Lest you think that grim subways and government-run trains are the only form of rail travel, here’s some compelling evidence of the dreamiest transportation that your vacation money can buy—a roundup of essential luxury train travel across the world.
Warning, though: Merely mentioning overnight train trips may elicit blissed-out silence from some travelers as they lose themselves in thoughts of exotic destinations, romantic sleeping quarters, and great meals served in white-linen dining cars.
1. Train Suite Shiki-Shima, Japan
Book now: From $3,320 for one-night package
Although Japan is best known for bullet trains, the country’s national railway, JR Group, operates a series of specialized trains for tourism collectively called the Joyful Trains. Among the offerings are Pokemon-themed cars and train lines with cars for footbathing, ones dedicated to fine dining, or featuring an astronomy library. The crowning glory of the Joyful Trains is the ultra-modern, ultra-luxe Train Suite Shiki-Shima. The Shiki-Shima (which means “island of the four seasons”) travels through eastern Japan out of Tokyo, visiting sites of Japanese cultural significance (villages, museums, temples, markets, restaurants, and iconic natural sites) along its one- to three-night excursions.
The walls of the observation cars (called terraces) at the front and back of the train are cut away in abstract patterns leaving windows that extend views almost from the hand-loomed carpet to the curved molding of ceiling. The 15 sleeping quarters onboard vary from elegantly simple accommodations with en suite bathrooms all the way up to lacquered wood-paneled and washi-papered two-level suites with cypress-lined soaking tubs, traditional tatami mat floor covering, and a working fireplace.
As expected on such a lavish train, the dining car offers extraordinary seasonal meals prepared by a team of chefs, who travel the whole trip; in addition, guest chefs board the train to prepare special regional dishes visited along the itinerary. This top-of-the-line, sophisticated hospitality features a crew wearing smart uniforms designed by Issey Miyake’s former creative director.
2. Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Europe
Book now: Fom $4,761 for one-night Venice to London
The legendary Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express hardly needs an introduction to travel lovers: Its gleaming wood-paneled interiors, dining tables set with crisp linens and silver and crystal, and extravagant comforts of sleeping quarters have come to symbolize a time when travel was sophisticated and passengers came first.
The train, made up of vintage carriages from the 1920s and ’30s refitted with modern amenities, runs regular itineraries that visit European destinations. And once a year, a trip makes a deliberately slow five-night transit between Paris and Istanbul. Berths for these classic runs sell out fast, and Belmond has sweetened the ride further by adding six Grand Suites, each named for a legendary city and styled in an art deco tribute to that city.
The Grand Suites feature private bathrooms, double beds, and underfloor heating in the living area. When you factor in a private steward (in a snappy uniform with shiny buttons) and complimentary champagne on demand, honestly, this train wouldn’t even have to leave the platform to qualify as a trip of a lifetime. The other accommodation classes, while less over-the-top, still offer details of design and comfort that elevate a sleeper car to something more like a dream state. This icon of the golden age of travel shows no sign of tarnish.
3. Alaska Railroad, USA
Book now: From $6,409 for the 12-day/11-night Glaciers, Rails and Trails package
Alaska Railroad offers a way to see the natural beauty of the state—from the orcas breaching in icy bays to the majestic Denali—that doesn’t require roughing it or traveling by cruise ship. One of the railroad line’s summertime offerings, the 11-night Glaciers, Rails and Trails package, passes through spectacular corners of that vast state making several stops a day, and lingering for more than a day in both Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park. Off the train, passengers visit museums and sled dog training facilities, join a float trip down a glacial river, and take guided hikes. Onboard the train, passengers see the sights from a double-decker observation car: a glass-domed level on top (with beverage service) and a full-service dining car on the bottom. At night, the train stops at wilderness and backcountry lodges and hotels so you’ll sleep soundly before the next day’s activities and get a better sense of each place.
4. Maharajas’ Express, India
The 23 carriages of these luxury trains travel mostly by night, allowing passengers plenty of time during waking hours to disembark for visits to UNESCO World Heritage landmarks, take game drives, and dine in fine hotels and palaces. The price tag fits the fit-for-a-royal experience, of course, but a shorter journey, like the three-night Treasures of India package, is less expensive and no less glamorous.
The itinerary includes excursions to iconic sites of the Golden Triangle—the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan (tigers!), the Amber Fort in Jaipur—as well as spa treatments and lavish meals. The train includes two restaurants, a bar car, and the modern ensuite accommodations range from a deluxe double cabin up to a Presidential Suite. India is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for a lot of travelers so a journey on a train like this would really provide that extra dollop of whipped cream on that experience.
5. Rocky Mountaineer, USA
Book now: From $1,619 for two-day, one-night Rockies to Red Rocks package
One of the very few downsides of traveling by train through spectacular scenery is that when the sun goes down, you lose all the views. Instead the windows reveal only the reflection of the bright interior of the train. A popular luxury train brand, the Rocky Mountaineer solves this tragic first-world problem by plotting its scenic routes to include overnight stops at fine hotels along the way. Historically, the Rocky Mountaineer only rode the Canadian rails, following mountainous routes that terminated in Vancouver and either Jasper or Banff.
Beginning in August 2021, though, the groundbreaking company launched a new two-day journey between Denver and Moab, Utah, stopping overnight at Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The luxury train, purpose-built for landscape viewing, offers unparalleled views of the Rockies (watch for bighorn sheep in the high passes) and the sandblasted canyons and surreal rock formations of the Utah desert. While you look out the panoramic windows, the staff’s focus is on serving you fine wines and freshly prepared food (sorry in advance to fans of Amtrak’s pre-wrapped tuna sandwiches).
In Glenwood Springs, passengers disembark to spend the night at a choice of three different hotels before reboarding in the morning to finish the trip in Moab. Extend your vacation by adding a couple of days to either end of the journey to spend time exploring Moab and/or Denver.
6. Rovos Rail, Southern Africa
Book now: From $1,621/person for 3-day/2-night Durban Safari package
Bush planes are fine but traveling by air-conditioned luxury train on routes that zigzag the southern third of the vast African continent has a strong slow-travel appeal. The unhurried schedule means time is factored in to stop at sidings for wildlife viewing and at vineyards for wine tastings, or in reserves for game drives. Various Rovos itineraries follow the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley or traverse the red deserts of Namibia.
Depending on which you choose (or which you create; the company will also plan custom trips), your trip can include golf courses, stays in luxury lodges or safari camps, or excursions around Victoria Falls. The packages run from 2-night trips to 14-night adventures (including a Copper Trail voyage, new for 2022, that traverses Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola).
Not only are the trips exciting, the train itself is pretty dreamy—its vintage passenger carriages were collected, restored, and upgraded with modern plumbing and air-conditioning (but also working windows). In addition to the private suites, the train’s public spaces include an observation car with sofas and an open balcony platform, lounge and club cars, and a dining car. Polished wood paneling, tufted leather chairs, picture windows, create a visual style that evokes a travel era when people packed formal wear and hats for different occasions. While you won’t really get a sense of the African lives and cultures you’re passing by in this luxury locomotive, you will never forget the ride.
>> Next: Epic Trips That Give Back