We purchased our tickets from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (the town at the foot of the mountain Machu Picchu sits on) about three weeks in advance on the PeruRail website, which was quite easy and straightforward, although knowing which train you want takes a bit of research. There were three options:
1) The “Hiram Bingham” train – a super luxury train that (as far as we could tell) only had the advantage that it served you a gourmet meal on the way. Price was around $300-350 return.
2) The “Vistadome” train (which we took) that was said to be comfortable with great viewing. About $75-100 return. Reviewed below.
3) A local commuter train, which if I remember right was like $50 return, but was said to be quite slow (at least an extra hour) and unreliable. Everything I read in advance said it was well worth paying the small amount extra for the Vistadome.
It wasn’t completely clear that we needed to print the tickets or anything, so the day before the train when we arrived in Cuzco we went to the PeruRail office (easy to find on the Plaza de las Armas) to see what the story was.
It was a good thing we went, because we found out not only that we needed a printout, but that heavy rains had washed out part of the track from Cuzco, so the first roughly half of the journey would be replaced by a bus. The only upside is that the bus would leave from a station in downtown Cuzco, only a 5 minute taxi ride, instead of the normal train station well outside Cuzco maybe a 30 minute taxi ride away. Small miracles I guess?
The busses seated around 25-30 people, but for some reason when we got on the bus there were only 6 of us total. On the way back, however, when the train unloaded straight to the busses our bus was full. Either way, it was a bit over an hour ride and decently comfortable. There wasn’t a ton of legroom, but there was enough that we didn’t feel squashed.
One important note, you are only allowed one small carry-on on the train, no more than 5kg in weight. We never saw anyone checking them, but this is because basically there’s nowhere to put any luggage. Lots of people are on daytrips so it’s not a big deal, but if you’re planning on an overnight stay (or two nights like we were) this could be a bit inconvenient.
On the way to Aguas Calientes and back the train was almost completely full. They seem to add cars as needed – on the way there there was only one car, but on the way back there were six or seven. This ensures most of them are full, if not almost full. Still, for the barely 90 minute journey it was plenty comfortable. A few fews from the train on the way to Aguas Calientes: