Travel Planning. Expert Advice.


August 2, 2013

5 Tips for Surviving a Night Train

The Tripologist on the Trans-Mongolian train between Beijing and Ulan Bator.

When I went to Europe in the summer of 2006, one of my biggest apprehensions was about the night trains. Having planned to take several over the course of my 6.5 weeks on the continent, I was nervous about what to expect, and how to ensure that I arrived in my next city without feeling like a zombie.

However, since my first trip from Paris to Zurich, I’ve spent over 25 nights traveling between cities. And, while a few of these trips have been taken on airplanes, buses, or even boats, the majority were on trains.

Since that very first trip seven years ago, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare for an overnight trip.

Here are my top five tips for surviving a night train (or bus, boat, or airplane):

Pack Ear Plugs, a Sleep Shade, and Snacks

Even if you are a deep sleeper, sleeping on a train can sometimes be a challenge. Therefore, it’s a good idea to bring ear plugs and a sleep shade with you. Between snoring travelers and 2:00am announcements, having a way to block out sound and light can be the difference between a good night’s sleep and a very long night.

It’s also a good idea to pack some snacks and water when traveling overnight. While many trains offer some sort of food service, taking your own food on board can be an easy way to make sure that you can eat what you want at a manageable price. This is especially true of breakfast in the morning. Since you’ll be waking up on the train, having something to eat will help get you ready for the day ahead.

One of the key's to surviving a night train is getting a bed.

One of the keys to surviving a night train is getting a bed.

Get a Bed if Possible

While getting a bed for less than an arm and a leg may not be possible in the United States (Come on, Amtrak!), most European and Asian trains offer beds for little to no more than the cost of a night’s lodging.

In my experience, these beds are always comfortable and offer clean sheets, ensuring at least the possibility of getting a good night’s sleep.

Opt for an overnight in a train seat, and you’re unlikely to get much rest.

Having taken overnight train trips in both seats and beds, I can’t recommend getting a bed enough; especially if it’s only a few dollars more.

Plan How to Secure Your Things

Generally speaking, you’ll be sharing your sleeping compartment with between 3 and 50 other people. Therefore, it’s important to give some basic consideration to how you will secure your belongings while you sleep.

I find that I like to keep my money, credit cards, and passport on my body while sleeping, either in a money belt or a zipped pocket. I also bring locks for my luggage and a cable lock to secure the bag(s) to the luggage racks.

Alternatively, on some trains in Asia, you can store bags underneath the bottom bunk, which is a great if you’re sleeping on the lower bed.

It’s also a good idea to lock the compartment door, if yours has one, as another measure of security.

While there have been stories of gassings and other crazy things on night trains, good luck finding anyone who had this happen to them. I tend to think these stories are mostly travel folklore.

Think About Bedtime Before You Board

Even if you board your train in the morning, it’s important to think about bedtime before you get on the train. There’s nothing worse than having to pull everything out of your bag because you packed your toothbrush in the bottom.

The same goes for clothes. Especially if you’re boarding in the evening, it makes it easier for everyone if you wear your pajamas onto the train instead of trying to change once you get on.

Having something fun to do, like a deck of cards, is one of my big tips for surviving a night train.

Having something fun to do will help you pass the time on the overnight train.

Have a Sense of Adventure

When you take a night train, make sure you don’t forget your sense of adventure. While most trips go off without a hitch, you’ll eventually have something go wrong if you spend enough nights riding the rails. Just try to remember that your smelly roommate, the crying baby, or broken down train will all make great stories when you get home.

That’s what makes night trains so great; not only do you get to wake up in a new city, but you might get an amazing story from your trip as well.

Have you ever taken an overnight train? If so, do you have any other tips for surviving a night train?


  1. I sure wish I’d forked over for a sleeper compartment during the three-day journey from Fargo, North Dakota to Los Angeles. That was miserable. I was achy, smelly and grubby by the end of it, and hadn’t gotten as much as three hours’ sleep. These are excellent tips; I’m planning on taking the Trans-Mongolian/Trans-Siberian railway in 18 months. I’ll keep these in mind! Thanks!

    • You’re going to love the Trans-Siberian, Andy. It’s a fantastic train journey! It’s too bad that Amtrak charges so much for sleepers in America. Makes it hard to justify an overnight trip on their trains. Sleeping in a seat can be rough.

  2. Prefer day trains because then you get to enjoy the views.

    (Also – purely selfish reasons – I can’t sleep on planes/trains/busses/etc. at all – so I feel like it’s better to plan for daytime journeys where you can actually see your surroundings, interact with others.)

    I know a lot of people love that “wake up in a new city” experience though. Wish that was me too! And it would save on hotel costs…

    • I like taking day trains as well. However, I did regret not seeing the scenery on my two night trains in Thailand, but sometimes taking the night train makes sense. I personally sleep very well if I have a bed on a train.

  3. I am a closet night train spotter and have had the chance to travel on two abroad. In Thailand I booked a bed on the overnighter between Bangkok and Surat Thani. Great memories.

    In Japan I travelled between Osaka and Tokyo in the compartment type. There were 4 bunks and I hadn’t expected it to be unisex. Prepare for that!

    • Yes, many compartments are unisex, so solo females travelers should keep that in mind, especially when booking smaller compartments. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I only took a sleeper train once, from St. Petersburg to Moscow, on a school trip with the history department. The teachers came to our doors frantically banging at 5am because they’d misunderstood how long the train took. That wasn’t fun. Also there was a blood-curdling scream in the night, which I thought was one of my classmates getting murdered. Turned out she’d seen her reflection in the mirror, screamed, and fallen out of bed. Fun times.

  5. Great advice! It’s been over ten years since I’ve done an overnight train. I was a student and I traveled a few times a year between Ontario and Nova Scotia using Via Rail. Using an ISIC card, I got 40% off and that made an upper berth, with included continental breakfast and bathrooms with showers, a real deal. I’ll be doing an overnight train later this year between Bagan and Yangon – and from what I hear, it will be nothing like Via Rail!

    • Yeah, while many trains in Asia are up to par, from what I’ve heard, the trains in Myanmar can be a bit rough. Good luck! I’m sure you’ll have a great story, even if you don’t get a good nights sleep.

  6. Jim, thanks for sharing your tips. In my younger days I did a reasonable number of overnight European train trips and your tips are spot on.

    I think I have reached a point where with three young children that it is easier to plan to do a day trip on a train and stay in normal accommodation at night. Partly from a safety perspective and also just for convenience!

  7. I took two overnight trains in China – but I chose a hard seat not a bed. You’re right about the sense of adventure – it was quite the experience and I have some great stories from it!

  8. Mabel

    Thanks for the tips. I’ll be taking my first overnight train trip on the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness this autumn to visit Loch Ness. I’m excited–with my destination, that’s two bucket list things in one jaunt. 🙂 I just hope it’s on time because I have a really tight connection in the morning!

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