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Wall Street Journal - August 11, 2003

Riding the Rails

Train travel is booming. These guides can get you on the right track.


Hugo and Vivi Martens were tired of busy airports turning their vacations into more of a hassle than an escape. So, instead of starting a recent trip to their condominium in Colorado with a plane trip, the couple boarded an overnight train to Denver from their hometown of Chicago.

On board, the Martens, a not-yet-retired 74-year-old printer and 73-year-old homemaker, enjoyed a few hot meals during the 16-hour trip instead of nibbling on a bag of peanuts. Rather than trying to catch some shut-eye while crammed into tiny seats, they stretched out on beds overnight. And they aren't likely to return to flying anytime soon, Mr. Martens says.

"Taking the train is far more relaxing than flying," he says.  Though the train trip was more expensive than it would have cost to fly coach, he says, it was about the same as if they had upgraded to first class. For the Martens, the most important factor was that they didn't have to sacrifice much time to make their trip more enjoyable. "When you figure in all the hassle at the airport, you don't lose much," Mr. Martens says.

At a time when concerns about terrorism, as well as the vulnerabilities of the cash-strapped airline industry, have stripped air travel of any lingering vestige of romance, riding the rails is an increasingly attractive option for many vacationers. Older travelers, in particular, whose schedules often allow more time to get from point A to point B, often find that train travel adds an element of camaraderie to their journeys, says Sue Wilder, a travel-industry consultant based in Chicago.

"The opportunity to sit in a train car and chat, and then go to the dining car where you're seated with other people and have a conversation -- retirees really enjoy it," Ms. Wilder says.

The Martens, for their part, are now train-travel pros: They've traversed Canada, rolled up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, and even traveled with their bridge club to London, Ontario, using specially made bridge tables built to fit in between the seats of the train car. The advantages, when compared with other methods of travel, are evident: leg room; hot meal service; and luggage at arm's length, rather than in an airplane's cargo compartment or overhead bin.

Of course, rail travel isn't appropriate for every trip, Ms. Wilder notes. If you need to get somewhere fast, a train isn't the answer. And recent financial troubles and schedule reductions in some U.S. and Canadian rail service mean less availability for seats on many popular routes during the busy summer season. That's why travelers should book their train tickets first, and then arrange the rest of their vacation around the rail portion, says Joe Mann, president of N.E.W.S. Travel, a Chicago travel agency.

VIA Rail

The Canadian rails are favorites with many travelers, who enjoy the change in topography from the cities in the east through the Midwestern plains on into the Canadian Rockies. Fifty-six-year-old Sandy Walker, a nurse from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and her 61-year-old husband, Harvey, a hobby-product manufacturer, had eight days of what she calls "nonworry travel" on a journey to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, north of Vancouver.

"We've flown to British Columbia before, but you don't see any of the country," Ms. Walker says. Moreover, the VIA Rail guides on the train kept them entertained with stories and anecdotes about the small towns they passed.

VIA Rail's Web site, like that of its U.S. counterpart Amtrak, allows users to purchase tickets directly on the Internet. The site also includes dozens of links to rail-travel packages offered by a handful of travel agencies that specialize in Canadian train trips, whether you want to ride from Toronto to Vancouver, or travel north from Winnipeg to look for polar bears on the Hudson Bay.

A special section of the Web site is devoted to travel for older adults, with details about accommodations, services for those with special needs and meals for people with dietary restrictions. The reservation feature is easy to navigate and offers alternatives if a user's original choices aren't available. Make sure to book early; the trans-Canadian route is incredibly popular, and seats can be hard to come by.

Rail Travel Tours

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Taking much the same approach as Elderhostel, this Winnipeg-based travel agency uses the Canadian rail system to teach travelers about the country's history, culture and geography. These aren't run-of-the-mill tours: A guided trip through Manitoba in October takes travelers into the heart of polar-bear country, while a tour north from Winnipeg next February will involve cheering on the mushers in the World Championship Sled Dog Race.


The Walkers have taken several Rail Travel Tours trips, reaching parts of Canada they hadn't ever thought of visiting. "On the train, you see the small towns and back places that you'd never get to," Ms. Walker says. (The agency will also book independent trips for people wishing to travel on their own.)