Whether you’re going for a special experience or just trying to efficiently get between points A and B, trains can be one of the coolest ways to travel. And you don’t have to be a hard-core “railfan” enthusiast to fall in love with it.
Start with speed. The modern high-speed train was born in Japan in 1964 with their world-famous Shinkansen, the so-called “bullet train.” Six decades later, its long, low-slung nose makes it look more like a dolphin than a bullet, but it’s still the global standard.
People in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa can travel comfortably between cities at speeds that passengers in the US or Canada can only dream about. There are 40-year-old bullet trains in Japanese museums that are still faster than anything Amtrak owns.
In cities like Paris and Amsterdam, you can even connect with fast trains in the airport. How cool is that?
High-speed rail has become so fast and convenient that in Europe, airlines have abandoned some short-haul routes altogether. Train travel just makes more sense.
Then there’s comfort. No long, aggravating security checks. No long, aggravating and costly cab rides from the airport into town. No cramped, miserable seats — and no need for seatbelts.
Plug in your laptop and work using the train’s wi-fi, or just relax. Read. Listen to music. Or just lean back and watch the countryside roll by while you sip on a tasty beverage.
If you’re traveling in a group, four travelers can sit together, facing each other, with a convenient table to share. Try doing that on an airliner.
It’s also often cheaper than flying. So if you want a taste of that First Class travel life, you may find the rails friendlier than the skies.
Rail passes, most notably the Eurail pass, make it easy and cheaper to travel within and even between countries.
But we’re still talking high-speed rail here. Some of the best times are to be had on trains running much slower. These are specialized trains created to offer a special, often high-end travel experience.
Sightseeing trains that take you on slow rides through some of the world’s most spectacular settings, from the Grand Canyon in the States and the Canadian Rockies to the Swiss Alps and South African savannah.
Trains to give you a taste of the good life. Beer trains. Wine trains. Whiskey trains. Dinner trains. And those are just day trips.
There are luxury hotel trains, high-end rolling resorts on rails offering multi-day package tours, complete with ornate lounges, gourmet meals prepared on board by Michelin-starred chefs, and nearly every creature comfort you can imagine.
All while you enjoy views you’ll never get from a cramped aluminum tube at 35,000 feet.
Some of those trains are long-famous, like the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, the Rocky Mountaineer, the Royal Scotsman or South Africa’s Blue Train.
But a new generation is rising to meet them, led by trains like Japan’s Seven Stars Kyushu.
Many of these lines pamper their guests to the point that they have more staff on their trains than passengers.
For luxury rail rides like these, you can find yourself paying north of $10,000 for trips as short as three days. But that doesn’t stop them from being so popular that you may have to reserve your trips months or even a year in advance.
Here in the States, meanwhile, well-heeled rail travel enthusiasts have their own historic rail cars, lovingly refurbished and lavishly equipped.
For a fee, Amtrak will attach such a car to the end of one of their regularly scheduled cross-country trains like the California Zephyr or the Amtrak Crescent.
When the owners of those cars aren’t using them for their own private rail vacations, they’ll rent it out to you and your group — bar, bedrooms, kitchen and all. With your attendants and your own cook.
If there’s a downside to high-speed rail around the globe, it’s that their speed has led to fewer trains with dining cars and fewer overnight sleeper trains. but there are still some left.
Being able to roll toward your destination while you not only gives you all the comforts of rail travel, but eliminates the need for a night in a hotel. you arrive in the morning, rested and ready to go.
Day or night, fast or slow, traveling by train can give you more of a “feel” for a country, one less taxing than driving yourself and one you could never get by flying.