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3 things I wish I knew before boarding a cross-Canada train for 4 days

INSIDER logoINSIDER 1/19/2020 Rachel Askinasi
a person standing in front of a building © Rachel Askinasi/Insider

The Canadian's Great Western Way route is the longest single train ride in North America. The route spans nearly 2,800 miles and crosses through five of Canada's provinces. The entire trip is scheduled to take four days and four nights. 

After I booked my cabin onboard VIA Rail, I watched videos and read blog posts about people who had made the journey before me. But like any new travel experience, there were quite a few surprises and obstacles that surfaced once I got there.

None of these surprises were enough to make me wish I hadn't booked the trip, they just made me wish I was better equipped with both knowledge and actual, physical equipment.

Here are the three things I wish I had known before boarding VIA Rail's The Canadian.

1. The stoppage schedule is not guaranteed.

a group of people walking down the street: The Canadian takes travelers through Canada's southern countryside between Toronto and Vancouver over the course of four days. © Rachel Askinasi/Insider The Canadian takes travelers through Canada's southern countryside between Toronto and Vancouver over the course of four days.

The first thing I wish I knew before getting on the train is that the length of each planned stop is not guaranteed. There are seven scheduled stops along the route, but when the train stops and for how long actually depend on how smoothly the train is moving along its course. Is it ahead of schedule? Is it behind? Did it have to wait for a 180-car freight train to pass?

One of the stops along the way that I was looking forward to was Jasper, Alberta. Jasper is known for its stunning views of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the plethora of outdoor sports and activities available to travelers, and a large collection of wildlife for admiring.

When I thought I'd have four hours to spend in the railroad town, I had planned to explore and enjoy some time spent in the fresh air and off of the train. But our train was a little behind schedule, so the stop was cut short by three hours and 15 minutes. We only had 45 minutes to walk around before we had to get back on the train.

I was also looking forward to seeing the city of Winnipeg, but we pulled into the station after dark, so we couldn't see much of the city, and we only had 45 minutes there as well.

2. Don't expect to get loads of stunning photos.

a view of the rain © Rachel Askinasi/Business Insider

Shooting photos while moving is tough enough on its own. Add dirty, rounded windows to that equation and securing a perfect image becomes frustratingly difficult.

Going into the trip with expectations of limitless opportunities for beautiful photos was a little bit naive of me. After all, I was at the mercy of mother nature. There are no windshield wipers on the passenger windows, so rain remained an obstacle.

In trying to get shots of just the scenery, I learned that I had to press my lens right up against the window to minimize glare. I also quickened my camera's shutter speed so the image at least had a chance of coming out blur-free as I whizzed by my subject.

I learned that the photos I took from the upper level of the community car were much better than the ones I took out of the main-level windows. Being able to shoot out of the front-facing and back-facing windows of the upper-tier meant I had a little more time to set up my shot, and I was able to test the lighting and focus points rather than pressing the shutter button repeatedly and hoping for the best, which is what I did on the main level of the train.

If I were to repeat the trip, I would take even more time to get to know my camera settings and make sure I had the appropriate and necessary equipment, like a larger zoom lens for subjects far in the distance.

3. Phones and smart devices won't sync to local time zones automatically.

a man holding a phone © Rachel Askinasi/Business Insider

One of the most challenging parts of this trip for me was crossing through several different time zones. Sometimes, the change would happen in the middle of the night, but other times it was in the afternoon or mid-morning. Since there was no WiFi and very little cellular service on the train, my phone didn't change times automatically.

I wished I had printed out a timetable and a map with all of the scheduled stops and time zones marked. This would have helped me feel more grounded in time and space throughout the trip.

Overall, I would recommend doing some extensive research before getting on the train. Reading Via Rail's website is a great start to know what to expect, but reading travelers' first-hand accounts and reviews can be helpful as well.

Some travelers I met on my trip expected to see certain sights that we ended up passing through in the dark. Whatever expectation you may have going into the journey, I would recommend looking into them specifically and ferociously.

Related video: Old train station becomes "iconic" house of Literature in Lima (Provided by AFP)



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