The Rocky Mountaineer: Pro and Con
To re-cap briefly, several years ago, my wife and I took the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff. It was a two-day trip, which included a night in a hotel in Kamloops. Our baggage was tagged in Vancouver and taken on ahead by truck to Kamloops and then again to Banff, magically reappearing in our rooms when we checked into each hotel.
Much of the journey was following the Fraser River through the Canadian Rockies, an impressive ride for everyone, but of special interest to those of us with more than a passing interest in railroading. For quite some time, there were two separate rail lines—one on each side of the river—and it was quite interesting to see a long freight passing in the opposite direction along the other bank.
This was a bonus: protective covers built in spots where rock slides occur. On the California Zephyr’s route over the Sierras, similar structures protecting against avalanches of snow are called “snow sheds”. So, until I learn the correct term, I have called these “slide sheds”.
Each of the rail cars has staff to serve drinks and look after your needs and one of those people provides a narrative, pointing out various landmarks of interest as you pass them. On both days, we were admonished to keep a lookout for wildlife and actually did see a herd of big horned sheep grazing in a steep meadow.
The train often ran along ridges overlooking valleys and large lakes. This one—I have long-since lost the name—is ideal for houseboats, which are available to rent. Sounds like a great idea! Because of freight traffic, our arrival in Banff was after dark. We checked into our hotel, had a nice dinner, and went to bed. The next morning, I pulled open the drapes and … Wow!
I took this photo from the window of our room in the Banff Springs Hotel. It’s a Fairmont hotel and is typical of the hotels in that chain, many of which were built by the railroads back in the 1930s. To clarify, this was not included in our Rocky Mountaineer package, although they delivered passengers from the train to whatever hotel they had booked.
As to my impressions of the experience, towards the end of the ride, and the day after at our hotel in Banff, I informally asked a number of people we had met on the train if they enjoyed the ride and felt it was worth the money. (I can’t remember what we paid, but the 2016 prices for the same package is a bit over $1700 per person.) Generally, most people enjoyed the journey and thought they got their money’s worth. I did note, however, that the people most enthusiastic about the experience all had two things in common. First, the train ride itself was a new and unique experience for them and, second, they had never before been in serious mountains, either in the U.S. or Canada. Personally, I think a four night ride on VIA Rail’s Train #1 or #2, for considerably less money, is a better experience. It’s twice as long; the scenery is more varied; and the food is just as good.
We just finished the train ride Vancouver to Banff. There were 4 seasoned travelers in our party. We traveled silver level. The staff were excellent, the food was very good, the hotel reservations were very good. The problem is the train car itself. I have ridden on trains a number of times in my life and have never been consigned to a seat in a single car without the ability to move among cars. At the Silver level you are seated in an assigned seat in the morning and remain there for 12 hours. You can get up to go to the bathroom or step briefly onto a tiny platform which is crowded by other people trying to escape their seats and stand up. On the second day I asked the other passengers how they felt and all agreed they would not recommend this trip because they expected it to be more “train like”.
As I recall, when my wife and I took that trip we were in “gold” class, so we at least were able to get up and go to the lower level for meals.
My wife and I are well travelled seniors and I have crossed Canada several times on the Canadian, The Dominion, the super continental and the Continental…All took several days and nights to get from Toronto to Vancouver. for three days and four nights we had our own sleeping area with bathroom and shower and food. NOW wE are booked to do the First Passage to the West from Vancouver to Calgary. I am told that we will be required to arise very early and be picked up at our hotels early enough to allow for a 7:am departure each day, As I read on I find out that the train trip is 12 hours between hotels. Further research (After booking) tells me that in gold service there are two “Impeccable:” washrooms to accommodate the apparent 72 passengers plus staff on each car.
I have also read that your baggage goes from hotel to hotel by truck, There is no storage space in your car except at your feet…Clearly listed in the rules is the fact that there will be no overhead space or under the seat space for anything. When we first booked the story from the travel agent was that it was a wonderful, relaxing opportunity to enjoy Canada’s Rockies. After reading the rules, time we have to get up to be picked up to board at 7 am or earlier and sitting a full i2 hours on a train without station stops we are seriously considering cancelling the trip. Wear and tear on ones health is more important than money….SO, my warning is to read every word of their rules, policies and schedules BEFORE you put down a deposit. The food is said to be ample and good. Free alcohol for all makes an even more interesting thought. The good folks at Rocky mountain express keep talking about the wonderful scenery and good food. But not a word about getting up at 4 or 5 am to get ready to be picked up to board a train at 6:45 or 7:am. All sounded good and the expensive catalogues first class videos it looked great….And I suppose if you like to get up at around 5am and spend 12 hours on a train car with two public washrooms to serve approximately 72 passengers this may be just the vacation you always wanted. Me? I like relaxing cruises where you are your own boss .
As for seeing all of Canada for about the same price you are likely paying to Rocky Mountaineer you can spend all the time on the train, get off in places like Winnipeg Edmonton and Jasper.
My wife and I took the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff and I have written about that experience. Essentially, I agree that for tjhe same money you could have a longer and–for me, anyway–more satisfying rail journey.
I’ve seen the Rocky Mountaineer featured on a TV show and one thing that concerns me about taking the trip is the commentary by the hosts. In the segment I saw they seem to go on and on with a “How are we doing today!” summer camp kind of tone. I don’t like most escorted tours for this reason. I find them annoying and demeaning even if they offer some useful information. I’d prefer to sit in quiet, enjoy the scenery, speak with fellow travellers and refer to a guide book or notes. Are the hosts incessant or did you find their presence tolerable?
Barely. My wife and I took the ride to Banff 4 or 5 years ago and it was OK. The food ser ved on board was very good, but I thought they were a bit patronizing with their commentary. In fact we realized after the fact that he people who really raved about the experience had (a) never been on a train before and/or (b) had never seen real mountains before. Also it was pretty pricey. Personally, having done them both, I would much rather take the VIA Rail Toronto-Vancouver train.
Rocky mountaineer was the most over priced, disappointing trip I’ve ever experienced in my world travels.
I hope this isn’t too irritating a questions but I am not train savvy at all. I would love to take my 83 year old mother on a train trip. She’s always wanted to do the trans-Canadian trip but from reading this blogpost, I’m thinking that the VIA Mountaineer may be more in our price range (I want to be able to treat her to some special things along the way so I need to keep the cost down). My question is – how do I search for this? We would be leaving central PA and I know we have to change trains in Pittsburgh and Chicago but how exactly do I book something like this? I took the train to Denver CO a few years ago- also leaving from central PA and absolutely fell in love. But I have difficulty navigating the Amtrak website for anything other than direct trips. Do I search for VIA Rail -Rockies? Thanks for any tips! Beth
Beth Brown…Canada’s cross country railway is known as Via Rail. The Rocky Mountaineer is a privately run tourist railway that runs through the rocky mountains on various routes. I’m not sure that you mother will enjoy getting up at 4 or 5 am to be picked up at her hotel so as to board a train at 7:am or even 6:45 am. See the comments by Furn Elliott above BEFORE you book with Rocky Mountaineer.
I haven’t taken the Rocky Mountaineer (yet) being a recent convert to train travel but I’ve taken 2 segments of the Canadian (Edmonton to Vancouver; Edmonton to Jasper) and loved it – especially in the off-season. Just for an FYI I compared fares from Jasper to Vancouver and it turns out that VIA Prestige class (the true comparable to RM) is more expensive than RM. For other classes (without included beverages) VIA is much more reasonable.
Personally I’d prefer VIA – I’d rather stay and sleep on the train especially since with all the freight traffic it’s highly likely the Kamloops arrival wouldn’t be until the wee small hours of the morning – not when I’d like to check into a hotel room…
The name of the lake with the houseboats is Shuswap Lake (https://www.google.com/maps/place/Shuswap+Lake,+British+Columbia,+Canadafirstname.lastname@example.org,-119.5052083,10z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x537ee3c08b133147:0x14d74b21b5bb407f)
I knew someone would have the answer. Thanks!
You’re welcome. I took the Rocky westbound back in June, and my car hosts spent a good ten minutes talking about that lake. It was easy enough to pop into Google Maps and follow the line east from Kamloops.
I wholeheartedly agree with your summary, as I have always believed VIA’s “The Canadian” wins out on every comparison point with the “Rocky Mountaineer,” including all but route:
1) Dining Car-menu variation, food preparation and quality.
2) Park Car bullet-lounge-real bartending.
3) Vista Domes to see forward, behind, on top.
4) Sleepers with real berths, duvets, bathroom facilities, showers.
5) A real train vs. a turista experience; you can walk around, stretch legs at service stops, talk to crew, etc.