Train travel is often referred to as slow travel, but booking an overnight train trip can actually save you time on the road, as you'll be going from point A to point B while catching some Zs. You can also sleep more soundly knowing that traveling by train is less of a burden on the environment than flying, plus it's often more economical since you'll be foregoing an expensive hotel room. Trains vary by country, and overnight sleeper options are no exception. There's a lot to consider, so if you're thinking about riding the rails overnight, here's a quick guide that covers the basics to ensure there are no bad surprises onboard.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO BOOK AN OVERNIGHT TRAIN TICKET?
Most sleeper trains require reservations, so it's best to book between a week and month in advance to make sure you get the seat or sleeping car you're after. The cost for a sleeper car or compartment is additional, on top of the regular fare, and it's a supplement to any rail passes. You'll need to present your reservation for the sleeper car along with your ticket or rail pass to board the train — unless you've decide to spend the night in a coach seat, in which case you can usually just show up with a regular ticket or make a seat reservation on a pass.
Beware: Many train lines offer what looks like a great overnight route, but actually includes a train change in the middle of the night or a long layover between rides. Similarly, some overnight journeys with multiple trains may not have sleeping cars available. Be sure to check your itinerary and sleeper car availability before booking.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT SLEEPING OPTIONS ON AN OVERNIGHT TRAIN?
Lesson No. 1: Don't try and sleep in your seat. Budget-minded travelers may be tempted to book a regular seat and bring a pillow and blanket, thinking it'll be similar to sleeping on a plane. Spoiler alert: It's not. Sleeping in a train seat is uncomfortable, and you'll likely arrive at your destination frazzled, cranky and with a neck full of kinks. With that in mind, here are the most common types of "beds" on overnight trains:
Roomette: These entry-level sleeping rooms are often the most economical bed option, but saying the space is tight would be an understatement. These tiny cabins come with seats that slide down into a single bed as well as a small coffee table/vanity area. They can sleep up to two, bunk-style, but since it's cramped, we like them best for solo travelers.
Couchette: This is the most common type of sleeper car across the board. It can usually hold four to six travelers, and features banquette or coach seating that doubles as lower berth beds, plus additional pull-down hideaway beds that function like the extra beds in cruise cabins. During the day, the upper berths are tucked away and the lower beds are configured as couch seating. If you don't want people spending the day sitting on your bed, request an upper bed. We find that these room types are spacious, offer the most bang for your buck, and have surprisingly comfortable beds.
Private sleeping cars: As you might expect, this type of sleeping car provides the most privacy. Configurations vary from small, double-occupancy cars sporting convertible seats and benches plus a pull-down hideaway bed to full-on hotel-like accommodations with larger "beds," separate sitting areas, and private bathrooms with showers.
WHAT ABOUT SHARING SLEEPING QUARTERS?
Be prepared to share your sleeping car with strangers unless you pay for all the beds in the car (or you book a private sleeping car or single roomette). While some trains offer female-only sleeping cars, don't expect it. More often than not, you will have a mixed-gender sleeping car. The idea of sharing your sleeping quarters with strangers can be daunting, but it's also a great way to meet travelers and locals. However, research the configuration of your car before booking — sometimes it's worth paying for the upgrade.
IS THERE USUALLY FOOD ON AN OVERNIGHT TRAIN?
Most overnight trains include meals or, at the very least, have a cafe car with food available for purchase. However, we suggest bringing your own nonperishable snacks as well. Most cars have a public area where you can eat the food you brought onboard — a nice excuse to leave your cabin. Oh, and feel free to stock up on all the drinks you want to bring onboard — even alcohol.
Most trains require riders to make reservations in the dining car to avoid big rushes and long waits, while others will simply bring meals to your room at a set time. If you're going on a multi-night train trip with brief stops, be sure to schedule your dining reservations so you can take advantage of these stops.
Unless you're riding on a luxury line, don't expect anything too fancy when it comes to food. Meals are pretty much on par with those served on a plane — sometimes better, sometimes worse. Chances are, it's microwaved. Dishes typically reflect the home country of the train line you're traveling on (think onion soup in France, pad Thai in Thailand, curries and rice in India, and so on).
WHAT'S INCLUDED ON AN OVERNIGHT TRAIN?
Booking into an overnight sleeping compartment not only gets you a better night's sleep, but you'll also snag a few freebies not available to folks who are sticking out the journey in regular seats. For starters, the fare almost always includes all meals while onboard. On several trains, you'll also get a bottle of water in your room during "turndown" as well as a few toiletries. Bed areas come with a pillow, sheets and a blanket, and you can ask your room steward for more blankets if you're chilly. Most modern sleeper compartments are outfitted with electrical outlets, a small table, and a door for privacy, too. Plus, the majority of overnight trains allow free checked luggage with little to no restrictions, though Amtrak limits it to two pieces.
IS TIPPING CUSTOMARY ON AN OVERNIGHT TRAIN TRIP?
You'll want to bring a little bit of cash to tip your room steward and servers and attendants in the dining or cafe car. Your room steward and dining crew work hard to keep things orderly and clean, and tipping will be a much appreciated gesture. Tip about $10 per day for room stewards in private cars and around 15% for meals.
WHAT SHOULD I PACK FOR AN OVERNIGHT TRAIN TRIP?
Traveling by train requires its own packing list. Toss in a pair of earplugs to block out the inevitable noise of rickety tracks, screeching brakes, conductor announcements and chit-chat from others around you. If you're in a coach seat, it's unlikely they'll turn off the lights, so you'll definitely want to bring a blackout eye mask. These are also handy for anyone in a sleeping compartment — you'd be surprised how often the lights get turned on and off during the night.
Folks in coach seats will also need to bring their own blankets and pillows, and everyone should consider packing disinfectant wipes and tissues to use as toilet paper, just in case. If the train or your sleeper compartment has a shower, bring soap, shampoo, and flip-flops or other shower-friendly shoes.
FINAL TIPS FOR TAKING AN OVERNIGHT TRAIN
Smoking is almost never allowed on the train, though it's common to catch a few travelers sneaking in a puff here and there on trains in Asia. It's also a good rule of thumb to have a small carry-on bag with everything you need for the night's journey plus clothing for the next day. Pack your night clothes, next-morning outfit, comfortable shoes, extra socks, toiletries and anything you want overnight. We also like to pack a separate small backpack with valuables — passport, tickets, money, phone, tablet, credit cards, medicine and the like. When it's time for bed, just toss the bag next to your pillow and under the sheets for safekeeping.