13 Festive Train Rides You Can Take for the Holidays

From classic Santa experiences to a post-holiday trip with a staged train heist.

Enjoy festive cheer and wine onboard the Napa Valley Wine Train's holiday ride.
Photo: Courtesy of the Napa Valley Wine Train

Taking a train ride with Santa and his helpers or scoping out magnificent winter scenery from the window of a railcar can make for a festive way to celebrate the holiday season. Whether you're a family looking to create memories with your kids or you're a trainspotter with a penchant for mesmerizing views and Christmas-themed food, there’s a winter train ride to fit the bill.

From train rides inspired by “The Polar Express" to ones abounding with schnapps-spiked hot chocolate or potential views of the northern lights, here are 13 festive train rides all over the world.

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The Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) Holiday Train: Chicago, Illinois

Each year, the Chicago Transit Authority runs its decorated Holiday Train on each of its eight rail lines from after Thanksgiving until right before Christmas Day.
Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

Every year, starting after Thanksgiving and running until around Christmas, the Chicago Transit Authority runs its holiday-themed trains. The star of the season, the Holiday Train, runs on the eight rail lines the CTA operates, plus around the elevated Loop. Passengers ride in train cars wrapped with cheerful holiday images alongside Santa, who rides on an open-air flat car with his sleigh and reindeer. The train cars are often decorated with festive lights, Christmas trees, and candy-cane stripes on the handrails.

The CTA Holiday Train serves a bigger purpose than spreading joy, too: It delivers food baskets to charities around the CTA’s serviced areas. Past years have seen 600 food baskets delivered over the season. Schedules are posted on the CTA website, and regular CTA rates apply.

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Santa's Cookie Car by the Napa Valley Wine Train: Napa County, California

Enjoy festive cheer and wine onboard the Napa Valley Wine Train's holiday ride.
Courtesy of the Napa Valley Wine Train

Besides its beloved booze-fueled excursions, the Napa Valley Wine Train offers children and adults alike a festive musical experience onboard Santa's Cookie Car. The journey starts with carolers at the station as passengers board the charming train car bedecked with holiday décor. Once it departs, the train travels through the rolling scenery of Napa Valley to Yountville and back, lasting an hour and a half. All the while, passengers enjoy sing-alongs, hot chocolate, and freshly baked cookies with the star of the show: Santa.

Kids get the opportunity to snap a photo with the guy in red and drop postcards for him at the Merry Mailing Center. Santa's Cookie Car will run every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in December 2022, ending the day before Christmas Eve. Tickets are $95 for adults and $75 for children.

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The Polar Express by Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad: Durango, Colorado

Passengers onboard the Christmas Tree Train will cut their very own tree to take home for the holidays.
Courtesy of Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

A ride on Durango & Silverton's version of the Polar Express gives families a true Chris Van Allsburg-worthy experience. Hot chocolate flows and other sweet treats are served as the conductor performs a reading from the iconic holiday story. When the train pulls out of Durango Depot en route to the North Pole, caroling and general merriment abounds.

After a half-hour ride, passengers are treated to a light show set to music at the North Pole, then gifts are distributed by Santa himself on the way back to Durango. The whole Polar Express experience takes around two hours, and passengers are encouraged to wear pajamas just like in the book. Trains will be running almost every day — except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a few weekdays — from Nov. 18 to Jan. 1. Tickets start at $29 for kids and $39 for adults, but first-class seats can cost up to $93.

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The Train of Lights: Devon, England

The Train of Lights: Devon, England
Courtesy of Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company

The Train of Lights whisks passengers away on a kaleidoscopic journey into the forest. Created by the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company, the train takes off from Queen’s Park Station in the town of Paignton and travels through Devon, England, casting color onto the forest with lights strung on its exterior. Holiday displays and decorations also adorn the route.

Passengers will board the vintage carriages of the steam train and embark on a journey through a tunnel of light along the River Dart, on which the train's illumination reflects and creates a mesmerizing parade. The train goes to Kingswear and back, lasting a total of one hour, The train runs from Nov. 25 through to Dec. 30 every day except Mondays and the Monday through Thursday before Christmas. Tickets are £17 for kids and £26 for adults.

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The Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel's Polar Express: Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel's Polar Express: Arizona 
Courtesy of Grand Canyon Railroad

The Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel started its Polar Express ride before the famed movie even came out. Since 2001, the train has taken passengers on nighttime rides through the wilderness of Williams, Arizona, to the North Pole.

Pajama-clad youngsters and adults are served hot chocolate and chocolate-chip cookies while they listen to the cherished Christmas tale before arriving at a brightly-lit scene complete with Santa and his reindeer.

At the North Pole, Santa presents every kid with a keepsake gift before families return from the 90-minute journey. Families can extend the holiday fun with a stay at the hotel. The Polar Express departs twice a night almost every night from Nov. 11 to Dec. 30. Tickets start at $57 for adults and $38 for children.

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The Brightline Polar Express: Miami, Florida

The Brightline Polar Express: Fort Lauderdale, Florida 
Courtesy of Brightline

You can find Polar Express-themed train rides across the country during the holiday season, including one by the country’s first private high-speed train service, the Brightline.

This Polar Express, an hour-long round-trip journey from MiamiCentral Station, takes passengers around Downtown Miami while dancing chefs keep the hot chocolate and Walkers Shortbread flowing. Passengers enjoy caroling alongside characters from the film and even get a ceremonious hole punched in their festive golden ticket. They leave with a boost of holiday cheer and a keepsake sleigh bell presented by Santa himself to remember the ride by. Tickets start at $50 for adults and $45 for kids.

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The Holiday Express 1880 Train: Hill City, South Dakota

The Holiday Express 1880 Train: South Dakota 
Courtesy of Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Train

The Holiday Express 1880 Train combines Christmas and history as passengers take a one-hour ride onboard the world’s longest-operating standard-gauge excursion train.

The train weaves from Hill City through the Black Hills National Forest, with views of historic mining encampments and rock huts along the way. Passengers can enjoy hot chocolate and sugar cookies and may even spot real-life reindeer (elk, actually), turkeys, and marmots during their journey. The train heads to the North Pole, where Santa boards the train and greets each guest.

Adults 21-and-older can book the Holiday Express Spiked, where hot chocolate comes spiked with schnapps. The trains will run every day from Nov. 25 through Dec. 28. Tickets start at $42 for adults and $21 for children. Holiday Express Spiked costs $55.

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Winter in the Rockies: Vancouver to Banff, Canada

Explore Canada's spectacular scenery while enjoying traditional holiday meals on this eight-day trip.
Philippe Widling/Getty Images

For those looking for an authentic polar experience — particularly an eight-day tour in the Great White North — Winter in the Rockies from Vacations by Rail is the ticket. This train travels from Vancouver, Canada, to the real-life winter wonderland that is Banff, cutting through both Jasper National Park and the iconic Lake Louise. Along the way, passengers can disembark to ice skate on Lac Beauvert or take a horse-drawn sleigh ride across a frozen landscape. There are more than a dozen departures between Nov. 3 and Dec. 29 and prices start at $2,087 per person.

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The Alaska Railroad's Aurora Train: Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska

Take the Aurora Train to head to festive events in Alaska while taking in the state's natural scenery.
Courtesy of Richard Kelly

Those traveling on Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Train can take in the state’s natural beauty while creating their own customized holiday itinerary. This 12-hour journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks (or vice-versa; the train also runs southbound) includes stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and other cities on weekends from mid-September to mid-May. Winter conditions can make traveling around the state difficult, with trains often being the best (if not the only) way to get around.

In Fairbanks, passengers can search for the northern lights or head to the nearby Santa Claus House, home to the world’s largest Santa, fudge making, and a jolly collection of toys. Kids on the train can write letters to give to Santa once they arrive at the Santa Claus House, all while enjoying views of real reindeer and moose grazing along the train’s path.

The Aurora Train runs northbound on Saturdays and southbound on Sundays from Sept. 24 to May 7. Tickets cost $234 per adult and $117 per child.

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Santa Claus Express: Helsinki to Rovaniemi, Finland

See Finland's magnificent winter scenery while touring festive cities on the Santa Clause Express.
Courtesy of Eurail

Follow in Santa's footsteps onboard the Santa Claus Express, which travels overnight from Helsinki to Finland’s northernmost region of Lapland.

The double-decker train travels through Finland’s spectacular winter scenery, providing views of its snow-lined peaks throughout the 14-hour journey. Passengers will stop at Rovaniemi, known as the “official residence of Santa Claus” and home to his personal post office, where children can drop off signed letters for Santa himself.

There are plenty of holiday-themed activities to get into in Rovaniemi — such as visiting an elf school, riding a reindeer, or embarking on a snowmobile safari — while the city's abundance of Christmas trees and native reindeer will make visitors feel as though they’ve stepped into a real-life snow globe.

By purchasing a Eurail Pass, passengers can book journeys on this train and several others. The Santa Claus Express uses the regular train numbers 265/273 and 266/274, which depart from Helsinki daily. Tickets start at €10 for a seat and €40 for a sleeper.

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North Pole Limited Christmas Train: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Enjoy holiday-themed drinks on a train trip with the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

A tradition since 1999, the North Pole Limited Christmas Train travels through southeast Tennessee, providing views of the beautiful Appalachian Mountain foothills and some holiday light displays along the way. Like any Polar Express-themed excursion, this one features cookies, hot chocolate, and storytelling. Passengers also get the chance to write letters to Santa — who makes an appearance, of course, when the train arrives at the North Pole.

The whole round-trip journey, starting and ending in Chattanooga, takes an hour. It runs Friday through Sunday from Nov. 18 to Dec. 23 in 2022, with some extra dates offered the week leading up to Christmas. Tickets start at $29 for daytime rides and $39 for nighttime rides. Passengers get to take home a keepsake boarding pass, ornament, and bell.

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Country Christmas Train: Denton, North Carolina

Enjoy train rides, gingerbread house tours, and more at the Denton FarmPark.
Courtesy of Denton FarmPark

Marvel at hundreds of holiday light displays and see the story of the nativity unfold with live scenes on the Country Christmas Train at Denton FarmPark, a family-owned historical park that captures the essence of old-timey North Carolina.

The experience kicks off with a walk along an illuminated candy-cane path and pictures with Santa at the station. The train follows the Handy Dandy Railroad, a mile-and-a-half-track, for a short ride during which elves can be seen out the window. On the train, passengers watch a short (nonsecular) film about the meaning of Christmas.

After the train ride, guests can visit a gingerbread house to enjoy fresh homemade gingerbread cookies, partake in a carriage ride, and visit the petting zoo.

Trains run Friday through Sunday from Nov. 25 through Dec. 11, then every day of the week leading up to and a couple days after Christmas. Tickets are $20 for adults and $6 for children ages five to 11. Children four and under ride for free.

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The After Christmas Train by the Grapevine Vintage Railroad: Grapevine, Texas

Grapevine Vintage Railroad offers several holiday-themed train rides.
Courtesy of Grapevine Convention & Visitors Bureau

Those looking to keep the Christmas cheer going after the holiday season is over can take a ride on the Grapevine Vintage Railroad’s After Christmas Trains.

The most unique feature of this ride is perhaps the "Great Train Heist," a game that passengers play to help the "Cotton Belt Special Agent" catch a notorious, imaginary robber.

After about two hours of games and sightseeing, passengers arrive at the Fort Worth Stockyards, where they’ll have about an hour to enjoy lunch or explore the area’s shops before retuning back to Grapevine. The whole experience takes roughly six hours. Trains run Dec. 26 through 30, with tickets starting at $18 for all passengers older than 13 months.

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