Last Updated: June 01, 2018.
Riding the train can be exciting. It’s a great way to get some scenery while making the trip to your next destination. But what if you want to catch some zzz’s? You are surely to be around others, and many things can happen during the night while on a train packed with other passengers. What can you do to get the best sleep possible, and make the most out of your sleep on the train?
Before you book your train ticket, read this guide first. We compile the best advice from fellow travelers across multiple countries and continents, and give you the best tips on ensuring your best sleep possible.
Who Is This Guide For?
Anyone who intends to sleep on a train! We write with many ideas from travelers who have shared their experience riding the train in different continents.
Whether you are traveling abroad or traveling in the States or traveling for only a few short hours, this guide can help you ensure that you prepare yourself adequately and sleep your best way possible when riding the train to your destination. We also end off the guide with hand-picked videos of other travelers sharing their experience traveling on the train.
Ten Things You Should Know To Sleep Well On Your Next Train Ride
Know the types of compartments available for you
Not all trains services are built the same.
Depending on which area of the world you are in, you might find certain trains offer compartments while others do not. Most train services have different “classes” available. The more expensive the class, the more private and amenities you will have. You will also find prices increase the less beds there are in a compartment, where a single-bed private sleeper will be the most expensive.
As for train compartments, they can be broken down to three types:
- Private sleepers
- Couchettes (pronounced koo-SHET)
- Reclining seats
Sleepers are usually 1 to 3 beds, sometimes 4. They are separated compartments that offer privacy and can have amenities like a washbasin and toilet. Great for couples, families, or for those who want an isolated room for themselves. It’s not perfect as you may hear other passengers through the walls, but it means no prying eyes. Some night trains offer single-gender compartments for men and women-only.
Couchettes are 4 to 6-bed compartments, with each bed being sold to individual passengers. They tend to be open public space but can be semi-private with their own curtains. Couchettes will be lower cost and the beds might not be any different than private sleeper compartments, but your sleep, privacy, and protection of your carry-ons will be dependent on those around you. We can take steps to make your experience better with things like bringing an extra blanket to hang a curtain and using a sleeping mask.
Reclining seats will be the cheapest train tickets for travel. We aren’t sure about you, but they can certainly be the most uncomfortable for sleep for two reasons. 1) The compartments tend to be loud and noisy in general, much more than couchettes where people intend to fall asleep, and 2) it might not be the most comfortable sleeping position as the recline chairs of different trains may not go far back enough or is built uncomfortably. You can also expect bright lights. We wouldn’t recommend recline seat tickets if you want to get a good night’s sleep for the next day.
Rick Steves from RickSteves.com puts it elegantly:
“One night of endless head-bobbing, very swollen toes, glaring overhead lighting, a screaming tailbone, sitting up straight in an eternity of steel wheels crashing along rails, trying doggedly — yet hopelessly — to get comfortable, will teach you the importance of finding a spot to stretch out for the night. (If you decide you want a couchette after all, seek out a conductor — provided there’s a couchette available, you can book one onboard.)”
Be sure to line up early
By arriving early, it means you won’t be in a rush. You can ensure you have adequate time for arrival and getting all your stuff ready, but can guarantee you will be able to board your train on time. Conductors will check your ticket before you board the plane, so there might be a line up as everyone scrambles to board the train. It can also take some time to find and board the right part of the train and settle in your room. The last thing we want is for you to be unprepared, lose something important along the way, and miss your train ride.
Lining up early also can also ensure you get a seat against a window (assuming there is no reservations required), which can make slightly better for your sleep in an upright position. You also get a more scenic and enjoyable view.
(Side note: Are you in Japan? Trains arrive and depart exactly on time nearly all the time. Talk about punctual! Give yourself some time to board.)
Know which train station to get off
It might be common sense, but sometimes we get into a rush and can miss our destination or get off the train too early. There are several ways to make sure you get off the right train station.
Most trains will also have a conductor or announcement to tell passengers what the next destination is. However, the off chance there is no one warning you, you should at least have an idea of when you might be arriving at your location.
When you order a ticket, you can ask the clerk to give you an idea of what time you will arrive at the stop. You can set yourself an alarm on your phone or watch an hour before arrival so you have enough time to get ready to start your journey.
Day train rides: Avoid rush hour for day trains!
In some places and cultures, you might find people boarding trains first before you can even step out. India, for example, have a train-passenger culture where pushing is unoffensive and expected when boarding and getting off the train. You may not even find a line up!
Aside from queueing up early, you may want to consider boarding during a time that is not so busy. Atanding shoulder-to-shoulder with other passengers while uncomfortably lugging a suitcase and bag can get taxing. the least we can do is get you a seat to sit comfortably on as you relax a bit and enjoy the scenery
Charles Kosman from TheBarefootNomad.com has this to say having traveled in Japan:
“Everybody is tired from a long day of working and the lines can be huge depending on which city you’re in. If you’re just sight seeing, try to leave a little earlier or a little later so you don’t have to compete with all the people going to work or coming home.”
Day train rides: Use your carry-on as a seat extension
Night trains may not allow carry-ons on the floor for safety concerns. However, when you take the day train and there is enough space, you might be able to make use of your carry-on to put your foot up for a more comfortable sleeping position.
Janice from SoloTravelerWorld.com offer her tip having traveled on a Canadian train:
“If riding coach, use your carry-on to extend your seat – it is almost the exact height of a seat on a train. On one trip, I was lucky not to have anyone beside me so for two nights I was able to use the carry-on to extend the two seats into a fairly uncomfortable bed (though far more comfortable than sitting up all night.)”
Beware of help: There may be someone, a conductor or not, offering to help you place your carry-on up onto a high place. While you least expect it, they may steal from you when you are distracted.
Day train rides: Get the best seats by waiting at the far end of the platform
This tip comes from Shanna from ThereAndBackAgainTravel.com after her travels with the family:
“On many of the trains that we rode in Austria and Switzerland, the first few cars were reserved for first class passengers. When the folks that were standing there waiting who were not in first class realized this, they all moved down filling up the first couple of second class cars. When you can stay out of the herd and wait further down, there are less people who walked down that far with you and you will have a better choice of seats.”
Women safety: Stay close to other women and families around you
It’s unfortunate but women safety is almost always a concern, especially when traveling alone. There are some cultures where women can be treated poorly. Aside from doing cultural research on the country you are traveling in, you can also take some measures to minimize the possibility of becoming a target.
Alex from LostWithPurpose.com has had first hand experience while sleeping on a train in Pakistan, and shares her thoughts on how to stay safe:
“Lecherous men copping a feel should generally be the extent of your concerns in the train. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the risk of something happening…”
She suggests the following:
- Book a train ticket opting for middle bunk if you are riding in open-plan cars. It’s more secluded and safe.
- Beware of closed compartment cars if you are traveling alone. You might be away from prying eyes, but being in a secluded compartment with men can get uncomfortable.
- Stay close to women and families around you. They will often feel more protective and help you when something happens. Men are also less likely to do something when other women and families are watching.
- Call a conductor or police officer if something happens. They can take care of the situation.
When something does happen, it can get extremely uneasy and frightening. As Alex suggests, we can minimize the risks to your safety by taking a few steps to ensure we do not find ourselves a potential target. Stay safe!
Bring some blankets for sleep
Some train services may provide sanitized linen in plastic bags for you to use. If you plan on sleeping on a train, you should definitely check if they come with the ticket, or you must pay extra. Pricing can be expensive, so if you are on a shoestring budget, you may want to bring your own instead.
Here is what you can do with the blankets:
- One for sleeping on
- One for staying warm during the night
- One to hang as a curtain to block light and offer some privacy
This might take a lot of carrying space, but it’s worth considering if you want to get a good night’s sleep without breaking the bank.
Especially when you are in a couchette with other strangers, when everyone begins to wake up, they will want to climb down. On some odd trains, the bottom beds may be treated as a common place for sitting. This means you may have some unexpected rude awakenings as your bed becomes a public sitting space when the sun rises.
By getting hold of the upper bunks you can sleep longer with minimal disruption, and have more private and personal space to yourself.
Bring your own food!
Some trains may have food options to offer for an extra price. However, we find that most of the time, it’s not adequate or simply not worth the money. Especially on a long train ride, we wouldn’t want you to starve and make irrational decisions.
Aside from the not-so-worthwhile prices of train food, another reason to bring your own food is that train food may not be enough to fill you for the ride. So bring your own food regardless! We mention this tip in our general travel sleeping guide, but it’s important to mention again: you can guarantee that you have food to eat beforehand.
Side note: In certain countries and train rides, you may find a vendor walking around selling food. If you do plan on trying their food, be sure to have medication ready at hand and know where the nearest washroom will be. You never know when you might get sick!
Want to see what it’s like on a night train?
We found a few YouTube travel vloggers share their experiences taking the train in different countries around the world. You can find their videos below!
Here is a 14-minute video of Mina Oh on her trip between Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand:
Here is a 4.5-minute video of Christine Kaaloa on her three train rides across India:
Here is a 6-minute video of Shu sharing her experience on her trip between London to Scotland, United Kingdom: