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What can I expect on a rail tour?

Kieran Meeke / 13 June 2017

Train journeys have enjoyed a romantic reputation since the Golden Age of Travel in the 1920s, and much of that aura remains in the present even as air travel loses its lustre.

Rail track through the Rocky Mountains in Canada
Rail tours can be the perfect way to see some of the most remote places in the world or enjoy more popular destinations while relaxing.

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Let the train take the strain

In the sense that you stay in one comfortable place while the scenery moves, trains are the land-based equivalent of cruise ships. That’s a good thing for anyone who loves travel but hates the process of travelling.

Until the arrival of autonomous vehicles, rail journeys are one of the best ways to see a great deal of a country without the strain of driving.

They also give you room to walk around as that scenery rolls past, a real blessing for anyone who has suffered through an interminable cross-country drive.

Add in the fact many are positively soaked in luxury and you have all the ingredients for a perfect relaxing break.

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Better to travel than arrive

Destinations for rail journeys vary through the length and breadth of every continent except Antarctica, taking in every style and budget.

You can take a steam train through Snowdonia, a scenic ride across the Swiss Alps or a luxurious Victorian-style journey through South Africa, among many other options.

In some cases, it is not so much the destination but the train itself that is the attraction. Sometimes it really is better to travel than to arrive.

Pack your bag and go

A big advantage rail has over cars for a tour is that there is no limit on baggage. Trying to stuff all the cases for two adults into a car boot can be difficult at the best of times.

Add in children or other adults and the job is even more challenging. And if your journey is going to include equipment-heavy breaks, such as skiing or golf, then your job becomes Mission: Impossible.

Will rail, luggage may still be limited by your airline carrier – or what amount of excess baggage you are willing to pay. The train itself normally has no such limits – but that’s not to say you have to worry about carrying it.

The journey usually starts with your bags being turned over to the tour company for transfer to your overnight hotel. Most rail tours do not have an overnight cabin but, if they do, you will be asked to pack an overnight bag for that.

Your other luggage will go in the train’s luggage compartment, or even by road if it is more convenient, to be found waiting in for hotel room for you. Of course, you will want to take a day bag with cameras, guidebooks, medications or other necessities.

All aboard!

Trains are made up of a set of carriages that vary widely in style. They might be lovingly restored Victorian Pullmans where you have your own compartment or suite. 

Or they might be more modern, custom-built ones where you can move from side to side, depending on where the next view is at any given moment. 

Such trains are specially built to incorporate wider viewing windows or even, where bridges allow, an upper deck viewing platform.

Any train is often made up of a different set of carriages as well. There may be different classes, offering seating or service that varies with budget.

One carriage might be dedicated to an open observation platform to allow a breath of fresh air and a better view – or smoking. There may be a carriage for smokers or those using electronics. A dining car, or several, will complete the train.

You can usually find a train plan in the brochures or online sites for any proposed trip. That will give you a fair idea of what to expect in terms of space, decor and facilities, including for those passengers with any disabilities.

The room on trains and the fact you don’t have to do much once on-board makes them a particularly good option for those with limited mobility or in wheelchairs.

Most touring trains don’t have sleeping carriages. At night, or when you are asleep, you are going to miss too much of the scenery you came to see. 

On multi-day trips, you’ll spend the night in a comfy hotel, which gives you the chance to explore the nightlife of a town or city.

Filling in the time

You spend much of your time on a tour train looking at the scenery from the window. The view is usually different to that from the road, as train tracks were often laid in an earlier time and pass through town centres, rather than bypass them.

You often see a truer face, with houses that front the road showing their more human side. I find it fascinating to see into lives glimpsed from a passing train, or the quiet of a countryside away from the constant hum of road traffic.

The click of the rails often lulls me into a daydream, which is one of the real guilty pleasures of train travel.

That reverie can be broken by meals, snacks or walks through the train to the observation decks or lounges.

Chatting with other passengers or reading a good book, perhaps one set in the local area, also help fill the hours which often passes all too quickly.

It’s easy to make friends with people whose interests have brought them on-board the same train as you.

A good guide is hard to find

Most trains carry at least one guide to describe all you are seeing and they’ll be in your carriage or talk over the speaker system.

They will warn you what is coming up, so you can have your camera ready, and keep you informed about the local history, flora and fauna you might spot, as well as answer any other questions anyone raises.

A train full of passengers will surprise you with what they do ask and that is definitely one of the key advantages of travelling with a tour.

Someone, sometime will ask every question you might be too embarrassed to ask yourself, perhaps out a of fear of showing ignorance, or surprise with a clever one you hadn’t even thought of.

Train staff are also on hand to help with any other questions about the service. They will help you on and off the train, find your table for meals or do their best with any other issues.

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Good food and drink

Eating is important on the train and chefs work miracles to produce dishes worthy of top-class restaurants from their tiny galley kitchens. 

Passengers are sometimes called to meals in separate sittings if numbers are too much for the dining carriage (although, on some trains, you may expect to eat in your seat). 

However, this is not a random process and you can expect to sit with your travelling companions unless there are so many you have to be split across more than one table. Couples should not have that problem.

Along with food goes drink and trains often offer a taste of the region you are in, both in menus and wines. That’s another reason to be thankful you are not driving.

Looking good

Dressing for dinner is often a tradition – as well as part of the fun. A jacket and tie for gents and an evening dress/suit for ladies is the usual norm but any such details will be outlined once your ticket is booked. Of course, a good tour operator can provide all such information even before the booking if you want something more casual, or even more formal.

During the day, you will spend much of your time sitting and admiring the passing scenery.

Comfortable clothing is always a good idea but remember that you may also be exposed to the local climate if you go out on any open observation ekes, either to better see a view or for a smoke.

So bring warm layers or appropriate sun wear, depending on your destination.

One last thing

We all like to escape everyday life on holiday and many trains will limit Internet or mobile use for the trip to help everyone relax, especially in public areas. 

If you have a private suite, such rules are up to you and a separate carriage may otherwise be dedicated to electronic devices, including laptops. 

Again, if such things are important to you, the details can be found during the booking process so you can pick the best train for your needs.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.