi-private. They have bench seats that fold out into a bed, and then you have a curtain to close at night. I also saw a semi-private room with a toilet inside them, with a lid that goes over it and turns into another seat. Sleeping/sitting next to my own toilet just didn’t appeal to me so I’d probably go with another option.
Prestige class: The ultimate class. The private cabins used to be first-class but now they have a prestige class. As far as train travel goes, these are luxurious. They are soundproof, which is a huge 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 nice 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 car, 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. During the day the attendants give you the option to put your bed up and have seats instead, but in my experience, it’s much comfier to just leave your bed down for the day. Lying down and watching the world go by through the window was incredible.
Another perk of being in prestige class is that they have a special viewing cart 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, 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 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 a view 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 an amazing 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, Alberta, 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 it has been dark for 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 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 about the whole experience. I wasn’t expecting much considering we were on a train but the food was actually 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 to pick from. Lunch and Dinner both come with a starter and a desert. Some examples of the entrees we ate included veal, braised lamb, duck, and salmon. They always include one vegetarian option on the menu.
The menu is tailored to the region you’re traveling through in Canada which adds to the experience. Expect great beef through Alberta and amazing seafood on the East Coast. Dessert is served with lunch AND supper which almost felt cruel because the desserts are SO GOOD. Like millions of calorie decadent 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 good 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 either Vancouver, Toronto or Jasper they do a champagne departure toast (Pro tip: you can get seconds, or thirds. Just ask)! They also have 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.
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 gonna 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. Specifically, the stretch in Northern Ontario for about 24 hours I didn’t have any receptions. 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 on the train. 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 across the Canada Coast to Coast on the train you can expect to be on the train for about 5-6 days in total. The train from Vancouver to Toronto is 3 night/4 days, and the train from Montreal to Halifax is 1 full day (24 hours). The commuter train between Montreal and Toronto takes about 5 hours.
Delays on the train are common because CN Railway, which runs the freight trains that go across Canada, own the railway tracks. VIA Rail just rents the track from them. Since there is only one track, CN Railway has 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 time schedule which 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 travel the same time as scheduled train arrival.
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 for a designated period of time. Because we got so delayed on the train from Vancouver to Toronto, we only had time for a quick 10-minute to stop 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 stop at places which enhanced the experience. 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 conveniently located for exploring. The train stop in Winnipeg is downtown so you have enough time to explore the area and come back on the train. 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, and 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 favourite places in Canada/the world.
Best time to take a train ride through Canada
The train runs year-round and there’s no “perfect” time to take it. It depends on what you like.
I love summer, so taking the train then was amazing for me. I loved the sunny days and long nights, bright blue skies and lush valleys. On the other hand, taking the train during wintertime would be a pretty magical experience. The snow during the wintertime in Canada is beautiful, and seeing the mountains covered in snow while being warm in the train would just be lovely.
Then you have Fall, when the leaves are changing colour. One of the staff members on board told me this is their favourite 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 favourite 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 in a budget. The cost of taking the train varies significantly between economy, sleeper class, and prestige. Economy being the cheapest, but with the least amenities. I haven’t taken economy so I can’t speak too much about it, but talking to others who have they said they still 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 website for the most recent prices. They frequently have sales, so it’s a good time to keep your eyes out (and for contests)! Also, Tuesday is the cheapest day of the week to buy train tickets on the VIA Rail website.
I loved my experience taking the train across Canada, and back. I can’t thank VIA Rail enough for picking me for this incredible opportunity, it made my entire year! Taking the train as a visitor to Canada is one of the best ways that you can see the diverse landscape of this amazing 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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