14 of the most scenic train rides on Earth
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It’s possible to enjoy spectacular views when traveling by air, especially during takeoff and landing. But there’s often not much to see when you’re cruising at 39,000 feet.
That’s one reason why train travel has long been one of the most popular ways to see the world. It’s generally a more relaxed way of getting from one place to the next — no plastic bags filled with tiny toiletries or endless crowds at airport security — and trains can snake through scenic mountain valleys and connect charming, remote villages. They offer steadily panning views of stunning landscapes that are sometimes exceptionally difficult to access any other way.
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There are trains you have to take (like the G train in New York City) but sometimes, a journey by rail can be a trip in and of itself. We scoured the globe, reviewed new itineraries and spoke to expert travelers about the world’s most scenic rail routes: You know, the kind that makes you want to wax poetic like Paul Theroux.
Even if you can’t book these itineraries right now, it’s never too soon to start dreaming.
From an Amtrak train that leaves New York City every morning to an ultra-luxury locomotive that’s been transporting people back to the Golden Age of Travel (and, more literally, between two South African cities) these are 14 of the most scenic train rides on Earth.
Rocky mountaineer in the American Southwest
This iconic luxury train operator, which is famous for its tours of Western Canada, is launching its first route in the U.S. in 2021. Travelers can journey from Denver, Colorado to Moab, Utah on the two-day “Rockies to the Red Rocks” itinerary, which features an overnight in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Because the train only operates during the day, travelers won’t miss a minute of scenery from the glass-domed train cars with outdoor viewing decks as the towering Rocky Mountains give way to the almost Martian desert landscape in Utah. After all, Moab is the gateway to Arches National Park, which is named for its surreal sandstone arches and rock formations.
Rates start at $1,250 per person, which includes a one-night hotel stay. There will be 40 departures for the preview season when the route launches on Aug. 15, 2021.
Sri Lanka Railways in Sri Lanka
“The ride between Kandy and Ella takes you past colorful villages, lush rolling hills, tea plantations and more,” said TPG writer Lori Zaino. “It’s a whole cultural experience — locals in my car were singing and clapping the entire time. For an adrenaline thrill, hang out the window (at your own risk) and watch the world go by.”
The seven-hour ride is extremely inexpensive, and a great way to explore the Sri Lankan countryside. Just be sure to opt for a second-class fare so you can look out the window and enjoy the view.
Book through an agency, like Zaino did, to get your ticket secured in advance (from about $I6). Though tickets purchased at the station may only be a few bucks, don’t underestimate the convenience of having a seat reserved before your arrival in Sri Lanka.
Pilatus Luzern in Switzerland
Book any train of any type in Switzerland, and you’ll probably enjoy uninterrupted views of the Alps, charming alpine villages and glass-like lakes. But for something a bit more adventurous, head to Alpnachstad to ride the Pilatus Luzern, which is the steepest cog railway in the world — ascending to an angle just shy of 45 degrees, though the journey only lasts about 30 minutes.
But you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views from the summit of Mount Pilatus and — if you choose — opportunities to disembark and hike, climb or picnic in the surrounding mountains and valleys. Round-trip fares usually start at 72 Swiss Francs, or about $81.
The Northern Explorer in New Zealand
Fly into Auckland and board the Northern Explorer, the nation’s longest-running passenger train, which chugs through Hamilton, Otorohanga, National Park, Palmerston North and Paraparaumu en route to the capital, Wellington. Exploring New Zealand by rail, you’ll see everything from volcanic peaks to the rugged coast while stopping to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing or navigate the glowworm lit chambers of the Waitomo Caves.
“Every time I’ve done the Northern Explorer train, I’ve needed to get between the two places but haven’t been in too much of a hurry,” travel writer and TPG contributor Elen Turner said. After all, the 12-hour journey isn’t exactly the fastest way to get around New Zealand. So be sure to expect a leisurely ride. Prices begin at 139 New Zealand dollars ($99) for adults.
Rocky Mountaineer in Western Canada
“Traveling through the Canadian Rockies on the Rocky Mountaineer train from Banff to Vancouver is definitely one of those ‘you-only-live-once’ experiences,” journalist Michele Sponagle told TPG, describing the luxury train’s original and best-known itineraries. “It takes you through the most remote areas — ones you could never access any other way. Imagine postcard-perfect scenery in every direction … [and] be prepared for a forced digital detox since you won’t get a cell signal or have onboard Wi-Fi access frequently throughout your journey.”
The “First Passage to the West” tour is a four-day journey from Vancouver to Banff that crosses the Continental Divide and passes through the so-called “Spiral Tunnels” carved into the Rockies. Fares start at $1,576 per person and include four meals, three nights in hotels, a tour and national park pass, as well as station transfers and luggage handling. Shorter journeys onboard the Rocky Mountaineer start around $1,287 per person.
Amtrak Adirondack Train in New York
Sure, there are faster ways to get to Montreal from New York City — much faster. But for travelers who are looking for an affordable way to experience the romance of train travel, the Amtrak’s Adirondack train that runs daily between New York-Penn Station and Montreal’s Gare Centrale is a leisurely way to experience the Hudson Valley and the shores of Lake Champlain. (Bonus points if you take the trip in the fall as the leaves are changing, though sadly, the train’s two-level glass-domed passenger car was just retired.)
Just remember, this isn’t a luxury experience, so bring a good book, pack a favorite lunch, and don’t even think about relying on Wi-Fi. Prices start at $70 one-way.
Belmond Andean Explorer in Peru
For both stunning views and gorgeous interiors, opt for a luxury Belmond sleeper train experience, such as the Andean Explorer, which travels from Cusco to Puno, on Lake Titicaca, and the gleaming white stone city of Arequipa.
No comforts have been overlooked onboard, and the train is even fitted with oxygen tanks and masks for passengers who find the high altitude uncomfortable. Bunk bed cabins with two single beds are available from $3,700 (double occupancy) and include all onboard meals, as well as pre-dinner cocktails and canapés; tours; and transportation to the airport upon arrival in Arequipa.
Brightline in Florida
Brightline Trains began running between downtown Miami and West Palm Beach in 2018, but this is just the beginning for the train line.
The rail company plans to bring its fleet of high-design, modern trains to major destinations all over Florida, including a station at Disney Springs on Walt Disney property, which is expected to open in 2022. In addition to a scenic tour of Florida, Brightline’s ambitious expansion plans promise ultra-modern trains and stations connecting Orlando International (MCO), Disney World, Tampa and more.
Tickets for the current 30-minute trip from Fort Lauderdale to Miami typically range from $17 to $35 each, and the most expensive fares include premium lounge access, cocktails, early boarding, wider 21-inch seats (compared to 19-inch) and garage parking.
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in California
In 2019, TPG’s director of travel content, Summer Hull, boarded the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from Anaheim to San Diego.
Depending on which direction you’re heading, you’ll want to carefully select a seat on the “surf” side of the train, which hugs the coastline as it works its way back and forth between the Los Angeles area and San Diego nearly a dozen times every day. Prices start around $30 each way.
Blue Train in South Africa
Since the 1920s, South Africa’s Blue Train has been carrying travelers between Pretoria — near Johannesburg — and Cape Town in luxurious cars with panoramic windows (best for admiring the passing vineyards and major attractions like Table Mountain).
“I took the Blue Train back in 2012 with a South African friend,” recalled Nadine Jolie Courtney, a luxury travel advisor with Elite Travel International. “I can’t imagine a more spectacular way to see the South African countryside . . . It felt like being transported back in time to an elevated, bygone era of travel, with white tablecloths, private ensuite bathrooms (complete with tubs!), a dress code for dinner and jaw-droppingly gorgeous scenery . . . The night sky was particularly memorable. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many stars, and it felt as if the whole of the Milky Way was visible.”
Rates start at 18,405 South African rand, or about $1,212.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado
“I’ll never forget the unique Colorado vistas, cliffs and being surprised by what was around the next bend,” recalled Swanette Smith, also known as Grandma Points.
“[It’s] short, very scenic,” said TPG’s executive news director Scott Mayerowitz, who said the 45-mile, 3.5-hour ride is really about the views, not the destination. Prices start at $69 for adults and $42 for children in the off-season.
Shinkansen in Japan
In addition to reliable service and ultra-clean cars, a ride on Japan’s bullet train is a great way to see the country’s scenery while traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto.
“On my way … I enjoyed a beautiful view of [mountains] and Japanese towns and, if you’re lucky, you can spot the famous Mount Fuji,” said TPG staffer Adrianna Qi. (If you’re originating in Tokyo, watch for the mountain to appear about 40 minutes into the journey — and be sure to snag a seat on the right side of the train.)
Both Qi and TPG’s former senior executive assistant, Christie Matsui, said that you’ll want to be sure to pick up a bento box at the train station beforehand. Seven-day Japan Rail passes begin at 29,110 yen, or $273. A one-way ticket to Kyoto from Tokyo can cost 13,080 yen, or $123.
Jacobite Steam Train in Scotland
“Aboard the Jacobite Steam Train, which played the role of the Hogwarts Express in the ‘Harry Potter’ movies, passengers feel like they’re on their way to Hogwarts,” Canadian travel writer and photographer Johanna Read told TPG. “Starting at the base of Scotland’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, the train passes by Scotland’s moors and lochs and then slows for photos as it traverses the 21 arches of the curved Glenfinnan Viaduct also featured in the films. The end of the line is the pretty seaside town of Mallaig, rather than Hogsmeade.”
Read recommends that travelers on a budget consider the “less magical” ScotRail train, which follows an identical route. “You can [even] take a photo of the Jacobite engine as it departs from Mallaig before hopping back aboard your own train,” Read said. Prices start at $28 for children and $50 for adults.
Denali Star train in Alaska
Discover the Alaskan wilderness by rail with a ride on the Denali Star, which carries travelers from Anchorage to the gates of Denali National Park for imposing views of the route’s namesake, the highest peak in North America.
Only available in the summer season, the Denali Star is a 12-hour, 356-mile journey (from $251 per person, one way) that traverses the Knik River, navigates the Healy Canyon, passes hundreds of feet over Hurricane Gulch and boasts mountain vistas throughout the journey.
The Alaska Railroad also has a popular coastal itinerary in the summer and, for travelers seeking views of the northern lights, the Aurora Winter Train through the backcountry from mid-September to mid-May. Shoulder season fares start at $209 one-way, per person.
Maximizing Train Travel
It can be harder to redeem points for train travel through the Cape Winelands than for a flight, but it’s not especially tricky to maximize booking your adventure. If you’re booking a trip on one of the iconic Amtrak routes in the U.S., such as the Adirondack or Pacific Surfliner, earning and using points is still very much an option on the table either via Amtrak Rewards or a fixed-value points program.
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card will both earn you 2x on your train trips, while the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Ink Business Preferred Card both earn 3x on travel.
Built-in credit card protections are also still relevant when booking an adventure by train.
Feature photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy.
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