The "Golden Age" of railroading, a period of time from 1900 to 1945, was an era when nearly every city and town in America was serviced by rail, railroad depots were a statement of wealth and power and red carpets were rolled out for passengers at Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
Inventor George Mortimer Pullman introduced his first sleeping car in 1857 and the first dining car in 1868. By 1890, passenger cars were "palaces on wheels" resplendent with beveled glass, brocade, inlaid wood, cushions, carvings, brass and opulent fabric. By 1905 Pullman became synonymous with amenities that included beauty shops, valet service and gourmet food. Pouring a bottle of beer was a 12-step process, each outlined in the Pullman training manual. Trains with names like Broadway Limited, 20th Century Limited, Santa Fe De-Luxe, Overland Limited, Olympian and Crescent Limited were embedded in American culture.
The good news is that it is still possible to experience this type of train travel. Elegantly refurbished vintage trains like Venice Simplon-Orient-Express depart from Paris and journey through France, Switzerland, Austria and more. Royal Canadian Pacific's trains travel among the glacial peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Rovos Rail winds through safari country in South Africa. These exquisite carriages cover the world in a style that most people can only dream about.
Current day coaches are faster, smoother, safer, more sophisticated and even more luxurious than in days of yore. Eleanor Hardy, president of the Society of International Railway Travelers, explains that train trips can be as diverse as a one-night family trip on Amtrak's Empire Builder from Chicago to Glacier National Park in Montana and the Silk Road tour, a 21-day private train trip from Beijing to Moscow, priced at $17,995 per person (including gratuities).
We're not talking the local that chugs from New York City to New Haven to visit your Uncle Bob or the dreary commuter you take from home to the office. On these trips you'll have a luxurious sleeping compartment with private butlers and gourmet food. Experience an afternoon on an outside observation deck as you meander through the Copper Canyon in Mexico, or starry nights in the South African desert where the only sound you hear is the train whistle and the clicking of the rails while the rhythmic rocking of the carriage lulls you into a deep sleep.
Sounds leisurely? You bet. Since you're not held captive in a seat, you can roam the lounges, eat at the restaurants or hang out in the bar drinking fine local wines. And when you pull into a stop, it's to visit the Taj Mahal in India, go fly-fishing in the Canadian Rockies or have a coffee in the Swiss Alps. Imagine a trip with no cell phones, no e-mail, no fax. It's like taking a step back in time.
BOOK YOUR CLIENTS ON A DELUXE "RAIL CRUISE"
A variety of train tour operators offer deluxe accommodations and intriguing itineraries around the globe
Eleanor Hardy, president of the Society of International Railway Travelers (IRT), has been a tour operator and publisher of International Railway Travel and The Top 20 Rail Experiences of the World since 1983. Her clients, mostly older and more experienced travelers, include retired couples and singles seeking something different: new places to travel to, a safe environment and camaraderie. They are also people who appreciate something off the beaten path. Train trips take you through countryside that is not always accessible by car, bus or cruise ship. Hardy calls the journeys "rail cruises" because, like an ocean cruise, the client's home base is a moving vehicle—more like an exclusive manor—that disembarks in different locations. You move past exquisite stretches of scenery and your "ports" are everything from castles to historic towns.
Hardy emphasizes the importance of understanding each train's accommodations and itinerary. Details that agents should understand in order to get the right fit for their clients include the destination stops for each day of the itinerary, hotel information, which trips require a visa and the different types of cabins available. For instance, some suites have toilets and showers en suite, while some have shared bathrooms. Also keep in mind that some quoted rates include gratuities and alcoholic beverages, and some do not.
Note: If agents book through IRT, they get a 10 percent commission plus a free year-long membership, which includes a quarterly magazine and the annual Great Railway Journeys of the World. Contact Eleanor Hardy at 800-478-4881, or visit www.irtsociety.com.
GrandLuxe Rail Journeys
Known as American Orient Express until this May, GrandLuxe Rail Journeys has itineraries in the U.S. and, now, Mexico. The train's blue-and-gold carriages feature elegant lounge and dining cars, a domed observation car and comfortable sleeping cabins. Clients can sip a cocktail in the lounge car, read in the library, gain a treetop perspective of the landscape from the dome car, take part in an in-depth cultural enrichment program or join new friends around the piano.
The nine-day "National Parks of the West" tour snakes through the legendary parks and majestic scenery of the western United States, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Clients also visit Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Sedona and Santa Fe. Prices range from $4,670 to $6,750 per person.
The newest eight-day "GrandLuxe Mexico" itinerary showcases the country from its ancient history to modern times, including the pyramids at Teotihuacán, Zacatecas, San Miguel de Allende and Monterrey. The journey begins in San Antonio, TX, and ends in Mexico City. Prices range from $4,490 to $6,490 per person.
Agent commission is 10 percent. Call 888-759-3944 or visit www.grandluxerail.com.
Orient-Express operates five high-end tourist trains. One of the more popular excursions is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express between London and Venice. The two-day, one-night "London-Paris-Venice" journey begins on the British Pullman at London's Victoria Station. After traveling through the Kentish countryside, the train crosses the Channel for the overnight journey through France and into the mountains of Switzerland and Austria, arriving in Venice by early evening. The per-person rate is $2,605 one-way, $3,775 roundtrip.
The "Premier Journey" covers Paris, Budapest, Bucharest and Istanbul in six days and five nights. The luxurious Venice Simplon-Orient-Express departs from Paris and journeys through France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and finally Turkey. The per-person rate is $7,690. This once-a-year trip departs August 31, 2007.
New for 2007 is an eight-day, seven-night Venice-Vienna-Krakow-Warsaw-Prague trip. The "Central European Grand Tour" transports passengers across five countries, exploring Slovakia's picturesque countryside and Poland's diverse cities. A highlight is the passage through the magnificently scenic High Tatras Mountains. The per-person rate is $7,280.
There are also various Orient-Express "Great Journeys," through which you can book hotels and excursions in addition to the train.
The travel agent commission for bookings is 8 percent, and 10 percent for Great Journeys. Call 800-524-2420 or visit www.orient-express.com.
Palace on Wheels
The 14 air-conditioned coaches of the Palace on Wheels are named after India's former Rajput states and echo the aesthetics and interiors of India's royal past. Each saloon has a mini-pantry for hot and cold refreshments and a lounge for relaxing and socializing. The furniture, with its inlaid motifs, was specially created for the Palace on Wheels.
Rates for a seven-night trip start at $3,745 per person for single occupancy, $2,695 for double occupancy and $2,205 for triple occupancy, with half fare for children between five and 12. These prices include all meals including morning and evening tea, guided sightseeing tours in deluxe coaches, entrance fees for monuments and palaces, cultural entertainment in Jaipur and Jaisalmer, a boat ride to the Lake Palace Hotel at Udaipur, an elephant ride in Jaipur, a camel ride in Jaisalmer and a rickshaw ride at Bharatpur.
Travel agent commissions range from 8 to 14 percent depending on the volume of business. Call 877-GO-INDIA (877-464-6342), 877-INDIA-99 (888-463-4299) or visit www.palaceonwheels.net.
Touted by IRT as one of the most elegant trains in the world, Rovos Rail's wood-paneled coaches are classics remodeled and refurbished to mint condition. The trains, which may be hauled by steam, diesel or electric locomotives at various stages of the journey, carry a maximum of 72 passengers in 36 superbly appointed suites.
Accommodations combine the opulence of pre-war travel with modern conveniences, five-star cuisine and fine South African wines. Scheduled departures leave from Pretoria for Cape Town, Victoria Falls, Durban and the scenic Garden Route (the "George" itinerary). There's an itinerary for golfers and one that includes travel via small aircraft.
Every year in July, Rovos Rail conducts a 14-day journey from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, or vice versa. The train travels through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania and has become one of the most famous long train rides in the world. It includes stops at Kruger National Park, Victoria Falls, a bush walk and picnic at Kundalilia Falls, and a crossing of the Selous Game Reserve, the largest on the continent.
Fully inclusive rack rates (including agents commissions) for this trip start at $6,850 per sharing, which includes all accommodations, excursions, meals and all beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic).
Royal Canadian Pacific
Heralded as "Canada's Orient-Express," the historic Royal Canadian Pacific is "where luxury rail travel meets the untamed wilderness." The line is known for its elegant sleeping compartments, restored vintage carriages, top-notch personal service and gourmet dining.
One of several inclusive tours is the "Royal Fly-Fishing Adventure," which includes a personal guide who escorts clients to remote Rocky Mountain rivers. The "Royal Culinary" journey travels through British Columbia's wine region for fine dining, culinary demonstrations and informative wine tastings and pairing sessions with a wine sommelier.
Prices for a one-day "Ski and Snowboard Adventure" range between $400 and $1,000 per person. The five-night "Royal Culinary" tour starts at $5,400 per person (double occupancy). The six-day "Rockies Experience" is $5,900 per person.
The Sierra Madre Express
The Sierra Madre Express, founded in 1986, has a fleet of five classic rail cars built in the 1940s and '50s that takes passengers to Mexico's Grand Canyon, the Copper Canyon.
A region in northern Mexico that only became accessible after the railroad line was completed in 1961, the Copper Canyon is home to the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous group that has maintained many of its customs and traditions. Passengers have the opportunity to visit a Tarahumara village and purchase exquisite crafts.
A trainmaster and crew of six look after passengers' every need, and an experienced, bilingual escort accompanies every tour.
For the seven-night "Standard Copper Canyon" tour, rates start at $2,895 for a single roomette and $3,695 for a double compartment.
Travel agent commission is 10 percent. Call Connie Dudle at 800-666-0346 or visit www.sierramadreexpress.com.
Other Great Train Tours
Other well-known train tours/operators include the Royal Scotsman (www.royalscotsman.com), Amtrak Vacations (www.amtrakvacations.com), the Rocky Mountaineer (www.rockymountaineer.com) and the Trans-Siberian Express and the Viceroy of India (www.gwtravel.co.uk for both). —HR