12 things that surprised me about my 1st luxury train journey
I had the opportunity to take my first and only (so far) luxury train trip in December of 2019 while traveling around Australia.
On assignment for another publication at the time, I was invited aboard one of the first runs of the Great Southern, a then-new line from Journey Beyond, which operates such iconic voyages as The Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin through the continent’s red center, and the Indian Pacific, which runs between the two oceans in its name.
The Great Southern travels between Brisbane and Adelaide with stops along the way in New South Wales and Victoria for excursions such as dolphin watching, wine tasting and various other tours.
Before that trip, I just thought of trains as a convenient means of transit from point A to point B. You’d have found me riding Amtrak between Los Angeles and San Diego, or New York City and Washington, D.C., not to mention more local networks like the SEPTA around Philadelphia or New Jersey Transit’s Northeast Corridor.
But comparing those to the Great Southern would be like a faceoff between a Greyhound bus and Singapore Suites.
The very moment I boarded, I was handed a glass of chilled Bollinger Champagne before my steward showed me the workings of my private suite: no jockeying for seats or a space for my bag. And no muttering under my breath when someone inconsiderate took a phone call in the quiet car, either.
Just me, an elegant banquette to sprawl across and a huge window to watch secluded coastal coves and groves of silvery eucalyptus trees glide past as we rolled along.
It surprised me how quickly I settled into the slower pace of travel by rail … but that was just the first of many surprises I had along the way.
Here are some of the other delightful discoveries I made during my first luxury train journey that should help you make the most out of your next luxury train trip.
It’s worth splurging on a higher class of service if you can
Much like flying business class over economy or renting a luxury sedan instead of a compact car, you’re probably going to have a better experience the higher the class of service or the larger the cabin or suite you book. These accommodations also tend to have the most updated amenities, including their bathrooms. Granted, you might need to work within a budget that precludes booking the fancy compartments, which can run hundreds or even thousands of dollars more depending on the journey.
If you can afford it, however, you should consider splashing out for the better experience a higher class of service affords, like more personal space and even some extra services and amenities, which can dramatically improve your time on board over the course of a multiday trip. After all, even the longest flights last less than a day — train journeys can stretch on for weeks.
Not every compartment will have an ensuite bathroom
This will vary depending on the train, route and class of service you select, but even some very luxurious trains do not offer ensuite bathrooms in every compartment. Aboard the Great Southern, I had my own facilities with a toilet, sink and vanity and a, shall we say, space-efficient shower because I was traveling in Platinum Service. Passengers in the Gold Service Twins also had ensuite bathrooms, though those traveling in Gold Service Single compartments had to settle for shared showers and toilets at the end of their carriage.
Before your trip, research the options and then pack your toiletries accordingly if you might have to share with other passengers.
Showering in a moving train is harder than you think
I’m still relatively young and I have good balance, but even for me, the process of showering in a rocking train carriage was more challenging than I expected. I could handle the space constraints of trying to clean up in a relatively tiny stall and hosing myself down with a handheld showerhead. But every so often, the train would lurch or list slightly, and that was enough to keep me on my toes and make the experience feel slightly — adventurous!
I ended up keeping my showers quick so not too much could go wrong, and you'll probably find you want to do the same.
Light sleepers might want to reconsider
I’m almost embarrassed to say it didn’t really occur to me until my first night aboard the Great Southern that I might not have the most restful night of sleep. Unlike the visions I had entertained of Agatha Christie murderers skulking around whisper-quiet train cars, the conveyance I was in lurched and swayed, rattled and squealed, accelerated and braked … all night long. While motion tends to put me to sleep and I snooze like a wee babe on cruise ships, the movements of the train were noticeably more pronounced. That didn’t bother me too much, but I did hear asides from other passengers about how poorly they snoozed.
I also carry earplugs with me on my travels, so popping those in each night helped, both for drowning out the train noises as well as the carrying voices of my other carmates coming and going down the corridor outside our compartments.
The demographic was older than I expected
I’ve often been called an old soul, which I mostly think is a nice way of saying I’m a history dork with a penchant for fancy things. Perhaps that’s why I envisioned my train trip as a gathering of similar sophisticates trying a new way to traverse the territory. However, I found the onboard population was mostly comprised of septua- and octagenarians who valued an easy and accessible way to see the spectacular countryside without having to be very physically active. This meant the off-train excursions were fairly slow-paced, and that was fine for me — for a few days.
If my trip had been longer, I would have looked for ways to get more exercise during stops since there was no onboard gym, nor space in my compartment, for a workout.
It can be difficult to stay connected
Whereas inflight and hotel Wi-Fi seem to be more prevalent than not these days, a lot of luxury trains still lack onboard Wi-Fi. What’s more, many tend to travel through remote regions with little service. That means you won’t be keeping up with work emails or Instagram posts unless you bring your own mobile hotspot.
Instead of doing that, though, settle into the data-free doldrums and let your gaze wander out the window to the passing scenery. Those who regard a leisurely train ride as a chance to disconnect are going to be the ones who enjoy it the most.
I should have packed lighter
Like cruise ship cabins, train compartments are limited in space and designed for efficiency, so you won’t find too much in the way of storage for big suitcases or overflowing toiletry bags. That said, your attendant will probably take your bags away for stowage elsewhere in the train.
But the less you can pack, the easier it will be to settle in and then settle back out again at the end of your journey. You just need a couple of nice outfits to wear to dinner and comfortable clothes for whatever daytime activities you have planned. Don’t overthink what you’ll need and don’t overpack because you’ll just be cramping your own style.
Pick your excursions ahead of time
Multiday train trips are comparable to cruises in a lot of respects. Just like cruises, they stop at various stations (instead of ports) and offer guests a choice of activities at each on a small scale that feels like a luxury expedition cruise.
Though there’s a lot to be said about spontaneity, in order to get the most enjoyment out of your trip, be sure to scope out the off-train activities and make your selections ahead of time so you nail down the ones you want before they fill up.
The train felt like a destination in and of itself
Before my trip, I’d thought the day and evening excursions along our itinerary would be the highlights of the experience and that I’d be itching to jump off the train as soon as we slowed into each station. As the days progressed, however, I found myself eager to get back to the train for some chit-chat with the other passengers, a nibble or a drink, and some quiet time to unwind in my cabin by myself.
The creature comforts on board as well as the unfailingly warm hospitality of the attendants and conductor made the train feel like the main attraction of the trip rather than simply a convenient way to transit from one point of interest to another.
There wasn't always postcard-perfect scenery
Trains travel along — wait for it — train tracks! And while there are certainly some picturesque corridors around the world, even luxury trains must also pass through busy city hubs and railyards frequented by both freight and other passenger trains. What’s more, because of all that traffic, your train could be held on a side track for hours at a time, all planned for by the line, of course, but still leaving you with little to look at. The vast majority of your train trip is likely to be along scenic spurs chosen specifically for your itinerary.
But on those occasions where you’re stuck outside a dreary depot, just pull down the shades, order a cocktail and enjoy the banter of your travel companions until you get moving again.
The food was surprisingly good
Call me a skeptic, but I figured the food dished out of a kitchen that wouldn’t look out of place on a 20th-century submarine (at least in size) couldn’t possibly be gourmet. But I was wrong. Luxury train companies go to extraordinary lengths to make sure the culinary offerings on board will satisfy even the most discerning palates. After all, they’re dealing with an upscale clientele who could splurge (and probably have) on meals at some of the world’s best restaurants.
My three-night journey aboard the Great Southern featured onboard fare such as blue swimmer crab over corn blini with tomato and avocado salad for breakfast; grilled duck breast with a cherry jus and sweet corn puree along with Junee Prime Lamb rump over minted pea puree with black garlic aioli and roasted potatoes for dinner; and poached peach Melba with roasted almonds and vanilla bean ice cream for dessert.
Everyone wanted to talk
Folks who meet me find it mystifying that I’m actually the quietest member of my family since I’ll pretty much talk to anyone about anything for any length of time. But even I felt like a wallflower compared to some of my fellow rail riders. Perhaps it was because my journey was with an iconic service in Australia and there were a lot of like-minded travelers along for the ride, but it was as though there was an unspoken camaraderie on the tracks where folks fell into easy conversation, even if they’d just met and came from totally different parts of the country.
Or, maybe it was because the guest compartments were, if not tiny, still too small to invite many friends inside so people tended to gather in the lounge and dining cars and strike up impromptu conversations. But much like my experiences on cruise ships, I found myself chatting with the other passengers out on excursions during the day, around group tables at lunch or dinner both on the train and off, and having an aperitif before dinner on the train.
Like train travel itself, the experience felt like a throwback to an earlier era of group travel where people came together to share an experience along with a little bit of themselves, and it was one of the more rewarding aspects of my journey.