How to Make the Most of Your Long Distance Train Trip

Modern life has conditioned most of us to go, go, go — and to feel a little anxious when we spend too much time without checking our smartphones. But often on a train, passengers get the time and space to connect with their surroundings, their creative side, and seatmates.

If you’re headed across Canada on a VIA Rail train, here are a few ways to kick back and enjoy the journey.

Read

In the past year, how often have you wished that you had more time to read for pleasure? We have good news: during your train ride, you’ll finally have the chance to start (and finish) that book that’s been on your list for ages.

After all, reading transports you to other places and lets you live out other people’s adventures — which, in turn, makes your own journey more meaningful. With a great book in hand, you’ll better appreciate the miles you traverse and the memories you make, and your hours in transit will seem to melt away.

If you don’t already have a title in mind, don’t worry. You can dive into one of our favorite books about trains and railroads:

Station to Station: Searching for Stories on the Great Western Line
by James Attlee

The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America
by Christian Wolmar

Around the World in 80 Days
by Jules Verne

Strangers on a Train
by Patricia Highsmith

Murder on the Orient Express
by Agatha Christie

Capture the Moment

Whether it’s with a DSLR, a cell phone, a Polaroid camera, or a disposable device, you’ll want to take photos that capture the essence of your train journey. Not only do these images make the best souvenirs, but getting behind the viewfinder also allows you to flex your creative muscles.

You’ll quickly realize that slow travel inspires captivating shots, largely because of the way it urges you to think about the landscapes you’re bisecting. By spending several hours at a time in the same environment, you’ll have to move beyond autopilot and find new ways to document your subject matter.

Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

  • To capture motion when the train is moving quickly, use the seats to stabilize your camera, then slow your shutter speed ever so slightly.
  • To take a crisp image, treat your settings the way that you would if you were shooting moving water. Adjust your shutter speed to 1/1250 sec.
  • Explore the many cars of the train, locate the natural light, and use it (or its absence) to your advantage.
  • When in doubt, go to the observation car — there is always something striking waiting just outside the window.
  • Don’t just focus on what’s outside of the train. Many of the most interesting images take place within the observation car itself.
  • Read more about how to take great pictures here.

Write

Writing is perhaps the best way to dive into the complexities of your own mind. It enables you to make sense of your jumbled thoughts, and on a train, it helps you observe your surroundings in a more meaningful way.

Want to see for yourself? Take your seat, grab a pen and a notebook, and choose one of these prompts:

  • Describe the view outside the window.
  • Describe the view inside the car.
  • Write about an encounter you’ve been replaying in your head.
  • Choose a photograph that you’ve taken that evokes emotion. Write to it. Describe the moment pictured.
  • Free-write for 5 minutes. It can be about anything — what you’re thinking, feeling, avoiding, questioning. Whatever comes to mind, get it down on the page.

Whatever you do, don’t censor yourself. Get your thoughts, messy sentences, and disconnected ramblings on paper, and resist the urge to edit as you go. If you don’t like what you’re writing, don’t delete it. Keep moving, and let it all out. Your own scribbles might surprise you.

Listen

It’s hard to beat an afternoon spent staring out a train window. But, to make that dreamy experience even better, you should come prepared with a set of headphones and a few new podcasts, talks, lectures, or audiobooks.

As you soak in the scenery along the route, you can double-up on your time and learn more about up-and-coming technology, economics, or any other subject that interests you. You can listen to philosophers like Alan Watts, researchers like Brené Brown, and travel gurus like Rick Steves. You can learn about healthy living from wellness expert and ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll. You can join in as Jonathan Van Ness of “Queer Eye” interviews experts on all topics under the sun. No matter what you choose, we think you’ll enjoy the experience!

Get Into a Great Conversation

Conversation really is an art, but one simple secret can help you master it. The truth is, a good chat always starts with someone asking a great question. And since you’ll have plenty of opportunity during your train ride, it’s a good idea to ask questions and get to know the people around you.

Once you begin, you’ll find it easy to keep the flow going. But if you’d like a few conversation starters, we’re here to help. (Note that these ideas all come from a set of 100 questions compiled by the School of Life.)

  • If you had to write a book, what would it be about?
  • If you knew you only had one year to live from now, how would you spend the next 12 months?
  • If you were in a city and had to choose between a good meal and a bad hotel, or a bad meal and a good hotel, which would you choose?
  • Is there anyone you regret losing touch with?
  • Describe a place that you really like and why.

Calm Your Mind

During your hours on the train, you’ll have ample opportunity to focus on just being still — so, whether you’ve meditated before or not, you’ll probably want to take advantage of that quiet time.

Meditation is a great way to calm your mind and take things in. It often helps travelers develop increased mindfulness and gain a greater understanding of the world around them — but, that said, learning to meditate can sometimes feel uncomfortable. These five tips can help you get through that initial awkwardness:

  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
  • Focus on your breathing. Inhale and exhale slowly and smoothly.
  • Imagine that your thoughts are clouds rolling across the sky. Observe them as objectively as possible, but don’t pay too much attention to them.
  • Keep your meditation sessions short and sweet (even just a couple minutes), especially in the beginning.
  • Don’t get discouraged when your attention begins to drift. It happens to everyone, and training your body to meditate can take a while.

If you’d like additional guidance, you can also download apps like Headspace or Calm. And while your early efforts on the train probably won’t transform you into a meditation master, they can definitely help you kick-start a healthier outlook and overall lifestyle.

Create

One of the benefits of taking the train is having enough time to work on your craft. Even if you don’t consider yourself particularly creative, who knows — maybe you just need to try something new or give your hobby another shot.

You can easily tuck many different art supplies (like a sketchbook or a ball of yarn) into your luggage, so limited suitcase room is no excuse! And by taking time to draw, paint, collage, knit (or crochet), or create a travel journal, you’ll have something to show for your hours on the train. Once you disembark, you can gift your creation to a friend or family member, sell it to someone else, or even keep it for yourself. No matter what you do with it, we think you’ll agree that creating something is a great use of your time!

Play

Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, playing games with your fellow passengers is a wonderful way to meet new people. It provides the chance to make friends with a diverse group that you would never have met had you not boarded your train, and it lets you have fun while zooming across the countryside.

You could turn to a familiar board game like Scrabble, Sorry!, Scattergories, or Backgammon, or you could bring a deck of cards to play Poker, Speed, or even Go Fish. You could also find a domino set, chip away at a puzzle, or play a group game like Telephone Pictionary.

Even if you don’t come equipped with a game, there’s a good chance that you can find it somewhere in the car. So ask around, and start getting to know the people sitting near you!

Participate

Playing games isn’t the only way to get to know your fellow passengers. When it comes to onboard activities, there are plenty for you and your seatmates to enjoy — like watching movies or documentaries, listening to live music, or participating in wine tastings or (friendly) competitions. (The Canadian even hosts a golf competition inside the moving cars!)

Dining can be a social experience, too. For example, you could branch out and share a table with someone you’ve never met. It could be a great way for you to try out those conversation skills or glean a few interesting stories.

Some of these ideas might sound a little unusual, but you shouldn’t knock them until you’ve tried them. Trust us — you’ll be surprised how much fun you’ll have making friends with the people around you.

Explore

On a cross-country train ride, any traveller worth their salt should jump at the opportunity to disembark at each station. Even though you’ll have limited time at these stops, it’s more than possible to make the most of them and have a look around. (And on top of that, you’ll want a chance to stretch your legs and get some fresh air.)

Preparing for these stops might take a little research, but it’s well worth the investment. If you’re headed out on The Canadian, be sure to hop off the train and explore Parry Sound, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Jasper. (For more ideas, click here.) Each city and town has its own distinct atmosphere, and since you never know when you’ll be back in those cities again, you shouldn’t pass up the chance at an adventure!

How have you passed the time on your most recent train ride, flight, or road trip? Share your best ideas in the comments!

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1 Comment on "How to Make the Most of Your Long Distance Train Trip"

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I really like that you gave the right camera settings to use when taking pictures out of a train. I think that my partner and I are going to take a train ride across North America and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll use your advice to make sure we have an amazing trip.

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