7 Top Train Travel Tips

Follow a few rail travel guidelines to save money and ride comfortably.

The Rocky Mountaineer rolls past Castle Mountain in Alberta, Canada, photo
The Rocky Mountaineer rolls past Castle Mountain in Alberta, Canada.
Courtesy Rocky Mountaineer

The romance of train travel is more alluring than the logistics. But don’t let that deter you. “When you’re planning a trip by rail, you just need to pay attention to the details,” says AAA Travel counselor Sheela Khan, who offers these helpful ways to keep your plans on track.

Plan well ahead.

Most European rail travel can be booked 60 to 90 days in advance, while domestic reservations can be made with a longer lead time. In both cases, booking early yields more affordable fare options and spares you the disappointment of a sold-out train.

Ponder the pass.

So much depends on where and when you’re going, but as a rule, Khan says, “If you’re planning on visiting three or more cities, a rail pass is the more economical choice.” Keep in mind that pass holders often need to pay an extra fee to secure a seat on a specific train.

Choose your class.

Trains, like planes, sell different kinds of seating, so find out what class of car you’re booking and what services it includes. Luxury lines such as the Belmond Royal Scotsman and the Eastern & Oriental Express provide amenities like sofa seating and refined dining.

Rest up.

When it comes to getting rest on a train trip, snoozing upright isn’t your only option, says AAA Travel counselor Wendy Anderson. Upgrade to a sleeper car, or book a line like the Rocky Mountaineer that stops at night for passengers to stay in hotels. However, you might be surprised at how soothing the rhythmic motion of a train can be. Says Anderson, “People tell me, ‘I felt like a baby being rocked to sleep.’”

Think small.

Keep your eyes open for small regional lines, which offer a variety of affordable excursions. Among Khan’s favorites is the Skunk Train, a scenic railway that runs through the coast redwoods of California’s Mendocino County.

Pack light.

Big, heavy bags are hard on your body, and their bulk also burdens a train’s luggage compartments. “When you’re packing your case, remember that you’re going to be the one hauling it on board,” Khan says. “And then you’ll have to find a place to stow it.”

Scope the scenery.

Fall foliage in New England, snowdrifts on the Swiss Alps in winter, crashing waves along the California coast—train travel treats you to scenery you can’t always enjoy when you’re behind the wheel. Khan says she’ll never forget a trip on the Rocky Mountaineer through the Canadian Rockies. “There were no distractions—just some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen,” she says.


This article was first published in Summer 2015 and updated in Fall 2018.