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The White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Alaska (Photo: Rocky Grimes/Shutterstock.com)

Top 13 Train Vacations To Take Before or After Your Cruise

The White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Alaska (Photo: Rocky Grimes/Shutterstock.com)
Contributor
Sara Macefield
Contributor
Carolina Pirola

Last updated
Jul 27, 2023

Read time
10 min read

Cruise holidays don’t always have to start and end at the port. Tag a train vacation onto your cruise trip, and you have a rail-cruise holiday, which promises to transport you back to the golden age of travel.

So-called "rail-sail packages" allow cruise passengers to add an extra special something to their voyage and reach new horizons. Instead of simply transporting travelers from A to B, the train journey becomes a focal point of the holiday, and you can take your pick from the surprising range of rail vacations that can be twinned with cruises to stunning effect.

Here is our selection of the 13 best combinations of cruise trips and train vacations.

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1. Train Vacations to The Rugged Edge of North America: Rocky Mountaineer and Alaska Cruise

View from the Rocky Mountaineer Train (Photo: Christina Janansky/Cruise Critic)

It's said to be the most popular rail/cruise combination for Brits, and it's easy to see why as this trip combines two of North America's great wildernesses: the rugged Rocky Mountains and the icy wilderness of Alaska.

Most travelers catch the Rocky Mountaineer train, boarding at the mountain towns of Jasper or Banff for the four-day journey across the spine of Canada to either Vancouver or Seattle before joining their cruise ship for a sailing into the heart of Alaska.

Cruises along Alaska's Inside Passage showcase this remote region's stunning backdrop, from mighty glaciers and dramatic terrain to the Gold Rush-era history of the Yukon and Russian heritage around Sitka. Of course, you can do it the other way around and save the rail vacation until after your voyage.

High points: Awe-inspiring scenery and the chance to spot bears and whales in their natural habitat.

2. A Train Vacation Through Ecuador’s Highest Mountains: Trans-Andean Railway and Galapagos Cruise

La Pinta in the Galapagos ( Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

A wonderful rail-sail combo, this historic railway line that runs along the roof of Ecuador through the Andes Mountains was only restored in 2013, following a multi-million pound project that breathed new life into one of the world's most spectacular railway trips.

It stretches from Ecuador's capital Quito, connecting the Andean uplands where it rises to nearly 10,000 ft, to the Pacific Coast and the port town of Guayaquil, departure point for cruises to the Galapagos Islands. Regarded as a triumph of engineering, it originally opened in 1908, but had fallen into disrepair.

Passengers who now join the four-day railway trips travel through stunning mountainous terrain by steam train down Devil's Nose, a 262-foot cliff-face leading to the coastal plain.

From Guayaquil, travelers can sail or fly to the Galapagos Islands, the legendary archipelago famous for its rich wildlife, with several indigenous species and animals that have no fear of humans.

A number of small cruise lines offer sailings that range from a few days to two weeks and visit several islands, each one known for particular wildlife species.

High points: Unforgettable scenery, rich Ecuadorian culture and unique wildlife encounters.

Notet that several sections of the railway line are currently under construction. Train service is expected to resume later in 2023.

3. A Rail Vacation in Style: Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Mediterranean Cruise

This has to be possibly the most famous rail/cruise trips. It combines an unforgettable journey through the heart of Europe aboard, arguably, the world's most famous train -- the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) -- with a cruise that allows you to visit the romantic bellowers and palazzi of Venice.

Start your vacation by railway in style from London's Victoria Station aboard the Belmond British Pullman. After traveling through the Channel Tunnel, climb aboard the restored Art Deco carriages of the VSOE in France for the picturesque overnight journey through the Alps to Venice.

From here, the delights of the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts await, to be explored on the numerous ships that sail from different locations around the Renaissance city. Alternatively, take the VSOE as a fitting finale to your cruise trip as it follows the northwards route back to London.

High points: Reliving the glamor of the golden age of rail travel and exploring some of Europe’s top cultural gems

4. Train Vacations in the USA: Memphis-New Orleans Train and Caribbean Cruise

New Orleans (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)

America's railroads lend themselves to pairings with countless cruise trips and rail departures, and this particular route showcases the heritage of the country's Deep South.

Starting in Memphis, the city linked inextricably with Elvis Presley and the growth of the Civil Rights movement, the nine-hour Amtrak train route passes through Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta region into Louisiana.

There, the houses take on a more Gallic slant, and the train rolls past the bayous and swamps this state is known for. You may even spot basking alligators and pelicans during your railway trip.

And then it's New Orleans, a city as famous for its French ambience as much as its musical vibe as the home of jazz. The location of the "Big Easy" on the banks of the Mississippi River makes it an ideal departure point for cruise trips to the Caribbean, with stops at islands including Jamaica and Grand Cayman.

High points: Musical heritage, American history and tropical hotspots.

5. Train Vacations to the Arctic Circle: Oslo to Bergen by Train and Norwegian Cruise

Ride the rails across the "Roof of Norway" on the famous Bergen Line to experience one of the most hair-raising cruise and train vacations. It isn't just one of the world's greatest train journeys; it is also the highest line in Scandinavia, climbing across the snowy Hardangervidda mountain plateau on a 306-mile route between Oslo and Bergen.

En route it stops at Finse, which at 4,000-feet, is Northern Europe's highest mainline station. The 7.5-hour journey can easily be combined with Hurtigruten sailings from Bergen that follow Norway's coastline northwards into the Arctic Circle, with stops including Alesund, Trondheim and the Lofoten Islands.

High points: Spectacular mountainous terrain, breath-taking fjords and bountiful sea life.

6. A Coast-to-Coast Train Vacation and Transatlantic Crossing to Britain

Travel across the breadth of America on a coast-to-coast rail vacation from San Francisco to New York that lifts the curtain on America's heartlands and ends with a cruise trip across the Atlantic.

The 2,500-mile train journey takes passengers through the stark beauty of the Rocky Mountains and vastness of the Kansas plains, passing through Salt Lake City, Denver and Kansas before rolling into Chicago's Union Station on the first two-night leg.

Swap trains for the final overnight trip through Indiana and Ohio, skirting the Great Lakes before reaching Buffalo and then New York City. Travelers can spend a few nights here or head straight to the Brooklyn cruise port to catch Cunard's Queen Mary 2 for the seven-night transatlantic crossing to Southampton.

Alternatively, you can do this in reverse, sailing to New York and leaving your train holidays to the West Coast for the end.

High points: The vastness of America's hinterland, top cities and iconic transatlantic crossing.

7. High-Speed Train Vacation in Spain and Transatlantic or Mediterranean Cruise

Spain’s high-speed (AVE) train network makes it easy to hit some of the country’s top destinations in a relatively short time either before or after your cruise trip. Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, Toledo, Valencia and Malaga -- along with a host of other smaller cities -- are all connected via AVE and well worth a visit.

Madrid is the central point of all AVE trains, creating a star-shaped high-speed train network that gets you anywhere within two to three hours from the capital. Hence, the most time-efficient option for those who want to start with their train vacation would be to make Madrid their hub before traveling to the coast for the cruise leg of the trip.

Those looking to leave the rail vacation for the end of their holidays should disembark in either Valencia or Barcelona before traveling to Madrid, and from there on to other destinations by train.

High points: Cultural and gastronomic diversity, rich history.

8. UK-Europe Vacation by Railway: Eurostar Across the Chunnel and River Cruises

Eurostar Train (Photo: Baloncici/Shutterstock)

For travelers who like the ease of taking the train and avoiding flights, catching Eurostar opens up a host of cruise options.

While dedicated rail-lovers can negotiate their way across Europe to sail from Mediterranean ports, some of the most popular and convenient rail/cruise combinations involve river voyages. The quickest and easiest pairing with Eurostar are Seine itineraries, which start and end in Paris, sailing through Normandy and visiting Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny en route.

Another French spot within easy reach of Paris is Bordeaux, where cruises along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers provide a fitting taste of this rich wine region.

Beyond that, travelers can venture further on Europe’s railways, via major inter-changes at Lille and Brussels, in addition to Paris, to take river cruises along other continental waterways such as the Rhine and the Danube.

High points: The cultural and historical riches of Europe’s most famous cities.

9. High-end Rail Vacation Aboard the Belmond Royal Scotsman, Plus Hebridean Cruise

This rail-cruise combination explores the Highlands and islands of Scotland in typically traditional and upscale fashion, starting with one of Britain's most iconic trains.

This is evident from the moment passengers are piped aboard the stately Royal Scotsman train at Edinburgh's Waverley Station for a two-, three- or four-night journey into the heart of the Scottish Highlands, visiting whisky distilleries, country houses, castles and gardens.

It is followed by a voyage on the upmarket Hebridean Princess ship -- chartered by Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday -- on sailings to the Inner and Outer Hebrides, visiting islands such as Lewis, Skye, Stornoway and St. Kilda.

High points: Scottish traditions, Highland heritage and unspoilt scenery.

10. Pan-European Railway Vacation and Baltic Cruise Trip

Europe’s extensive railway network and lack of lengthy border controls allow travelers to move easily between countries. Whether you're looking to make the most of your time visiting every corner of a single country or hoping to explore as much as possible, the Interrail/Eurail train pass is the way to go for an inexpensive, convenient train vacation in Europe.

Passes range from one-country options to global tickets that allow travelers to hit up to 33 countries for a flat rate. Most high-speed train tickets and night trains require an additional fee, but all other trains are included in every pass.

While it is possible to cruise the Baltic Sea from a number of northern European ports, the itinerary from Amsterdam is considered one of the better options. Due to the city’s central location in the region, cruisers are able to see more and have fewer sea days than if they were to embark in, say, Southampton.

Most Baltic cruises include ports of call such as Tallinn, Stockholm, Oslo, Rotterdam and Copenhagen. Some also offer day trips to Helsinki from Tallinn.

High points: Flexible travel, unique architecture, rich culture.

11. Rail Vacation Aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express and Asia Cruise

Eastern & Oriental Express train (Photo: nitinut380/Shutterstock)

The sister of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers similarly high standards as it travels between the tropical terrain of Bangkok and Singapore, and arguably a more exotic rail/sail experience.

The three-night railway trip from the Thai capital takes passengers through paddy fields and past grazing water buffalo before stopping at the River Kwai, scene of the notorious wartime Death Railway.

It continues through Malaysia's tropical hinterland, stopping at Butterworth for a visit to Penang Island before reaching Singapore. The city-state is a popular starting and finishing point for Asia cruises, making the train ride an easy option to slot on to sailings.

Many ships departing Singapore offer cruise trips along the coast of Thailand and Vietnam, while longer voyages sail southwards to Indonesia and onwards to Australia.

High points: An evocative taste of the tropical hinterland, rich history and coastal beauty.

Note that The Belmond Eastern & Oriental Express is currently not operating. Service is expected to resume in late 2023.

12. Pride of Africa Train Vacation and Cruise

This cruise and rail vacation means travel through some of Africa's most compelling landscapes on the Pride of Africa train that transports passengers back to its 1920s heyday and the halcyon age of rail travel. Passengers can relax in the teak-finished restored Pullman-style carriages on various routes across the southern part of the continent.

The journeys between Pretoria and Cape Town, Dar es Salaam and Namibia showcase the region's national parks and wildlife along with the picturesque beauty of South Africa's Garden Route and the magnificence of Victoria Falls.

A growing number of cruises depart from Cape Town, and occasionally from Dar es Salaam, for sailings to the Indian Ocean, along the African coast or further afield.

High points: Unbeatable wildlife, fascinating African tribal culture and natural icons.

13. Reunification Train in Vietnam and Halong Bay or Mekong Cruise

A journey on Vietnam’s Reunification Express Train is an experience in itself. It’s definitely not for everyone, but adventurous travelers seeking a low-cost vacation by railway will enjoy the train’s atmosphere and side-trip options.

The 1,072-mile journey follows the coast almost all the way from Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Hanoi. If you don’t get off, the trip can take anywhere between 33 and 36 hours, but taking it slow and enjoying the gorgeous towns and beaches along the way is the way to go if you have some extra time.

Once in Hanoi, change trains to Halong Bay for a day or overnight cruise in this breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is also possible to combine the train vacation with a Mekong River cruise instead of, or in addition to, the Halong Bay trip.

High points: Changing landscapes, with lively cities and natural wonders.

Publish date April 28, 2023
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