Want to travel but aren’t fond of flying? Staying stateside but don’t want to deal with traffic headaches? Not ready to hop on a cruise ship just yet? Well, I have the perfect alternative for you – train travel!
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jim Marini, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships from Yankee Leisure Group – which includes Amtrak Vacations, Yankee Vacations and Rail Bookers – when he joined me for one of my video sessions. Jim is the guru on everything train travel and has educated me on things that I didn’t remember or wasn’t aware of! He is my go-to for everything train related and I love to plan your trips with him and his team because they are amazing folks.
So, all aboard! It’s time to leave the station and head out into the wide open spaces of the good old USA and Canada!
Yankee Leisure Group
Yankee Leisure Group consists of three different brands:
Amtrak Vacations: They are the official tour operator for Amtrak here in the United States which consists of the continental USA domestic style vacations. And, again, if you don’t like to fly or maybe you don’t like to drive or you are simply looking for something different, they have packages all put together for you that vary in length – three days, five days, one week or two weeks long. And any and all of them can be customized as well.
Yankee Holidays: The difference between Amtrak Vacations and Yankee Holidays is really quite simple. Amtrak Vacations are by rail and Yankee Holidays are by road. And they too are within the US and also include Canada.
Rail Bookers: This division encompasses all of their Canadian, European and worldwide rail vacations including one destination in the United States.
The Amtrak rail system is vast and covers not only from the East Coast to the West Coast, but it also goes somewhat North and South as well. This gives you a great opportunity to really explore our country – to immerse yourself in it – and not have to worry about driving or flying or traffic or as Jim joked – take the track less traveled on! And what’s really cool is that there are over 500 Amtrak stations throughout the United States that you can start, stop or end your rail vacation at. Jim also said that one of the things that he always loves to share during his presentations was that last year alone just last year over 31 million people traveled on board Amtrak. Which in comparison – if Amtrak was an airline, it would actually be the fifth largest airline in the US!
Life On Board The Train
Luggage: First – did you know you’re allowed two pieces of luggage up to 50 fifty pounds each per person AND two carryon bags per person for free? The last time I checked, on most airlines there is a charge even for the first piece of luggage, unless your part of a certain elite status. And that’s what’s great about Amtrak Vacations – it cuts down on your costs because you don’t have to worry about your carry-on’s and your checked bags.
Seating: In Coach class you will find that you have a lot of space thanks to the fact that there are no middle seats on board the trains unlike airplanes. It is two extra-large seats on one side and two on the other side with lots of legroom in between. There is an outlet available at each seat to charge your iPhone, iPad or laptop and plenty of space above in the overhead for a carry-on bag – so very, very comfortable. But of course, when you do travel on board the train the real highlight is upgrading the private sleepers and per Jim when you do upgrade there’s lots of great things that come with it. Jim also noted that obviously with the world having changed a little bit from what we knew, there are some of those silver lining moments that have come out of it – and one of them is now when you board the train and you’ve upgraded to a sleeper, you can board separately – that’s never been offered before. And it doesn’t matter what category of sleeper you upgrade to – so if you don’t want to be in a big crowd or a long line consider upgrading! You will also get some toiletries, bottled water and coffee – all just little extras to make your trip that much more amazing. And when you upgrade to a sleeper you also have the option if you choose to take off your mask in the privacy of your own room – as opposed to when we fly – that mask has to be on at all times – so it kind of gives you a little bit of breathing room and it gives you a sense being in you’re in your own vehicle.
The most popular and most affordable sleeping category is a Roomette. Here you’ve got one bed on top and one on the bottom and that’s all part of the experience! Another option is the Bedroom option. The Bedroom actually gives you your own private vanity, your own bathroom and it’s a little bit bigger in size too. So, if you’re a family – say two adults and a small child – you can easily fit into this one. This is due to the fact that a small child can fit on the lower bunk bed because its actually one and a half times as wide as the top bunk. They also have adjoining Bedrooms on some trains, so if you’re traveling with extended family or maybe you’re a family of five, you can just open up the door in the middle and everyone can go back and forth. But be advised that these are very limited, and they aren’t available on all trains – so get your requests in early because with Jim’s help I can find you the trains if you need that type of accommodation. Note: If you or someone you are traveling with has any accessibility issues or mobility issues there are handicap accessible rooms available. Jim also mentioned another silver lining moment – when you upgrade to a sleeper you can order hot fresh items for breakfast, lunch or dinner and meals can now be delivered right to your own private sleeper – something that’s never been offered in the past with the exception of folks that were in handicap accessible rooms. And it doesn’t matter which sleeper – whether you’re in Roomette, a Bedroom or a Family Bedroom, you can have meals delivered right to your sleeper if you choose. And – by the way – meals are automatically included when you upgrade!
Glacier National Park: One thing that we as Americans really enjoy are national parks. There’s a lot of wellness behind it and there’s adventure and there’s just a mind reset when you go and you’re in nature because let’s face it – a lot of us live in crowded cities. And Jim agreed saying there’s two words he thinks he’s heard now more than ever in the travel industry – open spaces! And folks you’re going to have plenty of open spaces at all these beautiful national parks and one of Amtrak’s most popular is Glacier National Park in the beautiful state of Montana. Now something a lot of you may already be familiar with is that Glacier National Park – where there’s over one million acres – is only open four months of the year – June, July, August and September. So, if this is on your wish list, I can make reservations for you for 2022 because the beauty with any of the Amtrak trips we highlight is that you can book up to two years in advance. And for you guys who are looking to plan way ahead keep in mind that we have payment plan options, so that means that you get to pay as you go. And if you plan it far enough in advance, by the time everything is said and done, you’re all paid off! So, we can budget or as I like to say, we can do travel financial planning for you!
Another big plus is that all of Amtrak’s trips are flexible, independent style vacations and one great example of that is the Glacier National Park vacation. On one of the days, you actually have a full day guided tour with stops made along the way for sightseeing and pictures and lunch, but then on another day you can get a rental car – which I can help you arrange – and you can go sightseeing, hiking, fishing – whatever you want – and that’s the beauty of it. And it’s unlike a lot of other tour operators where it’s more regimented and structured every day and most days are spent on an escorted guided bus tour. But with Amtrak on certain days, you may have a full day guided tour or a half a day guided tour but then you can do what you want on other days.
And as for lodging – one thing that makes the US special and unique is not some of those unique lodges that you can stay at. For instance, in Glacier National Park the lodge Amtrak uses is located only about 207 steps away from the Amtrak station – that’s how close it is – you can actually walk to the lodge – or they have shuttles that can bring you to it as well. Then there are the types of cuisine experiences in the different destinations in the US that are also unique. In Glacier National Park they’re known for not only some of the local, iconic cuisine like bison, elk and some unique wildlife but they also have a great dessert called huckleberry pie which is a form of blueberry that’s iconic in the states of Montana and Idaho and a must try.
Grand Canyon National Park: One of the biggest and certainly most popular national parks in Amtrak’s itineraries is Grand Canyon National Park – and its open year round. This is a six day tour from Chicago where you get to travel on the Southwest Chief which is one of Amtrak’s iconic double decker superliner trains. And in case you’re wondering what a superliner train is it basically means they are the largest in the fleet and they have two levels. Fun Fact: All the trains from Chicago heading west and from the west coast back east to Chicago are superliners. One of the great things about double decker trains is if you’re on the top level you’re going to have these amazing views that you won’t have if you’re driving, because now, you’re elevated and you’re seeing the countryside and you don’t have to worry about who’s in front of you and there is no traffic. You also have the option to upgrade to sleepers which I highly recommend because that way you have privacy. As for bathrooms – it depends on which category of sleeper – but if you want your own private toilet, shower and vanity inside your room upgrade to a Bedroom. Or you can go with a little less expensive option and do a Roomette which has what they call private, yet shared, toilets and showers.
There are some great options for lodges here too including El Tovar Lodge, Yavapai Lodge, Maswik Lodge, Kachina Lodge and more. Many of these lodges will book up one to two years in advance and the reason why is there are only so many lodges you can choose from along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon – but I can get space inside those hard to get lodges when you travel through Book Here, Give Here!
Now the second part of your trip is on the Grand Canyon Railway, which is not part of the Amtrak system, however it’s a local authentic Wild West style train from Williams, Arizona into the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Here, if you upgrade to the Dome Car for a little bit more, you’ll have the big glass dome windows to take in the view. It’s only about a two hour train ride and but if you do upgrade you get two extra-large seats on one side and two extra-large seats on the other side as well as refreshments and snacks. They also have live entertainment so don’t be surprised if you see a little Wild West show on your way traveling to the Grand Canyon.
On this trip you will get the Grand Canyon Freedom Tour as well as some meals and hotel accommodations and again, because all their trips are all independent style vacations, any trip can be customized so if you want to add days or if you want to make additional stops along the way – I can help personalize and design that perfect trip for you. Plus, I know that this is on a lot of people’s bucket lists so if you wanted to do some holiday travel this is certainly a great opportunity or even in between the holidays. And if you wanted to add anything else outside of the Grand Canyon – perhaps Sedona or Scottsdale or even some wineries –we can totally add them onto your trip.
Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park: This is a great package folks and the beauty of this package is not every trip has to be round trip from the same city. For example, you can start in Chicago and end in Salt Lake City. And if you’re located in New York or Pennsylvania or Texas or anywhere else in the US and you’re wondering “well, how do I get to Chicago and then get back home from Salt Lake City” – I can make arrangements for you right from your local Amtrak station to bring you to and from this trip. Or I can book flights for you into Chicago and back home from Salt Lake City and make it one nice, easy package.
Fun Facts: Yellowstone National Park happens to be larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined and it’s also the world’s first national park – so lots of history here. This one is a little more of a seasonal national park, similar to Glacier National Park but a little bit longer season. Jim shared that the train you travel on – the California Zephyr – is his personal favorite. He added that if you want to talk about a train that literally slices in and out of the mountains – it’s the California Zephyr – especially when you travel through the states of Colorado and Utah. The mountainous views that you’re going to have are so refreshing and amazing. And the wildlife too! And if we have anyone who wants to get out for the holidays or maybe you want to go in the wintertime you can go to Yellowstone in the winter as it pretty much operates most of the year – typically May through September or October and then again in November and December.
And again – not only do you get your rail tickets, but you get sightseeing in both parks as well as a car rental and your accommodations. As for the car rental, with Yellowstone National Park unlike Glacier National Park or Grand Canyon National Park where the trains bring you right up into the park – it doesn’t do that at Yellowstone. With Yellowstone it’s about a four to five hour scenic drive from Salt Lake City as the train does not physically go there – that’s why we include the car rental for everyone.
Rail Bookers Vacations
And now we are moving on from Amtrak Vacations, which is all the continental USA rail vacations, to Rail Bookers which is all of the Canadian, European and worldwide rail vacations. However today it’s all about North America and that includes Alaska by land – as well as the Canadian Rockies.
Alaska Railroad: For travelers that want to go to Alaska but maybe they’re not ready to go on a cruise – you can do it by rail. They run two major train routes via Alaska Railroad which is the iconic train in Alaska and not part of the Amtrak system within the continental US. It is its own unique style train – almost like the Grand Canyon Railway is in the Grand Canyon. This train only operates during the day – so there is no overnight travel – and it runs two major iconic routes. One is from Anchorage down to Seward and the other is from Anchorage north up into Denali and then farther north up into Fairbanks. The great part is that I can book everything for you including your flights into either Fairbanks or Anchorage, so you get to decide. You can even cover all of Alaska if you want and I can make you some amazing itineraries based on what you want to see!
So, on all of these packages the pricing is based on Adventure Class which is the main seating on board the train just like Coach Class is on board any of the Amtrak Vacation packages. But Jim highly suggests you consider upgrading. And he noted that the one thing he sees as a trend now more than ever – because so many folks have not had a chance to travel through no fault of their own – is that many people are going bigger. So, if you are going bigger consider upgrading to the Goldstar Service – just like the Dome Car on the Grand Canyon Railway this has the big glass dome windows. In addition, meals are automatically included on board the train and you have your own private tour guide as you travel from one great location to another. You also have your own private outdoor viewing platform where two complimentary drinks are included as well – so for a little bit more you’ll get that much more of an experience, and he assures us that its worth every penny extra.
As for the highlights of the trip – you’ve got a couple of nights in Denali, you have day trips to Resurrection Bay from Seward and then there is Anchorage and the ability to see the Northern Lights. One of the things you definitely are not going to be disappointed in is Denali National Park – with over six million acres – if you want open spaces here you go! And with Rail Riders you get an in depth tour. You’ll stay in Denali Cabins which is only about 46 cabins and is located about eight miles from the entrance of the park. You can stay as long as you like – two nights, three nights, four nights or more – it can all be modified or personalized just for you. And Jim said that he has heard this from many of his travel partners that their clients report back that they even made them a box lunch when they stayed there to take out for the day. Some of folks went hiking, some went fishing, some had a car rental – again – I can handle everything – you can even go gold mining! And you could use this as your home base and get that car rental and just kind of go. There’s just so much stuff and the things that you may think that “oh I was only going to see on a cruise” – well you’re going to be able to see what you would on a cruise and on land. You’re really going to be able to get in there and you’re going to have the ability to actually mingle with the locals and have conversations with them and buy locally. And of course, cruises are fantastic but if you really want a more in depth view and you want to spend more days and nights in beautiful Alaska then this is a great package to consider. Also keep in mind that if you wanted to modify any of these packages that can be done quite easily whereas on a cruise you’re really married to your itinerary as cruises are more structured. And of course, they do offer some great tours throughout the day. Some of you may want to hop on a float plane if you’re a little more adventurous – you get to decide – but lots to see and do! And again – being an independent style vacation on certain days you may have a half a day tour with a local tour guide on the boat of Resurrection Bay but then the other half of the day is at leisure.
VIA Rail: Once those borders open many of you are going to want to travel north of the border and see all that Canada has to offer and one great way to do that is with the Ultimate Canadian Rockies Westbound Package. This one is on VIA Rail which is the national train of Canada and if we compare it with Amtrak, it is probably going to be more of a four star on a scale of one to five whereas the Amtrak will be more of a three and a half star. Now we have some great boutique properties throughout the United States as well as Canada – but what makes this trip special is that in the beautiful Canadian Rockies you can stay at some of those iconic five star lodges such as Jasper Park Lodge and Banff Springs Hotel. These are some of the most luxurious hotels in the world let alone right over the border in Canada and you get to stay at those if you choose.
As for accommodations, a cabin for two on VIA Rail is not much different than Amtrak except that in addition to your beds and you also have seats. One thing that makes VIA Rail unique is they also have cabins for one – so for any of you that are solo or single travelers VIA has you covered – meaning you never have to share or have to buy out that cabin. VIA also has what is called the Prestige level where you can get a Prestige Class Cabin – which you could buy out as a solo traveler should you wish, and you’ll have quite a bit of space all to yourself. And if any of you have ever heard or dreamed of Rocky Mountaineer – which is one of the iconic trains in Western Canada – Jim says is this is the most shoulder to shoulder experience – where it’s that upscale experience. You only typically fit two people in a Prestige Class Cabin – it’s a queen size lower bed – there are bunk beds – so you don’t have to worry about being in a bunk bed. You also get your own private butler, and the dining is super amazing because in Canada you have amazing dining. Jim also added that what he loves about VIA Rail in particular is the meals as the cuisine reflects the region that you’re traveling through. So, when you’re traveling through the prairies that’s going to be more lamb and some of the local iconic wildlife style food but when you’re in Vancouver it’s going to be more of a seafood flare. And you can eat those yummy meals in any available dining area, or you can have meals delivered to your room if you choose.
Typically, only service animals are allowed, and you just have to let me know and I’ll make those arrangements with Amtrak ahead of time.
Safety (In The Age of COVID-19)
Jim also gave us important update on how Amtrak is maintaining a safe environment in these days and times. As of this writing, facial coverings are required on board the trains, just like on an airplane. However, you actually have the ability to take off your mask if you choose when you upgrade to a private sleeper which we highly recommend it – especially if you’re traveling overnight on board a train. Then of course they are cleaning and sanitizing all the handles, the doorknobs, the insides and the outsides of the trains. They even have a state of the art air filtration system that every four to five minutes brings in air from the outside and takes the air from the inside and pushes it outside so it’s a constant flow of fresh air at all times. They also have social distancing posters and floor stickers all around the stations and on the trains and they’ve gone cashless so you can use your credit cards on board or at the station.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing rail travel across the US is open to domestic travelers. As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers make sure they are fully vaccinated before traveling to Canada and that unvaccinated travelers should avoid nonessential travel to Canada.
You guys here is an amazing opportunity! If you haven’t thought about giving rail a try, I highly suggest it. When I lived in Europe I traveled all throughout via rail, and it was one of the most amazing experiences. We can do it here too, so I’d love to be able to set that up for you guys and of course Jim and his team are standing by with answers for all our questions. And don’t forget we can modify or customize any trip – whether you’ll looking for a weekend getaway or a one to two weeklong trip – anywhere in the US or Canada. And hey maybe you were traveling somewhere internationally or maybe you were even booked originally on a cruise but now you want to stay closer to home and you want to see more of your own backyard. Maybe some of these parks are on your bucket list – you can do it all in one trip and you don’t have to worry about driving. Plus, you’re getting meals in a beautiful restaurant, you’re getting all your accommodations, amazing sightseeing – it’s just an awesome way to travel!
For more details on Amtrak Vacations and Rail Bookers, their routes, their price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!