Guided Rail Tours for Every Speed
Chris Skow, a Union Pacific freight conductor, is a nostalgia buff who goes bonkers over trains. He loves them all, especially the aged trains that ply the high mountains of Latin America. The romance of rail travel still flourishes south of the border, he says, and allows you to step back into the 1940s.
In the past two decades, he’s made 55 trips to satisfy his offbeat passion. But there’s a practical side to Skow, too. Five years ago he began taking groups of about 40 paying tourists with him on his rail journeys south.
On each of these special trips, Skow charters a private rail car--sometimes pulled by an old-fashioned steam-powered engine--and plans an itinerary through some of the region’s most scenic countryside. His firm, Trains Unlimited, Tours, is based in Reno, Nev.
Skow is one of numerous tour operators who have found a growing market in escorted tours by rail in this country and abroad. The trips attract travelers who, like Skow, find train travel fascinating and--yes--romantic.
Rail fans can sign up for tours--sometimes called rail “cruises"-- in the American Southwest, Southern Europe, the Alps, East Africa, the Malay Peninsula, the Soviet Union, China, Guatemala and South America.
“There seems to be a resurgence of interest in train travel,” says Chris Kaemmerer, vice president of Circle America Tours, a St. Louis company offering a variety of rail trips in this country.
A tour by rail can take many forms. On some of Skow’s tours, passengers travel on private rail cars attached to intercity or chartered trains. In contrast, Circle America Tours books its groups on Amtrak rail cars.
Most of Circle America’s U.S. trips depart from a station reached by Amtrak, so participants who don’t like to fly can travel from home by train.
Adventurous travelers who opt for the Asian Express will travel the length of the Malay Peninsula by rail--from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia, and Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand.
This 15-day escorted tour is offered by Globetrotters World, a New Zealand organization. But continuous rail travel is often the exception rather than the rule on rail tours. Amtrak itself puts together several U.S. tour packages that combine rail travel with motor-coach touring to scenic and historic sites not served by train.
Europe Train Tours, a Swiss company specializing in rail tours of the Alps, combines intercity travel over famous mountain routes with a number of sightseeing day-trips by rail from Swiss cities.
In a variation, Skow links some of the best sightseeing rail trips in the West--including the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado--in a 15-day rail and motor-coach tour he calls the “Rocky Mountain Spectacular.”
Most escorted rail tours feature rail travel by day only, with nights spent in hotels, motels or inns. Escorted train tours tend to attract older travelers, although the more adventurous trips--such as Skow’s Latin American itineraries--appeal to a wider age range because they are difficult to duplicate independently.
A number of historic trains are operated for tourists throughout the United States. And the national rail lines in Europe often highlight scenic routes. Many tour operators and rail lines, including Amtrak, also have put together lodging and rail packages for independent travelers.
If train touring appeals to you, check with the tourist offices of a state or country that you plan to visit for information about train rides, particularly unusual ones.
Among the firms offering escorted rail tours:
--Trains Unlimited. Currently, Chris Skow’s firm features five basic itineraries: Guatemala, Ecuador, southern South America (Chile, Argentina, Paraguay), the Rocky Mountain West and California. In addition, Skow is the U.S. representative for a British company, Railway Travel and Photography, that operates rail tours in China, East Africa, rural France, Spain and Northern Europe.
Both Skow and Railway Travel generally combine travel by rail and motor coach with overnight lodging off the train.
Skow’s “Great Guatemalan Train Adventure” is a nine-day odyssey that crosses the mountainous Central American country from its Pacific Coast to the Caribbean. The route passes through a remote countryside reached only by rail, Skow says.
Travel is in private cars attached to four separate chartered trains. A chartered motor coach follows by road to provide transportation between the trains and lodgings. Departure will be Feb. 21, 1992, and costs $1,989 per person, double occupancy, which includes air fare from Los Angeles, lodging and most meals.
The “Ecuadorian Eclipse Express,” a nine-day excursion departing July 4, makes use of chartered steam trains to explore the Ecuadorean Andes, including colonial cities and volcanoes. At Ecuador’s famous Devil’s Nose Switchback, the train descends a steep, rocky face in a series of zigzag maneuvers as if it were stepping down the mountain.
Passengers can view a partial eclipse of the sun in Ecuador. The cost is $2,149 per person, double occupancy, from Los Angeles, with add-on options for four days in an Amazon River lodge or a yacht cruise of the Galapagos Islands.
The “Deep South Latin Express” is a 30-day trip mostly by train through Chile, Argentina and Paraguay, departing Oct. 4. Shorter options are available, and you can extend the tour with a trip to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of the continent.
The basic itinerary features nine train rides--including the Old Patagonian Express--in a loop that begins and ends in Santiago, Chile. The tour visits Iguazu Falls on the Argentine-Paraguayan border, the Argentine mountain resort of Bariloche and several national parks. Cost for the 30-day trip is $5,995 per person, double occupancy, from Los Angeles.
The “Rocky Mountain Spectacular” is a 14-day trip that departs Oakland Oct. 5. On the initial leg, the firm’s two private rail cars and a sleeper car are attached to Amtrak’s California Zephyr for the two-day ride across the Sierra and the Rockies to Denver.
In Denver, passengers board a motor coach for several days of mountain sightseeing, including day-trips on a variety of scenic rail lines, among them the Grand Canyon steam train from Williams, Ariz., to the South Rim of the national park. In Flagstaff, Ariz., participants catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief for Los Angeles. The cost is $2,519 per person, double occupancy. Round-trip air fare to Oakland is additional, but the price includes transportation from Oakland, lodging at Best Western motels and 30 meals.
“Golden State Rails” is a 12-day tour of California from the northern Sierra to San Diego. Much of the travel is by motor coach, but 12 separate train rides are scheduled.
After touring palatial Hearst Castle, participants board the firm’s two private rail cars in San Luis Obispo. The cars will be attached to Amtrak’s Coast Starlight bound for Los Angeles. The tour departs July 3, and the cost from Oakland is $1,498 per person, double occupancy. Round-trip air fare to Oakland is extra.
For more information, contact Trains Unlimited, Tours, P.O. Box 1997, Portola, Calif. 96122, (916) 836-1745.
--Globetrotters World has organized two unusual escorted tours featuring long-distance travel by trains, the “Asian Express” and the “London Express.”
The Asian Express is a 15-day tour that provides travelers with a close-up look at Asia beyond its major cities. Participants travel by train from Singapore to Bangkok and northern Thailand, with stops at the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and the island resort of Penang.
The tour departs every Saturday, but there must be a minimum of 15 passengers to be escorted. Cost begins at $1,690 per person, double occupancy, which includes 12 nights’ lodging and two nights in a sleeper car. Air fare is extra.
The London Express is a 17-day trip from Beijing to London via Ulan Bator in Mongolia, the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Irkutsk in Siberia to Moscow, Leningrad, Warsaw and Berlin. Several nights are spent aboard sleeping cars. Departures from Beijing are May 1, May 29, July 31 and Sept. 4. Cost begins at $2,800 per person, which includes lodging and most meals.
For more information, contact the New Zealand Central Reservations Office, 6033 W. Century Blvd., Suite 1270, Los Angeles 90045, (800) 351-2317.
--Circle America Tours. All but a few of Circle America’s thick catalogue of U.S. tours begin in a city reached by Amtrak. Many of the tours link a leg of rail travel with motor-coach sightseeing, but at least two include a substantial ride on Amtrak, the “Southern Springtime Swing” and “Windows of the Great Southwest.” Lodging is off the train.
The eight-day Southern Swing originates in New Orleans, heads east to Atlanta and then doubles back via Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., to Mobile. Except for a motor-coach leg from Mobile back to New Orleans, travel is by Amtrak.
There are weekly departures in April and May. The cost is $1,265 per person, double occupancy, if you fly to New Orleans from Washington, and $1,069 if you take the train. Included is lodging and nine meals. The eight-day “Windows of the Great Southwest” begins in Phoenix and continues via Amtrak to El Paso, Tex.
In Alpine in southwestern Texas, participants board a motor coach for Big Bend National Park, where a half-day scenic float trip on the Rio Grande is scheduled. The tour returns to Phoenix on Amtrak, with an overnight stop in Tucson. There are frequent departures through Nov. 2.
Cost is $1,195 per person, which includes air fare from Los Angeles, lodging and 10 meals. For information, contact Circle America Tours, 7531 Ravensridge Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63119, (314) 968-9009.
--Europe Train Tours, a Swiss firm, has put together a variety of escorted train excursions in the Swiss Alps. Nights are spent off the train. One of the most popular is the 12-day “Glacier Express Spectacular,” which includes a ride on the country’s famed Glacier Express--from the resort of St. Moritz to the traffic-free town of Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn.
Lucerne, Interlaken, Montreux and several scenic train rides are also on the itinerary. Departures are from May 16 into October. The price from Zurich is $1,991 per person, double occupancy, which includes lodging and most meals. For information, contact Europe Train Tours, 198 E. Boston Post Road, Mamaroneck, N.Y. 10543, (800) 551-2085 and (914) 698-9426.
--Russian Travel Bureau. For 20 years, this U.S. firm has been escorting Americans on its 18-day “Trans-Siberian Railroad Adventure.” Departures are monthly except in May and June when two trips are scheduled.
The tour takes in Leningrad, Tashkent and Samarkand, as well as the Trans-Siberian rail journey from Moscow to Irkutsk. Three nights are spent on the train. Cost begins at $2,999, which includes round-trip air fare from New York City, lodging and meals.
For information, contact the Russian Travel Bureau, 225 East 44th St., New York 10017, (800) 847-1800 and (212) 986-1500.
--Amtrak regularly offers a variety of independent and escorted tour packages. In fact, it has been so successful, says Amtrak spokeswoman Pat Kelly, that calls for tour information sometimes have clogged Amtrak’s train reservation lines.
As a result, Amtrak has reorganized its tour program and now uses a tour wholesaler, MTI Vacations of Chicago. Travelers who want an Amtrak tour can book through MTI Vacations, 1220 Kensington St., Oak Brook, Ill. 60521, (800) 321-9887 or (708) 990-6882.