All Aboard: 11 Affordable, Scenic Railroad Trips
There's a certain nostalgia associated with train travel -- the magnificent expanses and glittering cityscapes, the sound of the train whistle, the clatter of the rails, and the beauty of the trains themselves. For young fans of Thomas the Tank Engine, train rides bring cartoon fantasies to life. Add to all that the increasing hassle of air travel (proliferating fees, time-consuming security checkpoints, cramped coach seating) and train journeys become even more appealing.
Amtrak features limited-time offers on its website and a variety of budget-oriented booking options, including SmartFares 30 percent cheaper than regular coach fares. Amtrak also offers discounts to AAA members, students, seniors, active-duty military and their families (10 percent off), and children (half off for ages 2 to 12; infants ride free). Amtrak officials say the best way to get the lowest fare is to book well in advance (tickets go on sale about 11 months before the travel date). Fares tend to fluctuate, however. The prices included here were found on the Amtrak website during a late-June search and may not be representative of future fares.
Amtrak is merely the biggest name in train travel in this country. There are countless other options -- smaller local or regional trains -- that have a charm all their own. Canada offers still more fascinating train journeys worth consideration. Here's a look at 11 scenic train trips that won't break your budget.
Touted by Amtrak as one of the top 10 most scenic train rides in the world, this journey takes passengers from the hustle of New York City and Penn Station to the pastoral wine country of the Hudson Valley and beyond, to Montreal. Fall is prime time for this route, giving riders stunning views of the region's famous foliage. Summer is no less stellar, as the train spends hours traveling along the Hudson River. Fares on Adirondack trains can be quite inexpensive. The coach fare listed for a ticket in July was $69 one way.
Because not everyone wants to take an extended train journey, this list includes a few options that are just a few hours long, time enough to enjoy a meal onboard, sit back, and soak in the sights. A two-hour ride on the Cape Cod Central Railroad from Hyannis to Sandwich, Massachusetts, showcases sand dunes, salt marshes, and bay views. The various options on this line include the narrated Coastal Excursion, the Yankee Clipper Brunch, and a Cape Cod Dinner train. The highest priced ticket (Diamond Class) on the Coastal Excursion Train is $47 from June through October. First class is $32 during the same period and standard class is $22. Children's fares for the same three categories are $42, $27, and $17, respectively.
This rail line dates back to the late 1800s and offers passengers a step back in time. Built by William Seward Webb, husband of Lila Vanderbilt, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is now operated and maintained by the nonprofit Adirondack Railway Preservation Society. Trains run between Utica and Lake Placid, in upstate New York, passing tiny towns along the way, as well as traversing 17 bridges and several bodies of water. Among the itinerary options are themed train rides such as a beer- and wine-tasting train, a family Halloween train, and a Christmas train. Prices vary: A coach ticket on the beer and wine train in July, for instance, is $25. A Utica to Big Moose Scenic Rail Adventure in July is $47.50 for adults and $27.50 for children ages 2 to 12.
For historic train buffs, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is a unique treat. The company offers rides on a steam engine that dates back to 1942 -- one of just two such remaining trains in the country. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad also offers excursions on diesel trains. No matter which option you choose, the scenery is outstanding. The trains chug through western North Carolina. Options include the Tuckasegee River route, which takes visitors to the historic town of Dillsboro, or the Nantahala Gorge route, which passes over the historic Fontana Trestle across Fontana Lake. Coach prices for the diesel locomotive rides start at $51 for adults and $29 for children 2 to 12. Additional sales and discounts are available through the website, including a current promotion that allows children to ride for free with tickets booked by Aug. 31.
Constructed more than 140 years ago, the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway is another trip that oozes with history. Built to transport salt and coal from the Hocking Valley, the line was the largest independent railroad located entirely within the state of Ohio during its heyday. Eventually merged into the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1930, as the Hocking Division, passenger service on the lines ended in 1949 and freight service stopped in the 1980s. Today the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway is a volunteer-operated tourist railroad. It offers fall foliage trains in October and Christmas-themed Santa trains beginning in November. Prices for the Haydenville train (the shortest journey, which passes along the Hocking River) are about $13 for adults, $11 for seniors, and $10 for children ages 3 to 12 (children under 3 ride free).
Running along 45 miles of track between Durango and Silverton, in Colorado, passengers on Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad are treated to scenery that hasn't changed substantially since the railway was constructed in 1882. The traditional Silverton trip, on a vintage locomotive, is a little more than three hours each way and travels alongside the Animas River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the western United States. The train also passes farmland, old stagecoach roads, former mining camps, and mountains more than 14,000 feet high. The experience includes two hours to wander around the historic mining town of Silverton. Be forewarned: There is no cell service or Wi-Fi for much of this trip, forcing passengers to truly disconnect from the modern world. Prices for a standard-class seat are $89 for adults and $55 for children ages 4 to 11.
Another one of Amtrak's most famous and scenic routes, the California Zephyr highlights the Nebraska plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevadas. Running daily from Chicago to San Francisco, the Zephyr offers a true slice of Americana. While more expensive than many of the other Amtrak routes, the journey is also substantially longer. The coach fare to ride the Zephyr from Chicago to the routes final destination in San Francisco was $321 in July. To make the ride cheaper, travelers can opt for a shorter portion of the route, rather than the entire journey. The coach fare from San Francisco to Omaha was $149, and still offers many scenic and memorable moments.
The Surfliner transports passengers past some of Southern California's most iconic scenery -- think dramatic cliffs and coastline, ocean as far the eye can see, and picturesque mountains and valleys. If the journey is timed just right, all this jaw-dropping scenery is bathed in a beautiful, golden California sunset or a brilliant sunrise. The Pacific Surfliner runs from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, through Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, all of which are among the region's most intriguing cities. Along the way, the Surfliner also passes through Anaheim, providing easy access to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park. A coach ticket for the ride from San Diego to Santa Barbara in July was $42. California rail passes, which cost $159 for adults and $79.50 for children, allow for seven days of travel during any consecutive 21-day period.
Vancouver, Seattle, Portland -- some of the most stunning cities in the Pacific Northwest are part of a Cascades train journey. Additional sights along this route include Eugene, Oregon; Mount St. Helens; and the Columbia River Gorge. In total, this line connects 18 cities in the Pacific Northwest along a 467-mile rail corridor. Those who have taken the ride describe it as unforgettable, filled with mountain vistas, forests, wildlife, and ocean views. Onboard the European-style trains, a bistro car serves fresh, regional cuisine, wine, and microbrews. A coach ticket for the journey from Vancouver to Portland in July was $84.
This route comes highly recommended by train travel aficionados. The majestic and awe-inspiring scenery on this two-day journey along Canada's northern transcontinental rail line (completed in 1914) includes snow-covered uplands, Jasper National Park, the Canadian Rockies, and the Pacific Coast. In addition to great stretches of wilderness, there are rustic settlements, farms, and sawmills. Wildlife ranging from bear to moose, elk, deer, and eagles are frequently spotted during the journey. Starting from Jasper, Alberta, the Jasper Prince Rupert route includes an overnight stop in Prince George, British Columbia, and then continues to the Pacific Coast. A one-way economy-class ticket in July is $215. The Via Rail website regularly offers sales, as well as rail passes that can be more economical.
When it comes to train journeys with stellar scenery, it's hard to beat the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, which transports passengers through the rural Alaskan landscape and into Canada. Scenic highlights include mountains, glaciers, gorges, and waterfalls. The route was created in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush. The popular Bennett Scenic Journey, an eight-hour trip, brings travelers to a town accessible only by train or by hiking. Round-trip fares for this route are $229 for adults and $114.50 for children. The four-hour Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion, aboard a historic steam train, provides a cheaper option. The cost is $159 for adults and $79.50 for children. The White Pass Summit, which involves riding in a vintage passenger coach for about three hours, is the most budget-friendly of all the routes, while still showcasing breathtaking panoramas. Fares are $119 for adults and $59.50 for children.