It’s no secret that The Travelling Boomer loves train travel. Gliding across the country in a comfortable seat while dramatic landscapes slide by your private window on the world — travel doesn’t get any better. But if there’s one man who loves train travel more than The Boomer, it’s Don Nadeau.
Don is president of BidOnTravel.com and an expert Priceline bidding strategist, featured in both the New York Times and USA Today. And, he admits, he’s a certified travel addict — but particularly, a train travel addict. He’s seen the world from a window seat, chugging past some of the most scenic places on earth. And along the way he’s learned more about train travel than Casey Jones ever knew (of course, Casey died young …).
Better yet, Don is generous with his travel knowledge, and he’s agreed to share with us some of his best memories of train trips near and far, as well as his picks for the best train trips in the world. Here’s our conversation:
Travelling Boomer When did you first get hooked on train travel? Was there one long-ago trip that whetted your appetite?
Don Nadeau I come from a family of — to put it accurately — rail nuts and became one too. We did most of our travelling by train and loved it.
My first overnight trip alone set the tone — across western Canada via Banff and along the Pacific coast. Eventually, I ended up with a travel and tour company in Vancouver that was the second-largest private seller of Amtrak tickets in the world. In Canada, no less! We chartered entire trains every year and also sold loads of Via Rail and Alaska Marine Highway ferry tickets.
TB Where did the chartered trains go?
DN Each December and Easter school break we offered two round-trips to Disneyland. These were super popular and always sold out, with some 500 passengers on each. They would leave Vancouver in the early morning and pop up in Anaheim the next evening. The trains went nonstop except for service and crew changes. Kids loved this trip. They experienced lots of beachside running, tunnels and all those good things.
Most of our business, though, came from setting up rail and rail-and-bus itineraries for visitors from places like Australia and Germany. We also had a large clientele of people who could not fly for various reasons (heart problems, etc.). Sadly, even then most travel counsellors were air and cruise only-centric. We were an oasis.
Being online now with BidOnTravel, I miss sitting with, for example, a couple from Denmark and helping them plan a wonderful time in North America.
TB What is it that you especially love about train travel?
DN This former geography teacher loves looking out at, well, the geography of the places he travels. I often find getting to a place as fun as the destination itself. That’s certainly not true of flying these days and often not true while driving.
TB You must have a lot of fond memories of great train trips – can you tell us about one or two?
DN My favourites will always be the ones I took through Banff, Yoho, Glacier (the Canadian one), and Revelstoke national parks on Canadian Pacific. Shock and awe scenery and the service was great!
And, Switzerland has to be my personal rail Disney World. I have loved every train I’ve taken in Switzerland. My fave so far is the Bernina Express, between Chur and Tirano in Italy. Alpine forests and glaciers nearly close enough to touch, then vineyards in Italy within a few hours.
TB I didn’t even know there was a place called Chur … how do you find the train travel experience in the U.S. and Canada versus Europe?
DN Unfortunately, Canada’s rail situation is even worse than in the States. Winter service Toronto – Vancouver has declined to two trains per week. Summer sees just three round-trips.
Moreover, for some unknown reason, the Canadian government gave a monopoly on the Banff route, the most scenic in North America, to the Rocky Mountaineer, a private company. That company gives great service, but its fares are simply unaffordable to most travellers. I cannot see that decision being in the national interest.
In contrast to North America, travelling by rail comes effortlessly in Europe, with so very many more choices.
TB I know you have a lot of favourite train trips. Could you give us your top three worldwide?
DN Yikes, Paul. I can’t do just three.
There’s the aforementioned routes, of course. And Amtrak still has some great trains.
Its Adirondack offers incredible scenery between New York City and Montreal, and that natural world starts even before you leave Manhattan. In fact, this train passes below the hill that hosts Manhattan’s virgin, never-cut old growth forest. I kid you not.
Take the Adirondack northbound for its best scenery. Its drawbacks are the lack of a full diner (just snacks available) and no high-level dome-type seating — tunnel clearances won’t permit that.
Other Amtrak routes I love are the Cardinal (take eastbound), the Capitol Limited (eastbound), the California Zephyr (westbound), Coast Starlight (northbound), and the Southwest Chief (either direction, but I like eastbound best). These directions give you the best scenery during daylight.
A quick little Amtrak route to enjoy, with great scenic payback, takes you from Los Angeles to San Diego. Lots of coast running, and some of its trains actually stop on San Clemente Beach. You’ll step off onto the sand. (Wow – TB)
In Canada, Via Rail’s Jasper route on The Canadian offers significantly less variety than the Rocky Mountaineer, but still gives lots of nice scenery. I like, too, that it offers high-level dome seating superior to Amtrak’s. The quality of its food and the service given in my opinion far surpass Amtrak’s.
A great route in Europe takes you from Zurich to Vienna via Innsbruck and Salzburg. An alpine extravaganza! Also love the run along the Riviera east from Marseille. On my bucket list are Zurich to Amsterdam along the Rhine and several Norwegian routes.
Ireland has super trains: the country modernized its entire system before its economy collapsed. Spain, too brought most of its system up to date before the money ran out. I love to travel by train there.
Since the breakup of British Rail into private companies, service varies. On one hand, you’ll be comfortable and happy on the Great Western Railway but if like me, you’ll feel that you’ve entered some Stalin-era Soviet time warp on Northern Rail.
TB What about the “other” parts of the world, Asia and Africa?
DN I’ve travelled a lot by rail in South Africa. Great way to experience the country. Passenger rail there, however, has been in decline, with most people now taking buses, driving, or flying. They even have a Southwest-like budget airline called Mango. How cute is that?
Haven’t done nearly enough rail travel in India, a super way to experience the “real” India. I know the cliché has Indians hanging off carriages in the hot sun, but you can travel very comfortably on government-run trains. Budget travellers should pay a little extra to sit in “air conditioned chair cars,” as I did backpacking. (Those people hanging off Indian trains are no myth – not to mention the ones riding on top … TB)
My two Thai trips south of Bangkok were super. Want to continue on down to Singapore.
TB Do you have any less pleasant memories of train travel in Third World countries?
DN I of course had to visit Mozambique during its war against Portuguese rule. That involved a run from Johannesburg to what’s now called Maputo, its capital.
That’s the first time I saw children with extended stomachs from malnutrition. Not just a few but hundreds along the tracks in shantytowns. That’s something you can’t clear out of your mind.
TB Some people argue that train travel is expensive these days. What are your thoughts?
DN Well, that’s often true, especially if you want private sleeping accommodation. With high-speed trains now crisscrossing Europe, overnight trains there have become nearly extinct. However, on a four-night trip from Vancouver to Toronto you’ll likely want a bed, and that will cost you big time.
In Canada, Via still sells upper and lower berths — the curtained sleeping areas you see in old films — and they are a bargain. On Amtrak, I suggest that budget travellers break up a long trip with stays in hotels or hostels. Long-distance Amtrak seats are roomy, like first-class airline ones, and most people can survive these for one night at a time.
On some routes, like Chicago to Los Angeles, even Amtrak’s cheapest seats can cost more than a budget airline’s. But, you have to factor in the experience. This is really important. To me, there’s no better way to get the pulse of a country, to enjoy its scenery, and to meet its people than on a train.
TB That’s a lot of great info, Don, especially the part about choosing which direction you take a route — you don’t want to travel the most scenic sections in the dark. Any last advice?
DN Thanks, Paul. I’m all about last-minute bargains, but you must book long-distance trains way ahead of time in North America if travelling during school holidays. This becomes even more critical if you’re trying to juggle an itinerary with multiple trains.
Allow lots of time padding in Canada and the States. Amtrak and Via Rail share the tracks with railway freight and your destiny nearly always includes running late — sometimes extraordinarily late. Don’t schedule connections from one long-distance train to another on the same day. And don’t be cuckoo clock crazy and book a connection from a long-distance train to a non-refundable air ticket on the same day.
I always say, bring some food that stays fresh, especially on Amtrak if you’re not a sleeping car passenger with meals included. You’ll find the snack selection limited and less than nutritious, and the evening dining car menus expensive.
Other than those things, go with the flow and enjoy every moment!
Here are some of Don’s recommended routes:
The Adirondack New York to Montreal, through the Hudson Valley, with views of some of the most scenic river country in America and West Point Military Academy
The Cardinal New York to Chicago, through horse country, the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley (three days a week)
The Capitol Limited Washington, D.C. to Chicago, following the historic B&O line through the Potomac Valley, past Harpers Ferry and the Allegheny Mountains
The California Zephyr Chicago to San Francisco, through the plains to Denver, across the Rockies to Salt Lake City, then over the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Reno and Sacramento
The Coast Starlight Los Angeles to Seattle, passing through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland, transiting the Cascade Mountains
The Southwest Chief Chicago to Los Angeles, through eight states with views of wheat fields, ranches, mountains and deserts, passing through the Navajo reservation
The Pacific Surfliner San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles to San Diego, with coastal views and stops in San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente
For more information on Amtrak trains, visit the Amtrak website.
The Rocky Mountaineer, First Passage to the West route Vancouver to Calgary via Banff, through the Rocky Mountains: the most scenic route in North America, but priced for the upscale market
The Canadian Vancouver to Edmonton, via Kamloops, B.C. and Jasper, through the Rockies; tour buses from Jasper allow an overnight at Banff National Park and Lake Louise before rejoining The Canadian
Bernina Express Chur (Davos), Switzerland to Tirano, Italy, with Alpine crossings and gorges, 196 bridges and 55 tunnels
Railjet high-speed service Zurich to Vienna via Innsbruck and Salzburg, with great vistas in the Alps and historic Salzburg
Last note Remember that passengers aged 62 and over get a 15-percent discount on the lowest available fare on most Amtrak trains, while Via Rail gives passengers 6o and over a 10-percent discount on Economy Plus fares and regular sleeper, sleeper plus and touring fares. For cross-border trips operated jointly by the two services, there’s a 10% discount for travellers aged 60 and over.