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.
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.
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?
Jim Cheney is the creator of Tripologist.com. Having traveled extensively in North America, Europe, and Asia, Jim enjoys sharing his love of travel and some of his favorite places to visit around the world. He lives in Pennsylvania, USA, with his wife and two kids.