Let the train take the strain – 10 amazing holidays by rail

Looking for an extraordinary travel experience in 2024? How about riding the rails in some of the world’s most incredible destinations?

Whether you’re speeding like a bullet in Japan, experiencing the vast Australian Outback or scaling the world’s steepest railway in Switzerland – there’s a rail adventure to suit you.

With help from the experts at Saga Travel we’ve collected 10 of the most spectacular, scenic, and luxurious train journeys to conjure up some inspiration for your next trip.

From comfortable sleeper cabins and wood-panelled observation cars to chef-cooked meals in fine dining carriages and sweet cups of masala chai in the aisle, if you’re looking to rekindle the romance of rail, here’s where you climb aboard.

train tracks going off into the distance across an arid landscape with a red and purple sunset.Credit: Shutterstock /tbate54

1. Riding the Rocky Mountain railroad

Rocky Mountain rail adventures in North America

There’s no finer way to explore the North American Rockies than via the Rocky Mountaineer. Featuring four different routes – three in Canada and one in the USA – this is your chance to experience spectacular mountain scenery from decadent dining cars and glass-domed carriages.

As all travelling is undertaken during the day, you won’t miss a thing. And, thanks to the option of overnight accommodation in comfortable hotels, you’ll get the best of both worlds on and off the train.

Riding the Rocky Mountaineer allows you to escape into a world of pine forested slopes and red rock canyons. Canadian rail routes run between Vancouver and the alpine resorts of Banff and Jasper. The American line takes you to and from the capital of Colorado, Denver, by way of Moab in Utah.

As Rocky Mountaineer journeys take place over two or three days, you’re free to continue your travels after getting some miles under your belt. Perhaps the bright lights of Vegas beckon, or the national parks of Zion and Bruce Canyon. In Canada you could visit Banff or Jasper national parks or take a cruise along Alaska’s captivating coastline.

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2. An Australian outback rail adventure

Unforgettable Outback adventures onboard The Ghan

Travelling in Australia by train is a phenomenal experience, especially if you’re onboard The Ghan. This legendary train service has been operating between Adelaide – Alice Springs – Darwin since 1878. Although things have stepped up a bit in terms of luxury and home comforts, the romance of riding the rails across the whole of Australia never gets old.

Passengers are treated to first-class facilities with twin en suite cabins, an all-inclusive restaurant and a comfy lounge car. You can set off on a one-night adventure from Alice Springs to Adelaide or a two-night experience from Adelaide to Darwin or vice versa. It’s an opportunity to witness the verdant wine regions and rolling green pastures of South Australia morph into, or from, the rugged red rocks and dusty desert-like plains of the Outback.

You’ll also get the chance to disembark and watch the sunrise from the isolated outpost of Marla as well as enjoying off-road cycling alongside the Todd River and walking tours around Standley Chasm or Simpsons Gap, close to Alice Springs.

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3. South African stylish travel

See South Africa in Edwardian-era style with Rovos Rail

If you’ve got plans to see the sights of South Africa, Rovos Rail journeys let you do so in style. These refurbished Edwardian-era trains offer a truly unforgettable experience with carpets, couches and armchairs in the observation and lounge cars ensuring the ultimate in train travel comfort. This is not just a rail ride from A to B, it’s an opportunity to settle into your own private Pullman sleeper suite and tuck into a four-course meal and fine South African wines in a stately wood-panelled dining car.

Four different Rovos Rail routes allow you to experience South Africa from Cape Town to Pretoria and discover the delights of Durban and the Indian Ocean. This means Western Cape winelands, Highveld grasslands, Drakensberg Mountain escarpments and First Boer War battlegrounds are all within reach over the course of a four-day train trip. You can also plan a holiday to include more time in Cape Town or a Big Five safari in a private game reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

From the city suburbs and desert plains of the Karoo desert to the Northern Cape’s diamond mines and historic gold rush settlements, this is your chance to have your very own South African adventure.

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4. Experience silent speed on the Bullet Train

Smart train travel on Japan’s Shinkansen

Train travel in Japan is all about the sleek and speedy Shinkansen aka: the Bullet Train. This is one of the world’s most iconic modes of transport with nine routes connecting the Japanese capital, Tokyo, with the rest of Honshu Island. It’s a convenient and comfortable way to head to Hiroshima or add Osaka, Kyoto, and Kanazawa to your holiday itinerary.

Step onboard the Shinkansen and you’ll be treated to complimentary wi-fi and contemporary airplane-like seats. Although there isn’t a dining car onboard there are plenty of opportunities to buy a bento box at a train station and savour bite-sized sushi as you reach speeds up to 320kmph (199mph). The only way you’d know the speed you’re travelling is to watch the scenery whizzing by your window. The whole process is almost silent which adds to the relaxed ambience of watching Mount Fuji on the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka.

One of the best ways to make the most of the Bullet Train is to buy a Japan Rail Pass. This allows you unlimited access to all nine rail lines so you can travel around the country and stay in city hotels and rural ryokan inns. You can even leave your main luggage at your Tokyo hotel and just take a small bag into the Hida Mountains for a night amongst the chestnut trees and steaming onsen baths.

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5. Go overland across Victoria, Australia

Make the most of Melbourne to Adelaide onboard The Overland

If you’ve got plans to travel from the Victoria state capital, Melbourne, to South Australia’s equivalent, Adelaide, there’s only one way to do it in style. The Overland train has been aiding travellers on their interstate journeys for well over a century, making it a must-experience mode of transport for visitors and locals alike.

Step onboard and you’ll discover spacious reclining seats from where to watch an ever-changing scenic backdrop trundle past your window. The route captures everything from Melbourne’s surfer suburbs and Victoria’s Central Highlands to the sandstone escarpments of Grampians National Park and the sun-kissed wine estates on the outskirts of Adelaide.

It’s a really immersive day trip with all-inclusive dining options and a fully licensed café ensuring sustenance as well as superb scenery, from start to finish.

6. Speed through New Zealand’s South Island

Take off into New Zealand’s Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine route

Any travellers lucky enough to find themselves in Christchurch, New Zealand, should consider a trip on the TranzAlpine train as it journeys through the Southern Alps to Arthur’s Pass. Often ranked within the world’s top ten railway routes, this five-hour journey lets you embrace South Island’s scenery from the most comfortable of angles.

It’s an opportunity to witness the sharp river canyons and mountain plateau as well as the expansive rolling hillsides of the Canterbury Plains. It’s a magical experience with views over the winding Waimakariri and Broken rivers made all the more remarkable thanks to the feats of engineering within the rail route’s tunnels and gravity-defying viaducts.

Onboard, passengers are treated to a selection of seasonal dishes served at their seat. They also have the chance to witness the grandeur of the mountains, lakes, and rivers from the open-air viewing carriage. If you’re looking for a selfie with a snow-capped backdrop, this is the way to do it.

As this TranzAlpine Rail journey is one way, it provides the perfect chance to cross from coast to coast as part of a tour of New Zealand. Alternatively, if you’re staying in Christchurch, you can undertake the train trip to Arthur’s Pass National Park and disembark for a guided hike before returning to Christchurch by road via the sub-alpine Porter’s Pass and the Canterbury Plains.

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7. An alpine train adventure

Hit the heights on the Bernina Express from Switzerland to Italy

If you’ve got a head for heights, the Bernina Express is up there with the best of them, quite literally. Operating on Europe’s highest railway tracks and the world’s steepest, the spectacular rail journey from Davos in the Swiss Alps to Tirano in Italy is pure and simple glacial joy. You’ll experience life at 2,253m with 55 tunnels and 196 bridges creating a real-life model railway setting complete with snow-covered mountain peaks and forested river gorges.

The journey is packed full of highlights including the Landwasser Viaduct, Lago Bianco, and Alp Grüm, but the train itself is just as appealing. Step onboard and you’ll find quality modern seating as well as access to complimentary wi-fi and informative audio commentary. There’s also an onboard food and drinks menu with items served at your seat by friendly hosts.

If you’re looking for a day trip option from Davos, you’ll be able to enjoy the whole experience onboard the train before returning to the alpine resort town by coach in the evening.

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8. Coast to coast by train across Australia

Cut across Australia from Sydney to Perth on The Indian Pacific

Australia’s as extensive as it’s exciting and packing everything into one trip can be exhausting. That said, there is one way you can see the sights of Sydney, Adelaide’s wine regions and the Indian Ocean beaches of Perth, in just four days. The Indian Pacific train travels overland from coast to coast to ensure travellers get to see all of Australia’s majestic landscapes in comfort and style.

Passengers are treated to an all-inclusive journey with cooked breakfasts, two-course lunches, and three-course evening meals, served in the dining car. Barista-made hot drinks and chilled wines are also served in the sociable setting of the lounge car. It’s the place to make a few new friends as you watch the foothills of the Southern Flinders Ranges and the seemingly endless semi-arid Nullarbor Plain.

En suite twin sleeper cabins provide plenty of privacy and a place to rest and relax at night and during the day. Beds convert into three-seater lounges so you can experience Australia unfolding from the comfort of your cabin, with included audio commentary.

Aside from the romance of riding the rails across Australia, Indian Pacific journeys also include off-train experiences. This is where you’ll leave the train for a lunchtime walk in the Blue Mountains, a guided tour around Adelaide and trips to the ghost town of Cook and a gold rush era mine in Kalgoorlie. It’s a brilliant way to become immersed in the landscapes and learn more about the history of each area you’re travelling through.

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9. The highlights of Northern India

Taj Mahal to the Mother Ganges by overnight sleeper train

There’s no better way to experience the highlights of Northern India than by train. Riding the rails from Agra to Varanasi, for instance, has all the makings of an unforgettable trip with the Taj Mahal and ghats of the Ganges bookending a night onboard. Trains are clean and affordable with varying degrees of carriage depending on how comfortable or authentic you like your journey.

Travelling by train in India is a great way to firm up friendships or meet fellow passengers if you’re travelling on your own. It’s a chance to watch farmland, roadside towns and life roll past your window and peer out at old fashioned stations, packed full of people. You might also be lucky enough to be offered a homemade treat or two as the journey progresses across the rural landscapes of Uttar Pradesh.

Sleeping compartments are air-conditioned and usually feature a privacy curtain pulled across the aisle. Upper bunk beds fold down from the wall of the cabin and fold back up during the day. Lower bunks serve as somewhere to sit when you’re not sleeping. Trains in India are patrolled at night by the onboard conductor who makes sure everyone’s safe and well. In the morning and throughout the day and night, you’ll also find chai wallahs coming around offering sweet cups of milky tea. You’ll no doubt get used to their calls for customers as you stop at a station for any length of time.

Food is also served at stations throughout India. You can purchase snacks at a platform kiosk or through an open window when the train’s stopped or you can pick up a thali box before you set off.

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10. Coastline and countryside in Queensland

Queensland to South Australia on The Great Southern

Taking your time to soak up the scenery is what train travel in Australia’s all about. That’s why the Great Southern route from Brisbane to Adelaide works so well. It’s an opportunity to become enveloped in the captivating coastline and countryside of the south-eastern states on an all-inclusive four-day adventure.

Not only do passengers get to see the sights from their en suite twin sleeper cabin and the communal lounge car but they’ll also be invited to step off the train for included excursions. This is where you can enjoy a morning in New South Wales’s seaside city, Coffs Harbour, and spend the day in the Australian capital, Canberra, as part of the same trip. Not only that, but passengers also get to visit Halls Gap in the Grampians National Park before returning to the train in time for their evening meal in the dining car.

Think of the Great Southern like a luxury cruise experience by train. Chef-cooked cuisine and barista-created coffees are all included as well as the chance to chat to like-minded travellers. And there’s nowhere better than the privacy of your comfortable cabin when you need to prepare for the Hunter Valley wine estates or making the most of Melbourne.

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Written by Chris Owen he/him