With Luxury Train Travel in America, It's All About the Journey
A Whole New Perspective on the Country
When most people think of luxury travel, what usually comes to mind are first-class plane seats and lavish hotel suites. Treating yourself to exotic dishes and indulging in perfectly aged beverages in luxury destinations.
Trains generally aren’t part of the picture, as they are often thought of as loud, dirty and inconvenient. Put these notions aside; train travel offers a lot more luxury than you may think! In fact, they can encompass all those aspects of luxury travel — and sometimes more.
These days, luxury train travel in the USA has enjoyed a renewed interest as an alternative to bus tours and travel packages with airfare included. Historic trains have been restored to their previous splendor and offer a view into another time when train travel was the epitome of luxury.
Aside from offering riders a window into history, these luxury train trips invoke a sense of heritage, following the routes of ancestors, Native American tribes and famous Americans. They also help Americans and tourists alike gain unparalleled insight into broad swathes of the Land of the Free. Luxury train travel in the USA provides a leisurely ride from state to state and across the country, allowing riders to enjoy the experience and the view.
So what’s the first thing you should expect when it comes to luxury train travel? What sets it apart from the stereotypical rail experience? Luxury trains come in all sorts of flavors, but they all have one thing in common: they combine elegant travel accommodations with intriguing destinations.
In fact, the old “Orient Express” stereotype still holds true when thinking about luxury train travel. Wood-paneled cars. White tablecloths and china. Starched shirts and gold rope on employee uniforms. Multi-course, gourmet meals and craft cocktails. Palatial suites and fresh flowers on tables. You can expect all of these and more. Even much-maligned Amtrak seems to be getting in on the trend with upgraded accommodations and internet connectivity.
But another aspect of luxury train travel involves the destinations themselves. As mentioned just above, luxury trains don’t zip back and forth between boring places. Their destinations usually end up being metropolitan areas with lots of cultural importance, historical weight or outstanding natural beauty.
Luxury trains chase the Northern Lights, stop in landmark American metropolises such as the the Windy City and the City of Angels, and visit the Grand Canyon or even the nation’s capitol. They also often include unique activities. Passengers may find themselves enjoying multi-course banquets, visits to vineyards, mid-trip serenades, and even on-board Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
Types of Trips
Trips are usually organized by a vacation service and centered around a theme or specific region of the United States. Most companies offer coast-to-coast train travel usually starting in New York City and ending in San Francisco. These trips last approximately two weeks and include stops in major cities and destinations such as Chicago, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans and various national parks.
Others provide more region-specific jaunts. Some have super-short trips lasting an afternoon that either provide unique experiences or provide point-to-point service for specific events.
There are a great number of luxury train trips in the Western United States that explore the Pacific Coast and its major cities, tourist destinations and national parks. Others do foliage tours of the Northeast during the fall, visiting coastal New England towns.
Some luxury train trips in the USA only visit national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, while others highlight cities known for their entertainment. Aside from prearranged packaged rail trips, private luxury train tours are available by specified interest in some cases.
Top Luxury Train Packages
So what are some of the top luxury train packages for you to consider? Perhaps the best way to organize them is by geographical location.
Amtrak’s West Coast Spectacular
As mentioned before, it’s no secret that the United States’ West Coast has a bevy of beautiful train packages. Sadly, it’s also no secret that public perception of Amtrak, possibly the best known rail operator, has taken a dip in recent years. However, the Coast Starlight offers a different kind of service altogether.
It still serves meals on china plates in its dining car, and its Sightseer Lounge offers open-air views of some of the best scenery America has to offer. Amtrak’s West Coast Spectacular package ($1,599 to $2,399) takes travelers from Seattle to Los Angeles with a stop in scenic San Francisco.
Napa Valley Wine Train
Other West Coast options stick more closely to specific themes. The Napa Valley Wine Train provides a bevy of experiences, everything from multi-course gourmet meal trips ($159.99 and up), multiple winery tours (approximately $300, although it depends on the winery), and special events such as Thanksgiving dinner ($164) or a Christmas-themed jaunt ($59.99).
Expect white-tablecloth service and luxury treatment from the train’s winery and hotel partners.
Alaska Railroad’s GoldStar Service
It’s hard to get more west than in the aptly named Last Frontier, and the Alaska Railroad offers amazing options with its GoldStar Service, which includes full-service dining and an upper viewing area that allows for amazingly open views.
Take a borealis-chasing route during the winter ($1,575) or speed through Alaska’s national parks during the summer ($2,825)
The American West and Southwest also have luxe train packages. Like the Napa Valley option, Colorado’s Rio Grand Scenic Railroad sells a number of wine-related packages, including multi-course gourmet meals combined with wine tastings ($59.00), a champagne brunch ($59.00), sip-and-paint excursions ($50.00), and boozy Halloween tours ($59.00).
Other excursions involve viewing The Centennial State’s gorgeous fall colors (from $139.00), service to various concerts, and transportation to various special events.
Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel
Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel ferries travelers to and from the titular canyon in just over two hours each way. Serenading cowboys add some rustic flair to the trip, but the restored train cars also have their fair share of pampering.
The Observation Dome ($189) allows you to enjoy bar service while surveying the landscape, whereas the Luxury Dome and Luxury Parlor ($226) offer exclusive cocktails and bar children from riding in the car’s section.
Vacations by Rail’s Great Lakes & Trains
Not to be outdone, Vacation by Rail’s Great Lakes & Trains tour ($2,959) takes passengers from Chicago to Michigan’s car-free Mackinac Island. Famously old-fashioned and boasting the historic Grand Hotel (in which passengers get to spend several nights), Mackinac Island is a gorgeous throwback.
Not only will visitors get to ride to and from the island on Amtrak’s Hiawatha, which boasts on-board WiFi, they can also tour Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and The Henry Ford Museum.
Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express
Now we’ve come to the East Coast, an area of the country offering an entirely different railway perspective. What it lacks in dramatic, horizon-spanning views, it makes up for with history and diversity.
Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express will speed you from upstate New York to the bucolic Hudson River Valley. While less luxurious than other options in this article, the train still has business-class service and WiFi. It also opens up to you some of the most scenic sections of the American Northeast.
America’s Trains’ Southern Comfort
America’s Trains does the same with its Southern Comfort tour, only it does so in style. Its grand suite package ($7,950) provides you with a palatial private suite on a luxurious train car featuring all-inclusive vacation options.
Start in New Orleans before traveling to Houston, San Antonio, and finally Fort Worth. Listen to jazz in the French Quarter and tour the San Antonio waterfront, all while being shunted from stop to stop in the greatest luxury possible.
Amtrak’s Greenbrier Getaway
Finally, you may not think of luxury when you consider the state of West Virginia. But Amtrak’s Greenbrier Getaway (from $589) gives you just that. Starting on Amtrak’s Cardinal train, the trip takes you from Washington, D.C., to West Virginia’s premier resort.
Situated smack in the middle of the Allegheny Mountains, the Greenbrier has existed since the late 18th century. Not only has it hosted 26 U.S. Presidents and numerous other heads of state, it boasts excellent golfing, gorgeous grounds, and Christmas and Thanksgiving events worthy of any bucket list.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Luxury Train Travel
With so many different types of transportation available these days, advocates for luxury rail travel in the USA emphasize the many advantages and amenities that are offered in comparison. No other type of transportation offers the kind of intimate views afforded by railways, which snake across various natural landscapes inaccessible by any other means.
Luxury trains are as much about the journey as they are the destination with riders catered to and provided for in every way. The vast majority of trains offer private sleeping accommodations on board, like traveling hotel rooms with a private bath, seating area, picture window and bed.
Dining cars provide gourmet meals, wine and spirits that are often all-inclusive in the price of the package. Professional tour managers take the reins in all aspects, arranging for hotels, meals and sightseeing packages so you don’t have to.
Your trip will cover multiple destinations that would have otherwise been a logistical nightmare to figure out on your own. In other words, luxury train vacations allow you to enjoy this great country at your leisure while you relax and just enjoy the unique experience.
On the other hand, choosing a luxury rail trip can turn out quite expensive in comparison to booking everything on your own. If you’ve mostly been a budget traveler, it might not be a good fit for you.
Since most hotels, restaurants and attractions are picked ahead of time by a travel professional, there’s not a lot of flexibility in terms of choices. You’ll also only get to enjoy a location for a day or two since the package includes a pre-booked itinerary.
Trips from one destination to another will take considerably longer than most other forms of transportation since there’s only one route that’s designed to be scenic. If you get motion sick or don’t enjoy being cooped up for hours at a time, a luxury train package might not be the right fit for you.
Also, due to its unique characteristics, luxury train travel requires more consideration than other forms of travel. The length of travel that we mentioned? It doesn’t lend itself to families with young children. Few trains on longer routes seem to offer WiFi, which means that screen-focused youngsters could soon end up feeling stir crazy.
Add in the confined spaces, limited stops, and heavy emphasis on sightseeing, and you can understand why a number of luxury trains actual ban kids from their most luxurious cars. Indeed, while families can swing the cost of shorter trips, the price for longer routes seems to restrict them to a much different demographic: retirees.
Tips for Getting the Most out of Your Experience
One of the first things to consider when it comes to getting the most out of your experience is what you plan to pack.
Luggage policies tend to be a bit more forgiving than those of the major airlines. For instance, Amtrak allows travelers to check two free bags and sets the maximum baggage limit at four.
America’s Trains also caps its bag limit at four and will even have employees deliver them to and from your on-board room at various points in time. Alaska Railroad restricts your bags to a mere pair during the more popular summer rides and opens it up to a quartet of bags during winter.
Most railways can also accommodate oddly shaped items such as surfboards or large musical instruments, although they will likely incur an additional fee.
What to Pack
The problem comes when you consider the length of such trips. You can cross the world via plane in the time it takes to get somewhere in the continental U.S. on a train — and sometimes you could fly around the world more than once over a similar time span. Yes, the vast majority of modern luxury trains will have showers. But if traveling on an older, restored car sounds romantic to you, forget about bathing. It’s simply not an option in these classic conveyances.
In order to get the most out of your luxury-train experience, pack smart. Pick outfits that do double duty, allowing you to dress up for the dining car and dress down for excursions. As with any long ride, dress comfortably in layers you can easily peel off or put back on again. Pack as light as possible to avoid having to keep track of a lot of luggage.
Indeed, it makes sense to avoid maxing out your number of bags or weight limit (typically 50 pounds per bag). Many luxury train expeditions feature multiple stops and nights at area hotels. Someone will have to manage or schlep your stuff around, and even willing train staff have their limits.
Additionally, resist the urge to try to save money by bringing your own alcoholic beverages. (Many luxury trains will actually permit you drinking from your private supply, at least in the comfort of your own room.) However, you’ll likely find that the satisfaction of not spending cash at the bar is quickly offset by the hassle of dealing with it. Plus, bellying up to the bar gives you opportunities to meet other travelers, one of the prime perks of luxury rail travel.
Take Advantage of Available Amenities
Since many luxury rail packages are all-inclusive, take advantage of the amenities on board to enhance your travel experience. Enjoy room service in your sleeper car or make some new friends in the dining car where tables are often communal.
Coastal California trains offer something called a Parlour Car, which has a lounge, wine tastings and even a small movie theater. Others have double decker Sightseer Cars where you can enjoy the view facing outward and watch the scenery pass by.
When to Go
Picking the time of year during which you want to travel matters a great deal. Every so often, you’ll read news articles about trains getting stuck on the tracks during inclement weather, sometimes for days at a time. That’s why so many luxury rail companies limit their tours to particular times of the year.
Most companies that offer luxury train travel in the USA only have a limited number of dates when they offer a specific route or package deal. Make sure you know exactly what you’re getting, when you’re leaving and how to get to your departure destination.
The takeaway is this: if you want to book that autumn ramble that rolls through when the hills look like ochre, umber, orange, and red stained glass, then do so ahead of time. Ditto for the beer-themed afternoon route or the train that promises you’ll spy local wildlife.
In fact, it’s entirely common to find entirely different kinds of trips offered with razor-thin time periods. You may only be able to seize the opportunity for six weeks or so — or perhaps only a single day. So plan ahead, plan early, and plan to make your preferred train expedition the centerpiece of your travel.
Above all, sit back, relax and enjoy a ride steeped in history, culture and natural beauty. There’s nothing quite like a cross-country train ride to make you appreciate the variety of wonders this amazing country has to offer.