Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

On the VIA Rail: A Train Ride Across Canada’s Rocky Mountains

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I’ve always glamorized train travel in my mind and wished with all my might that I had grown up in a time when trains were the only way to see the country. So touring Western Canada by train was one of the parts of our recent mother-daughter winter trip to Alberta I most anticipated, and to say I was giddy with excitement is an understatement.

Our trip with Canada by Design started off in Vancouver, where we spent nearly 24 hours before boarding our train. On my last trip to Western Canada, I took the Rocky Mountaineer From British Columbia to Alberta (note: Canada by Design does offer train tours with this option, as well), and on this vacation, I got to experience Canada’s national service, VIA Rail.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

VANCOUVER’S TRAIN STATION

Our journey started from Pacific Central in Vancouver, which was less than five minutes by cab from our downtown hotel. Before you depart for your trip, Canada by Design sends each guest a full booklet of vouchers for the entire duration—from taxi transfers to hotel stays to, yes, train trips—so once we landed in Canada, we didn’t have to think about a thing; we simply arrived at the train station by the time they told us to and presented the VIA Rail employee with our tickets.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

They took our bags and checked them through to Jasper, where we’d spend the third and fourth nights of our Canadian vacation. One great tip a fellow train traveler had told us in advance was to pack an overnight bag because your cabin will be tiny and there’s nowhere to store a big bag. She was not lying. I’m so glad we listened to her and packed a set of clothes to change into and all toiletries in our day back so we didn’t have to worry about our bulky suitcases for that 24-hour period, as there literally would have been nowhere to smuggle them in the cabins.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

If you’re making this overnight train journey, I’d tell you one important thing: Eat before you arrive at Pacific Central Station because pickings are slim. There was an A&W and a little convenience store inside the station, and that was it. We got there three hours early because we’re all severely Type A, so once our bags were checked and we were nearly empty-handed sans our carry-ons, we wound up walking the seven minutes to The Union for a delicious dinner of Asian-fusion cuisine and a few cocktails before we got on the train for nearly 24 hours.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

SLEEPING ON THE TRAIN

What was most fun about the VIA Rail trip is that we actually got to sleep ON the train for the night. I’ve taken a few sleeper trains in Europe, but it’s been more than a decade—I hardly remember the experience.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

Our two-person cabins were small, so cozy that I wasn’t sure how beds would actually fit in there. But then we went to the back of the train for the bon voyage toast (free champagne!) and to meet a few of our train mates (we made so many new friends!), and by the time we got back, Tony our cabin attendant had popped down the bottom and top bunks. And despite the fact that I had to climb down from my top bunk four times in the middle of the night for a bathroom break, I still slept like a baby. I did take ear plugs and a sound machine in case I had trouble sleeping, but I didn’t need either of them.

The next day, while we were eating breakfast, Tony put the beds back up and removed the wall between the cabins, and voila! We had one big suite for the four of us to lounge in before our late afternoon arrival.

Planning a Trip to Canada with my Mom

The en-suite bathroom itself was just a toilet, but there was a lone shared shower in each train car for those who can’t go 24 hours without. Personally, I was fine being one of those people, and thus I didn’t even investigate the hygiene situation. It was a bit like being at a slumber party with a whole lot of new friends! And each cabin did have a small sink, so you could brush your teeth and wash your face without needing the shared facilities.

For those who get motion sickness, I was actually completely fine (this from the girl who can’t take a ferry ride without getting ill), though if vibrations bother you, pack Dramamine or Bonine just in case.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

THE VIA RAIL FOOD & DRINK

Our train left the station at 8:30pm, so it didn’t serve dinner, but both breakfast and lunch the following day were included in our fare. For breakfast, I had a delicious apple granola pancake plate with eggs and bacon (and plenty of coffee!), and for lunch I had the roast beef while Jade, Micki and my mom all opted for the shepherd’s pie. The food was tasty: far better than anything I expected from a train.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

We were pretty wiped and went to bed early, but if you’re the type who needs a nightcap, you can pick up a bottle of wine or six-pack of beer and bring it on the train with you. Or there’s a bar from which you can order. At lunch, I was delighted to find that VIA offered several regional craft beers from Calgary and Edmonton (because when in Canada, am I right?), meaning we all sampled a few different kinds (except for Mom, who opted for wine).

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

THE SCENERY ON THE TRAIN

I saved the best part for last! As if all the above weren’t enough, the scenery was spectacular. Snow-capped mountain peaks and evergreen for days. Before we’d even had breakfast, Jade spotted a pair of foxes frolicking in a field as we whizzed by their home.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

Pro tip: There’s absolutely no Internet connectivity on board the VIA Rail, and cell service is limited. It took us about 22 hours between leaving Vancouver and arriving in Jasper, so pack accordingly and plan to catch up on your reading—or simply admire Mother Nature as you zoom by. Keep your camera handy, as even on a foggy day, you’ll want to snap some shots.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

THE DOME CAR

There were two cars on our VIA Rail train, one at the front and one at the back, that offer a dome level on the top floor, meaning you have a pretty awesome view of the scenery surrounding you.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

Pro tip: If you hear of something epic (like a frozen waterfall) coming up soon—which will be announced over the loud speaker—grab a seat up top immediately before everyone else makes the migration, as dome seats are very limited.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

The dining car is also a great spot to watch the world pass by, though between meal services you’ll eventually  have to scoot on your way as the dining staff prepares for the next feast.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

PLANNING IT ALL

Canada by Design has a number of different train tours available, but also the option to fully tailor your experience to your own bucket list. Don’t see a rail tour here that’s just right for you? No worries—they can design one for you based on your timeline and preferences.

Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta

Even if you’ve never considered train travel before, I highly encourage you to tack on 24 hours to your Canadian adventure, because it’s a whole other world you’ve likely never experienced.

Looking for more tips to planning your winter trip to Canada? Check out my past posts:


 

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Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta
Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta
Canada by Train: Traveling from Vancouver to Alberta
COMMENTS
  • January 20, 2018
    Jeanie

    It was a blast! I would have liked to stay longer on the train, but 24 hours was perfect with all the other stuff we had lined up to do! We ended up spending most of our time with a family from Perth, Australia, a couple from South Africa, two British couples, and several “old farts” from Texas. (I promised them I’d reference them in this response post! They TOLD me to call them this so they’d know it was about them. So no one get mad!). We had great political/travel/education discussions! And, we ran into some of them several towns later! I live for this!!

    • January 22, 2018

      Ha! You knew EVERYONE on the train by the time we departed!

  • January 21, 2018

    I enjoyed your article and found it informative. We have the train ride from Vancover to Jasper on our list of “to-dos.” A winter trip had not occurred as an an option; now it is.

    • January 22, 2018

      You should look into it, David! They have some deals on their website if you book before Jan. 31. And bonus: Crowds are a LOT fewer than summer months.

  • January 21, 2018

    Free champagne and beautiful sceneries? Sign me up 🙂

    • January 22, 2018

      Right?!? I’m all about the free champs.

  • January 21, 2018

    This actually looks AMAAAZING! Those dome carriages! I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford the Rocky Mountaineer lol but I wonder if there are budget ways to do this sort of thing?

    • January 22, 2018

      I think VIA is much more affordable than Rocky Mountaineer! The trip we took is about $2200 more affordable than the RM route.

  • January 21, 2018

    This is my fantasy. I have always wanted to spend a night or two on a train and I didn’t even realize this was a possibility in Canada! What a great vacation idea. 😍

    • January 22, 2018

      Yes ma’am! I’ve done it twice now, and it’s worth it in summer or winter =)

  • January 27, 2018

    Those dome cars look fantastic and this sounds like a great experience! I love just sitting on a train and enjoying the landscape views (when you have them). I travel a lot in Austria via train and it’s quite beautiful.

    I also like the look of the food you have on the train, in particular the roast beef.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I can’t wait to do this myself one day.

  • January 29, 2018

    This is a wonderful idea Kirstin!

    I love travelling by train, but when I think of North America, I figured, it wouldn’t be that good! I forgot about Canada though! And what great views on the dome car. Every train should have this.

    Re-spending the night on a train? Yes, indeed! I love doing that on European trains, and I had a rather wonderful time on the overnight train in Vietnam. The worst one? An overnight train in India. It was absolutely horrid, putting me off trains in India indefinitely, and making me extremely anxious, when I’m one of the most get-up-and-go-let’s-do-it-right-now-yeah type of person!

    I’m taking my family to India in the summer (Eek!), and we’re taking exactly one 3/4-hour day time-return train journey, as in India, I simply can’t cope with anything else!

    • January 30, 2018

      Have you see the movie Lion? That alone kind of scared me about taking the train in India! In general, I’ve really only done overnight trains in Germany/Austria/Italy/Spain where they’re all quite nice and reliable, so this was a first for me—taking one in North America!

  • January 30, 2018

    I LOVE trains and this looks like a great way to get around Canada if you don’t want to drive. I’ve always wanted to do a train tour across Canada or the USA. It hasn’t worked out in terms of time and/or planning but hope to do this in the future.

    • March 10, 2018

      I still want to do one across the US, too! It’s just SO expensive here. Not nearly as pricey in Canada and Europe.

  • January 30, 2018

    Love the dome car, that looks like such a unique way to see the passing scenery. We’ve done a lot of train trips, but this is still on our bucket list (as is exploring more of Canada!)

    • March 10, 2018

      Canada is so massive! I’ve probably taken six trips there, if not more, and have only seen a tiny little slice of it so far.

  • January 31, 2018

    I can’t wait to go on another train adventure one day. The only train trip I’ve done in the US is from Georgia to Washington D.C. and that was years ago. I’ve never been to Canada and this looks like a fun way to do it!

    • March 12, 2018

      That’s better than me: I’ve really only done short two- to three-hour stints in California and the Northeast!

  • January 31, 2018

    This looks so cool! I have never been through the Western part of Canada and this looks like a fabulous way to see the countryside without the tediousness of a long car ride. My husband and I are planning to visit both Montana and Calgary this summer and now I’m wondering if we should put in a bit of a train ride as well since we are starting on the East Coast.

    • March 12, 2018

      You need to do it, Shobha! I think Via goes all the way across the country actually.

  • February 1, 2018

    I have limited train experience, but there is definitely a certain amount of magic in taking a train. I love it and this trip looks like it was absolutely magical.

    • March 12, 2018

      Have you ever taken Amtrak in Virginia? I haven’t but several friends use it frequently. We don’t have that option here in Tennessee 🙁

  • February 2, 2018

    So cool! I did a Rocky Mountaineer trip a couple years ago and loved it – but there’s something so magical about staying on a train overnight! And all those snowy landscapes… looks like it was a great trip!

    • March 12, 2018

      I did the Rocky Mountaineer, too, and it was epic! I don’t think you can sleep on any of their cars, though, unless they’ve changed things since I went in 2008.

  • February 3, 2018

    The only overnight train travel I’ve done was in Africa way back in 2003, and not nearly as cozy as this looks. I don’t remember the food from that expedrience, and the scenery was mostly flat and dry, but I do remember enjoying being rocked to sleep at night by the motion of the train.

    How do you think kids would go on an overnight trip like this? Much like flying I guess in that we’d have to bring enough stuff to keep them entertained.

    And I actually like the fact that wifi is limited and it forces you to either chat or get cozy with a book. Sounds good to me!

    • March 12, 2018

      I think your kids would do great on an overnight. Anything more than a day, though, would be a bit much (for them or
      for me!)—the novelty is fun, but the cabins are tiny so they’d mainly be sitting in the observation car checking out the views, reading, etc.

  • April 1, 2018

    Sounds like an amazing trip. Thanks for sharing

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