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Cross-Country Canada with Via Rail

As the prospects of travel to far-flung destinations remain unlikely for the foreseeable future, I have been thinking about crossing out a few Canadian experiences off of my must-do list. And while scrolling through pictures from the Trans-Siberian Railway segment of my honeymoon, I became curious about taking the train across Canada next summer.

Much to my delight, Via Rail services several destinations that are on my to-do list and can be combined with Aeroplan sweet spots, and in this article, I’ll describe how I plan to use Via Rail to combine both train and air travel for some uniquely Canadian experiences next summer.

In This Post

Via Rail – Background

Via Rail is a Crown corporation that offers passenger service on trains across Canada. 

It’s possible to take a combination of Via Rail’s trains from Vancouver to Halifax, although most of Via’s service is concentrated in the Windsor–Quebec City corridor, where a large proportion of Canada’s population resides.

The service offerings depend on which route you are taking and which class of service you have booked. This ranges from a simple seat in economy, to various bed offerings in Sleeper Plus, to a private cabin with a Murphy bed in Prestige Sleeper class.

While it’s true that Canada’s passenger train network pales in comparison to the bullet-trains and extensive networks found in many other countries, there are still many unique opportunities to be had for experience seekers who like to take the long way around.

Via Rail – Economy Class

Let’s first talk about the different classes of service available on Via Rail. Note that Economy and Sleeper Plus are available on all routes, whereas Prestige is only available on The Canadian (and is currently suspended due to COVID-19).

The main Economy car has 62 reclining seats, a vestibule, and two restrooms. The seats look similar to those on trains I have ridden on the Quebec City–Windsor corridor. 

The Skyline car has two levels. On the lower level is a cafe-style dining area, kitchen for Via staff, and lounge. On the upper floor are 24 seats with dome windows so passengers can enjoy the various landscapes during the trip.

Meals and beverages are available for purchase with an economy ticket. Oddly enough, Via doesn’t mention showers being accessible to passengers in economy. So, you may want to plan some stops along the way to avoid upsetting your cabin-mates.

A one-way trip from Vancouver to Toronto during peak season costs around $500 in economy. Considering that you’d have to pack a lot of sandwiches for a five-day journey, you may want to look at Sleeper Plus, as you’d get a bed and all of your meals included in the cost of the ticket.

Via Rail – Sleeper Plus

If sitting in a reclining seat for 4,466 kilometres doesn’t sound very appealing, then the next class of service offers a bed and a range of other amenities.

There are four options for passengers in Sleeper Plus: berth, or cabins for one, two, or three.

A berth seat is shared with another passenger during the day-time and then converts into upper and lower beds during the night. Note that the upper berth doesn’t have a window and that there is a privacy curtain.

The current costs are $1,320 for an upper berth and $1,552 for a lower berth in peak season.

The cabin for one is a self-contained unit with a bed, sink, toilet, mirror, and window. During the day, the cabin has a sofa chair to sit in and at night, the bed comes down from the wall and covers the toilet. There are both upper and lower cabins, although I’m having trouble picturing what an upper cabin’s configuration would look like.

The current cost for a cabin for one is $2,231 in peak season.

If you’re travelling with someone else, the cabin for two appears to be a great self-contained unit. During the day, the cabin has two folding chairs which are replaced by folding beds during the night. There is also a private washroom adjoined to the cabin, which sounds much more appealing than the in-cabin toilet in the cabin for one.

The current total cost for two passengers is $4,462 (or $2,231 per person) in peak season.

Finally, by changing the configuration of the car, Via Rail also offers cabins for three or four passengers. On their website, the cabin for four is described as two combined cabins for two.

The price again works out to be $2,231 per passenger, but since there isn’t currently an option to book a cabin for four online, you may have to contact them via telephone to arrange your booking.

All passengers with Sleeper Plus tickets have access to a shower. There is one shower per car, and it must be reserved in advance. Passengers can also access the departure lounges in Vancouver and Toronto free of charge.

While there is a large price difference between Economy and Sleeper Plus, all meals and soft beverages are included with a Sleeper Plus ticket. Alcoholic drinks are available for purchase, too.

Sleeper Plus passengers also get access to a few special train cars, such as the Prestige Park car, which appears to be a jazzed-up version of the Skyline car.

Passengers in Sleeper Plus can access this car between 4pm and 10:30pm during peak season, while passengers in Prestige can access this car at any point. 

Meanwhile, the Panorama car, available to passengers in Sleeper Plus and Prestige classes, offers sweeping views of the landscapes with domed windows. If the weather is nice, I imagine that people spend a lot of time in this car during the trip. It appears to have 18 rows of double seats and two bathrooms.

Via Rail – Prestige Class

Via’s premier product, Prestige, is an all-inclusive luxurious way to spend four day and four nights on The Canadian between Vancouver and Toronto.

The Prestige car consists of six private cabins. Each is equipped with a Murphy bed, a TV, and a private washroom with a shower. During the day, there is an L-shaped couch and a coffee table. 

Prestige passengers have all meals and alcoholic drinks included for the duration of their journey. Whereas Sleeper Plus passengers have limited access to some cars during peak season, Prestige passengers can make reservations in the Panorama and dining cars. 

Treating yourself to Prestige definitely comes at a steep cost. In peak season, rates start at $5,692. During winter, the cost dips down slightly to $4,981. 

Via Rail – The Canadian

Next, let’s look at some of Via Rail’s routes across the country.

The longest route in Via’s network spans 4,466 kilometres between Vancouver and Toronto. Taking the train without stopping along the way is a journey of four days and four nights. 

The train passes through some spectacular scenery. Beginning on Canada’s rugged west coast, it runs up through the Fraser Canyon, through Kamloops and along the North Thompson River canyon to the majestic Rocky Mountains.

After calling in Jasper, it heads east through Edmonton and Saskatoon in the Prairies before stopping in Winnipeg. Between Winnipeg and Toronto, it stops in Sioux Lookout and Sudbury Junction with sweeping views of the Canadian Shield and Lake Superior.

During regular service, The Canadian also offers wine tastings, presentations from staff about the areas the train passes through, and musicians performing onboard. 

Via Rail – The Ocean

The Ocean operates between Montreal and Halifax, with a number of stops in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia along the way. 

The full route runs 1,346 kilometres and takes just under 22 hours. Economy and Sleeper Plus are offered onboard the trains.

Fares for this route begin at $137 in Economy and $547 per person for a cabin for two in Sleeper Plus. 

My wife Ashley and I had long planned on spending time in Atlantic Canada in the summer of 2020 before we moved from Montreal. For one trip, we booked on the now-discontinued Aeroplan short-haul sweet spot and had plans to visit Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. We had also planned to drive out to the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec and to New Brunswick to see the Bay of Fundy. 

We have since moved to Vancouver Island, and since COVID-19 ruined many of plans to explore Eastern and Atlantic Canada prior to our move, we hope to return in the coming years to make up for lost time. I was fortunate to spend a month in Nova Scotia on a practicum in 2018, and I have longed to return ever since.

The train calls at Rimouski and Mont Joli, which are good gateway cities to do a loop of the Gaspé Peninsula. I’m sure each of the stations is worth a stop, though, so feel free to share any inspiration in the comments below.

Via Rail – Adventure Routes

Via also advertises a number of shorter routes that service more remote destinations across the country. 

As shown above, the Adventure Routes are located in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. The routes are a welcome alternative to access remote locations without flying or driving, and they might be more appealing to someone who appreciates travelling slowly and in comfort.

I am particularly interested in the Prince Rupert to Jasper route, which covers 1,160 kilometres through central British Columbia. The trip lasts 32 hours and is currently only available in Economy.

I can see this particular route as part of a larger trip that combines multiple modes of transportation. BC Ferries operates routes between Prince Rupert and Skidegate on the majestic Haida Gwaii archipelago. It’s also served by a route that travels through the Inside Passage from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island through to Bella Bella and Klemtu before docking in Prince Rupert.

Sandspit (Haida Gwaii) is also accessible by Air Canada from Vancouver. At as few as 6,000 Aeroplan points under the new program, I think it’s a great use of points as fares tend to be pricey. (Having said that, the route seems to be erroneously priced at the moment, so hopefully it’ll be fixed sooner rather than later.)

I spent part of my childhood living in northern British Columbia. My school took us on a trip to Haida Gwaii in celebration of our completion of elementary school, which apparently was a big deal. I have very fond memories of sea kayaking next to rainforests alongside seals, and I would love to experience this again now that I am older and able to appreciate the experience more.

I also used to take the train between Prince George and Jasper when I went to visit family in Edmonton. The views of the Rocky Mountains from the train are indeed as incredible as they are made out to be.

Next up, Churchill has also been very high on my list of places to visit in Canada. The train between Winnipeg and Churchill lasts two days and two nights over 1,697 kilometres. I imagine that seeing polar bears in the wild, kayaking with beluga whales on Hudson Bay, and gawking at the aurora borealis are memories that last a lifetime. 

For Churchill, I would likely look at taking the train in one direction and then doing a separate one-way booking with Calm Air using Aeroplan points. Prices for the train start at $219 in economy and range between $552–1,251 for Sleeper Plus. 

At 624 miles from Winnipeg, a partner redemption with Calm Air would cost 10,000 Aeroplan points. Cash prices tend to be fairly expensive ($750+) on this route, and thus I believe it’s a great use of miles.

Via Rail – Modified Service During COVID-19

Currently, due the pandemic, Via Rail is not operating many of the routes in its network.

Via Rail plans to resume service on The Canadian between Winnipeg and Vancouver as of December 11, 2020. The availability of routes and onboard services will likely be dynamic as per public health guidelines for the foreseeable future.

The full list of service changes on The Canadian can be found on Via’s website. A few of the major changes are:

  • Passengers are generally required to remain in their cabin or assigned seat.
  • Masks are required at all times except when showering, eating, or drinking.
  • The dining car is open for breakfast and dinner, with lunch served in-cabin.
  • Park and Skyline cars are not accessible to any passengers.
  • Prestige class is not offered at this time.

Via Rail – Things to Keep in Mind

I wanted to point out a few things to consider prior to booking your trip. 

The first is that you are allowed one free stop when booking any of the above routes. You can add this stop when booking online by doing a multi-city search and adding your stop in. Your fare should be the same as if you had booked a one-way from start to finish.

If you want to stop at multiple locations, you may want to carefully consider your strategy, as you will be charged by segment when you exceed the one free stop rule.

For example, I am looking at booking the following routing next summer:

  • Prince Rupert to Jasper, stopping to do some hikes and visit with friends in the area. I would likely nest a road trip to Edmonton and back, too.
  • Jasper to Toronto with a stop in Winnipeg. In Winnipeg, I would nest a one-way trip to Churchill by train and then fly back to Winnipeg using Aeroplan with Calm Air.
  • After stopping to visit with friends and family in Toronto, I’d either train to Montreal and then fly to St. John’s and Halifax with Aeroplan points, or I’d stop in Montreal for a few days before continuing on to Halifax with a stop in Rimouski to explore the Gaspé Peninsula.
  • As much as I’d love to take the train back, I’d be looking at flying back to British Columbia either on Aeroplan points or with Air Canada using eUpgrades.

Another important (and obvious) consideration is the cost. If you’re going to take The Canadian across the country, or to any of the Adventure Routes, it’s probably going to cost you a good chunk of your wages.

This is especially true if you are travelling as a family, although children under two travel for free, and children between two and eleven travel at 50% off in economy. I have also noticed deals for youth and students in the past. 

The fares fluctuate between peak, shoulder, and off-season. In the past, Via has also offered substantial discounts during sales, so if any of these routes are of interest to you, consider signing up for emails well in advance of your travel dates.

I have a few industry 75% off vouchers to use with Via Rail through my work at a travel agency, which will take a significant amount of financial burden from my wallet. It’s a shame that they can’t be redeemed for Prestige class, though; otherwise, you could expect a very festive T.J. traversing the country. 😉

Conclusion

I have been weathering the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic by dreaming of trips that I would love to do once it is possible to do so safely. Visiting a handful of cities and remote areas by train is certainly something that I would love to do, especially as domestic travel is more feasible than international travel for the time being.

As Via Rail’s network spans the entire country when operating at full capacity, it is entirely possible to fly one way and travel by train for the other if you have some extra time and money to spare. 

Staying in a cabin for one for four days and four nights may not be the most appealing way to travel during COVID-19, but for those who have had to brave 14-day quarantines upon returning to Canada, it may be an entirely pleasant way to pass some time while we ride out this storm.

There are even talks of a travelling Miles & Pints series along the Via Rail network. Stay tuned sports fans, and stay safe.

9 Comments
  1. Jay*

    Great insight into another perspective of domestic travel.

    1. T.J. YQQ

      Thanks, Jay! I can’t wait to get back to travelling near and far.

  2. Rich

    What a fun article! I’ve also been daydreaming and “trip planning” for all of the places I want to go when we can all travel freely again. I’m going to look into the cost difference of segmented travel from Vancouver to Toronto so I can stop at cities in between, do some sightseeing, stay in a hotel, Etc. Even if the cost between the two is pretty similar, I’d prefer stopping at a few cities in the middle since a hotel bed would probably be more comfortable than the bunk on the train 🙂

    1. T.J. YQQ

      Thanks Rich! Daydreaming is something that has been keeping me sane during this pandemic. Sign up for the Via Rail emails, too, as there are some good sales throughout the year. And I agree – as much as I love sleeping on trains and planes, there’s nothing like a nice, big hotel room bed for a good night’s sleep.

  3. Mitch

    No skyline car = no deal.

  4. Reed

    Can use Airmiles cash to purchase Via Rail eVouchers too 😉

    1. T.J. YQQ

      That’s a great tip and a nice use of Air Miles. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Heather YYJ

    I have crossed the country by train and found it to be one of the most enjoyable ways (even though I was just in a recliner) of getting to know my country. Enjoy.

    1. T.J. YQQ

      I’m glad to hear you had such a pleasant experience 🙂 I can’t wait to relax for a few days and watch the landscapes change.

T.J. Dunn

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