Sleeper trains, they’re great, but can be hard work.  But if I’m honest, while I may have had trouble actually sleeping on them in the past, the effort was worth it, as there’s nothing quite like waking up and watching the sunrise from a locomotive racing through an incredible landscape. A learned a trick a couple of months ago from a friend of mine on how to avoid long naps in the day which helps in falling asleep when night comes. Now, I am sometimes caught buying waklert online when things are a bit busy and I needed an extra boost of concentration.

Travel by train is by far my favourite method of travel, I think I might have mentioned that before.  I can quite happily plonk myself down in a window seat and watch the world go by for hours, all the while knowing that I won’t have to wait at a baggage carousel once I reach my destination, or need to wait in line at boarded control.  I’ll also usually be a lot more comfortable on a train, as they generally afford more leg room than budget airlines.

All that said though, there is obviously a massive difference between sitting on a train for a couple of hours, and spending the night on one, especially if you’re spending the night in a cabin with a bunch of strangers, i.e. a sleep train.

Last week I experienced my 4th journey by sleeper train, and whilst it wasn’t hell, it was certainly wasn’t the most comfortable ride, or nights sleep, that I’ve ever had.  But therein lies the beauty of a sleeper train, they combine transportation and accommodation.  It’s two birds with one stone.

So whilst my last train related article was centered around a delightful 2 hour train journey from Sarajevo to Mostar, this post while focus on those longer train journeys where the train has also provided my accommodation for the night. Hopefully the below will give you a little insight in what sleeper trains can be like, and then how you too can ‘survive’ them.

P.S. Please excuse some of the photos below, some were taken before the days of digital cameras, and I had to scan the print. 

1.  Bangkok to Chang Mai – 2009

My first even overnight sleeper train journey was a long one, VERY long.  When buying the tickets the travel agent had told us the journey would take some 14 hours, and to be fair the same duration was also printed on the ticket. However 18 hours turned out to be the reality.  I know I just said I can sit for hours simply staring out of the window, but by hour 15 the scenery resembled a fixed image, my bum had gone numb, and I just REALLY wanted to get there and experience Chang Mai.

Despite the slightly longer than anticipated journey time, the first 10 or so hours of the train ride wasn’t all bad. Catching such a train, my very first sleeper train, in Bangkok was an exciting experience, and on board my buddy and I had some nice food and sank a few beers.  Watching the beds being made up for the night was a good watch, but sleeping in them was not so good admittedly.

With the beds, the curse of being tall and in Asia struck again, and I was barely able to fit in mine, expect when in the fetal position.  Add to that the worry of someone trying to steal my backpack, and it wasn’t a great nights sleep.  I’m over that worry a little bit now, and I have learned over time how to secure my backpack, and of course backpack technology has moved on since 2009.  However small beds are small beds, and tall travellers are tall travellers, and we don’t go together very well.

My friend Dan and I bought our tickets for the train from a travel agents on the Koh San Road.  We probably paid a premium for this, but at least we had tickets in hand as we boarded our train at Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok.

Bangkok to Chang Mai sleeper train

2.  Bangkok to Nong Khai/Vientaine – 2013

Fast forward 4 years and I was back in Bangkok and on another sleeper train.  The destination this time however wasn’t another area of Thailand, but in fact the boarder stations (Nong Khai) between Thailand and Loas.

Now this was more like it, a private 2 person cabin with bunk beds, that allowed for peace of mind security wise plus reduced noise levels, and as a result a lot of sleep.  It probably also helped that my girlfiend and I were catching this train only hours after touching down in Thailand from the UK.  We were half asleep even as we set foot aboard the train, but even so our little 2 person cabin was a great place to get to our heads down after a long flight.

It actually wasn’t that expensive to get a cabin to ourselves, but even if it had of been, I still think I would have paid it as I was determined to travel in relative style on my birthday.  Yep, sleeper train birthday boy.

However cheap the tickets were though, they were a complete nightmare to get hold of.  Basically the official online booking system had been shut down and tickets could only now be booked in person at Hua Lamphong, or via an agent.  Turning up in person on the day and trying to get tickets wasn’t really an option for us as we’d almost surely run the risk of the cabins being sold out, so we turned to travel agents.  We knew we’d pay more for agent services, but so be it.  What we didn’t know was that they’d need an address in Bangkok to deliver the tickets to, and we didn’t have one owing to not even staying 1 night in the Thai capital.  Eventually after emailing back and forth, it was arranged that a member of their staff would meet us at Hua Lamphong with the tickets for an additional charge.  This was great, but at the same time a bit of a leap of faith for us as we paid up front and just had to hope that the staff member would turn up, and be on time so that we didn’t miss our train.

Luckily it all worked out and ‘Thai time’ wasn’t an issue.  This sleeper train journey still remains my favourite sleeper train experience to date.

Bangkok to Nong Khai overnight train

3. Bucharest to Sofia – 2014

Much like the Bangkok to Nong Khai/Vientaine train, this sleeper train journey from Romania to Bulgaria was near on perfect.  I mean we had to bribe the staff on board to allow us a private cabin (which we were told were sold out, but clearly weren’t), but our group of 4 were all pretty much used to playing this game now (sadly).

Unlike the Bangkok to Loas train, instead of having bunk beds, we actually had two beds per cabin that we parallel to one another, with a tiny walkway between them.  As a result our cabin was a fair size and very comfortable. Unlike the Bangkok to Chang Mai train, we were to make up our beds of our own accord.  Luckily @backpackermacca was a dab hand at this.

Now this was my first boarder crossing sleeper train, and so the first time that I’d experienced passport check aboard a train.  To be fair, I was travelling within the EU on a UK passport, so there weren’t any problems as such, but the checks did take place at 5am and the boarder control officers didn’t seem too forgiving when I couldn’t find my glasses upon being woken.  I suppose they just wanted to clear everyone as quickly as possible, but surely they must realise it takes a minute or two upon waking up to adjust your eyes.

Bucharest to Sofia overnight train

4.  Paris to Venice – 2015

Now this journey was slightly different in that I was taking the sleeper train as a part of a lost luggage challenge. I therefore boarded the train with nothing but my passport, wallet, phone and a few items of food I’d picked up in Paris.

In a way, I guess my lack of luggage allowed my brain a bit of time off, as it didn’t have to worry about the security of my backpack, but at the same time I didn’t have a change of clothes for sleeping in or changing into the next morning and nor did I have any sleeping aids such as ear plugs … and they were BADLY needed!

Over the course of the 13 (long!) hour journey I think I managed roughly 5 hours sleep, and that was total. The most I think I slept in any one stint was about 2 hours.  In between profuse sweating, owing to a lack of any ventilation, and the seriously incredible sounds being made from the snorelax on the bottom bunk, continuous sleep was scarce.  I didn’t help that someone stole my bunk whilst I was in the toilet, therefore ‘relegating’ me to the top bunk.

With being my second sleeper train that crossed boarders I expected another 5am wakeup call for passport documents.  However this train company actually took your passport from you upon boarding and gave it back to you the next morning.  Whilst there is always the worry of being separated from your passport, this method did actually ensure that passengers weren’t woken … assuming they’d actually got to sleep in the first place.

Paris to Venice by sleeper train

5.  Mossel Bay – 2005 *Cheat* 

So some trains get you from A to B whilst you’re visiting the land of nod, but others don’t.  In 2005 I had my very first experience of sleeping overnight on a train, but this train was static and had been converted from working train into a hostel.  Parked (is parked the right word?) right on the beach, a working train line still ran parallel to the hostel, so there was still a sense of locomotive adventure.

Here you can just about see the blue train that is now the Santos Express hostel.

Sleeper Train survival kit

To be honest, sleeper trains aren’t all that different to hostels in that there is a certain type of etiquette to follow i.e. no plastic bag rustling, and that certain items will come in very handy if you want to survive the night.  Food and drink are a given, but otherwise I would ensure upon boarding any sleeper train you have on your person …

  • Ear plugs – trains are know as ‘rattlers’ for no reason, plus people do snore.
  • Face mask – unless you can sleep with the light on I would recommend a face mask. Bright lights at stations, plus people turning the light on and off as they come and go.
  • Lockable case/padlocks – for security and peace of mind.
  • Mozzy spray – yep, even on trains.
  • Wet wipes – for festival type showers in the morning.
  • Portable charger – in case needing to contact someone in an emergency.
  • Photocopy of your passport – if the train staff take your passport, it doesn’t hurt to have a scan to show proof of ownership.
  • Bottle/Determination – not a physical item, more a state of mind where if you’ve booked a certain seat/bed, you may need to move chancers from your space in order to ensure your own comfort.
  • Imodium – well this ones up to you, but most sleeper train toilets ain’t pretty. Alternatively just don’t eat or drink a lot.

So there you go, it’s not a big list of items you need, but by just having those few little bits your journey will become that bit more comfortable and hopefully enjoyable.

Of course if there are any other items you deem essential, just let me know in the comments below and I’ll add them to this list and credit you.

Would I take a sleeper train again?

Would I?

Yes, almost certainly.  Whilst I have moaned (quite a lot) about the lack of sleep aboard some of the sleeper trains I’ve taken, its only 1 night, and a lack of sleep can just as easily happen in any hostel dorm room.

Taking an overnight train feels like an adventure, and I love that.  I might be more inclined to make up I have a private cabin on my next overnight train journey (if possible) but I don’t plan to stop taking the train when travelling.  In fact, I’m quite keen on taking the overnight train from Bar (Montenegro) to Belgrade (Serbia), as written about by Larissa over at One for 2016 maybe.

Survival guide to sleeper trains