When it comes to planning a vacation, some people prefer trips that come in a nice, tidy package. Cruises, for example, are a popular choice because they present an opportunity to see more than one place, and the planning is all done for you ahead of time. But if boats aren’t your cup of tea, train travel can offer similar benefits from a slightly different perspective.

Journeys by rail often evoke a specific type of nostalgia, harkening back to the days when trains were the height of fashionable travel. Some of the world’s best tours play off these vibes, offering glimpses into old-world indulgence with passenger cars bedecked in velvet upholstery and dining cars with white linen tablecloths. Others prefer to showcase the possibilities modern rail transport can offer, like the Japanese bullet train Hokkaidō Shinkansen. Whatever the aesthetic, train travel can be an incredible, unique way to experience places all over the world. Here are just a mere handful of the possibilities that are out there. 

North America

Rocky Mountaineer – Canada and USA

The Rocky Mountaineer was voted Travel+Leisure’s Favorite Train in 2023, thanks to its unique dome-shaped windows that allow extended views of the passing landscape and unmatched luxury offerings. You can choose between four different routes: “Rockies to the Red Rocks,” running from Moab to Denver; “First Passage to the West” which goes between Banff and Vancouver; “Journey Through the Clouds,” which traverses Jasper National Park to Vancouver; and “Rainforest to Gold Rush,” a different route through Jasper National Park that runs through Whistler and Quesnel. Each multiday trip travels through jaw-dropping scenery, some of which is only accessible by train. If two to three days isn’t long enough, a circle journey option combines two routes for a four- or five-day adventure.

Upper level of Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf
Upper level of the Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf. (Image by ToddPhillips2016, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rocky Mountaineer experience includes hotel stays in the towns and cities where the train stops for the night, with a variety of options to accommodate different budgets. (The train only travels during daylight hours so that passengers don’t have to worry about missing any of the gorgeous scenery.) All guests are offered comfy seats with plenty of legroom, beverages and meals, and entertainment from the hosts who act as tour guides throughout the trip. 

One note: the Mountaineer offers two tiers of luxury service. The top-tier GoldLeaf option gives passengers access to a second level on the train with windows that arch overhead to prevent anything blocking the incredible views. Goldleaf passengers also enjoy meals prepared by a chef onboard and access to a large, outdoor platform. SilverLeaf coaches have just one level — with similar panoramic windows — and the meals are prepared ahead of time, then warmed up onboard. 

The Canadian – Canada

VIA Rail, the Canadian national rail carrier, offers a special sleeper service aptly named The Canadian. Their routes offer combinations of itineraries that run from Toronto through Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper, Kamloops and Vancouver, then back again. So you could take an 11-day journey all the way across Canada, stopping in Banff and Jasper National Park, or you can opt to partake in a number of shorter two- to four-day adventures.

The Canadian
The Canadian near Jasper, Alberta (Image by Timothy Stevens, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)

Like the Rocky Mountaineer (above), the Canadian also offers different levels of luxury on its trains. Sleeper Plus Class offers a variety of accommodations, such as upper and lower berths or private cabins that can sleep up to four travelers. Cabins include a toilet and sink, and access to a shared shower. Prestige Class has 50% more space than Sleeper Plus, and a 60% larger window in your cabin. Even more importantly: Your Prestige Class room includes a private bathroom with toilet, sink and shower.

Europe

Royal Scotsman – Scotland

Scotland’s luxury cruise train, the Royal Scotsman, offers two- to seven-night tours of the Scottish Highlands. Run by Belmond, which also runs the famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (see below) and the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Express, the Royal Scotsman has been one of Europe’s favorite train routes for years. (Writer’s Note: While researching these trips, Belmond came up in almost every search as one of the best options for luxury train travel, and they offer routes all over the world. To keep this article short(er), we’re only highlighting a few of their options.) 

 

Royal Scotsman train
The Royal Scotsman heads out of Moncrieff Tunnel into Perth (Image by B4bees from Kinross, Scotland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sleeping accommodations on the Royal Scotsman include finely detailed wooden marquetry on the walls and tartan-covered pillows bedecking plush mattresses. Due to the Highlands being tough to visit in winter, the Scotsman only runs from April to October, starting and finishing at Edinburgh’s Waverley station. The prices — which aren’t low — include all meals, alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, as well as unique off-train excursions such as guided tours of a whiskey distillery or clay pigeon shooting on a Scottish laird’s estate. 

Danube Express – Istanbul to Budapest

The Golden Eagle’s Danube Express starts in Turkey with a tour of the Blue Mosque before wending its way through Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary over seven days. Often referred to as “a luxury hotel on rails,” the Danube Express is much like its competitors in that it offers tiers of service, although all of them seem utterly indulgent. The Superior Deluxe Class cabins include a king-size bed and individually controlled air conditioning and heating, and a private en-suite bathroom with shower. The Deluxe Class cabins have slightly smaller beds and a different style of décor but seem equally luxurious (the website includes helpful cross-sections of both cabin styles to check out).

The restaurant and bar cars look like something out of an old Hollywood movie — in the best possible way. Plush couches make up the dining booths, and the bar car comes with its very own piano player.

Transcantábrico Gran Lujo Train – Spain

The Transcantábrico Gran Lujo Train takes eight days and seven nights to travel between San Sebastián and Santiago De Compostela, visiting cities and towns along the northern coast of Spain. Their deluxe suites include the same luxuries similar high-end train tours offer, and also include private bathrooms with hydromassage and 24-hour room service.

The Transcantábrico travels over a viaduct in Luarca
The Transcantábrico travels over a viaduct in Luarca (Image by Luxury Train Club, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The itineraries can appeal to history buffs and travel nerds of all kinds — you can tour medieval cities like Santillana del Mar or visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, for instance.  But the Transcantábrico’s true highlight is the unique gastronomy of northern Spain, thanks to onboard meals that exemplify local specialties of each region and are paired with local wines.

Venice Simplon-Orient Express – Europe

Another Belmond offering, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express runs from Istanbul to Paris and is considered one of the world’s most iconic locomotives. The decadent 1920s Art Deco interiors lend that old-Hollywood glamorous feel, which you can fully lean into during their formalwear evenings onboard. Like other Belmond trains, this one offers top-notch service, and it doesn’t hurt that you’re traveling through places like the French countryside and the Swiss Alps. Just last year, to add to the luxurious feel, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express added eight new suites, two of which are original 1920s and 30s carriages carefully restored by expert French craftsmen and designers. 

The blue-and-gold cars of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
The blue-and-gold cars of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (Image by patrick janicek, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

South America

Inca Rail

Over 10,000 passengers on TripAdvisor recommend Inca Rail as the best possible way to experience Peru’s Machu Picchu. Passengers can admire the Sacred Valley of the Incas through panoramic windows on their way to the world-famous site, at a much more accessible price than what’s available from other luxury operators servicing the same route, according to Conde Naste’s Traveler blog. The train serves a delicious menu prepared with organic ingredients sourced locally, which you can eat while listening to live Peruvian music. 

Asia

Maharajas’ Express – India

The Maharajas’ Express is a luxury sleeper train that goes all out to make you feel like royalty, beginning with a greeting of marigold garlands and rose petals showered at your feet before a personal butler escorts you to your room. It was voted “World’s Leading Luxury Train” at the World Travel Awards for seven consecutive years, between 2012 and 2018. 

Dining car of the Maharajas' Express
Dining car of the Maharajas’ Express (Image by Jenniferknott, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It offers several different routes out of Delhi and Mumbai, so if there’s a specific site you’re dying to see, be sure to research which routes go where. No matter which journey you choose, however, you’ll be sure to visit a few of India’s most famous attractions, such as Agra (and the Taj Mahal), or places like Khajuraho and Jodhpur.

Golden Chariot – India

The Golden Chariot features cars whose exteriors are painted bright purple and gold. Like the Maharajas’ Express, the Golden Chariot will take you to most of India’s “greatest hits,” while also finagling its way into some incredible offbeat attractions. Reviews say that one of the best parts about traveling on the Golden Chariot is getting access to unique places without having to fight through crowds — and then being able to retreat to a beautiful train at the end of the day.

Seven Stars in Kyushu – Japan

If you think the Belmond trains go overboard, you only need to step foot on the Seven Stars in Kyushu train to see how things can really reach a new level of fancy. Everything on board — the beds, the bathroom sinks, even the porcelain dinner plates— is handmade by Japanese artisans. Each journey is limited to 20 passengers for four days and three nights, making the experience quite intimate. Along the way, passengers stop at the island’s best shrines, onsens (hot springs), porcelain studios and other cultural attractions offering an authentic vibe that other tourist stops often lack.

Dining space aboard the Seven Stars in Kyushu
Dining space aboard the Seven Stars in Kyushu (Image by Rsa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Ghan, Australia

According to its website, The Ghan marked 90 years of outback crossings in 2019. Offering transit between the northern and southern points of Australia — Darwin and Adelaide, respectively — this three-day, all-inclusive journey boasts elegant private cabins, upscale dining and one of the only ways to comfortably traverse the barren Australian outback. To get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime journey, check out their unbelievable off-train excursions, like exploring Alice Springs or taking a scenic helicopter tour. 

The Ghan in Central Australia
The Ghan in Central Australia (Image by Roderick Eime from Australia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Africa

Namibia Safari, Africa 

Rovos Rail’s Namibia Safari is a 12-day luxury train trek spanning some of the most spectacular scenery the south of Africa has to offer. It departs from Pretoria with a toast of Champagne and canapés, then takes passengers through the Northern Cape and Fish River Canyon. It next goes through the Kalahari Desert to Windhoek — the capital of Namibia — before crossing the Namib Desert and finishing at Swakopmund, a preserved German Hansa town on the coast. Along the way, passengers get to visit a cheetah conservation project and stay for a night in the wildlife-filled Etosha National Park. You can also opt for different Rovos Rails routes, like a three-night Cape Town journey or the 15-day “Trail of Two Oceans” itinerary. 

Royal Suites on the Rovos Rail have wood-paneled sleeper coaches with their own private lounge areas and en-suite bathrooms with claw-foot tubs. (If you opt for the Deluxe accommodation option instead, you get a shower. Pfft.) No matter where you sleep, the Rovos line is known for providing experiences of a lifetime, like formal attire evenings and unique off-train cultural offerings.

Top image by © Michelangelo Oprandi from Immagini di Michelangelo Oprandi, via Canva.com.


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