You’re taking off across our great nation for two months on a train? That’s AWESOME! We have such a beautiful country and the train is a great way to explore it. As someone who has just completed this journey, let me tell you that you’re going to have a blast. Now that you’ve made the decision to go, all that remains is to start planning your trip!
Before you go, make sure you’ve answered the below-listed questions:
Please note that this article is from my direct experience as an Economy Class passenger aboard VIA Rail and does not speak to the experience of those passengers in either the Business or Prestige Classes of VIA Rail trains. All of that I did over the last sixty days using VIA Rail’s “Youth Summer Pass”, which covers travelers from the ages of 12 to 25. It’s current sale price is $600 CAD, which grants you unlimited travel on VIA Rail trains for 60 days from the date of the activation of your pass. I booked my pass from May 1st till the end of June, partially to avoid the summer rush. But you can book your pass anytime between May 1st and August 31st.
When do I start planning my train trip?
Planning a cross-country trip, particularly by train can be a tall order. There is so much to consider, from what you’re going to be wearing for two months, to what you’ll be eating and where you’ll be staying, to what you’re going to do for those two months.
It goes without saying that you should start to plan your trip as soon as you make the decision to do it. Making that decision can be tough, as you’re making a commitment to live essentially as a nomad for two months, but trust me when I say that it is worth it!
Depending on what your personality is like, you may want to go-with-the-flow a bit more than having a rigid schedule that you’ll stick to. That’s what I did on my cross-country train trip. I left a lot of things to chance and allowed as much lee-way for adventures and misadventures as possible. Now, you may want to follow in my footsteps, but I will warn you that you should be booking your train ticket home the same day that you book your ticket to leave — just to make sure that you have a ticket home, as I didn’t and had to take the bus back.
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Where do you want to go? What do you want to see?
This question is something you should answer first. What is it that you want to see? Do you live on the East Coast and are yearning to see the Rockies? Maybe the Northern Lights?
Do you live on the West Coast and want to escape the hustle and bustle of, for instance, downtown Vancouver and get to somewhere where the waves gently lap the shore and in the woods the only thing you’ll hear is the sound of the birds chirping?
Do you live in the northern territories and want to experience the southern half of the country? Swap the remote lifestyle for the hustle and bustle of the city?
All of these are the questions you need to answer before you book your first ticket out. The great thing about a VIA Rail Pass for the Summer is that it truly does allow you to create your own journey. Now, VIA Rail offer some suggestions on their website, but this sort of trip really does give you the flexibility to book a train to Churchill, Manitoba first and then go all the way down and head west to Vancouver afterwards, then go all the way up to Whitehorse in the Yukon and then back down and East towards Jasper and Banff and the rest of the country.
What should I pack for clothing?
This question will be answered by what your packing solutions are like, how much weight do you want to carry with you, and how you’ll be traveling. Are you camping exclusively? Are you staying in AirBnBs or hostels? Are you Couchsurfing, or are you putting it all on a credit card and staying in hotels and/or motels?
If space and weight are an issue because you’re self-contained, then consider packing very light with three pairs of every item of clothing — though more underwear and socks and then filling the rest of the space in your backpack with camping equipment, camera-stuff (if you’re into photography), and food. Consider picking up some organizers in one form or another to keep your stuff organized while in your big 65+L pack.
How much does it cost?
Traveling by train isn’t necessarily the cheapest way to get from one side of the country to the other — flying, I think, may be cheaper. But that’s not the point of traveling by train across the country, or buying a Youth Pass, which allows you to see as much of the country as you can manage in two months. Train travel is an experience in and of itself. And it is that which you should bear in mind.
- The Pass: Buying a VIA Rail Youth Pass cost me around $400, that’s because I bought it on Black Friday, when I received a 40% discount on the pass. It’s always a good idea to keep an eye for sales like that — train travel still isn’t overly popular in Canada and thus VIA are having sales reasonably often, where you can score some sweet discounts! The regular price of a Youth Pass is $599, which still isn’t bad for the ability to see the whole country for two months.
- The Food:Make no mistake, VIA Rail’s Economy Class food service is reasonably expensive, though perhaps not extortionately so. It’s fairly basic. You get your chips and your cookies and your pop and water for snacks. Breakfasts consist of pancakes, egg-bacon-sausage meal combinations, or oatmeal. Suppers are often rice-based dishes. VIA Rail’s complete menu can be found here.I advise that you bring your own food onboard with you. At least insofar as snacks and drinks go, to give yourself some variety.
- Cost: One of the things that you should bear in mind is that, depending on how long you’re planning on staying in your various destinations, there’s an associated cost with that too — from the food costs, which can be very cheap or very expensive, depending on how you want to eat, to the accommodation costs — hostels in Vancouver usually fall somewhere between $35-$55/night, for example. This cost increases during peak seasons (end of May – late July), and varies depending on which hostel company you go with. You can also choose to camp or couchsurf to save money.
What are some train-travel essentials?
Given that you’ll be traveling by train, there are a few essentials that you should definitely bring with you whilst on-board.
- Food! Pick up a bunch of food before you leave for your journey and eat it whilst on the train, it will save you money in the long-run as train food is expensive and not necessarily the greatest quality. Though I have been told by passengers that it does go up in terms of quality if you opt to stay in either Business or Prestige Class, which is to be expected. You get what you pay for, I guess.
- A neck pillow. This handy little invention will save you many, many, many hours of pain and suffering as I experienced on my first night as I attempted to get some sleep (I got maybe five hours of sleep and curled up diagonally across a pair of open seats. Having a neck pillow will allow you to sleep at least marginally more comfortably, and not wake up with a stiff, sore neck.
- Books/Audiobooks. If you’re traveling across the country like I did — which was to take the four-day haul out to Vancouver as early as I possibly could — then you’re going to discover that train travel can, at times, be tedious and boring. Very, very much so. Particularly in Northern Ontario and the Prairies, where once you’ve seen one forest and lake you’ve seen them all, and where you can watch your dog run away for days. So, bring a book or have many audiobooks saved on your phone to listen to when the monotony sets in.
- Bring your Patience. Traveling by train can be a very frustrating experience at times, particularly given the way that trains work in Canada. In short, VIA Rail doesn’t own the tracks that it runs on — these are owned by Canadian National, a freight train company and therefore, freight trains take priority over passenger trains. For instance, you may find yourself as I did, sat in a siding for over an hour waiting for a freight train, when you are just 15 minutes from your destination. The deeper West you go from the East coast, the more frequent freight trains become. Bring your patience with you, you’re going to need it during what can be very long delays.
- An Open Mind. One of the amazing things about train travel is the people that you meet. You meet from every corner of the earth and from every walk of life. People traveling to see family and friends, people coming home for the first time in years, people taking what will likely be their last ‘big trip’, people starting new lives, people on student visas from other countries experiencing Canada for the first time. Bring an open mind and do your best to engage with those around you. You’ll make friendships that will last a lifetime. I know I have.
Where did I go?
I began my journey on the East Coast in New Brunswick and decided to head West immediately from here.
Leg 1: Sackville – Montreal (~24h travel time)
I began my journey in my home of Sackville and headed for Montreal as it was the first stop I had to make on the way out West. I had decided to head straight to Vancouver, so the journey started in Montreal, with a three day layover till the next train to Toronto.
Leg 2: Montreal – Toronto (~5h travel time)
Toronto was the second stop on the journey to the West Coast of Canada. I had another three-day layover in Toronto before boarding the train for the final leg to the West Coast.
Leg 3: Toronto – Vancouver (~4 days travel time)
This was my first long-haul journey on a Canadian train and my God was it a long trip. I met a whole bunch of new and interesting people, which made the journey so much easier, but still, it is tedious and you should prepare yourself for delays and long hours of staring out of the window, admiring the beauty in many cases, but wishing for something different on the Prairies, for instance.
Leg 4: Vancouver – Jasper
After spending a couple of weeks on Vancouver Island, I headed back East to what was by far my favourite leg of the journey, the re-entry into Jasper National Park. I had fallen in love with Jasper on the way in, and now I got to explore it fully for four days.
Leg 5: Jasper – Toronto
Leaving Jasper, following a short jaunt to Banff and Canmore left my heart heavy. I was leaving the place I’d felt the most alive in a long time. Nonetheless, a visit with an old friend in Toronto awaited me and a chance to explore the city again.
Leg 6: Toronto – Ottawa
A quick weekend in Ottawa followed by a short trip to Pembroke was in the offing for this leg of the journey, again, I caught up with old friends and made new ones.
Leg 7: Ottawa – Kingston
My train from Ottawa to Kingston was incredibly short — only a 5 hour journey, comparatively to what I’d experienced in heading West, was no time at all. I was visiting another friend that I’d made on the way out West while on The Canadian.
Leg 8: Kingston – Montreal
Kingston to Montreal represented the last leg of my train journey. I was relatively sad as I knew the journey was coming to an end. But I took the time to explore Montreal one last time, heading to Old Montreal and taking in all of the gorgeous architecture that the city had to offer, before catching a bus home to New Brunswick (remember to book your ticket home early!)
What Would I Do Differently?
This is a difficult question, because I wonder if I’d have changed anything, would I still have had the same experience? Maybe, maybe not. But if I could do a few things differently, it would be these things:
1. Break the trip up on the way out and on the way back. Rather than dashing to the West Coast and then figuring it out from there.
2. Plan a little further ahead. For example, I wasn’t able to get a train ticket home, because I waited too long and all the Economy Class tickets were sold out.
3. Camp more. I didn’t camp at all during the journey and could definitely have saved money by doing so. However, camping in national parks with my camping hammock wasn’t a possibility due to the rules regarding hammocks and the damage that they can do to trees, not including the presence of bears.
4. Go north! Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I didn’t feel I would have had the time to go north and spend adequate time in other places. Having said that, I should have spent less time on Vancouver Island and more time on the train going north. Next time, I’ll be hitting up Whitehorse and Churchill!
My Overall Experience
My overall experience on VIA Rail Trains was such a pleasant one. Despite the lack of Wi-Fi on the Canadian heading West and the very intermittent cell-phone signal, the at-times short sleeps and the bumpy ride in some parts of the country, the experience is not one that I will ever forget. It was made immeasurably better by the people I met along the way, from all parts of Canada and the world, from all walks of life. It is those people that made the journey by train across Canada one of the best things I’ve ever done.
About the Author: Jack Hawkins
A travel writer and photographer from the East Coast of Canada and I have just spent the last two months traveling on VIA Rail Trains, seeing this vast and diverse nation of ours from east to west, coast to coast. I’ve seen almost every province barring the northern ones and Newfoundland & Labrador.