Travel Advice: Trains are still the best way to go

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Posted March 4, 2012 by Vacay in Budget Travel
via rail

Looking out at the blessed scenery of Lake Ontario on a VIA Rail train between Toronto and Montreal. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Advice from Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Editor

In September, my travelling companion and I put the train and airline systems to the test. She went from Toronto to Montreal on a VIA Rail train; I travelled on a WestJet Airlines flight. She left home a half hour before her departure time, walking to her 11:35 am train at Union Station and stepping on without any security hassles. The train arrived at Montreal’s Central Station a few minutes ahead of schedule, at 5:05 pm. From there, she walked to our hotel in the old part of the city without incurring additional taxi or bus fares. Plus, she had Internet access, a comfortable seat, good food options and space in the aisles to move around during her trip. Her travelling time was 6 hours and a bit.

VIA-Train

VIA Rail spent $1 billion last year to upgrade its infrastructure. (VIA Rail photo)

Meanwhile, I aimed to see how economically I could make the trip by plane. In Toronto, WestJet flies out of Pearson International Airport, which can be reached through public transportation for just $3. But from downtown Toronto you need to take a subway train to the express bus at Kipling Station, which then shuttles you to the airport terminals. On a day with average traffic, you can make the trip in one hour. If there are traffic issues or subway delays, it can put your flight plans in jeopardy.

That’s what happened to me. I left for my 2:30 pm flight at 12:45 pm. With no checked luggage and only my laptop case as a carry-on, I anticipated needing a maximum of 45 minutes to get through security for this domestic flight. Of course, the bus to the airport was snarled in traffic on Highway 427 and I arrived at the WestJet check-in line with less than 15 minutes to go. Luckily, WestJet has the best customer service team in the industry and they helped whisk me to my flight. The flight arrived in Montreal on time and I eventually boarded a public bus that cost $8, the cheapest way to get from the airport to downtown. A ride that would normally take 25 minutes, took close to 90. I reached the hotel around 6:15 pm, with a travelling time of about 5½ hours and much more anxiety endured than the train passenger.

Travelling is like real estate — location matters. Train travel, especially in Canada, sets itself apart because of its convenience — and increasingly its value. With Canada’s train stations located in the downtown areas of major cities, you can walk or take public transportation to your destination. Even in Vancouver, where the Pacific Central Station on Terminal Avenue isn’t in the best part of town, there’s a SkyTrain stop that will get you to Yaletown or the Waterfront in a few minutes. The pain of travelling to suburban airports is more unattractive than ever because of traffic issues on our congested highways, fuel prices and the time you have to set aside to get through security lines.

Despite the misgivings some travellers have after the deadly VIA Rail crash on February 26 (and others in Poland and Buenos Aires), train travel is still the most convenient and economical way to go. A recent search for a round-trip ticket from Toronto to Montreal in April returned a price of $164.98. The cheapest round-trip airfare for the same dates was a reasonable $231.28 from Porter Airlines, which has the benefit of flying out of downtown Toronto, with complimentary shuttle service from the Royal York Hotel. But once you land at Pierre Trudeau Airport in Dorval, Quebec, you have to endure the traffic woes in Montreal as I did. Cab fares can reach above $45 in Montreal and $70 in Toronto if you’re heading to Pearson.

VIA Train 92 was travelling at 108 km/h when it derailed between Niagara Falls and Toronto, investigators reported. That’s four times the speed limit on the rails and most likely the cause of human error, not mechanical failure. In the past 10 years, an average of 88 people have died annually in rail accidents, with most of those fatalities occurring when trespassers crossed the tracks. The last fatalities similar to those from the accident near Burlington, Ontario occurred in 1999 when two engineers died after a VIA Rail train went off its tracks in Thamesville, Ontario.

With more than $1 billion spent on infrastructure in 2011 and a safety standard mandated by Transport Canada, the passenger rail industry remains a hallmark of the nation. Hitting the rails shouldn’t be a concern for anyone when they consider their travel plans for the months ahead. If anything, with gas prices rising, train travel may turn out to be the most attractive form of transportation available for the near future.

AIRFARES TO SOAR

In the past week, I’ve had three people ask me when is the best time to buy airline tickets. Normally, I would answer three or four months before you fly, and on Tuesdays at 3 pm ET (because that’s when competitors complete their price-matching rates for the week). But my advice these days is simple and urgent: Buy now. Airfares from US-based airlines have risen twice already in 2012 and they’re going to jump again as the weather heats up and fuel costs continue to sizzle.

‘‘You’ll see gradual increases and then a much bigger jump in April and May when people start shopping for the summer travel season,’’ Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, said this week.

Sounds like staycations and nearby road trips may be an option again this summer for travellers.

TRAVEL TIP OF THE WEEK

Book with Porter Airlines by Friday. They’ve just announced their “Biggest Sale of the Year,” one reason those fares from Toronto to Montreal mentioned above are so cheap. The deal ends at midnight on March 9 (use promo code “BIG”). Like I said, with airfares going up this spring, it’s smart to get your tickets now.


About the Author

Vacay
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Vicky is the worldly publisher of Vacay.ca. Having graduated from McGill University in Montreal, she has set about building a talented team of travel experts to deliver to you words and images of the very best places to see and experience in Canada. Based in Yorkville in Toronto, Vicky regularly jet sets around Canada — be sure to catch up with her when she's in your part of the country.

 
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