By: Nicole Edenedo
October 10, 2022
Barbara Boone of Direct Travel Houston grew up riding the rails, owing to an international background stemming from her father’s role in the military. She was born in Osaka, Japan, a city known for its connections to the famed bullet train, and spent years living in different countries around the world, including in Europe. That experience makes for a persuasive selling point when booking clients on a rail journey. Boone is among several advisors who said demand for train travel has been on the rise since the pandemic.
“I am definitely booking more train travel than ever before,” she said. “Train travel is efficient, more cost-effective and certainly comfortable. Pre- and post-river cruise vacations have driven this demand.”
“Having lived abroad is where my momentum and love of train travel began,” Boone said. “We lived in Germany and took every opportunity to see the countryside for short trips in all directions. Take a short trip, take a long trip — but everyone gets to enjoy the view.” AAA Colorado’s Casey Smith, who has been adding train tour extension packages to river cruises for his clients for years, said that demand picked up in spring 2021 and “has certainly been on the rise lately among my clientele, both within the U.S. and abroad.” He made 2022 the year he finally decided to see what the train experience was like firsthand. He wasn’t disappointed.
“I had the opportunity to experience the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada this past June, and it was really my first-ever experience with train travel,” Smith said. “I was able to see some amazing scenery between Vancouver and Banff, and I kept finding myself outside on the viewing platform just to enjoy the landscapes and fresh air.”
Having that personal experience can help make a sale, especially in a segment that hasn’t always been top of mind for travelers. Most of Alana Wallace’s river cruise clients had never thought of adding a train trip to their vacation until she suggested it. In fact, outside of those living in the Northeast Corridor, where subways and commuter trains are used daily as a means of public transportation, most of Wallace’s clients hardly ever think of traveling by train. “It is a curiosity,” said Wallace, a travel advisor with Holiday Cruises & Tours. “For many, it’s something that they have not experienced before.”
There’s something happening on the rails these days, and it isn’t delays or cancellations: It’s growing interest in an oft-forgotten, classic mode of transportation whose arrival — or revival — in today’s travel market appears to be right on time. Demand for rail vacations has been soaring over the past few years, especially as an add-on to other types of trips, advisors and suppliers say. Many travelers extend or enhance their river cruise, land tour or custom FIT trips with a rail tour. “Nearly half of my rail bookings are clients looking to expand on their river cruise trips without the strict itinerary of a guided tour,” Smith said.
Train vacations packager Railbookers Group, which consists of Amtrak Vacations, Railbookers and Yankee Holidays, says demand for its custom train trip packages as standalone tours and as a pre- and post-cruise extension have skyrocketed in the past two years in Europe and the U.S. This summer alone, bookings were three times better than they were during the same period in 2019.
“Prior to Covid, we were pretty much double-digit growth every year for 10 years,” said Frank Marini, CEO of Railbookers, who added that after a Covid slowdown in early 2020, “the vaccine effect happened and our domestic travel vacations just exploded.”
Railbookers said its train tours featuring national parks have been the top performers. Glacier National Park in Montana is the No. 1 seller on the Amtrak Empire Builder, which goes from Chicago to Seattle. The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite are also performing well.
Both Railbookers and Canadian train tour operator Rocky Mountaineer said that much of the surge in business comes from clients adding rail trips to cruises. More than 60% of Rocky Mountaineer’s long-haul market combines a cruise and train package. Both Viking and American Queen Voyages offer pre- and post-cruise rail journeys on their Alaska expedition cruise itineraries through partnerships with the train operator.
“Rail and sail is a natural fit with our guests,” said Violet Thumlert, Rocky Mountaineer’s vice president of global sales. Europe’s expansive rail network is one of the reasons Railbookers says it is seeing so much growth in cruise and rail combinations across the Continent over the past year.
“Switzerland is really built for rail, and they have one of the best rail systems in the world, so that’s a big piece of where we’re seeing these pre- and post-river cruise trips,” Marini said, pointing to Basel’s popularity as an origin point for rail trips because it’s where a number of river cruises start or end. “One of the things about Europe, in general, from a rail standpoint, is that the infrastructure is already in place,” he said. “Most people don’t realize there are 26,000 train stations in Europe. So from a product standpoint, it’s almost limitless what you can do and where you want to go.”
More River and Rail
Seeing demand rise, more river cruise lines are adding itineraries in partnership with rail companies. Uniworld Boutique River Cruises launched a cruise and rail program last year, partnering with Golden Eagle Luxury Trains. Its popularity prompted Uniworld to add a second itinerary this year. There are now four Uniworld itineraries onboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express train: 12- and 14-day Milan, Venice & the Swiss Alps departures and a 12- and 13-day Castles of Transylvania & Enchanting Danube journeys. And Uniworld said there is more to come.
Train travel’s revival comes at a critical moment in the tourism landscape, some industry experts say, as new rail opportunities intersect with high demand for travel alternatives.
Travel’s roaring return has come with a relentless wave of challenges eroding the patience — and the plans — of travelers eager to take their delayed vacations. Staffing shortages, pilot strikes, thousands of flight cancellations and delays as well as lost luggage horror stories and record passenger volume all contributed to chaos at airports globally during the first summer marking travel’s full-blown return since Covid.
“Since air travel has started to have so many cancellations, I am definitely booking more train travel than ever before, especially in Europe,” Direct Travel Houston’s Boone said. While the trouble at the airports is unlikely to keep people from giving up flying altogether — there are only so many ways to cross oceans — the issues did prompt more consideration for alternative modes of travel and taking trips closer to home, suppliers said.
“With the uncertainty of flights and travel at large, we did see a spike in local travelers looking to experience more of their own backyards,” Rocky Mountaineer’s Thumlert said. “There is enthusiasm for the new U.S. route we launched last year, the Rockies to the Red Rocks route between Colorado and Utah. We are thrilled to see significant bookings, which are exceeding our expectations even amid changing travel regulations.”
Even before the aviation challenges, Railbookers’ Marini said that the train industry experienced a unique effect when the pandemic uncovered its forgotten service advantages. Trains were considered an essential piece of transportation infrastructure when the pandemic started in March 2020. Operations were scaled back that year, but not for long.
“Trains never stopped,” Marini said.
“People couldn’t go to Europe. They weren’t going on a cruise. They weren’t going anywhere. But we noticed people were taking the train, especially through Amtrak Vacations, partially because of the roomettes and sleepers; it’s an enclosed cabin on the train. We never had a day where we didn’t take new bookings.”
What’s Old is New Again
Train journeys are also more than just a connection between points A and B; being on the train is now the destination. Rocky Mountaineer doesn’t offer overnight sleeper service onboard its trains, Thumlert said, but its itineraries are a vacation in and of themselves.
“Rocky Mountaineer is unique in that it is more than a rail trip — it’s a travel experience,” Thumlert said. “With our onboard service, storytelling and a glass-dome train available in GoldLeaf Service, our guests can make a true vacation out of Rocky Mountaineer.”
Luxury hospitality and leisure company Belmond operates a number of high-end daytrip and overnight trains, including the British Pullman traversing the English countryside, the Belmond Royal Scotsman winding through the Scottish Highlands and the Andean Explorer trekking across the plains of Peru. However, none of the trains in Belmond’s portfolio is as famous, timeless or as opulent as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE).
While you might not find yourself entangled in an Agatha Christie whodunit plot worthy of two big-screen adaptations, VSOE passengers can expect to be transported into the upper echelons of locomotive luxury and a spot earned on the official bill of bragging rights. “Our trains, particularly the VSOE, Royal Scotsman and British Pullman, have outperformed their pre-pandemic results, with an increase of 20%, 35%, respectively, and a striking 40% on the British Pullman,” said Gary Franklin, vice president of trains and cruises for Belmond. “We are certainly seeing a revival in the romance of rail travel.”
What seems clear about train travel today is the thrill in its rediscovery. Over many tracks traveled, across wide landscapes, are new destinations reached that would have been too inaccessible to pass by car, too impractical to see by plane and too impossible to endure on foot.