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Night Trains: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Night train

          You don’t come across too many night trains any more – they’re all going bust due to budget airlines and everyone’s desperation to get to their destination as fast as humanly possible. The act of journeying to a destination has become such a bore that everyone despises, but there are actually still lots of fun ways to get somewhere, that don’t involve a mind-numbing 2-hour wait in an airport lounge. Taking the longer (and sometimes much cheaper) option, I’ve been on a few different night trains and have had mixed experiences, so here I give you the good, the bad and the ugly of night trains.

The Good

I recently took the Caledonian Sleeper train from London Euston up to the Scottish Highlands. I had ended up choosing a seat rather than a bed, which I knew from the start would be a bad idea, but the budget is always low in January so I was trying to save the pennies. Setting out with low expectations and envisaging getting no sleep at all, I was actually so impressed by this night train up to Scotland. With a seat ticket, you’re in cattle class and you’re not technically allowed into the restaurant carriage, which doubles as an all-night bar. The rest of my group were all sipping G&Ts in the restaurant carriage and we managed to sneak me in too. After an hour or so the barman sent me back to the miserable cattle class, but then in an act of kindness and realising I was now alone and separated from the rest of my friends, he upgraded me to a bed ticket for free and let me back into the restaurant carriage! From then on things were really looking up, and we whiled away the hours drinking and talking about our upcoming 5-day trip to the Highlands. Around midnight we headed to our berths, and I actually had an amazing night’s sleep, soothed by the sound of the passing tracks below us. The berths are certainly small but I had no complaints whatsoever, it was a place to rest my head and certainly an efficient way to travel, as I’m certainly not productive during my sleep any other night of the year. Half an hour before our arrival at Dalwhinnie (a tiny station in the middle of nowhere) our wake-up call arrived with tea/coffee and some Scottish shortbread, before we were then deposited at our destination. Not everyone had an amazing night’s sleep but I was out like a light and woke up refreshed and ready for a full day hiking around the Highlands.

Caledonian Sleeper photo

The Bad

China is a pretty vast country. We all know that, but it can be quite hard to fathom just how huge it is until you’re actually there and attempting to get from one place to another. Take the night train from Guangzhou (near Hong Kong) to Kunming (in the region of Yunnan in south-west China) for example. That train journey takes 24 hours, covering over 1,500km. Can you believe that? While you can travel in different classes, a backpacker’s budget won’t afford you a private berth, so we plumped for a ‘Hard Sleeper’, which is a bunk bed in an open carriage. The carriage is divided into rooms containing 6 beds (two triple-bunks) but there’s no door or fourth wall to separate you from the rest of the carriage. It quietens down at night but effectively you can hear conversations and movements from throughout the entire carriage. Add to this the state of the bathrooms (a hole in the floor depositing directly onto the train tracks), which so disgusted me I just held it in for the entire 24 hours, and the fact that the food cart consists of a “tasty” vacuum-packed snack of chicken’s feet and little else, the Chinese practise of spitting everywhere, even inside trains, and you start to despair. Working out how to buy said ticket and how to get off at the right station is a whole other kettle of fish, and it all combines into quite a stressful experience! Chinese night trains are cheaper than flying, and certainly an experience to be had at some point, but don’t expect any level of luxury whatsoever.


The Ugly

But the worst night train experience I have had was actually in Italy, when I was doing an unpaid internship at Armani and in a penniless state opted for the cheapest train I could find back to Modena after a weekend in Bracciano, near Rome, which turned out to be a night train. I found myself in a cabin with four foreign men, all of whom seemed to be eyeing up my suitcases… I settled in with my valuables hidden in my pockets, and managed to get a couple of minutes sleep at some point. When I did wake up I found one of the men’s arms resting on my leg and I swiftly recoiled in horror, and didn’t manage to get back to sleep at all, terrified that the four of them might gang up on me in my sleep.

Treno Notte Trenitalia

           But there are some other night trains that I’m yet to try, and after such a great night’s sleep on the Caledonian Sleeper, I’m quite keen to hop aboard. I’d like to go on the Orient Express and the Ski Train from London to the Swiss & French Alps. I also recently discovered the Trenhotel Lusitania from Madrid to Lisbon, which looks unbelievably cheap and perfect for a quick weekend away to one of my favourite European capitals.

Have you had any good, bad or ugly experiences on sleeper trains?


  1. Such a bad experience on the Italian train! :O I took the ‘treno notte’ twice, both times to go to Sicily. The first was on a school trip and I obviously had a good time with my classmates, the second was with my boyfriend and we ended up with a nice other couple both ways. Of course I used my bag as a pillow because I don’t trust anyone in Italy 😀


  2. OMG I thought the Chinese train was bad and then I read the Italian train story. I’ve only taken one night train in my life and it was also in Italy. I was 13 years old and on a school trip with some friends. We got to our carriage and realized it was going to be three 13 year old girls with one 30+ year old man. Not the most comfortable sleep ever… haha Poor guy.


    • Oh dear! That’s very brave of you to take a night train aged 13! At least you were with others at least… But no, I wouldn’t recommend Italian night trains to any girl or girls travelling without a man there – crazy considering how Italy is a Western country!


  3. Absolutely love overnight trains! I’ve taken mostly them in Russia. I haven’t had any truly horrible experiences, but a fair few awkward moments, like waking up with a child sat on the end of my bed, tickling my feet.

    Oh, and don’t forget cross-border overnighters! The Moscow-Kyiv overnight train has two border crossings – one around 1am and the other about 3am, where police enter with sniffer dogs, shake you awake and demand to see your passport.


  4. A personal favourite is the Berlin Night Express from Malmö in Sweden to Berlin (of course) – I guess I’d sort of assumed we’d travel through Denmark, so when the train rolled onto a ferry and started crossing the Baltic I was pretty surprised! Swedish night trains are great though – always single-sex cabins, never had a problem with them.


    • I’d never heard of this one, can’t believe they actually take you over on a ferry! How interesting… I haven’t yet been to Sweden so maybe I’ll have to try going there this way.


  5. 24 hours on a train….intense!! I took trains around India, and opted for second class since it was still super affordable. Some of the trains were actually pretty nice….others….not so much. I love trains, they are such a great way to travel. I hope they don’t stop offering night trains. You gotta love going to sleep one place and waking up in another 🙂


  6. You are so brave – I feel like I would never be able to survive on a night train! Too many creepers and not enough space. One day I’ll probably (eventually) have to take one… but after reading this, I certainly won’t do it in Italy by myself!


  7. I used to travel in the overnight Madrid – Paris, was lovely! not that cheap but they separate men and women which makes the whole experience rather safe….the sightseeing is also pleasant, the Pyrenees, south of France…


    • Splitting up the two genders does sound like a much better idea! And that’s one problem of travelling by night – you can’t see so much of the lovely views outside.


  8. Chinese trains are certainly an experience! My friends and I did an overnight train journey from Beijing to Xi’an in the ‘hard seat’ class – it made the journey I took in the ‘hard sleeper’ class a few months later seem like luxury in comparison!


  9. Hey. Just started following you and I really enjoyed reading this post. I really enjoy riding on trains, whether it’s day or night. Journeys can be an adventure and sometimes, it can be exciting and enjoyable while on the ride. If you don’t mind me asking, the picture with the train at night, where did you get it from? It’s really nice!


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