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96 Hours on a Sleeper Train Across Canada

Ninety-six hours, 2,775 miles, five provinces and four time zones: those are some of the impressive numbers from my recent trip on VIA Rail’s Canadian train from Toronto to Vancouver. Overall, my partner Robert and I spent four days and four nights on this iconic sleeper train. Our rail journey was at the end of a longer trip that occurred during the last two weeks of November to celebrate Robert’s birthday. This meant we were crossing Canada at the beginning of winter. It was a beautiful time to see the country — and to try a slow-travel experience.

VIA Rail's Canadian train travelling across Canada in Winter

Day one: getting settled on the train

Our train departed from Toronto’s Union Station around 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. (The Canadian has two Westbound departures every week, on Wednesdays and Sundays.) As we had booked a Sleeper Plus Cabin for Two, we could check in with the Canadian-train staff in the Business Class lounge on the main level. The spacious lounge has comfortable seats and free coffee, juice, and snacks.

We were wrapping up two-weeks exploring Montreal and Toronto, and had one larger suitcase, along with our carry-ons. As VIA Rail requires that you check larger bags, we packed everything we were going to need on the train in our carry-ons. In Sleeper Plus you can each bring one personal item, such as a purse or small knapsack, along with two small items — such as a small duffle or carry-on suitcase — per cabin.

 When the boarding call was made, we excitedly made our way down the ramp to the gate area and then up an escalator to the platform, where we were directed to our cabin by the attendant, Lori, who would be looking after our train until we got to Winnipeg.

 Trip tip: keep travel docs, device chargers and medications in your carry-on as you do not have access to your checked bag at any point in the four-day journey.
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Our Cabin on the Canadian

The interior of one of the cabins on the VIA train

The cabin is small but comfortable. In the day-time set-up, two leather chairs can be placed where you like in the space. We initially kept them both turned towards the large picture window, but after the first night, left our bottom bunk down and used it like a sofa.

Each day, while we were at dinner service, the attendant would convert the cabin for sleeping. This entails covering the chairs with a lower bunk (if the bunk hasn’t been left down) and lowers the upper bed from its ceiling storage.

There is also a small private toilet room, plus a sink and mirror in the main cabin. We have access to a shower at the end of the car. There is limited space for clothes and baggage. In the afternoon, we take a bit of time to hang some items in the very narrow closet inside the door, and to store our bags in the open space above the toilet room. It’s important to know that the door only locks on the inside, so your cabin will be open when you are in other parts of the train.

After the cabin and safety walk through, Robert and I head to the Prestige Park Car for the departure from Toronto. During the summer peak season, Sleeper Plus passengers only have access to this car after 4:00 p.m. but during the winter can access it anytime. As we sip prosecco and nibble on some hors d’oeuvres we sit in the upper floor dome section to watch the scenery slowly change from urban skyscrapers to sprawling farmland. We end up spending the bulk of the first day in this area, chatting with fellow passengers and enjoying the view.

We both agree that entering the Canadian Shield is the scenic highlight of the day. Snow-covered pine forests and lakes extend beyond the horizon, an occasional cottage the only sign of civilization. 

The only stop that day is Capreol, where we get out to walk the platform and stretch our legs. Some passengers make a quick trip into town for wine and snacks, but we stick close to the train. 

Trip tip: if travelling in a Sleeper Cabin for Two, consider leaving the lower bunk down for the day. It can be used as a two-seat sofa and you’ll also have a place for a quiet afternoon nap.

Dining on the train

A view inside one of VIA's dining cars

When we checked in at Union Station, we chose the early seating for the day's meals, and do so throughout the journey. As it gets dark earlier in the day, we decide we can use the quiet time after an early dinner read or play cards.
When it's time to eat, an attendant walks through the train calling people to their seating. Our first meal on the Canadian is a three-course lunch, which we enjoy as the train rolls through Ontario’s cottage country. We both started with the vegetable soup as an appetizer. I opted for the pasta of the day, a delicious vegetarian lasagna, and Robert had the pulled-pork sandwich. Other options included a scallop-and-shrimp skewers on salad or a veggie burger. Brownies and ice cream finished off the meal.
The dining car was always a fun experience. The tables have white table linens, so it feels a bit elevated. Prestige and Sleeper Plus passengers eat in the dining car. Each table seats four, so we ate with different passengers each meal, meeting people from around the world. While many were visiting from the United States, there were travellers from Finland and Korea.
Between meals there were snacks available in the Park Car. Muffins, fruit and yogurt in the morning; cookies, sesame snacks and fruit in the afternoons and evenings.
Every sitting offers four choices on the menu, including a meat and a vegetarian option. Other than the full breakfast and vegan scramble in the mornings, no meal option appears more than once (and I regret not trying the banana pancakes.) 
For dinner on the first day, we both get the garden salad appetizer, beef tenderloin for the main course, and a carrot cake cheesecake for dessert. While Robert picks a BC craft beer, I opt for an Ontario red wine. (Alcohol is not included with Sleeper Plus tickets but the prices are very reasonable.) Other standout meals on the trip include the roast chicken breast in maple Dijon glaze and a pork stir-fry. 
On weekends, the kitchen serves a brunch, which also has some tempting choices, including a tasty chicken pot pie, along with omelettes and other breakfast fare. 

[ Explore: Canadian Rockies Train Tours ]

Day two: learning to relax

On day two the train finally exits Ontario — this trip really gave a good sense of how big the country is. A stop in Sioux Lookout offered another opportunity to stretch our legs. Some passengers power-walked the platform the entire stop to get in their daily steps. 
This is the day that we felt the relaxation really kick in, adjusting to the fact that there was nowhere to be and nothing that needed to be done. 
Despite loading several movies unto our iPads, we never watched anything. Nor did we make much progress in our books. It was so meditative to watch the scenery scrolling by the windows. 
Late that evening, we had a three-hour stopover in Winnipeg. (The length of the stop depends on whether the train is on time.) Although it was a blustery winter night, The Forks Market was open and we bundled up for the five-minute walk. Along with a food court, there is a bookstore, a wine shop, and several artisan boutiques to browse. I purchased some hand and body lotion as the dry air on the train was making my skin uncomfortable. 
Returning to the train felt a bit like returning to a hotel. There was a crew change in Winnipeg, so we met our new cabin attendant, Shannon.   

Travel tip: when travelling in the winter in Canada, plan on buying some heavy moisturizing cream. The dry air will affect your skin and may make you uncomfortable.

Day three: prairie landscapes

While everyone had warned us that we might be bored by the flatness of the prairies, this was our second favourite day on the journey. The expanse of the snow-covered prairies looked like a minimalist painting scrolling by the window, lulling us into a deep sense of calm. We spent hours in the observation dome of the Skyline car, staring out the windows as we listened to podcasts and music. 

The first stop today is Saskatoon around lunch time. We both get off the train and brave the bracing -22 F temperatures. The walking crew out there is well, though their numbers are significantly reduced. 

Due to freight trains, our arrival into Edmonton is pushed late into the night, so we do not get off the train at this stop. The delays did mean the train was stopped for long periods, and this is an ideal time for a shower without having to deal with any rocking or motion. 

Travel tip: as there is no Wifi on the Canadian train, it's always a good idea to download music and podcasts to listen to as you watch the scenery.

Day four: through the Rockies

VIA Rail's Canadian train in the winter

Waking on the fourth day, we rush to the Park Car so we can take in our approach to the Rocky Mountains. While it's cold, the sky is clear and blue, making the mountains appear all the more dramatic. 
Given the cold, the train continued to face delays, but we still had a hour to explore Jasper, our first stop of the day. Pulling into the station we are delighted to see elk feeding on the grain that has dropped on the tracks. 
Despite having brunch on the train, we grab lattes and some of the famous scones from Bear's Paw Bakery, a popular cafe across from the train station. 
The rest of the day delivered the most spectacular scenery of the trip. The train slowed down at Pyramid Falls, so everyone could get a good look at the frozen waterfall. Other highlights included Mount Robson and Moose Lake, but it really did feel like we were in a snow globe. 

Trip of a lifetime

Overall, the trip from Toronto to Vancouver was an incredible experience that we can't wait to do again. Though we should probably try to do it in another season to take advantage of the longer days and better weather, there was something truly magical about experiencing this rail journey in winter. 

About the author: Athena McKenzie is the Content Manager at Fresh Tracks Canada. An experienced lifestyle journalist, she has written about travel, design, arts and entertainment. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Zoomer Magazine, Elle Canada and... Read more

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