Nicole visits Canada and the USA

Staff member: Nicole // Trip date: Nov 2013

September 25th 26th and 27th Vancouver

On the 25th of September I flew from Melbourne to Vancouver. After a long flight I landed in Vancouver on the 25th for 2 nights before getting on the Canadian train from Vancouver to Jasper on the 27th of September. In Vancouver as I had a few spare days and it was a sunny day, I decided to do the Vancouver open top bus and take the free shuttle to Grouse mountain from Canada Place . I took the cable car to the top, saw the lumberjack show, took a free guided nature walk and took a chair lift to the summit. After I rejoined the open top bus, I got off in Stanley Park and took the Hop On Hop Off bus free tour of Stanley Park. As the pass was a 48 hour pass I then visited Granville Island the next day and took the bus again.


27th September Vancouver to Jasper VIA Rail

In the evening of the 27th of September I took the Canadian Train that travels from Vancouver to Jasper overnight. The train departed at 20:30. Boarding started 1 hour before. Via rail allow bags to be checked in from 6pm onwards, you can check in the bags earlier however they will charge $6 per bag. I checked in my large luggage and kept an overnight bag with me. There is not much storage space in the cabin so it's best to have a small carryon bag with clothes or anything you may need for your trip. After checking in the bags, I made my way to the VIA Lounge where free tea and coffee and biscuits were available for people who have a cabin or a berth.
The Vancouver train station has a lack of food. There is no fast food or cafes to be seen anywhere only a news agency with some snacks and prepacked sandwiches. I would recommend people eat before or bring some food with them as dinner is not included on the 1st night however around 15 minutes after departure from Vancouver, for all cabin and berth ticket holders they have free champagne/wine in the park car. At the bottom of the park car at the end of the carriage is tea and coffee available anytime with an array of cakes/pastries and fruit to help yourself at anytime of the day.

The train has 3 choices of accommodation. Seats only, berths or cabins. I had a cabin for 2. The configuration before the beds are turned down is 2 seats. Once the beds are turned down it converts to a top and bottom bunk. When you board the attendant advises if you want your room converted to the bunks. You have the choice to leave the bed down for the entire 4 days or you can simply ask the attendant to convert it back to the chairs. I only did the first night and by 3pm the next day they convert it back into chairs as you arrive into Jasper at 4pm. The cabin had a toilet inside, a sink, but no shower. Showers are located at the end of the carriage. There is a small wardrobe to hang clothes in. You only need to bring enough clothes on board for the number of days you stay on the train due to the limited storage space.

There is no set times for attending breakfast, it's served from 06:30 to 09:30 and you can turn up for breakfast at whatever time you like. There are quite a few options for breakfast such as hot breakfast, bacon and eggs or continental breakfast with cereals, pastries and toast or a choice of the chef's omelette. I had the bacon eggs and hash browns. If you arrive at breakfast and no spaces are available they have fruit and pastries for you to snack on until a space becomes available. While you are at breakfast they come around and ask what time you prefer for your lunch sitting. There were a few sittings available. I chose to have my lunch at the 11:30 sitting as I was getting off the train at 16:00 that day in Jasper. Lunch was 3 courses. Entre was a choice of a soup or a salad. Main had a choice between an Angus beef burger, turkey and bacon club sandwich, spinach and cheese ravioli or smoked salmon and asparagus fritters. Desert was the choice between Apple crumble, ice cream or fruit salad. The portions were large and I could hardly fit in desert. I did not stay on board for dinner as I got off at 16:00 in Jasper. However I had a look at the dinner menu, it was also a 3 course dinner with meat options being chicken, lamb, fish or a vegetarian option with soup or salad as an entree, and deserts.

The train has a panoramic car called the skyline car. This has windows in the roof and large windows along the side. The other is called the Park Car. The Park Car has an elevated dome that you can sit up in as high as the trees and watch the scenery go by. The upper level of the Park Car is the viewing area. The lower level has table and chairs to sit around and lounge type chairs. At the back of the lower level of the park car are fruit, pastries, cakes and tea and coffee, free at anytime of the day. At various times during the day an attendant would come into the Park Car and talk about the scenery that you are passing.

The scenery starts from around Kamloops, as it's the beginning of the Rockies, at around 06:30 in the morning. It's worth getting out of bed early waking up to the sight of the Rockies; you are in the Rockies all the way to Jasper. I got off in Jasper at 16:00.

September 28th 29th and 30th Jasper

After arriving in Jasper at 16:00 on the 28th I had the next 3 nights in Jasper.

September 29th

I did a day trip to the Colombia Icefields from Jasper. The Colombia Icefields is a glacier that is located about 1.45 hours from Jasper. This is amazing to see. The day I went however, there was a snow storm and we had to wait around for the weather to clear before we could go out on the ice. You are taken out on the glacier with a truck. You get out of the truck for about 20 minutes to walk around and experience the glacier. When I was there they had their first snow storm since May. I would recommend that if doing this tour take a beanie and gloves and scarf as it was -3 degrees out on the Glacier.


September 30th

I did a half day trip to Maligne Canyon and Lake Sightseeing & Boat Cruise. The tour included a 45 minute board ride to the famous Spirit Island that is featured in the tourism brochures for the area, where you get off for 15 minutes.

Later that afternoon I took the Jasper Tramway up to the summit to have a panoramic view of surrounding Rockies and the town of Jasper. The tramway is located 15 minutes out of the town. A free shuttle is provided from the visitors centre to the tramway.


Rail Plus sells the Colombia Icefields tour, Maligne Valley Sightseeing & Boat Cruise and the Jasper Tramway.


October 1st 2nd 3rd Toronto to Niagara Falls return

I took a Sun Dog shuttle from Jasper to Edmonton airport to get my flight to Toronto. Rail Plus sell this shuttle. The shuttle picked me up at 07:15 and I arrived at Edmonton airport at 12:15. Rail Plus sell shuttles to various destinations in the Canadian Rockies. I spent the next 3 nights in Toronto. The 2nd of October I did the City Sightseeing Hop On Hop Off bus. This open top bus had a live guide. It was nice to have a live guide instead of listening to a recording with head phones like most hop on hop off busses. Rail Plus sell the Toronto hop on hop off bus. The bus was great to get out and see the outskirts of Toronto. It also included a free 45 minute boat cruise.

The next day I took a day trip to Niagara Falls. There is a daily train directly from Toronto to Niagara Falls and one train back again. This train is actually the Toronto to NYC train and NYC to Toronto train. This train I took in economy class as it was only 2 hours. They have a carriage set aside for the people only going as far as Niagara Falls. The conductor will check the ticket and advise what cars you can go in for Niagara Falls. The train stops at the Niagara Falls Canadian side train station. I got off here, but they made an announcement if you were continuing on to NYC to stay on board the train and the US will be taking over operation of the train. I spent the day in Niagara Falls, did Maid of the Mist boat cruise, Journey Behind the Falls, White Water Walk and Niagara's Fury. I took the train back at 17:45 which was the train that was coming from NYC to Toronto.

There was more than enough room in Economy. The configuration is 2 aisles with 2 seats. Even when each person had their chair reclined, there was more than enough space for you to spread your legs out and not even touch the back of the chair in front you. The chair has a small rest that comes out from the bottom of the seat for your legs. There is also foot rests at the bottom of the seat in front of you. There was Wi-Fi on this train, but the staff advised it only works once the train is in the USA. There were baggage storage shelves at the end of each carriage to store your bags as well as large overhead storage racks. This train has no checked baggage service.


October 4th 5th and 6th Toronto to Montreal VIA Rail

The 4th of October I took the train from Toronto to Montreal at 06:15 in business class. Breakfast is supplied for free in business class. I had French toast with blueberry sauce on top, yoghurt and a croissant, or there was a cold option with cereal. The train has free Wi-Fi in business class. The configuration on business class is 2x1 but with a lot more space than economy, as there are fewer seats than economy. There is no checked baggage; bags are left at the end of the carriage on the luggage shelves or in the over head racks.

Toronto train station was under renovation so there are currently no food outlets or shops at the station. The Montreal station is built under a shopping centre so there are plenty of facilities to purchase food. I spent 3 days in Montreal. Montreal is in Quebec, the French speaking province of Canada.

October 7th to October 11th Montreal to New York Amtrak

On the 7th of October I took the train from Montreal to NYC. This train is known as the Airondack train and is run by Amtrak. I had a PNR (booking reference) for the Amtrak train to collect. As I was in Canada, they had a special Amtrak only counter where you collected your ticket. As I had my other Amtrak trains booked on the same PNR they gave me all my other Amtrak tickets at the same time, which was very handy. This was a full train. There is no checked baggage; the baggage comes on board with you. There are overhead racks, and racks at the end of the carriages with plenty of space for bags. This train only has one class. There is free Wi-Fi, but only in the cafe car, nowhere else on the train will pick up the free Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi only starts working when you cross into the USA. On certain departures a week they have a sightseer dome car. The Amtrak attendant informed me on the Montreal to NYC route they only have it 3 days a week. I was not fortunate enough to have the sightseeing dome for this trip.

This is a 2nd class only train, the configuration was 2x2 with so much space between the seats. The seats were exactly the same as seats as the Toronto to NYC train that I took as far as Niagara Falls. With so much space between the seats, you can stretch your legs out and not touch the back of the chair when the person in front of you had the chair down. It also had a small leg rest that came out from the bottom of the chair. Foot rests were at the bottom of the chair in front of you.

Immigration is done at the border of Canada and USA. The train stops and the USA border guards get on, check passports and then anyone who is not American and needs to be processed into the USA must go down into the dining car and do all paper work and passport control in the dining car. We were at this border crossing for 2 hours. As the train was full, each person's passport needed to be checked and many people including myself needed to be processed into the USA. Customs then brought on a sniffer dog and evacuated one carriage at a time, and then sniffed each bag. This was in the middle of the government shutdown and there was only 4 staff to check the passports of the whole train and then process anyone who needed processing. The train left Montreal at 09:30 in the morning and arrived into New York at 10:30pm it was supposed to arrive into NYC at 08:20pm.

I had a 3 day New York Pass and did as many attractions as I could. I exchanged he voucher at the office near Times Square. If I did not have the pass I would have spent $390 on all of the attractions I saw. Rail Plus sells the New York pass for 3 days for $220. I did the NBC studios tour, Rockefeller Centre tour, Top of the Rock, Radio City Music Hall tour, Madame Tussauds, Natural History Museum to see the dinosaur bones, Empire State building by night, the Brooklyn Bridge walking tour, circle line 2 hour semi circle cruise, Grand Central Station tour, New York water taxi, The Harlem walking tour and Gospel evening, and The Intrepid Air and Space Museum. The pass also gave me fast access to many attractions so I did not have queue up.


October 12th to 14th New York to Philadelphia Amtrak

I took the North East regional train in business class from NYC to Philadelphia. I had already collected my ticket for this train in Montreal so I arrived 45 minutes prior to the departure time. This train has free Wi-Fi and in business class and you get free non alcoholic beverages. You must go to the cafe car and show your ticket to get free non alcoholic beverages. No checked baggage on this train. The train had a configuration of 2x2 with more space than the economy seats as there were fewer seats. The Journey from NYC to Philadelphia takes 1 hour and 20mins.


October 14th Philadelphia to Chicago Via Washington Amtrak

After spending 2 days in Philadelphia seeing the sights, I boarded the Acela Express at 09:20 to Washington to get a connecting overnight train from Washington to Chicago. The Acela Express has free Wi-Fi. I travelled in business class. This train only has business or first class. There was plenty of space and the seats were comfortable.

I had 5 hours spare in Washington, but as the government was in shutdown nothing was open, so I decided to get on the Hop On Hop Off bus to do a loop around Washington. This bus either had a live guide or head phones depending on what bus you were on. These busses depart from Union Station. The Loop around took about 2 hours. Rail Plus sells the Washington hop on hop off bus for 24 hour or 48 hour passes. After arriving back to Union Station I went into the Acela lounge where if you have an overnight sleeper or an Alcea first class ticket you can have free access to the lounge. The Acela lounge offers free snacks and non alcoholic beverages and allows you to store your bags for free. At Washington Union station there is luggage storage available too, for a cost, so if you have anything to store and have a roomette or bedroom, the Acela lounge will hold your bags for free. Amtrak allow you to check your large bags in for the train at anytime of the day. The Acela lounge has a special boarding gate so you do not need to exit the lounge into the main station again to board the train.


They have their own boarding gate and you can board earlier than the rest of the train.
You must be checked in no later than 30 mins prior to the train departure. I took a roomette from Washington to Chicago. An overnight bag with a change of clothes is all you need to take onboard as the space in the roomette is very small and has minimal storage space. I stored the day bag under the bed once it was made. Before it's converted to beds, the roomette has 2 seats facing each other. There are 2 power points and personal lights, one for the top bunk and one for the bottom bunk. After the room converted for the evening the only storage space is under the bottom bunk. There is no toilet and shower in the roomette, toilets are at the end of the carriage, and the showers are located at the lower level of the carriage. Towels and shampoo are supplied in the shower room. Two bottles of water were supplied in the room.

I did get to look at the bedrooms. The bedroom has more space a top and bottom bunk, and a toilet and shower inside the cabin.

The train has a sightseeing lounge car with panoramic windows to enjoy the views. There is a bar located downstairs from the sightseeing lounge. The lounge car opens up for you to use, once the ticket inspector has checked all tickets. There is no Wi-Fi on this train.

Meals are included in your roomette or bedroom. Once on board an attendant will come around and ask what time you would like to attend dinner. The train left at 16:30 and the first sitting was available from 6pm onwards. Dinner allowed you to pick a main course from the menu and a desert. There were 6 options to choice from such as Amtrak signature steak, or herb roasted chicken with vegetables, which I had. There were fish options such as salmon, vegetarian options and salad. The portions were large. Non alcoholic drinks were included with your meal too.

The breakfast sitting was an open sitting from 06:30 at 08:30am. Breakfast allowed you to chose one breakfast item such as scrambled eggs and raison toast, French toast and the option to add a meat item such as bacon and sausages to what you have chosen. Tea and coffee was free. At the end of the sleeper carriage there was free coffee and bottles of water available.


October 17th to 21st Chicago to LA

After spending 2 nights in Chicago I flew from Chicago to LA. I had a 24 hour pass for the City Sightseeing bus of LA. The pass covers a lot of ground and I would suggest a 48 hour pass. The LA City Sightseeing bus has 4 loops. Each loop can take 2 hours plus to go around. We started the red loop from the starting point on Hollywood Blvd. As you drive pass the sights they give a good commentary such as pointing out places like the Viper Room or other places celebrities may have lived/worked. We got off at Beverly Hills Rodeo Drive. We spent some time looking around there, then made our way back to the bus stop, this time to change to the yellow line that took us to Santa Monica. We got off at Santa Monica Pier, looked around and then instead of walking from Santa Monica to Venice beach we took the green line. The green line is not as frequent as the yellow and red lines, but it stops at Venice Beach making its way all the way to Marina Delray. After Venice Beach we made our way back to get the bus into Hollywood. We got on the first bus around 9am and got back to the Hollywood Blvd stop at about 8pm. The bus back took longer due to LA peak hour traffic. LA has very heavy traffic and in my opinion 24 hours is not enough, you need to use a 48 hour pass to get the most out of the loops, and you need to be patient with the peak hour traffic. The rest of the days in LA we did theme parks, Universal Studios and Six Flags Magic Mountain.

21st to 22nd October San Francisco

I took an early fight from LA to San Francisco. As I only had 2 nights in San Francisco I wanted to maximise my time in San Francisco. I made my way to Pier 33 to get the ferry to Alcatraz. I had booked this a few months in advance online as they can sell out weeks in advance. After doing Alcatraz we got on the Hop On Hop Off bus around San Francisco. We stopped at the famous Victorian painted houses that were used in the opening of the TV show 'Full House', visited Lombard street (the crocked street), Fishermans Wharf and then rode a cable car, standing on the ledge hanging on down the hills of San Francisco. Day 2 in San Francisco was spent on a 12 hour day tour to Yosemite National park. This park is stunning. It was autumn so all the leaves were changing colour. I would have liked to have spent a few days there.

23nd to 27th October Las Vegas

I spent 4 nights in Las Vegas at the end. One of the days I did a day trip to the Grand Canyon. It included a bus to the canyon, a helicopter to the bottom and then a boat ride in the canyon for 15 minutes then a helicopter back up.


Overall, the trains in USA and Canada are a great standard. At times they can be slow, as they are not like the high speed trains in Europe, but they have plenty of space and are of a high standard. The East Coast of the USA has the biggest option for trains. The trains may not take you to every place in the USA, but they places they go it's worth taking them. Taking a train across Canada or the USA can be a great experience. It can be slow, but the journey there is part of the adventure.


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