Ah, the good old night train – a staple of long distance, overland travel. From Morocco to the Caucasus, we’ve been using night trains as a super efficient way to combine a journey with a night’s accommodation wherever we get the chance. There’s no beating around the bush – it’s unlikely to be the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had, but with a little preparation you can stand a great chance of arriving in your next city refreshed, relaxed, and ready to carry on exploring.
It’s taken us a while to ‘perfect the art’, but by now we definitely have a pretty clear idea of how to avoid the sort of night-train experience which will leave you feeling, looking and acting like a zombie for a few days after. Here are our top 8 tips on how to nail the world’s night trains!
1: Keep every important item you might need close & ready to go
Night trains come in all shapes, sizes, durations and destinations – you might be hopping between cities in Western Europe, crossing borders in the Caucasus or squeezing yourself onto an epic cross-country odyssey in Asia. Whatever the journey, you do not want to be waking up at 3am needing to dig something out from the bottom of your bag – especially if it’s a passport for a border crossing, or something you need for a toilet trip!
Keep passports, toiletries, shoes, money and a warm jacket (in case you need to disembark at some point) close enough that you can find them at the drop of a hat when half asleep. Lucy has perfected the art of spooning a small bag with all the important stuff in – convenience and security rolled in to one!
2: Clothes – comfy, comfy, comfy!
A night train is not a fashion show. Keep jeans, shirts, and anything with zips well packed away in your bag – comfort, not style, is the order of the day on night trains. Think baggy & soft – travel trousers, t-shirts and hoodies will make your journey much more bearable. Ideally, get changed before you board the train – especially if you’ll be in shared carriages.
Some folk will go full on pyjamas to sleep – personal choice, but we tend to stick to clothes we can wear to the toilet or outside if needed; especially if you’ll be crossing a border and know you’ll need to wake up & move about in the middle of the night.
3: Pack something that can make your space smell nice – just in case!
This one is more relevant if you find yourself in a private compartment – such as the ‘Spalny Vagons’ on Russian trains – where you can ‘personalise’ your space a bit more easily.
Night trains aren’t always the newest (part of the fun can be travelling on old Soviet-era trains) or the most well-maintained; and the toilets are known to misfire from time to time! When this happens, no compartment in the wagon is safe from the stench – all you can do is shut your door and try whatever you can do to mask the smell.
We found that ‘Lush‘ toiletries work nicely – particularly the lemon shower gel bar, which absolutely saved our journey from Armenia to Georgia with its citrus scents; 12 hours which would otherwise have been spent festering in a smell which can only be likened to toilets at a music festival. Not pleasant – thank goodness for Lush.
4: Book Early!
Most night trains these days are bookable online, and we massively recommend booking in advance – assuming you know what dates you’ll be travelling. Not only will you give yourself the peace of mind that your ticket is secured, but on certain journeys you’ll also be able to select your berth. First and second class on lots of lines can sell out ahead of time, but in any case you’ll probably be wanting to strategically place yourself a reasonable distance from the toilets regardless of whether you’re opting for a private compartment or a shared wagon!
5: Learn place names in the local language
This is particularly important if you’re travelling somewhere which doesn’t have the Latin alphabet. Night trains tend to have lots of stops along the way, and you don’t want to be getting off early or late because you’ve misread a timetable or misheard an announcement – do your research ahead of time to avoid waking up hundreds of miles away from your target city!
6: Eat a boring meal before boarding
By now, you’ll probably have noticed that the toilets have been mentioned a few times. There’s a reason for this – they’re almost always pretty damn grim. Unsurprising, really, given most carriages will have a maximum of two toilets for a long journey shared with dozens of people.
You do not want to be needing to spend more time in those toilets than necessary – so the hours leading up to your night train journey are not the time to be adventurous with your meal choices! This is particularly relevant if you haven’t been travelling for long, and therefore haven’t given your stomach the time to adjust to its new diet. As Brits, we tend to seek out the most boring food we can of before boarding – think pasta, burgers or pizza. It’s not the most exciting, but (we think) some risks just aren’t worth taking when you’re about to be stuck on a train all night.
7: Pack drinks & snacks to last the journey
Catering on night trains can vary – from meal options, to a token tea service, to absolutely nothing whatsoever. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re going to get until you board – and if you’re anything like us (OK, Matt), you can’t last long without some sort of food. Make sure you’re well stocked with good snacks & plenty of water to last the journey (and factor in time for delays or breakdowns!).
Dehydration and hunger is probably the number one ingredient for arriving at your destination cranky, stressed and feeling pretty rubbish – and keep in mind that food might not be easy to find when you step off the train, especially if you’re due to arrive pretty early. A quick trip to a supermarket before you board can completely sort you out and help you avoid getting caught short without food and drink!
8: Earplugs & Eyemasks should be on your list
Whether you’ve got a compartment to yourself or are sharing an open wagon with dozens of others, night trains are both noisy and annoyingly well lit. This is such a simple tip, but you should never underestimate the difference a good pair of earplugs can make to your quality of sleep. For anyone who can’t sleep in unless it’s pitch black, an eyemask will also be a must. Neither will eat too much in to your luggage or bank balance, but they can make an invaluable difference to your journey.
So, there we have it – everyone will have their own ways of managing a night train journey, but these tips are certainly what we keep in mind whenever we are about to take the plunge and book ourselves on board. We’re always keen to keep adding to our bank of ideas – if anyone has any other great suggestions, please do add them to the comments!