4 Bucket List Train Trips to Take in North America

Lounge cars are the ultimate way to skip airport lines.

By: Joe Sills

The weathered, silver passenger train roared into Orlando Station. A few minutes behind schedule, its passing cars made a merciful wind in the staggering Florida heat as a few ambling passengers made their way out of the station and began to board.

There were no lines, and there was no wait.

As I joined them, a conductor scanned my ticket and instructed me to throw my bag in an overhead bin. If I fell asleep, he said, he’d wake me up at my stop—such is the stress-free nature of train travel in the United States. 

Five hours later, I found myself and my bag eating tacos on South Beach.

Each day, Amtrak delivers passengers to destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, running over 21,000 miles of steel. With more than 500 destinations, America’s forgotten rail system offers an endless buffet for travelers, but at least three routes should stand atop any vagabond’s bucket list. And, they’re joined by a Canadian cousin that might top them all.

Chicago to New Orleans on City of New Orleans

Photo by: Shutterstock/f11photo

Shutterstock/f11photo

Start to finish, this route travels more than 900 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Crescent City. The journey lasts about 19 hours, but why hurry when you can soak up some of America’s most legendary music towns along the way? The train itself became legendary in 1985 thanks to a hit single by Willie Nelson, a cue for you to pay homage to its musical pitstops.

The City of New Orleans traces a line from the electric blues of Chicago to the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis, and on towards the mecca of jazz in New Orleans. Amtrak Vacations offers excursions in each city, but you can make your own way by purchasing segment tickets along the route. Full route rates start at around $130.

Hot stops for music lovers: Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago; Sun Studios in Memphis; The Spotted Cat Music Club in New Orleans.

San Francisco to Denver on California Zephyr

zephr-037-11 001

Photo by: Amtrak

Amtrak

The California Zephyr runs from San Francisco all the way to Chicago, but you can maximize your time onboard by hopping off in Denver. The one-day, 11-hour journey is one of the most breathtaking in America, launching passengers from the Pacific coast through the Sierra Nevada mountains, the deserts of Utah, and on to Denver through the Rocky Mountains. One-way rates start at just over $100.

Passengers searching for a layover can stop in Salt Lake City or Reno, while adventurers making a weekend of the journey can hop a one-way flight back to the Bay Area for less than $100.

Hot stops for photographers: Baker Beach in San Francisco; Saltair in Salt Lake City; Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Los Angeles to Seattle on Coast Starlight

Photo by: Amtrak

Amtrak

Amtrak’s direct service from the City of Angels to Seattle began in 1971 and hasn’t stopped since. Today, the Coast Starlight runs the 1,300-mile route daily, skirting the California coast to San Luis Obispo, before ducking inland and winding its way through the volcano-laden Cascade Mountains of northern California, Oregon and Washington. And with rates starting at under $100, this west coast adventure is a bargain.

Hot stops for foodies: Master Ha Korean Restaurant in Los Angeles; Basilisk in Portland; Saigon Vietnam Deli in Seattle.

Vancouver to Banff on Rocky Mountaineer

Photo by: Shutterstock/Natalia Bratslavsky

Shutterstock/Natalia Bratslavsky

Canada’s most popular train route won’t leave you with the same elbow room you’ll get south of the border, but it will leave you with a completely new perspective on the Rocky Mountains. The Canadian Rockies are even more magnificent and imposing than their American counterparts, highlighted by the hiker’s paradise of Banff National Park. 

Departing from Vancouver, rail passengers can soak in an endless landscape of peaks on the two-day trek to Banff. The only downside? Prices for the sojourn start at more than $900—almost nine times what some of its U.S. brethren run for.

Hot stops for hikers: Crown Mountain near Vancouver, British Columbia; Banff National Park, Banff, Alberta.

11 More Jaw-Dropping Train Rides

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Rocky Mountaineer

Take in Canada’s great outdoors aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. This fleet of 60 railcars offers passengers a choice of four breathtaking routes: three through British Columbia to Alberta, Banff or Jasper, and a fourth from Vancouver to Whistler. In 2013, a new route was added to connect Seattle to the Canadian Rockies — all aboard for the Coastal Passage!

Photo By: Rocky Mountaineer

Glacier Express, Switzerland

Don’t let the name fool you: This train actually has a reputation for being the slowest express train in the world. And that’s just what passengers want. The leisurely seven-hour ride takes travelers from the Swiss municipality of Zermatt to Davos or the resort town of St. Moritz, with stunning alpine views of the Oberalp Pass as you ascend to heights of over 6,000 feet.

Photo By: Glacier Express

Alaska Railroad, GoldStar Service

The best way to see Alaska is by rail, and this rail line proves it. Double-decker dome cars allow passengers to take in sights from multiple locations by stepping onto an outdoor balcony or settling in to a seat on the upper level’s interior space. Operating mid-May through mid-September, the railroad travels between Anchorage and Fairbanks, with stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna and the 6-million-acre wild land of Denali National Park.  

Photo By: Alaska Railroad

Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express

How’s this for epic? The world’s longest train journey, a ride on this train spans 6,000 miles, two continents and eight time zones! Equipped with plush, red-velvet seats, Champagne-topped tables and TVs in individual railcars, it offers a seamless journey between East and West. Take a 21-day trip toward Beijing, or enjoy shorter excursions to destinations in Mongolia, Kazakhstan or Russia.

Photo By: Golden Eagle Luxury Trains Ltd.

Hiram Bingham Luxury Train

Named for the famed explorer who discovered Machu Picchu, this luxury train takes you on a jaw-dropping ride from the city of Cuzco in southeastern Peru northwest to the 15th-century Inca site. The journey unfolds via the Urubamba River Valley, with pastoral views of llamas and shepherds just beyond your window. Upon arrival at Machu Picchu Lodge, relax over a cup of tea. 

Photo By: Orient-Express Hotels Ltd.

Danube Express

Explore Central and Eastern Europe aboard this luxury private train. Launched in September 2008, this veritable hotel-on-wheels journeys through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey, with amenities such as private bathrooms with constant hot water, as well as fine dining accompanied by premium wines, Champagne and spirits.

Rovos Rail

Take a Cape Town journey like no other. Depart from Capital Park Station in Pretoria, South Africa, and embark on a 48-hour ride across nearly 1,000 miles. Awaiting you are stunning views of grasslands on the inland plateau of Highveld and the vast inland basin of the Great Karoo. Additional routes take you deeper into southern Africa to Namibia and Tanzania, with epic views enjoyed from the comfort of wood-paneled sleeper coaches.

Photo By: Rovos Rail

British Pullman

Journey back in time to the golden age of travel. This vintage carriage evokes the elegance of the early 1930s and the romantic intrigue of Agatha Christie’s famous detective novel. Fully restored, the line offers day excursions from London Victoria station, as well as from Birmingham, Manchester and many other English cities and towns. Enjoy it all over a five-course “murder mystery” lunch!

Photo By: Orient-Express Hotels Ltd.

The Ghan

All aboard, mate! Embark on a journey Down Under courtesy of this memorable passenger train. Operating from one end of Australia to the other, the line travels through Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin on the Adelaide-Darwin railway for a journey that spans 54 hours and more than 1,800 miles. Exploring the outback never felt so good.

Photo By: Great Southern Rail

Royal Scotsman

Discover Scotland’s spectacular countryside aboard this luxury train. Weaving through the Scottish Highlands, you’ll enjoy views of whitewashed villages and expansive lochs. Plus, enjoy the chance to get out and about: Disembark for a Highland distillery tour, an exploration of the Rothiemurchus Estate — described by a famous British broadcaster as "one of the glories of wild Scotland" — and more.

Photo By: Orient-Express Hotels Ltd.

Elipsos Trenhotel

Take a night train between Spain and France, Switzerland or Italy — all while you sleep. Choose from a variety of sleeping accommodations, from reclining seats to luxury class. Come morning, passengers in first class (beds with washing facilities) and luxury class (private bathrooms and showers) enjoy a complimentary breakfast. 

Photo By: Elipsos

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