15 Festive Train Rides You Can Take for the Holidays
Whether you're a family looking for a playful way to provide children with holiday memories they won’t forget, or adults in search of magnificent ice adventures and mesmerizing views coupled with Christmas-themed meals and drinks, there’s a winter train ride to fit the bill.
We’ve put together a list of 15 train rides to take for the holidays. Some of the trains are inspired by Chris Van Allsburg's famed book “The Polar Express,” while others include schnapps-spiked hot chocolate, views of the Northern Lights, and getting to cut your own Christmas tree to take home.
Related:Best Places to See the Northern Lights
The Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) Holiday Train: Chicago, Illinois
Every year, starting after Thanksgiving and running until December 23, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) runs its holiday-themed trains.
The main star of the season, the Holiday Train, runs on the eight rail lines the CTA operates with six passenger train cars and a flat car where Santa, his sleigh, and his reindeer can be found. The train cars are adorned with festive lights, Christmas trees, and candy cane stripes on the handrails.
The train, which delivers food baskets to charities around the CTA’s serviced areas, operates on select weekdays and on Saturdays, with regular CTA rates applying.
Nostalgia Train: New York City, New York
Each year, the New York Transit Museum and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) roll out the vintage trains dating back from the 1930s to the 1970s for passengers to enjoy.
The trains, which include original features like rattan chairs, incandescent bulb lighting, drop-sash style windows, and vintage advertisements, were ridden by famed jazz composers like Billy Strayhorn.
Today, they are enjoyed by locals and travelers who often dress in period costumes for the occasion. The cost to ride the vintage trains is the same a normal subway ticket.
Napa Valley Wine Train's Santa Train: Napa County, California
The 1.25-hour journey travels through the rolling scenery of Napa Valley while passengers enjoy games, sing-alongs, and goodies like hot chocolate and freshly baked cookies.
Santa conducts the train alongside a variety of holiday characters that will be onboard to collect letters from youngsters before reaching “Santa’s Workshop” in the “North Pole”.
The train runs through December 27, with prices starting at $59.99.
The Christmas Tree Train From the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad: Colorado
A ride on the Christmas Tree Train gives passengers the chance to cut their very own Christmas tree from the wilderness, all while enjoying spectacular scenery along the way.
The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has partnered with the San Juan National Forest Columbine Ranger District and the San Juan Mountains Association to create the memorable experience, allowing passengers to cut white fir trees in the area to assist in reducing wildfire risks.
Passengers will be given saws and volunteers will be on hand to assist in selecting and cutting trees, which riders will do after taking a journey from downtown Durango and through the Animus Valley into Cascade Canyon in the San Juan National Forest.
Once in Cascade Canyon, guests can enjoy a hot beverage by the cozy fireplace or take a romantic stroll along the Animus River footbridge. Prices start at $69 for adults and at $42 for children ages four to 11.
The Train of Lights: Devon, England
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 lit tunnels and forest displays in Devon, England.
Passengers will board the vintage carriages (with thousands of lights adorning the train inside and out), before the light show starts with a trip through a multi-colored tunnel that leads into the forest.
Various light displays will be sprinkled throughout the forest, with passengers getting to see the displays from both sides once the train makes its way back.
The Arctic Explorer: Russia and Norway
Enjoy a luxurious ride onboard the Arctic Explorer, complete with festive decorations and stunning views.
The 12-day journey takes passengers through Russia and Norway, bookended with stops in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where guests can tour the cities’ elaborate metro stations, take horse-drawn sleigh rides near beautiful castles, and enjoy traditional meals and snacks.
The train travels into the Arctic Circle to provide passengers with views of the northern lights, with optional excursions that include dog sledge tours, snowmobile northern lights viewing tours, and stays at Norway’s Ice Hotel.
Adventures range from an onboard New Year’s Eve party complete with complimentary champagne, drinks, and entertainment, to snowmobile rides across Norway’s frozen fjords where passengers will catch their own Arctic king crabs. Tickets start at $12,595 for double occupancy.
The Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel's Polar Express: Arizona
The Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel started its Polar Express ride before the famed movie came out. Since 2000, 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 freshly baked cookies while they listen to the cherished Christmas tale before they arrive at a brightly-lit holiday world where they'll find Santa and his reindeer.
Santa boards the train to hand every child a sleigh bell before families return from the 90-minute journey. Families can extend the holiday fun with a festive stay at the hotel, which is completely decorated for the occasion, with opportunities to enjoy story time with Mrs. Claus and photos with Santa. Tickets start at $45 for adults and $33 for children ages two to 15.
The Brightline Polar Express: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
You can find Polar Express-themed train rides across the country during the holiday season, including a Polar Express excursion on the country’s first private high-speed train service, the Brightline.
Once on the train, passengers will be treated to hot chocolate and cookies served by dancing chefs, and they'll enjoy caroling alongside characters from the film. Guests will also receive a keepsake sleigh bell on the one-hour journey. Tickets start at $55 for adults and $50 for kids.
The Holiday Express 1880 Train: South Dakota
The Holiday Express 1880 Train combines Christmas and history as passengers take a one-hour ride onboard the world’s longest operating standard-gage 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 spot reindeer, turkeys, and marmots during their journey. The train heads to the “North Pole,” where Santa will board the train and greet each of the guests. Every train car is decorated with themes that range from winter wonderland to candy land to Victorian Christmas.
Adults can book the Holiday Express Spiked, where hot chocolate comes spiked with schnapps. Tickets start at $35 for adults and $16 for children for the Holiday Express, and $49 for adults on the Holiday Express Spiked train.
Canadian Rockies Winter Adventure: Canada
For those looking for a festive trip to the Great White North, the eight-day Canadian Rockies Winter Adventure from Vacations by Rail is the ticket.
This train travels from Vancouver to Calgary and cuts through both Jasper National Park and Banff National Park. You can enjoy ice-skating, snowmobiling, and horse-drawn sleigh rides across frozen landscapes to get into the wintry spirit on this tour.
The Alaska Railroad's Aurora Train: Alaska
Those traveling on Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Train can take in the state’s natural beauty while creating their own customized holiday itinerary.
The train offers a 12-hour journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks with stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and other cities from mid-September to mid-May. Winter conditions can make traveling around the state difficult, with trains often being the best (if not only) way to get around.
With the Talkeetna pie-making package, passengers can ride the train and stop in Talkeetna to learn how to make the pies that the Talkeetna Roadhouse is famous for. In Fairbanks, passengers can search for the northern lights or head to the nearby Santa Clause 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 Clause House, all while enjoying views of the reindeer and moose that graze along the train’s path.
Santa Clause Express Night Train: Finland
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 and receive a gift from Santa himself.
There are plenty of holiday-themed activities in Rovaniemi, including a visit to an elf school, gingerbread cookie tastings, reindeer rides, and snowmobile safaris, while its large abundance of Christmas trees and native reindeer will make visitors feel as though they’ve stepped into a real-life winter wonderland.
By purchasing a Eurail Pass, passengers can book journeys on this train and several others. Eurail has several passes to choose from, including the Scandinavia Pass, which allows passengers to explore Denmark, Sweden, and Norway by train.
Nightcap With St. Nick: Tennessee
For a 21-and-over train ride filled with boozy treats, passengers can take the Nightcap with St. Nick ride on the Tennessee Valley Railroad.
Passengers board the first-class, round-end observation car at the Grand Junction Depot for a 75-minute ride to the North Pole.
Along the way, they’ll be treated to festive drink choices that include peppermint schnapps hot chocolate, brandy eggnog, and Irish Cream coffee. Drinks also come with a dessert plate and a souvenir mug.
St. Nick will make an appearance, and costumed characters tell the classic story “Twas the Night Before Christmas" as you sip and ride.
Country Christmas Train: Denton, North Carolina
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.
After the train ride, guests can visit a gingerbread house to enjoy fresh, homemade gingerbread cookies and hot chocolate, stop by the church to sing Christmas carols, and visit a petting zoo.
Tickets are only $16 for adults and $5 for children ages five to 11, making the visit an affordable holiday excursion.
The After Christmas Train by the Grapevine Vintage Railroad: Grapevine, Texas
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 trains are adorned in holiday decor that ranges from candy canes and stockings to green and red bows, with toys and gifts galore. Passengers take the trip from Grapevine to 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 railroad also operates several other holiday-themed trains, including its famed North Pole Express train, complete with frosty chocolate snow milk, Christmas cookies, gifts from Mrs. Clause, and a visit to Santa’s workshop.
Tickets for the North Pole Express go on sale in July and sell out fast, so interested travelers will want to book their tickets in the summer to ensure they'll get to ride.