Train travel in British Columbia is a spectacular experience. This is true whether you go on the cheap or for luxury. In this post, I look at VIA Rail vs. the Rocky Mountaineer train experiences so that you can decide how you want to spend your travel dollar.
Towering mountains, winding rivers, pristine emerald green lakes, glaciers, wildlife and even a semi-arid desert.
The thing about train travel in British Columbia is that it's about the scenery. You can't say that for all train travel. But you can in B.C. And that's why you have a decision to make.
Do you want to add luxury (and price) to your train experience or do you want to go the budget route and save money for another trip?
VIA Rail covers the northern route across the province from Prince Rupert to Jasper. It's your budget option coming in at Cdn$139.00. The Rocky Mountaineer covers the southern route from Banff to Vancouver and is your luxury choice for Cdn$1,700 (or much more as I went for the lowest price they had).
The food, the service, the people are quite different on each train but the landscape is almost comparable with the southern route having more variety.
Below you will find a comparison of the VIA Rail and the Rocky Mountaineer experiences. I share with you the experience, service, and scenery I enjoyed on each train journey across British Columbia. I hope that it will help you decide which is best for you. This is a fairly long post so to help you get around here are links to:
This is the third post from this trip. You may also want to read Western Canada Itinerary: Top Things to See and Do and Top Tips for Prince Rupert: The Best of Small Town Travel.
The Rocky Mountaineer Experience: Banff to Vancouver
The Rocky Mountaineer runs trains along multiple routes in Western Canada however it is best known for its Vancouver to Banff corridor. It is most definitely a full-service, luxury train experience. For many of my fellow passengers, it was a trip of a lifetime for which they had planned and saved. Cdn$1,700 is the base price for two days. It includes breakfast and lunch both days and your accommodation in Kamloops. The food on board is very good as are the wines and spirits which flow liberally. They also handle your luggage for you, making the whole experience very comfortable.
VIA Rail: Prince Rupert to Jasper (A Great, Cheap Alternative)
The trip on Via Rail was definitely more basic than the Rocky Mountaineer. Then again, it cost Cdn$1,561 less so one would expect that to be the case. That said I found it to be a great experience.
On past trips I've taken, the Dome car was accessible to economy passengers however on this route that is not supposed to be the case. It is held for touring class passengers. Fortunately, the train was not full. Plus, the touring class car windows are very good so the dome car was not being well used. By the end of the first day, staff was inviting economy passengers (there were only about twenty of us) to the Dome car. I love it when people do what feels right as opposed to following rules strictly.
In practical terms, I brought most of my food with me, booked my own hotel (which adds about $100 to the cost of my trip) and schlepped my own bags to the hotel and back (by taxi at night which cost about $10, and on foot in the morning). The coffee was surprisingly good on the train and there were drinks, snacks, and meals to purchase if you wanted.
Tip: Sit on the south side of the train as you leave Prince Rupert. Sit on the north side as you're approaching Jasper.
Comparing VIA Rail and the Rocky Mountaineer
You've seen a comparison of the experiences above. Now here's are the details comparing the VIA Rail and Rocky Mountaineer in terms of food, comfort, services, and more.
- Prince Rupert to Jasper with a one-night stop in Prince George
- Service Class: Economy Escape fare, I paid Cdn$139.65. Option: Touring Class with decent food. Price: somewhere round Cdn$600.
- Comfort: Satisfactory – the seats are fine, not great. You do get to disembark periodically, stretch your legs and get some fresh air, which is nice.
- The scenery on this route gets an A- simply because it does not have as much variety as the lower route.
- Services: None.
- No cart comes around. You have to go to the kitchen to get food or drinks.
- Dome is car reserved for Touring Class passengers.
- You book your hotel in Prince George, make your way to it and back in the morning for departure.
- Commentary: The commentary is given by the train services manager and my guess is that he does it because he loves the area not because it’s part of his job. The train services manager on our route did a great job given that he was responsible for everything on the train. I give the commentary a B. You can download a mile-by-mile guide here.
- Food: Not great for my class. Bring your own. I was told that it was satisfactory for the Touring Class by a guide who is quite picky.
- Sociability: Great! With only about 50 people on the train, it was easy to chat with people. There were two tour groups on the train. One of them was also going to be in Banff on the 25th and they invited me to join them for dinner that night.
The Rocky Mountaineer
- Banff to Vancouver with a one-night stop in KamloopsService Class:
- Service Class: SilverLeaf fare: Cdn$1,700. plus tax. The Dome car is reserved for GoldLeaf passengers but the SilverLeaf car has panoramic windows. Option: GoldLeaf class with better food and the Dome car: Cdn$2,300.
- Comfort: Good. The seats are comfortable. The train does not make stops so that you can get off.
- The scenery on this route gets an A+.
- Breakfast, lunch and two snacks with full bar served. Good quality food and the right quantity as well. The servings are not too large given that you’re sitting all day. The wines are from British Columbia and quite good. They have a full bar with just about anything you could want.
- They book your hotel in Kamloops.
- They take your bags from you at the station in Banff and have them in your hotel room for you when you arrive in Kamloops. They collect your bag from your room and deliver it to you in Vancouver.
- Dinner is on your own in Kamloops.
- Commentary: Our car had three service people. Chase and Ben were our hosts/guides. Megan covered food services. Chase and Ben tag-teamed on the commentary. They were informative and very entertaining. They get an A+.
- Breakfast began with fresh fruit salad, croissant, and coffee followed by a hot breakfast. You could have one or all of eggs, bacon, potatoes, and mushrooms. There were different options each day.
- At 11 am, there was a full drink cart with a choice of three snacks. This was repeated in the afternoon.
- On the first day, lunch began with a spinach salad. People had two choices of chicken or pork. I had the vegetarian option which I requested when booking. I had pokhara. On the second day, I had fish.
- Meals were served personally from a cart so that you could choose what you want.
- Sociability: Despite the incredible efforts of Chase and Ben, the car just did not blend well with the exception of the second day when they played a mixing game called Manifest Bingo. Most people were part of a couple or family and with all seats facing forward mixing wasn’t natural. I chatted with the women across from me, but it didn’t go anywhere. I stood and faced behind me but still didn’t manage to get too much going on.
Avec la participation du gouvernement du Canada.