Sleeper trains are making a welcome return and it’s easy to see why; they’re kinder to the environment and more sustainable than air travel, while being a fun and, often, comfortable way to travel.
However, it can seem daunting if it’s your first time on a sleeper train. Avid train traveler Monisha Rajesh details everything you need to know before boarding your first overnight train.
What type of seat should I book?
Regardless of the country you are traveling to, familiarize yourself with the different classes of accommodation offered by each service depending on your needs and budget. On the American Amtrak, the majority of travelers buy tickets in coach class where the seats are wide and reclining with plenty of legroom. However, you will need to pack a blanket and pillow for a restful night. Private rooms contain two face-to-face seats that convert to upper and lower berths at night, and guest rooms offer the same number of berths with twice the space. Prices vary wildly depending on when you travel, so book as early as possible to find the cheapest tickets.
In Europe you will find couchettes and couchettes: the former are six or four berth compartments with berths that you compose yourself, and the latter are equipped with prefabricated beds, washbasins and, on some routes, showers and private toilets. Train operators in most countries will post clear pictures on their websites of what to expect, and again, it’s best to book early to find good fares. Women traveling are usually assigned spaces together, but you can always call the operator directly to make sure this will be the case.
When to buy a rail pass
If you’re traveling on more than one or two sleepers in a few days, consider a rail pass. Amtrak’s 30-day pass gives you 10 rides for $499 and the Europe Interrail pass offers seven days of travel in the same month for $250. You have to pay a small fee to reserve a seat, but a pass often proves more cost effective than buying individual tickets – and also allows for day skipping.
Slower is sometimes better
Consider the time your train arrives at its destination. If you arrive in an unfamiliar town at 6am, you may not want to walk around with your luggage while waiting for check-in at 3pm, so look for storage facilities at the other end or see if an auto – early check-in is available at your accommodation. Alternatively, consider taking a slower night train that arrives at a more convenient time of day.
You might want to rethink this nighttime border crossing
Crossing borders at night may sound exciting and romantic, but in reality, it’s a real headache. Expect to be woken for passport and customs checks on both sides and occasionally asked to disembark to have your luggage scanned. A day service is much kinder to the soul of a weary traveler.
What to put in your suitcase to be comfortable
Pack as lightly as possible. You’ll probably have to put your bag in racks or tuck it under the bunks, so be frugal. Bring a small, hotel-sized bottle of shower gel for hand washing—no one wants to repackage a bar of soap—and a flannel. Don’t carry wet wipes, which are bad for the environment and often end up falling directly onto the tracks if flushed down the toilet. It’s always safest to bring your own roll of toilet paper and make sure it’s easily accessible at night.
Wear slip-on shoes so you don’t have to fumble in the dark with shoelaces or have them dragged across the floor of a train. For similar reasons, wear stretchy leggings or loose yoga pants, something with tapered ankles that won’t pick up dirt.
Train temperatures can go from one extreme to the other: don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll freeze on the Trans-Siberian in winter, the heaters are on full blast and most passengers walk around in vests and sliders. Start with a vest and add layers up to a comfy hoodie in case it gets chilly, and bring a pair of thick socks.
Bring a silk night sheet. They come in compact, palm-sized pouches and work well as an extra layer of insulation in the winter and are wonderfully cool in the summer. In hot countries, they also do a good job of protecting you from insect bites.
If you’re a light sleeper and aren’t used to chatter after dark or the brightness of early mornings, you might want to invest in a pair of soft silicone earplugs and a mask. for the eyes for a better night’s sleep. Finally, load books on an e-reader and pack a portable charger for your phone.
Rules are there for a reason
Follow the rules! If a sign says the lights go out at 9 p.m., follow your companions’ lead. Use your reading light and if you want to call or send messages go out into the hallway so as not to disturb others. Avoid using the toilets when the train is parked at stations as rubbish often falls onto the tracks, which is unpleasant for passengers on the platform.
Book a top bunk if you want to sleep
During the day, the lower bunks are used as seating for all members of a compartment, so don’t sleep in if everyone is awake. It’s antisocial and the bunk needs to be tidied up. For this reason, a good tip is to book an upper berth, which means you can go up whenever you want to take a nap or read, and you can stay there as long as you want in the morning.
Always bring food
Check to see if there’s a dining car on board, but always pack some food in case the kitchen is closed for some reason. Instant noodles, bananas, cookies and granola bars will keep you going, while cheese and cold cuts are fine if eaten on the first night. If you are staying in a hotel the night before, empty tea, coffee and sugar bags and make sure you have cash in small denominations for drinks, snacks and tips for staff.
Use food and drink to break the ice. Train travel in Asia in particular is a family-friendly affair with everything from well-rolled chapatis with fried potatoes on Indian trains to home-cooked meals. mantou rolls and fried fish in China, which they usually offer to other passengers. Try to return the gesture even if it’s just to share nuts or hard candy.
Three Best Night Trains for Beginners
1. Stockholm to Narvik
Departing from the Swedish capital just after 6pm, this beloved sleeper is the only service that travels up the country and into the Arctic Circle, crossing the Norwegian border after breakfast. With cozy compartments and a noisy, neon-pink-lit dining car, the train gives passengers the chance to savor rich reindeer stew and creamy mash while making friends with ski parties, students, young families and often a dog or two. The final hours bring the most stunning scenery as the train meanders over frozen fjords, backdrop mountains and snow-dusted spruces before arriving in Narvik.
A one-way sleeper fare for six people costs from $74. Book through VY.
2. Bombay-Howrah Duronto Express
The Duronto train fleet in India offers a high-speed overnight service that makes minimum stops between the city of departure and the destination. Fully air-conditioned with wide berths, bottle holders and LED lights, the trains offer clean and comfortable service with vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals included in the ticket price. Expect tomato soup, followed by foil-wrapped roti, steaming rice, chicken curry, dal, and yogurt. Board in Mumbai and go to bed around 10 p.m., sleeping with the peace of mind that there will be few brakes and jerks and no loud new voices looking for berths.
A one-way trip in a four-person compartment costs from $57. Book your tickets with 12Go.
3. Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles
The oldest named train in the United States, the Sunset Limited is Amtrak’s southernmost route, carrying passengers through the bayous of Louisiana and the raw red expanse of Texas, before crossing New Mexico and Arizona and sail to Los Angeles on day one. A superliner service, it contains an upper-level observation car as well as a dining car serving coconut-crusted shrimp, flat iron steak and blueberry cheesecake. Book in a room or room for the full cross-country experience.
A one-way roomette ticket costs from $849. Book your tickets with Amtrak.