Fed up with the delays, cattle seating, security lines and inferior food associated with air travel? Then join the growing number of holidaymakers getting around by rail. Luxury trains offer golden-age-of-travel perks for prices that don't rise with every lurch in the price of oil. They've been jazzed up with wi-fi and DVD players and offer a more intimate connection with a destination. "Trains go right through the center of communities rather than being 30,000 feet in the air," says Owen C. Hardy, CEO of the Society of International Railway Travelers.
Everyone's heard of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which still plies the old route from Paris to Istanbul. But plenty of others are giving it a run for its money, of which South Africa's Blue Train and Pride of Africa and Spain's 28-passenger El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo are noteworthy examples. If you're on a budget, the Blue Train, which goes between Cape Town and Pretoria, is a five-star steal, with a butler for every four suites and fares starting around $1,650 per person. "The Blue Train is operating at a very high frequency for 2011 and 2012 due to an increased demand," says Kenneth Hieber of tour operator 2Afrika. Also affordable is Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa, plying itineraries that stretch from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. At the other end of the scale, the superluxe El Transcantabrico, which launched last month, takes its sweet time (a full week) on a 650-km route skirting Spain's northern coast and includes four 1923 Pullman lounge cars à la Murder on the Orient Express but without the blood. Deluxe cabins take up half a train car each, and fares start at $5,400. That's a lot pricier than most plane tickets, but then you won't get deep-vein thrombosis or be required to eat off a plastic tray.