window overlooking landscape from venice simplon orient express
Photo courtesy of Belmond
Photo courtesy of Belmond

In 2024, It’s a Race to Own Luxury Train Travel

Two luxury travel companies are competing for the revival of the historic Orient Express.

Luxury trains are riding the express line in 2024. As travelers ditch airplanes, embrace slow travel, and adopt “main character” mindsets, the idea of an old-fashioned, cinematic railway journey has never felt so appealing. And there’s no train so glamorous as the storied Orient Express. While the LVMH-owned Belmond has been conducting trips on the original train’s Art Deco carriages since 1982, the French hospitality group Accor will be throwing a hat into the ring with its own revival, set to unveil in 2024, just in time for the Paris Olympic Games.

Originally designed by Belgian businessman Georges Nagelmackers in 1882, the Orient Express, Europe’s first transcontinental express train, ran for more than 80 years with the romantic mission of uniting the East and West. With its mahogany bars, velvet-draped drawing rooms, and five-star dining, the Orient Express attracted famous passengers like Lawrence of Arabia, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, actress Marlene Dietrich, and Leo Tolstoy. Writers like Graham Greene and Agatha Christie immortalized the voyage through literature, and the train has since been featured in various film adaptations of James Bond and Murder on the Orient Express.

In 1982, an American shipping executive named James Sherwood revived the train, which had been defunct since 1977. He spent more than $30 million tracking down the original carriages scattered throughout Europe to create the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,” now owned by Belmond (historically, France’s national rail service, the SNCF, owned the Orient Express and eventually allowed Belmond to use the four-part moniker “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express”).

Since 1982, the train has been zipping more than half a million affluent passengers through London, Paris, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, offering glitzy perks like free-flowing champagne and 24-hour cabin stewards.

train porter offering amenities
Photo courtesy of Belmond

The train features 18 original 1920s and ‘30s carriages. “Almost 100 years ago the best designers of the time—including Prou and Lalique—were summoned to decorate the carriages that today form our train,” says Gary Franklin, vice president of trains and cruises at Belmond. “References to these designers and their Art Deco style can be found in the new suites that debuted in 2023, which have been designed by artisans that are proud custodians of these century-old crafts.” A cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express starts at about $22,000 per passenger.

But another golden age revival is on the horizon, one that has claimed ownership of the “Orient Express” name by purchasing it outright. Around the same time Sherwood was sniffing around for old train cars, Swiss tour operator Albert Glatt was purchasing his own, in what would later become the Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express, running from Zurich to Istanbul. It's the same train Michael Jackson boarded in 1992 for his “Dangerous” tour. Despite the train’s success, it suspended its service a few years later and disappeared.

In 2015, industrial researcher Arthur Mettetal conducted a worldwide inventory of Orient Express cars for the SNCF and came across a YouTube video of a familiar train in motion, posted by an anonymous user. Using Google Maps, he tracked down the vestiges in Warsaw, Poland: It was indeed the Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express. Accor acquired the train in 2018, enlisting architect Maxime D’Angeac, who has worked on design projects with luxury houses like Daume and Hermès.

Like Belmond, Accor will honor the Art Deco style of the original Orient Express, boasting features like plush green booths, mirrored ceilings, and panels featuring the famed glasswork of Suzanne Lalique. Mirroring Belmond’s impressive portfolio of hotels, trains, and cruises, Accor is launching a few luxury properties under the Orient Express banner in 2024—La Minerva in Rome and the Orient Express Palazzo Donà Giovannelli in Venice.

While Accor’s Orient Express won’t hit the rails until 2025, the first cars will be on display just in time for the Paris Olympics. And to tease things out even further, the company is launching La Dolce Vita later this year, a set of six trains embracing 1960s Italian design. The concept will offer one to two-night itineraries across 14 different regions in Italy, as well as three international destinations including Paris, Istanbul, and Split.

“Following a resurgence in the allure of luxury rail travel, often in a more eco-conscious way, we are seeing more and more companies looking to launch into this sector and see this as further evidence that demand is strong,” says Franklin.

Perhaps in an effort to compete, Belmond has recently upped their offerings. “We took mountain enthusiasts and skiers from Paris to the French Alps for the first time this past December,” Franklin says. “The train traveled from Paris through some of France's most untouched countryside and up to the Alpine train stations of Albertville, Moûtiers, and Bourg-Saint-Maurice, where guests could choose to disembark.”

The company is also boasting a brand new journey from Paris to Portofino, launching in June, as well as a second rotation of the historic five-night journey between Paris and Istanbul, which is typically offered once annually. Franklin notes that Americans in particular are taking an interest in Belmond’s international offerings. “The US market is growing remarkably, from representing 16% of total business on the books in 2023 to 20% in 2024 already,” he says. “None of our guests book our train by chance.”

venice simplon orient express riding through hills of austria
Photo courtesy of Belmond

Luxury trains are also flourishing beyond the famous Paris to Istanbul route. Switzerland’s famous Gornegat Railway recently unveiled an exclusive “NostalChic'' experience, where passengers can enjoy a four-course gourmet meal as they ascend Matterhorn mountain. Railbookers is capturing the very best of luxury train travel with a four-continent, 13-country “Around the World by Luxury Train” journey, departing this August. This year, Belmond is also reviving the Eastern & Oriental Express, a train that once traveled across Malaysia, from its five year hiatus. Rocky Mountaineer continues to lead the charge in North America, offering panoramic views of Canada and the American West from glass-domed coaches.

And such luxury locomotives will continue to prosper well after 2024. The UAE’s railway operator Etihad Rail and Italian hospitality company Arsenale (the same company that worked on Accor’s Orient Express) have announced a collaboration to build a high-end, cross-country train that will ride from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi’s Liwa desert.

“We are past the era of fast, frequent travel and guilt-free consumption,” Franklin says. “The concept of luxury travel has evolved to coincide with purposeful, sustainable and immersive experiences.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram