Let the train take the strain with Katie McGonagle’s whistle-stop guide to the world’s best rail tours
It’s the journey that counts, not the destination, according to the old saying, and that’s never been truer than for escorted rail tours.
When you’re faced with adventurous clients who want to do more than just hop on an aircraft in one country and touch down in another, a voyage aboard one of these iconic trains might be just the ticket, whether they want to go slow and be transported toa forgotten era of glamour and sophistication, or speed through magnificent mountain passes and vast desert landscapes.
Tony Byrne, sales manager for Great Rail Journeys and Treyn, says: “Customers don’t just want to sit on a train for 14 days – they’re looking for fun and adventure, and to include destinations they probably wouldn’t have seen had they not been on a rail journey.
“Many of them will have seen a tour advertised and think about it for a long time – even years – then one day decide they’ll do it. We get customers with special anniversaries who decide they want to be in Sydney or India on that day, so if you ask about those big dates you might find there are potential bookings.
“They’ll always do something around it too, so if they go on the Rocky Mountaineer, they may go and do a resort-based activity at Whistler, spend a few days in Vancouver, or go on a cruise. Although the rail journey tends to be the centrepiece of the holiday, agents can bolt things on.”
Here, we give the lowdown on 10 of the best train journeys in the world, with ideas for how to sell them as part of a wider itinerary.
Where: Rocky Mountains, Canada
Best for: Snow-capped peaks
Sell it: This high-profile luxury service has several routes through the stunning Rocky Mountains, with two-day itineraries including its most popular First Passage to the West appealing to travellers who want to package it with other activities, or longer routes.
Hayes & Jarvis, for example, suggests spending time in Vancouver and Calgary on either side of the journey, while Travelsphere and Great Rail Journeys include a twoday trip on their longer itineraries. Make sure you’re aware of the ongoing industrial dispute with Rocky Mountaineer’s workers, who have a picket line at the departure point, so you can field customers’ questions.
Book it: Titan’s 13-day Rocky Mountaineer Grand Rail Circle incorporates three routes from Jasper to Whistler, then Vancouver and Banff, from £3,495 in May with Air Canada flights.
Where: Darwin to Adelaide, Australia
Best for: Desert landscapes
Sell it: Australia’s Red Centre holds an almost mystical fascination and remains relatively untouched. This epic voyage takes passengers from the tropical Top End through the heart of the continent (with the option to stop for Uluru tours from Alice Springs) into the majestic Flinders Ranges and vineyards of south Australia. Time-pressed clients can just do part of the route and end their journey at Alice Springs.
Book it: Great Southern Rail has a two-for-one offer for the threeday Darwin to Adelaide journey for about £980 for two in a Red Sleeper cabin until October 31.
Where: London to Venice
Best for: Old-world elegance
Sell it: Fancy a spot of style and sophistication? This historic service embodies the spirit of the original Orient-Express, complete with vintage cars, lavish furnishings and elegant touches such as champagne on departure and a piano bar to serenade guests.
The journey is over two legs, from London to Folkestone then swapping trains for the Calaisto- Venice section, over two days. Package it up with a city break to Venice for a romantic holiday.
Book it: Kirker Holidays offers a private compartment from London to Venice plus two nights in the Italian city and a flight home from £1,999 departing October 18.
020 7593 2283
Where: Christchurch to Greymouth, New Zealand
Best for: Mountains and valleys
Sell it: New Zealand is already known for stunning scenery and this four-and-a-half-hour journey spans the South Island’s best bits, from open farmlands on the Canterbury Plains to the stunning Waimakariri River Gorge and mist-laden mountains of the Southern Alps.
Include it in a selfdrive such as Travel 2’s Land of the Long White Cloud by taking a return journey (twice the chance for photos), or book flights to Christchurch with vehicle hire in Greymouth for an especiallyscenic transfer.
Book it: Great Rail Journeys’ 22-day Adventures in New Zealand includes the TranzAlpine, TranzCoastal and Overlander plus three vintage rail journeys, accommodation and flights, from £4,225 in February.
Where: Various routes in Japan
Best for: Cutting-edge train travel
Sell it: Japan’s network of bullet trains, or Shinkansen, are known for their super-fast speeds (up to 180mph) and spot-on punctuality. But on the most popular leg, the 325-mile stretch from Tokyo to Osaka, there are also fabulous views of snow-capped Mount Fuji.
You’ll also see Japanese efficiency at its best in the ultra-modern Kyoto station, the perfect contrast to the city’s history as the imperial capital of Japan.
Book it: Travelsphere’s 11-day Japan tour includes bullet train journeys from Tokyo to Kyoto, Hiroshima and back to Osaka with flights and excursions, from £2,619 for October 6 departures.
0844 567 3319
Where: Moscow to Vladivostok/Beijing
Best for: Epic voyages
Sell it: As adventures go, this is ambitious – it’s more than 6,000 miles so most escorted tours take at least 10 days with stopovers to break up the journey. Go in the summer as the daylight hours mean more to see, and passengers won’t have to brave the cold.
There are incredibly luxurious options such as the Golden Eagle (featured by APT, Cox & Kings and Great Rail Journeys), or the Tsar’s Gold private train, a favourite with Audley Travel. But for those without such deep pockets, some group tours use public services – this is a working railway with local travellers after all.
Book it: Regent Holidays’ 14-day Great Trans-Siberian Railway Group Tour from Moscow to Beijing starts at £1,850 with second-class tickets, excursions and accommodation in hotels and tented camps, excluding flights and visas.
0117 921 1711
Where: Zermatt to St Moritz, Switzerland
Best for: Awe-inspiring Alpine scenery
Sell it: This train deserves its reputation as the slowest express in Europe, travelling at an average 24mph over a leisurely sevenand- a-half hours. This is truly one for photographers – the journey starts in the shadow of the majestic Matterhorn following a fir-tree lined route, then climbs the dramatic Oberalp Pass, going through the rock-strewn Rhine Gorge and much-photographed Landwasser Viaduct.
There’s no compromising on comfort either; it’s a historic route but modern, panoramic coaches with skylights and air-conditioning were added in 2006. For festive fun, Shearings Holidays’ Winter on the Glacier Express has a Christmas departure on December 22, from £649.
Book it: Cosmos has a nineday Scenic Switzerland by Train tour with the Glacier Express and other famous routes, from £1,539 on September 14 with flights, transfers, accommodation and some meals.
0844 573 0662
PALACE ON WHEELS
Where: Circular routes from Delhi, India
Best for: Colour and culture
Sell it: This lavish tourist train has been operating since 1982 and it’s a great – and comfortable – way to see Rajasthan’s highlights. The train leaves weekly, except May to July, visiting Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Agra and more, ticking off must-see sights such as the Amber Fort and the Taj Mahal. The train was refurbished in 2009 and is like a luxury hotel, complete with gold-embossed carriages, ornate ceilings and delicious cuisine.
Book it: TransIndus offers a 10-day itinerary from £3,995 including a night in Delhi on arrival, full-board accommodation and flights from Heathrow.
020 8566 3739
WEST HIGHLAND LINE
Where: Glasgow to Oban, Scotland
Best for: Breathtaking Britain
Sell it: The best train journeys aren’t always in far-flung ends of the earth – we’ve got one of the most beautiful journeys on our doorstep. Set off from Glasgow towards Oban, Fort William or Mallaig – the train splits into different branches at Crianlarich – and you’ll head along the Firth of Clyde, catch glimpses of glorious Loch Lomond plus grand Scottish castles and tiny villages.
Passengers from Fort William to Mallaig also cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct, familiar to any fan of the Harry Potter films who has seen the Hogwarts Express snake through the mountains.
Book it: Over-55s specialist Grand UK has a six-day tour, The Road to the Isles, including the West Highland Line plus visits to Mull, Iona and Skye, from £629.
THE BLUE TRAIN
Where: Pretoria to Cape Town, South Africa
Best for: Five-star service
Sell it: You won’t find a more extravagant way to travel through South Africa than this – there’s butler service, superbSouth African wines, decadentlydecorated carriages and en suite showers and full-size bathtubs in many compartments, which israre.
The 27-hour journey covers nearly 1,000 miles, passing through the vast Karoo plains, grape-growing river valleys and Hex River tunnels, making it a fascinating add-on to safari breaks and Cape Town holidays.
Book it: Bales Worldwide offers the two-day trip in a deluxe cabin with meals from £1,175 based on November 16-December 31 departures.
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