How To Travel Across Canada by Train, On A Budget

By Pamela MacNaughtan on March 17th, 2016
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Traveling in Canada by train is a dream trip, but as Canada is not the cheapest country in terms of transportation costs, many travelers hold back and wait for retirement thinking that there is no way they can possibly afford it.

Believe it or not traveling in Canada by train can be done on a budget. The trick is to do a little research, and be ready to pounce when a deal comes along.


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VIA Rail Routes


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Depending on your goals for traveling across Canada, you may need to travel on more than one route offered by VIA Rail. Here is a breakdown of the routes:

The Ocean


This line runs from Halifax to Montréal, with stops in places like Moncton and Québec City. The Ocean offers economy, sleeper, and sleeper plus class, as well a panoramic car. The train departs Montréal on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, and departs Halifax on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday.

Montréal – Jonquière


This line is a great option for a short getaway into the Saguney region and do a little wildlife and whale watching. The trip is about nine hours long and the train runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday from Montréal and Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday from Jonquière. An economy class ticket (it’s the only class on this line) can be as low as $55 CAD for one way.

Montréal – Senneterre


This line is for those who go goo-goo for gorgeous scenery as you’ll travel into Northern Québec, otherwise known as the Abitibi-Témiscamingue Region. Only economy class is available on this train. Tickets start at $81 CAD, each direction.

Québec – Windsor Corridor


This is a great way to travel between Québec City to Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, and further down to Windsor. The trips are shorter, which means you have a choice between business and economy class, and there are often fare deals called Escape Fares which will offer cheap fares starting as low as $25. There is FREE wi-fi available throughout the train.

The Canadian


This is by far VIA Rail’s most popular long distance line. This line has economy, sleeper plus, and prestige class. The Canadian offers dome cars with panoramic views for passengers in every class, as well as activity cars for guests in sleeper plus and prestige class.  The Canadian runs twice a week during low season and three times a week during high season. If you’re traveling straight through from Toronto to Vancouver the trip is four nights, five days.

Winnipeg – Churchill


This line is THE only cheap way to travel to Churchill, Manitoba to see Beluga Whales (July – Aug), and Polar Bears (Oct – Nov). It is an absolute MUST, and it’s long. The trip will take two and a half days. This line has both economy and sleeper plus class, and food is available for purchase in the service cars, for those in economy class.

Jasper – Prince Rupert


Prince Rupert is the jumping off point for exploring Haida Gwaii which is a drop-dead gorgeous archipelago in Northern British Columbia. This two-day journey has two classes, touring and economy. If you have the time. GO! This train runs Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.

Planning a Family RTW Trip?

Sample Itinerary Across Canada


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You can do pretty much anything you want. It all depends on time and what you’d like to do on your trip. In an effort to show how affordable this CAN be:

Here is a sample itinerary for economy class travel across Canada:

This economy class trip encompasses The Ocean, a little of the Québec – Windsor Corridor, Churchill, The Canadian, and Prince Rupert. It’s going across Canada and taking some amazing side trips along the way! Prices are based on high season and are subject to change.

The route is:

  • Halifax
  • Québec City
  • Montréal
  • Ottawa
  • Toronto
  • Niagara Falls
  • Toronto
  • Winnipeg
  • Churchill
  • Winnipeg
  • Saskatoon
  • Edmonton
  • Jasper
  • Prince Rupert
  • Jasper
  • Vancouver

Read: Indie Travel in Canada for $60 a Day

The Pass

Canrail passes are available in three increments; 7 one-way tickets, 10 one-way tickets, and unlimited travel.  Each pass is valid for a 60 day period. Here is a breakdown of cost for each:

Children (2-11), Youth (12-25, or 26+ with ISIC), and Seniors (60+):
$629 7 one-way tickets, $809 10 one-way tickets, $1,169 unlimited travel.
Adults (26-59): $699 7 one-way tickets, $899 10 one-way tickets, $1,299 for unlimited travel.

Book Canrail Québec Corridor in trips:

  1. Québec City to Montréal
  2. Montréal to Ottawa
  3. Ottawa to Toronto
  4. Toronto to Niagara Falls
  5. Niagara Falls to Toronto.

Book Canrail system pass in trips:

  1. Toronto to Saskatoon and use Winnipeg as a FREE stopover
  2. Winnipeg to Churchill
  3. Churchill to Winnipeg
  4. Saskatoon to Jasper and use Edmonton as a FREE stopover
  5. Jasper to Prince Rupert
  6. Prince Rupert to Jasper
  7. Jasper to Vancouver

Read: 10 Reasons to Visit Canada Now.


Classes


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Before I talk about fares, deals, and passes, let’s talk about classes so you know which is best for you and your travel style.

Economy

VIA Rail Business Class, VIA Rail Economy & Business Class look very similar!

Seats in economy are generally very comfortable, come equipped with outlets, and recline for comfort. On trains within the Québec – Windsor Corridor the seats are a little older and may feel more cramped, but on the long distance trains there is more leg room.

Tip: If you’re sitting in four seat section (two seats that face two seats) and nobody is sitting across from you recline both seats and you can lay down flat for overnight sleeping.

Business, or Touring Class

Business class is available on trains that travel through the Québec – Windsor Corridor and includes FREE wi-fi, meals, alcoholic beverages, soda, snacks, and has spacious seats with outlets for using laptops and charging devices. Business class passengers have full access to the Panoramic Lounges — a bonus during long layovers.

Sleeper Class & Sleeper Plus Class

There are several different types which vary depending on the line you are traveling on. All passengers traveling in a sleeper class have access to Panoramic Lounges at various VIA Rail stations across Canada. Here is a breakdown:

Berth – This is ideal for a solo traveler and the most economical option. Berths are beds at night (separated by a curtain), and a bench during the day. This is not a cabin. People will be walking by on their way to their room or another train car. Note: This type of sleeper is only available on the Canadian line, and the trains from Winnipeg – Churchill.

Cabin for One – This is a great option for a solo traveler who wants the luxury of a private space. All cabin classes come with a fan, air-conditioning, a sink, a private toilet (which is covered by the bed at night, meaning you need to use a public one), drinking water, pillows and bedding, and outlets (I was impressed with the quality of the duvet covers in sleeping class).

Cabins for One are small, so during the day your bed is a chair, and at night you bed is either lowered down, or pulled out from the wall. At night you are able to lock your door from the inside. Note: This type of sleeper is only available on the Canadian line, and the trains from Winnipeg – Churchill.

Cabin for Two – A cabin for two consists of upper and lower beds which are replaced with chairs during the day. The cabin comes with a bathroom with a toilet, and everything else that is included in a cabin for one. The room is cozy, and the beds are quite comfortable.

Note: The beds on the Canadian line are bigger than those on the Ocean line. Ask for an ‘F’ cabin on the Canadian line if you want a little more space.

Cabin for Two with Shower – Basically this is the same as a cabin for two, but the bathroom has a shower head. If you’ve traveled to Asia you’ll be fine, if not… you’ll be fine too, just embrace the fact that you’re going to shower beside the toilet.

Note: This type of cabin is only available on the Ocean line.

Cabin for Three – If you’re a family with small children then a cabin for three is a great choice. The cabin is very spacious during the day, and comes complete with three beds for during the night. The amenities are exactly the same as a cabin for two.

Note: This type of sleeper is only available on the Canadian line, and the trains from Winnipeg – Churchill.

Cabin for Four – A cabin for four is basically two cabins for two where the wall between the cabins has been removed. The amenities are exactly the same as a cabin for two.

Note: This type of sleeper is only available on the Canadian line, and the trains from Winnipeg – Churchill.

Read: Eastern Canada: Lesser Known Charms & Reasons to Visit.

Prestige Class

Brand new for 2015, Prestige class is available on the Canada Line from Toronto to Vancouver. This is meant to be the ultimate luxury class for VIA Rail, with newly renovated cabins featuring a modular L-shaped leather sofa, private washroom with a shower, LCD TV, and a dedicated concierge. Similar to Sleeper Plus class, all meals are included with Prestige class fare. That being said, this class also includes the cost of alcohol and snacks, which are available for a charge to those in Economy and Sleeper Plus classes.

Fares, Deals, & Passes


canrail panorama car
There are a couple of pricing options available and it’s worth looking into each of them when you’re doing your initial planning.

Youth Fares

VIA Rail Canada offers special fares for youth passengers ages 12 to 25, or 26 and older with an ISIC card. “Yay,” for being young and traveling across Canada! Escape fares are even lower than those of the adult escape fares. I’m talking $30 fares for trips from Ottawa to Montréal.

Child Fares

With VIA Rail children 2 years old and under travel for FREE! Children 2-11 travel for 50% off in economy class. If you’re traveling across Canada in sleeper class child fares are discounted.

Canrail Pass

This pass is available to adults, seniors, youth, and children. There are two types of Canrail Passes, one for the Québec City – Windsor Corridor, and one for the VIA Network. This pass is used for Economy seats only, and available for 7 one-way trips, 10 one-way trips, or unlimited travel, all within 60 days. The cost breakdown is as follows:

Adult: 7 one-way trips $699, 10 one-way trips $899, Unlimited trips $1,299

Seniors: 7 one-way trips $629, 10 one-way trips $809, Unlimited trips $1,169

Youth: 7 one-way trips $629, 10 one-way trips $809, Unlimited trips $1,169

Child: 7 one-way trips $629, 10 one-way trips $809, Unlimited trips $1,169

Escape Fares

If you’re planning to travel in the Québec – Windsor Corridor than look into VIA’s escape fares is definitely a must. This is where you’ll find fares as low as $20 at times. That is a fabulous deal. Express fares is the best place to look when you’re wanting a little getaway. Tuesday is the cheapest day to buy train tickets with VIA Rail.

Hostelling International Discounts

Do you have a Hostelling International membership card? If not you’ll want to buy one before booking your train tickets as you’ll save 12.5% on train tickets for you and up to three friends!

Read: Churchill, Canada: Polar Bear Capital.

Food


canrail prairie
Let’s talk about train food. The food available varies depending on which line and class you’re traveling. Anyone traveling in economy or sleeper class can purchase food in a service car, but the food is a little pricey ($2 for a can of soda, or small bag of chips, $7 for a heated meal). This is standard across all trains. If you’re traveling on The Ocean in sleeper plus your meals are included, and fairly good. The best is the Canadian line which offers gourmet meals cooked by a trained Chef, which is available for sleeper plus passengers (that’s everyone with a sleeper).

My advice? If you’re traveling in economy or sleeper class (Ocean, Winnipeg to Churchill), bring non-perishable snacks and some beverages. Here are some ideas:

  •  Nuts & granola bars
  •  Cured meats
  •  Crackers
  •  Fruit like apples, oranges, plums, etc (things that keep well)
  •  Water, juice, or soda
  • Basically budget $10 – $15 per day for snacks and food if you plan to bring your own. Cheaper and more filling that way.

Read: 10 Secret Destinations in Canada You Should Visit Now.

Want to take an extended trip?

Traveling With Pets


canrail toronto
VIA Rail has a fairly strict pets policy in that cats, dogs, and small rodents must travel in the baggage car (unless you’re traveling with a guide dog) and have appropriate cages as well. I know that for animal-lovers this will be an atrocious revelation, but for those who have pet allergies is kind of a good one as ventilation on trains is such that smells and dander can carry easily throughout the car.

Note: In summer the trains can sometimes be delayed due to ‘heat slows’ which require the trains to move slower than normal. Always leave a cushion in your schedule when traveling by train!

Traveling across Canada by train is an experience you are not likely to forget. If you opt to ride in economy class remember to bring earplugs and an eye mask. If your a musician, consider contacting VIA Rail about performing on the train as they will sometimes offer free sleeper class tickets in exchange for entertainment — you’ll probably have to preform 2-3 times each day of your trip.

So, whose ready to start planning their trip across Canada?