Before I boarded the VIA Rail Canadian train last month, I’ll admit to having not much idea what to expect. Having never taken a long train journey before in a sleeper cabin, I had a lot of questions and whilst the VIA site is great for the basics, there were a lot of questions I couldn’t find answers to on their site (even in their tips document) and I found myself Googling “What to expect on board the VIA Rail Canadian train” to find out some answers about things like what there would be to do, what the cabins were really like, did I need to bring my own towels, were the meals as good as everyone said they were, where would the train stop and what was there to do at the stops. I didn’t find a post that quite covered all my questions and when I was on the train, a lot of my fellow passengers echoed my questions so I figured I’d compile as much information as I could in one post that will hopefully be useful to future passengers on board The Canadian.
Before you book
A lot of people hear the words “VIA Rail Canadian” and automatically think “expensive”. Whilst this is most definitely not a budget journey, if you are savvy with your booking and keep an eye out for sales prices, you might be surprised at some of the deals. Be aware that there are different booking classes so make sure you know what you want to book (compare each class’ amenities here). The Economy Class and Berths can be much more affordable during VIA sales (hint: look for the “super saver fares”). According to a poll of my fellow travellers, a one-way fare in a the Sleeper Class “Cabin for One” was as little as $1000 in the period I travelled and a Sleeper Class berth was around $800 (both one way prices). Bear in mind that the Sleeper-Class options include 4 nights’ accommodation, 3 meals a day and snacks/ coffee/ tea/ juice all day.
Accommodation choices and cabin amenities
VIA Rail has a number of different options to suit varied budgets: Economy and Sleeper Plus which includes Berths as well as Cabins for 1, 2 or 3 people.
On my journey, I only briefly wandered through the Economy-class cars but according to the VIA Rail website, the Economy fares offer:
Spacious seats and space to stretch and relax
Electrical outlets on all the seats
Blanket and pillow set including polar fleece cover, neck pillow, eyeshades and earplugs, available for purchase.
Light meals, hot drinks, refreshments and alcoholic drinks are offered at affordable prices. You also have access to the Skyline car, which offers snacks and beverages.
Certainly the seats were roomy-looking (much more leg room than the glass-topped “Dome” cars where Sleeper Class passengers spend their days) and they all had electrical outlets (something which the Dome and Activity/ Café cars do not have – if you want to charge something in Sleeper Class you have to go back to your cabin and I don’t believe that the berth passengers had access to electrical outlets in their areas). Note that the Economy fares do not give you access to showers and there are no showers in the stations where you stop for long enough to take one. Also, meals are not included but you can purchase basic meals and snacks for reasonable prices in the bar/ café car just next to the Economy car.
The berths convert to large, comfortable seating during the day. Though it might seem a little like school camp, the berth beds are pretty wide and apparently very comfortable. Keep in mind that the top berths do not have access to any window light so it can get pretty dark up there and some people I spoke to found it very disorienting! Toilets and showers are located at the ends of the carriages.
The cabins for one are a tiny “room” with a large-ish seat during the day facing a private toilet. The bed folds down over the toilet at night so if you need to go, you’ll have to go down the corridor, where the shower is also located. These were apparently fairly comfortable and, for what they were, great value.
Cabins for two and three people have enough space for a couple of small carry on bags as well as their own private toilet room (cabins for three people have two toilet rooms as they are simply two cabins for 2 joined together) and access to the shower at the end of their car. It’s best to try to shower in the morning (I never had to wait for the shower) as there is I found there was more hot water at the beginning of the day than in the evening. Also, if you can plan your shower trips during one of the many many stops that allow CN trains to pass on the tracks, you won’t have to deal with the swaying and rocking of the train which, for someone like me who suffers from balance issues, was fairly challenging. Bring flip flops for the shower – they also help to anchor your feet to the ground if the train is moving!
There is a sink with drinking water in each cabin as well (though the drinking water was not functioning on my journey, the staff kept us well supplied with fresh water bottles). You’ll receive a personal shower kit (towels and toiletries) as well as turndown service each night if you choose.
Your cabin will be reconfigured for the daytime with chairs (the beds fold into themselves) although after one day of trying the “daytime configuration”, I requested they keep the bed down during the day also – the chairs are vaguely reminiscent of dentist chairs (well they were for me) and not at all comfortable for sitting and reading. The bed, on the other hand, was super comfortable both for sleeping and for reading propped up on the pillows during the day.
I mean, when you can just lay down and watch the world go by from your bed, who needs a daytime configuration?
You probably won’t spend much of your time in your cabin during the day anyway as the views are definitely better from the glass-topped cars (The Park and Skyline cars). On my journey, people tended to wander up to these cars right after breakfast and kind of stayed there all day. As I said in my previous post, the scenery out of the windows is mesmerizing and you won’t do half the work/ read half the books you think you will!
What to ask for when you get on the train
In the Sleeper-Plus cars, you will be greeted by your cabin attendant who will look after you for part of the journey (the crew changes in Winnipeg). Make sure to ask the location of his/ her cabin in case you need them as well as the location of your dining car (the car number is helpful here – they are on each door as you go through between carriages so make sure to look as you are going through the train) and your Activity/ bar car. These are important pieces of information as there is no “map” of the train layout provided (i.e. “You are here”) and I will admit to spending a fair bit of time wandering around trying to situate myself and the various cars/ features of the train.
In Jasper Station, however, we finally got an overview of the train layout – the crew in Jasper told me they like to have this info available for all passengers as they board. As far as I know this was the only station where this information was available – would have been useful to have at the start of the trip too.
Note that the much spoken-of Panorama Dome Car does not join the train until Edmonton so don’t wander up and down the train endlessly wondering if there is a secret entrance like, *ahem* some people did! I actually wasn’t the only one and finally we asked our “Activity Manager” who informed us that we were not going crazy, but that the car wasn’t on the train just yet. I am fairly certain that this piece of information was not included in any of the VIA literature I read before the trip. In Edmonton you get to watch them add the car to the middle of the train which was a lot of fun! (if you have kids who are interested in trains, make sure you find out which cars the Panorama will be going in between and park yourself on the platform so you can watch the process. It’s quite fascinating).
If you’re interested in following the progress of the train along the way, be sure to ask (at the station before you go, otherwise on the train) for a map of the journey as well as a timetable. These seemed to be in very short supply during my journey but I had been lucky enough to have a check-in agent who insisted on getting me the timetable and letting me know all the stops (both long and short) that the train would be making. This certainly helped “plan my time” (and I use that in the loosest sense of the word “plan” since there is not much you need to plan on the train!).
Make sure you check in with a VIA employee each morning as to the time on the train. You’ll be going through three different timezones and if you are like me, you’ll be completely confused much of the time. Also, you really don’t want to miss the train when you are off exploring in Winnipeg, Edmonton or Jasper so make sure to double check the current time and time of departure before you get off!
If you’re travelling in “Sleeper Plus” class, all your meals will be included throughout the trip. You can check the menus here if you really want to know what you’ll be eating beforehand (click on each Day for a detailed list of the dishes).
There are three meal seatings (early, normal and late) and when you check in at the station, you will get to choose your seating for the first days’ meal – after that you’ll choose at dinner the night before. There are some meals where it’s first come, first served (brunch after you leave Edmonton and breakfast the day you arrive in Vancouver) so make sure that you are prompt otherwise you might have to wait a long time. The different seatings attract a different crowd with parents travelling with children tending to book the early seating while the “bar crowd” head out to the late seating. The second seating is definitely the most popular and the busiest. I ate at all three seatings and would recommend the first or second, especially at dinner, because it is generally still light enough to see some of the scenery – the third seating I ate dinner it was pretty pitch black outside!
If you get hungry between meals, each of the “Activity Cars” has a little “café” area where you can help yourself to tea, coffee, juices, water and muffins/ cookies/fresh fruit throughout the day. I’d find it hard to believe anyone can get hungry in between the meals on offer but the water and fruit were welcome touches that I took advantage of – it’s dry air on the train so the water was necessary and the fruit – well, many of the meals were on the heavy side, I felt I needed something a little more virtuous!.
The meals themselves were pretty decent for train fare, it must be said. Given the tiny galley kitchens the chefs are working in and the amount of food they are pushing out at each mealtime (around 120 diners per dining car per meal over three seatings), it’s pretty impressive. Not to mention the whole “working on a moving train” aspect of the job!
Breakfasts were pretty standard…
Brunch on leaving Edmonton was a little more interesting. I can recommend the duck confit Benedict, although 3 eggs was slightly too many considering the sedentary lifestyle you lead on the train!
The desserts always looked promising (like the crème brûlée, below, which, sadly, had no crunchy toffee to crack with the back of your spoon on top) but they were a little disappointing to be honest (they are one of the few things not made on the train and included things like brownies, apple crumble, ice cream (though there was s spectacular cherry ice cream at one meal) and cheesecakes). Not that you even needed a dessert at lunch and dinner, to be honest! I found the meal service a little rushed (except at the last seating when it slowed down a little) and a couple of times asked to take the dessert away to enjoy at my leisure in my cabin or in the Dome car with a drink and this was perfectly acceptable. I guess you don’t know if you don’t ask!
Overall, the food on the train was good. Not spectacular but solid. It was much better (for non-vegetarians) in terms of the choices we were offered once we’d left Winnipeg – choices for lunch on that first day somewhere in Ontario included a Canadian beef burger, a salmon cake (the nod to “regional specialties”), a wrap and a quinoa salad, none of which was anything that special. Indeed the vegetarians on the train drew the short straw – one lunch, when the rest of us were enjoying a Cobb salad, a shrimp/ scallop dish (this was excellent!) or a turkey sandwich, the vegetarians were offered hummus with crudités and pita bread. As one of my fellow (vegetarian) passengers remarked, “Hummus is a snack, not a meal”. Right. The staff did work hard to accommodate dietary restrictions like gluten intolerance though, I noted. The offerings became more impressive as the journey went on with Prime Rib and short ribs making an appearance later on as well as an impressive looking veal chop, sesame-crusted tuna and pan-seared duck and some of these dishes incorporated regional ingredients of the provinces you were passing through, like the scallops and shrimp served with a Saskatoon berry salad. Definitely some nice touches in there.
Over the course of the journey make sure you learn to pace yourself with regards to the meals. Often I would not take the soup/ salad starter which made for a less heavy meal and honestly, since you are mainly sitting around all day, you don’t really need three courses at each meal, do you? 😉
What about drinks? Well these are not included in the cost of your meal but you can buy them with both lunch and dinner and throughout the day in the Dome and Lounge Cars (not in the Panorama car, take note).
It’s a fairly short, all-Canadian (of course) wine list that even I (the non wine connoisseur) felt would have benefited from some more choices. I do have to say I did appreciate the fact that they were all colour-coded to help you pair them with your meal (each dish had a different coloured glass next to it on the menu and that was the recommended wine pairing – helpful when you don’t have your in-house sommelier (aka Mr Neil) on board with you!
What is there to do on board VIA Rail’s The Canadian?
You can always check the activity board in your “Activity Car” for a rough idea of what’s going on each day… When you are passing through areas of interest, there are often announcements over the PA system about the area and its history but it’s not consistent across the Activity Managers – some will give you more information that others but I found all were happy to answer individual questions if you have them. These people are a wealth of knowledge about the train journey (many of them have been doing this for years) so take advantage of that if you have questions.
Most days on the train, there was some sort of Canadian wine or craft beer tasting (if you are keen on this, make sure it doesn’t clash with your chosen meal time as there are no repeat tastings!) and we were greeted with Canadian sparkling when we departed from Toronto and then again from Jasper.
Or, you know, you could just sit and admire the views…
Or you could simply hang out in one of the many lounge cars located at various points through the train. The car at the very end of the train, the Park Car has great views out the back window and also a TV area that sometimes showed movies for the kids on the train. The other lounges were quieter and people tended to congregate there to chat, read, (attempt to) work, have a drink or just take in the scenery.
Where to sit for the best views/ photos on board VIA Rail’s The Canadian?
Your cabin is great for watching the world go by but the window is quite low so you might not want to stay there if you are interested in the scenery on a large scale. The Dome topped cars (The Skyline and the Park) are perfect for checking out the scenery though it’s quite challenging to take photos up there – nevermind that the train is moving, the glass is curved and reflective! At the back of each of these dome-topped cars there is a window that looks back on the train which is a good vantage point for photo enthusiasts for a few reasons: the glass (because it’s facing backwards) is much cleaner that the same window at the front of these cars and also there’s a little ledge where you can place your camera (or mini tripod) so it doesn’t shake (so much).
The Panorama Car is fabulous for taking in the scenery (the glass comes down further so you have a much better view than from the Dome cars though in the Dome cars you are up a little higher) and it’s a little more comfortable and spacious than the other dome cars. For photography, you faced the same issue with reflective, curved glass and also, right at the top of the glass dome, there is a strip of darker glass (presumably to help with glare) that will appear in all of your photos. I am no professional photographer but I didn’t find a way to NOT have that strip of dark glass in my pictures. In any case, the reason the car is added – the Rockies – means that there is simply WAY too much beautiful scenery to admire and after a while you realise you can’t possibly capture it and do it justice – if you are like me and many of my fellow passengers, you will just sit back and admire the beauty, camera off. Because the Panorama Car was far from my Dining car and my cabin, I tended not to hang out there – preferring the closer Skyline car for my day to day scenery taking-in. Also, there is no bar service in the Panorama car – not a deal breaker for me but it is nice to be able to order a glass of wine as you meander through the Rockies pretending to read that book you bought with you… 😉
Right, so there’s all the information a curious traveller like myself would have liked to have known in advance of my trip – I hope this is useful for people who are considering this journey and the bottom line is, if you take this train, you simply cannot be disappointed in the overall experience. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime “must” in my books!
Disclosure: My trip on the VIA Rail Canadian, including transportation, accommodation and all meals, was sponsored by VIA Rail. I was not required to write about this trip and was not compensated for doing so. All opinions are my own.
MY BOOK! In the French kitchen with kids is out now! Click here for details and how to order!