How to plan your 1st luxury train trip

The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a rare opportunity to reevaluate the way we travel, and many people have vowed to prioritize slower, more sustainable trips. So, it should come as no surprise that some travelers are looking to train travel as a way to achieve these goals, especially as planes emit six times as much carbon dioxide per passenger mile as trains, according to Time magazine.

However, it’s not only efficient high-speed rail networks in major European cities that are gaining traction. Indulgent luxury train travel is growing in popularity as well.

Luxury trains, such as the famed Orient Express, offer an altogether different style of travel, transporting passengers not only from point A to point B but also bringing them back in time to a more romantic era. On luxury trains, it’s just as much about the journey as the destination, with cocktails in the bar car and fine dining in the restaurant car, comfortable (if compact) accommodations and excursions that let you hop off and delve deeper into the area.

Sound like the kind of trip you’d like to take? Here’s everything you need to know about how to plan your first luxury train trip.

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Choose your destination

There are many luxury train routes around the world, but when you think about luxury train travel, the first journey that comes to mind is probably the Orient Express. Originally developed by a Belgian businessman, the Orient Express made its inaugural run in 1883 and — despite interruptions during World War I and World War II — continued to ferry passengers between Paris and Istanbul until 1977. A version of the train called the Venice Simplon Orient Express was revived in 1982 and is now operated by Belmond, which also runs luxury train routes in Asia, Peru and the United Kingdom.

“The Orient Express going from Venice to Paris is so mystical because you have so many books, so many stories written about that train and that passage that it just pulls you even more to that place,” Ana Checa, a luxury travel advisor with Embark Beyond, told TPG.

She recommends a voyage on the Venice Simplon Orient Express or Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express to clients who not only want to see new landscapes but also to travel back in time to the 1920s. The trains are outfitted with sumptuous fabrics, wood marquetry, antiques and lamps by Lalique and Baccarat. Passengers savor sumptuous multicourse meals in the dining cars and sip martinis while being serenaded by pianists in the bar car.

Belmond may have some competition soon, though.

Accor recently announced that it will launch its own version of the Orient Express in 2024. The train will feature 17 cars from the original Orient Express that date back to the 1920s and 1930s.

Of course, Europe is far from the only great destination for luxury train travel. South Africa-based Rovos Rail has been operating luxury train trips aboard restored vintage trains in southern Africa for more than 30 years. Itineraries range from a two-night route between Pretoria and Durban in South Africa, which includes safari game drives in Nambiti Private Game Reserve and Spionkop Dam and Nature Reserve, to an epic 15-day journey from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which features game drives, a tour of the Kimberley Mine Museum and a visit to Victoria Falls.

Belmond’s Hiram Bingham luxury trip in Machu Picchu. RICHARD JAMES TAYLOR/BELMOND

If you harbor fantasies of Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited,” you might want to book a ticket aboard the Maharajas’ Express, one of India’s premier luxury trains. It has itineraries lasting four to seven days that include excursions to the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, a tiger safari in Ranthambore National Park, the Amber Fort in Jaipur and cultural activities such as dance performances and a visit to a silk weaving center in Varanasi.

Perhaps the best way to experience the rugged Australian Outback is aboard The Ghan, which traverses the country from Darwin to Adelaide. Over the course of four days, the train stops in Alice Springs for a barbecue dinner under the stars at the historic Telegraph Station, the opal mining town of Coober Pedy and Nitmiluk Gorge to see natural wonders and experience Indigenous culture. There’s even an option to upgrade to a scenic flight over Uluru. As a bonus, you can earn Qantas points for your trip.

A bit closer to home, the Rocky Mountaineer is the world’s largest privately owned luxury tourist train. One of its special features is the glass dome design, which offers spectacular views in every direction — and the scenery is breathtaking. The train has a handful of routes that pass through the Rocky Mountains and the wild Pacific Northwest, with itineraries from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Banff or Jasper, Alberta. The train also has a route in the U.S. that connects Moab, Utah, to Denver.

The most luxurious train of all might be the Seven Stars in Kyushu. Traversing the Japanese island of Kyushu, the train connects seven prefectures across 3,000 kilometers (more than 1,800 miles). It’s a deep dive into Japanese culture, with visits to a traditional pottery village, soaks in onsens and a stay in a ryokan. Expect luxurious accommodations, attentive service and delicious cuisine on board.

Book your flights

Before you book a multi-city flight, consider booking two separate one-way flights arriving at the starting point and departing from the ending point of the train’s route. It’s a good idea to arrive at least 24 hours before the train will depart, especially if you’re not flying nonstop, in case your flight gets delayed. If you miss the train’s embarkation point, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to meet up with it farther down the line.

Reserve the train

Generally speaking, you can book directly with the company running the train, but if you’re planning a more complicated trip, you may want to enlist the help of a travel advisor like Checa. A good travel advisor can help you choose the right route, book flights and plan tours and excursions before, during and after the train trip.

As for when to book, it’s important to plan this kind of trip fairly far in advance.

“I would recommend looking into it at least six months before because there are not that many spaces on the trains,” Checa said. “They might have a cancellation and have an open space, but most of the time they fill up pretty soon.”

Prices range quite drastically from around $1,000 to upwards of $15,000, depending on the route, length of the itinerary and accommodations you book. Most luxury sleeper trains have basic Pullman carriages with folding beds, but on many trains, you can upgrade to a more spacious suite that comes with a full bed and perks like butler service.

Consider excursions

An excursion with Robos Rail in Oudtshoorn, South Africa. ROVOS RAIL

Most of the luxury trains mentioned above have excursions built into their itineraries, so you don’t have to worry about researching what to do along the route. You might get to choose from a few options, depending on your interests, physical stamina or how adventurous you’re feeling.

“You could stay on the train, you could go visit a little village, you could go hiking and come back, you could do many activities with different levels of extremeness,” Checa said, explaining her experience aboard Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express.

In my experience aboard the Belmond Simplon Orient Express from Venice, Italy, to Paris, however, there were no excursions; passengers only had a couple of brief stops where they could get out and stretch their legs.

On other trains, like the Seven Stars in Kyushu, you might have an excursion to visit a temple, a traditional pottery studio visit that lasts a few hours or even an overnight stay at a ryokan before getting back on the train the next morning.

Plan what to pack

Great Southern Gold Service Cabin. COURTESY OF JOURNEY BEYOND

Packing for a luxury train trip is not without its challenges. It’s important to pack light since you likely won’t have a lot of storage space, but in most cases, you need both casual daytime clothes and more formal evening wear. Aboard the Venice Simplon Orient Express, in particular, guests love to go all-out when dressing for dinner, perhaps even donning vintage clothes to really embrace the 1920s glamour.

“Belmond actually tells you everything you need to bring, but I would say nowadays you really have to pack light,” Checa explained. “You have to dress up for dinner; you can’t go in with sneakers and shorts. It makes you feel like you’re in a special place.”

Since you can’t count on being able to do laundry, pack a few versatile outfits in neutral colors such as black, white, beige and gray and switch up your accessories. That might mean bringing a few different scarves and items of jewelry or an assortment of different ties (or bow ties), pocket scarves and the like. You can also save space by wearing the same comfortable shoes every day and bringing just one pair of elegant shoes for the evenings.

Bottom line

A luxury train trip is a fun and sustainable way to immerse yourself in beautiful destinations around the world, from the Pacific Northwest to Southeast Asia. These trains are designed to immerse guests in their surroundings and often bring them back in time to the heyday of train travel.

“It’s fun because you get to see so many places and you get to experience the places through the window, literally,” Checa said. “It’s going at a pace that you’re enjoying the views and you don’t have to pack and unpack.”