Railway vacation highlights
Map & rail Routes
In terms of railway vacation highlights, there are the classics such as the Trans-Mongolian Express, or the lesser known lovelies hiding in the wings of the rail world, such as Scotland’s Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick. The minute you look at train travel as a means of vacationing, a whole new world opens up to you. For some, it means hassle and inaccessibility. For others, it represents real engagement with people and place. Once you have had that experience of hearing the doors of an Amtrak shut, or the engines of the Andalucia Express engaging, and the journey beginning, you will be hooked.
India as a whole
Not as slick as the Swiss, but almost as extensive and equally exhilarating. And the days of overcrammed trains with people hanging off the roof are long gone. There are lots of luxury options too, such as three nights on the Maharajas’ Express - an ideal way to visit the Golden Triangle. Or from Mumbai to Goa for a coastal cultural extravaganza. You can also visit the palaces of Rajasthan in style, heading up north on the Palace on Wheels train.
Not so famous for its rail journeys, as many of them were let go for motorway madness. However, some are not to be missed. Such as the Belfast to Derry/Londonderry rail journey, especially the last section up along the North Antrim coast, going along dramatic coastlines, past castles and cliffs. And the Dublin to Westport train, which takes you into the heart of the coastal and cultural West.
Nearly all Japanese vacations incorporate train travel into the itinerary, as the train network is impeccable. So, unlike so many other countries around the world, most tourists travel by train, from the famous Shinkansen bullet trains going between, say, Tokyo and Kyoto, to the sleeper trains into the mountains in Sapporo. Best value is to buy a rail pass in advance of your travels. Tour operators will organise this for you.
At Responsible Travel we love to celebrate great railways, and the overall opinion in our office is that our local Thameslink and Southern Railways leave a lot to be desired. So, we are highlighting them as examples of how NOT to run a railway. In fact, just walk. It will be quicker, cheaper and totally carbon free. And let’s not even start on the debacle that is London Bridge station. Or indeed weekend engineering works.
If you don’t feel up to the four-day hike, this is the luxurious loco way up to Machu Picchu, departing from Cuzco. Rediscovered a century ago, this "Lost City of the Incas" has not lost its ability to astonish, with its panoramic Andean views. Ride the rails through the spectacular Urubamba Valley to the UNESCO site, which you can explore before catching the train back to Cuzco.
Malaga to Marrakech
This 13 day rail trip from Europe to Africa is one colossal cultural concoction. Starting in Malaga, Spain, take the Andalucia Express through the spectacular 'El Chorro' gorge, with stops in Cordoba, Alhambra Palace in Granada just for starters. Take a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangiers, stopping for days in Fez, Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech, each with unique cultural highlights.
The seven-day Transcantabrico El Clasico route from León-Santiago is as luxury loco as it gets, taking you through Castilla-León’s mountainous northeastern corner, with special stops including Altamira caves to Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. A more ‘normal’ rail vacation is possible too, although a high speed ARCO train from Santiago de Compostela to Ponferrada, a funicular up into the Picos de Europa and a rail journey across Galicia will never be banal.
The Reunification Express, Vietnam
Just as the name suggests, the restoration of this magnificent train line from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in 1975 was part of the reunification of the Vietnamese people after years of war, which had led to closure of the line. It clings to the country’s long slim coastal landscape, making it the perfect hop on, hop off experience. And one of the best ways to visit this fascinating country and meet its people too.
A railway vacation in Scotland is as eclectic and pure as a bar full of single malts. Such as the West Highland line from Glasgow to Fortwilliam across the wilds of Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. From here to the coast at Mallaig by Jacobite steam train, chugging its way to meet the Isle of Skye ferry. Take the Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness train for eighty miles of magnificence before heading back south to Pitlochry for hillwalking heaven.
Follow the south coast from Adelaide to Perth in Western Australia for about ten days by train, hopping on and off to experience all the littoral loveliness. Such as the Eyre Peninsula, wonderful Aboriginal cultural experiences, with dolphin and other wonderful wildlife watching to be had along the way. Often combined with the Great Southern Rail Ghan Train from Darwin to Adelaide or its Indian Pacific journey from Sydney to Adelaide.
Indian railways have come on in leaps and bounds, and one of the finest remnants of colonial times with a still extensive network. The train journey around Kerala and Tamil Nadu is one of our favourites taking in coast, temples, tea plantations and many other cultural delights. All in about 19 days, with nights on houseboats, in coastal luxury hotels, and mountain villages. This really is one of the most spectacular ways to take in southern India.
Trans Mongolian Express
Many say the best part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest in the world, this is the section that goes from Moscow to Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Or vice versa of course. But whichever way you do it, it’s rail-y big. Even this section takes three weeks and is full of startling contrasts. Such as Moscow one day, Lake Baikal the next. From the wilds of Terelj National Park to burgeoning Beijing. It’s quite a trip.
America’s AMTRAK trains are iconic. One of the best journeys is through West America starting in Chicago where the South West Chief train takes you through six states with stops at places like the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, Sacramento and San Francisco. In San Fran you can board the California Zephyr and head all the way to the Canadian Rockies.
Robert Kidd, Director of our leading railway vacations in Scotland supplier, McKinlay Kidd:
“Everyone wants to go on our rail vacation to Scotland in May or June, but I think the nicest times are actually in the autumn. The weather can be a bit more mixed, but you get the autumn colours and especially the heather from late August, and then in September the trees begin to turn, and then later in the autumn when the leaves fall off the trees, the views are much more open. So I think the autumn can be rather beautiful. We also just don’t really organise these trips in the winter, due to train disruption and so on. I wouldn’t go in the depths of winter to be honest.”
Rachel Wasser is Innovation Manager with our railway vacation expert supplier, G Adventures and knows all the brightest railway vacation highlights:
“The Trans Mongolian holds a special place for me. It’s so fantastic to cross three different countries with different food, languages, cultures and landscapes. It’s a great mix of getting out and exploring and downtime on the trains watching the taiga forests of Siberia whiz by. I also love our new rail trips in India. India has one of the largest rail networks in the world and it’s used every day by millions of people as means of transport. I love that we get to jump on those trains and travel the same way as the locals. It just feels like you’re really getting the true experience of traveling slowly around this massive country instead of sheltering yourself inside a private vehicle.”