Plane travel is often more stressful than it’s worth, particularly if you’re someone like me who panics from take off to touch down. But occasionally, the chance to take an epic train journey arises. When it does, let me tell you: it is so, so worth it.
What you lose in speed, you make up for in stunning views and increased flexibility. Want to make a stop at a small town between two capital cities? You can! Fancy mingling with some locals and drinking vodka shots with an 89-year-old Korean lady? Of course you do. It’s also a far more eco-friendly way to travel. A win-win.
An epic train journey always leaves you with a story. As singer-songwriter Frank Turner once wrote, “If you’re all about the destination, take a f**king flight.” So, here are seven of our favourite epic train journeys around the world that’ll make you forget about flights:
Venice Simplon Orient Express (Paris to Istanbul)
Route: Paris to Istanbul
Average price: For the full experience, current pricing is at £5,700 per person for a double cabin. This is definitely one for a special occasion.
Tickets: You can book and find FAQs on their website.
Whether you’re an Agatha Christie fan or not, most people have heard of the fateful journey of the Orient Express and one of the best-selling crime novels of all time.
The route started in 1883 and was considered the gateway to the Orient. Because of the train’s long association with mystery, luxury, and intrigue, you’re actually encouraged to wear glamorous clothes on board and really play up to the train’s extravagant history. Although this is optional, smart casual is definitely expected. Some of the famous passengers that have set off aboard The Orient Express include Agatha Christie herself, Lawrence of Arabia, Leon Trotsky, and Leo Tolstoy, just to name a few.
The journey takes around a week and covers 1700 miles, plus most of the major European cities. Just imagine the glorious architecture you’re going to see on the way.
If the Orient Express experience is out of your budget, or you want more flexibility to hop off and spend more time in some of your favorite cities, then taking the equivalent trip on a normal train costs significantly less. It’s around £500-600, although booking in advance could save you even more. You can easily book train tickets around Europe using Omio, or consider a Rail Pass.
Trans-Siberian Express (Moscow to Vladivostok)
Route: Moscow to Vladivostok
Average price: £765 per person for a second class cabin.
Tickets: You can book and find FAQs on their website.
The 5000-mile journey from Asia to Europe, which takes you hurtling across vast expanses of Russian landscapes, is perhaps one of the more sought after and ‘of the moment’ trips on this list. Long referenced in literature, it’s certainly the trip where you’re most likely to meet fellow train journey enthusiasts and get to hear some cool stories.
A popular alternative to the Trans-Siberian, which takes you from Vladivostok across Siberia to Moscow, is the Trans-Mongolian that takes you from Beijing and boasts views like the Gobi Desert along the way.
Whichever you choose, the stops at various stations vary so it’s worth checking how long you’ve got before you get off to purchase items from the local vendors and stretch your legs. The attendant should be able to help you, and if not, there’s usually a handy schedule in every carriage. Bear in mind that the schedule is always on Moscow time no matter the Russian time zone you’re actually in.
Boiling water is available for drinks and you’ll have toilets and a bunk, but make sure you bring lots of snacks on this one because you’ll often be on the train for a long time. And while meals are served, they’re often quite basic.
The Ghan (Adelaide to Darwin)
Route: Adelaide to Darwin
Average price: $4,949 (AUD) per person
Tickets: The Ghan is operated by Great Southern Rail so you can book tickets through their website.
Known as Australia’s greatest train journey, this 1,851 mile trip takes you right through The Red Centre of the outback. Interestingly, the Ghan gets its name from the Afghan cameleers who helped build the infrastructure of the outback in the nineteenth century and onwards.
It’s undeniably one of the best ways to see this glorious landscape, and the three-day trip gives you plenty of time to catch the views that most miss on a plane. Although, you still get to see the famous spots on this trip like Coober Pedy, Katherine, Uluru, and the famous Alice Springs, the most isolated town in the world,
One of the best things you can do on this journey is make use of one of the nighttime stops or simply stare out your window at the glorious night sky filled with stars. This is one of the best places to stargaze in the world and also one of the top reasons to travel this route by train.
TranzAlpine (Christchurch to Greymouth)
Route: Christchurch to Greymouth
Average price: $200 NZD per person, per way.
Tickets: Booking can be found on their website.
One of the shortest journeys on this list at just under five hours (139 miles), but it’s certainly not lacking in incredible scenery. The TranzAlpine takes you through the breathtaking nature of South Island. If you’ve seen any epic pictures of mountains, dense forests, and lakes on Instagram, it was probably taken somewhere on South Island.
One of the coolest features of this journey is the outdoor viewing carriage that you can pop out onto at any time, meaning you won’t miss any sights along the way. Views like The Canterbury Plains and Waimakariri River gorge open up before you. There really are endless opportunities for photos on this journey. Also, as it stops in several small towns along the route, you can easily connect to explore other parts of the island along the way and it is easily one of the most relaxed ways to explore New Zealand.
It’s definitely worth booking your train ticket well in advance for this route because it’s super popular with locals and visitors alike and the busy summer months can sell out quickly.
The West Highland Line (Glasgow to Mallaig)
Route: Glasgow to Mallaig
Average price: The average price range for the trip is around £30-£60. You can also purchase The Scottish Rail Pass (£149-£189), which can make your journey around Scotland smoother, particularly if you’re planning on travelling around the whole country.
Tickets: Find tickets and the pass on Scot Rail.
It’s often easy to take your own local beauty for granted when you come from the UK, but when the journey that’s globally known as ‘The World’s Greatest Train Route’ is right on your doorstep, you just have to give it a go, don’t you? There are some pretty awesome train routes in the UK (travelling from Devon to Land’s End, Cornwall springs to mind) but this route, now also famous amongst Harry Potter fans due to the infamous bridge and the Jacobite Steam Train (basically The Hogwarts Express), boasts views you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. You’ll even catch a great view of the majestic peak of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK.
The 123-mile journey starts in the city of Glasgow and makes its way through the charming towns of Oban and Fort William before stopping in Mallaig. However, it doesn’t have to end there since the route is also convenient for those wanting to head over to the legendary Isle of Skye, which is only a short ferry ride from Mallaig.
For train tickets in the UK, booking early is always advisable as prices rise significantly closer to the date.
The Himalayan Queen (Kalka to Shimla)
Route: Kalka to Shimla
Average price: There are several different trains you can get, the most famous being the Himalayan Queen, and the prices range from 270-510 rupees.
Tickets: You can book at the ticket office or online.
Nothing is more attractive to the train traveller than taking a journey on the old trains with open windows where you can romantically wave farewell to your partner (why do people never travel together in the movies?) and stick your head out to catch the best pictures and videos along the way. This is one of those journeys that takes you back in time: the UNESCO World Heritage journey through India’s mountainous northern Himachal Pradesh.
The railway was built by the British in 1903 and is one of the most scenic journeys in the country. It’s comprised of mountainous terrain and pine forests that stretch on forever. The journey runs for 190 miles, crossing twenty stations with 900 epic curves along the way. Due to the steady incline, this is a slow, scenic route that leaves plenty of time to sight-see. Sit on the right side of the train on the way to get the best views, then on the left side for the return journey.
Tibet Railway (Qinghai to Lhasa)
Route: Qinghai to Lhasa
Average price: It’s worth noting that prices tend to go up in the summer and you might want to take some snacks on board with you, although there is a dining car, but with menus in Chinese. Speaking of language barriers, Chinese tickets can be difficult to read (our journey from Shanghai to Nanjing that ended in a random city in the middle of nowhere can attest to that) so definitely read a guide beforehand.
Tickets: You can buy tickets at the train station or book online.
Honestly, this train journey shouldn’t exist. It’s the world’s highest railway and reaches a staggering 5,072 feet above sea level. They even keep a doctor on board in case of altitude sickness and monitor the oxygen in the cabins. It’s a twenty-two hour journey covering 1,215 miles and the views are unparalleled! You’ll cross 675 bridges on the way and see everything from vast grassy plains with farmers tending to their cattle to mirror-like lakes, temples, and charming villages.
You can actually take this journey from several parts of China–Beijing often being the most popular taking the journey up to forty hours– but most of the trains and the full official journey starts in Xining. With nine different trains leaving daily, each with a choice of soft-sleeper (781 RMB and so worth it) or hard-sleeper (495 RMB) options, there’s plenty of flexibility.
Don’t forget that you’ll need your passport, vaccines, and all the necessary visas for all of the countries you’re travelling through, even if you’re not getting off the train.