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7 of the World’s Most Epic Journeys By Rail

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It’s clear that we here at TPG are obsessed with flying, but many of us have a love affair with trains, as well. Traveling by train can feel like a journey back in time, or simply a more romantic way to go from Point A to B. TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino offers her top seven picks for train trips that guarantee breathtaking scenery and the experience of being an old-fashioned world explorer. 

Mexico's Copper Canyon. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

1. The Copper Canyon Railway, Mexico

Also known as the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico (Chihuahua-Pacific Railway or “El Chepe” as the locals call it), this route is a 418-mile, 14-hour journey from Chihuahua to Los Mochis, passing through the rugged, magnificent Copper Canyon. Created in 1961 to connect Mexico’s central desert with the west coast, the trip passes through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges, which feels harrowing if you have a fear of heights—some rise as high as 7,900 feet above sea level.

In addition to the impressive canyon itself, the appeal of this trip is the surrounding local villages, where you’ll encounter indigenous tribes, horse-riding cowboys, and women making artisan crafts, their smiling children happily waving at you. Look out for the stop at Divisadero, which offers the best views of the canyon.

The train offers two classes, economy and first, and prices range from $300 to more than $4,000 one-way, depending on where you get on and off, as well as which class you choose.

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The Landwasser viaduct on the Bernina Express. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

2. The Bernina Express, Switzerland to Italy

The Swiss Alps views on this train ride, also known as the Rhaetian Railway, are so mind-blowing that its route, which goes between Chur, Davos and St. Moritz through the Swiss Alps to Tirano in Northern Italy, has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Once in Tirano, connect by bus to Lugano, Switzerland or continue onto Lake Como, Italy. Be ready with your camera around Filisur for the amazing 213-foot-high Landwasser Viaduct. The train continues through 55 tunnels and across 196 bridges, passing snow-capped glaciers and almost ridiculously postcard-worthy Swiss villages.

A one-way ticket from Chur to Tirano costs around $60-75, and takes around four hours, depending on whether you prefer first or second class.

The amazing scenery near Banff from the Rocky Mountaineer. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The amazing scenery near Banff from the Rocky Mountaineer. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

3. The Rocky Mountaineer First Package to the West, Western Canada

This route not only has gorgeous mountain scenery, but is also highly recommended for history buffs. Created to connect the eastern and western parts of Canada, the railway passes through the Continental Divide. Starting in Vancouver and going through Kamloops, Lake Louise and Banff, the route (which has won an impressive haul of awards) includes the massive Canadian Rockies, the steep cliffs over the Thompson River, and Craighellachie, where the very last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was added.

The route includes two days of train journey, two nights in a hotel, and a variety of meals and activities, with rates ranging from $1,500-2,500 depending on your chosen dates and class of service.

The Amtrak Starlight has some amazing Pacific Ocean views. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The Amtrak Starlight has some amazing Pacific Ocean views. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

4. The Coast Starlight, Washington, Oregon and California

Running once daily, the Amtrak Coast Starlight route goes between Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles, also passing through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento for a total of almost 1,400 miles. Route highlights include farmlands and forests, views of Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, the San Francisco Bay and almost endless views of the Pacific coastline. It’s also possible to do some parts of the trip, like San Francisco to Los Angeles only, for example.

Keep in mind that Amtrak is a Chase Ultimate Rewards partner, and you could take this trip for approximately 15,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards using points earned on cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Ink Plus. Oftentimes, for long-haul routes on Amtrak’s network, you can get around four cents per point in value by using Chase Ultimate Reward points.

Tickets run between $145-650 (the most expensive option is the sleeper car) and the trip lasts about 35 hours.

Passing by Lake Baikal on the Trans-Siberian railway. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Passing by Lake Baikal on the Trans-Siberian railway. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

5. Trans-Siberian Railway, Siberia-Mongolia

The Golden Eagle Luxury train begins its 15-day journey in Moscow, chugging through Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Ulan Ude, and Ulaanbaatar, ending at Vladivostok, a port on the Sea of Japan. The trip includes all train travel, plus tours in various cities and a visit to a traditional ger, the colorful tent-style dwellings of nomadic Mongolians.

Tickets sure aren’t cheap, though—they’ll run from $16,000-34,000. If that price tag is just too hefty, you can also do a Trans-Siberian railway journey from Moscow to Beijing for around $3,000 per person for 15 days. This trip includes the possibility of Siberian dog-sledding and also offers a ger visit.

Take a ride on the Jungle Train in Malaysia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Take a ride on the Jungle Train in Malaysia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

6. The Jungle Train, Malaysia

This no-frills train will get you from Gemas to Tumpat near Kota Bahru, passing through an immense jungle on the way. It’s officially called the East Coast Line, even though it actually runs closer to the center of Malaysia, where most stops are remote villages with nothing more than a platform to tell you you’ve arrived. The most interesting and scenic part of the journey is from Gua Musang to Tumpat with views of rice fields, jungle foliage, rivers and limestone cliffs.

You can opt for first class, or if you’re feeling adventurous, take a third-class train, filled with not only locals but also cattle and chickens. Tickets range from $2 (budget class) to $6.50 (superior class) for the four-hour ride from Gua Musang to Tumpat.

The train offers some incredible views of Machu Picchu. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The train offers some incredible views of Machu Picchu. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

7. Cusco-Machu Picchu, Peru

PeruRail is the main company that offers trains from the Poroy station, about eight miles from central Cusco to Machu Picchu, that run through the Sacred Valley, the base of the Andes Mountains, and along the Urubamba River. The small towns you’ll pass house many salt mines, creating a quilt-like landscape of beiges, pinks and browns; as you speed by, you may even catch Peruvians mining the salt. This whole area is a wealth of beauty and culture, as the Incas also inhabited the valley and the river area, and Inca mummies have been found in this zone.

The entire train journey takes about four hours and there are three classes of travel available: Hiram Bingham (luxury, starting at about $475 one-way, which includes entrance to the Machu Picchu citadel plus guided tour, as well as food and wine), the Vistadome (the mid-range option at about $90 one-way) and the Expedition (formerly called the Backpacker, about $73 one-way). Private company Inca Rail also offers service to Machu Picchu from Cusco.

TPG Tip: When purchasing train tickets, remember that the Chase Sapphire Preferred card gives you double points on all travel purchases. You can also get double points on Amtrak purchases with the Guest Rewards MasterCard. 

Have any of you taken the above epic train journeys or other amazing ones? We’d love to hear about them.

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