Taking an overnight train can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and frustrating, however it’s often the most inexpensive (or occasionally, the only) way to get from one destination to another.
In this post, you’ll learn tips from a pro traveler for making your overnight train trip just a little more comfortable. With planning in advance, a packing list tweaked for the experience, and the right mindset, taking a night train can be just another travel experience on your multi-destination trip.
Even though night trains aren’t for me, they are a workable option for a few travelers. Here are a few situations when you should and shouldn’t book an overnight train:
Book an overnight train if:
- ✔️ you can fall asleep anywhere
- ✔️ sleeper cabins are available
- ✔️ you function ok with little sleep
- ✔️ an overnight train is the only option
Don’t book an overnight train if:
- ❌ you are a light sleeper
- ❌ you have trouble falling asleep
- ❌ your body needs 8 hours of sleep to feel adventurous.
- ❌ train is not equipped with sleeping cabins
Use Caution with Sleep Aids on Night Trains
It’s not uncommon for travelers to use prescription sleep aids (or alcohol 😬) to get some shuteye on a sleeper train, however, if you are a tourist, traveling alone, traveling as a woman, traveling with a marginalized identity, or if in any other way you might be targeted for crime as a traveler, avoid sleep aids.
Prescription and folk sleep aids work by dulling the senses and helping us relax. While that’s great for planes and even some types of overnight buses, it’s the last thing you want on a sleeper train. On an overnight train, where other passengers can board and exit the train throughout the night, you need to remain alert enough to:
- Wake up if someone tries to steal your bag, and
- Notice and get off the train at your station.
Things to know about overnight trains for tourists
🚂💸 night trains seem cheap, but they aren’t
An overnight train will always be cheaper than a day train. When tourists consider this ticket price combined with being able to skip a hotel bill, many tourists see a great deal. However, you should understand that the cost of a night train isn’t just money.
With fewer hours of sleep and lower sleep-quality than normal, the real cost of a night train is the loss of a sense of curiosity and exploration the following day. Additionally, a night train increases your risk of being a victim of travel crime – which can be an expensive experience for sure.
🏞️ On night trains, you miss the scenery
One reason I love to travel by train, bus, and colectivo during international travel is the opportunity to see parts of the country that many travelers miss. If you only stick to big cities and airplanes, you miss the opportunity to see so much more diversity in landscape and people.
When I think about the countries I visited, many times it’s not the cathedrals and bustling city squares that come to mind. Instead, it’s the scenes I have watched pass from the windows of trains and buses. To me, not being able to see the scenery outside the window is a good reason not to take a night train.
💺💤 You need a sleep kit
If you decide to take an overnight train in Europe or on another continent, you’ll need to plan ahead. Like my sleeping on a plane hacks, you’ll need to gather the supplies you need to ensure a better chance at some sleep, and set yourself up for the most restful night possible.
Whenever possible, upgrade your ticket class on a sleeper train. It’s usually a small difference on trains and trust me, it’s totally worth it to splurge on a private sleeper cabin and/or a first-class train ticket upgrade. (Here are some other travel experiences always worth splurging on)
Packing list for a sleeper train trip
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Yes, if you’ve read the site much you know that I am a preacher of the gospel of sleep headphones. Instead of going inside the ear canal, these tiny Bluetooth speakers embedded in a soft fleece band go around your head like a headband. These are an absolute essential if your travel includes overnight buses, overnight trains, or hostel dorms. Along with a sleep mask, they are the absolute most important items in my travel sleep kit.
🎧 Various vendors at Amazon sell Bluetooth sleep headphones (I use this model). This low-cost/high-impact piece of travel gear practically pays for itself in improved sleep and no lost earbuds!
Sleep-friendly headphones aren’t just easier to sleep in, they totally get rid of that terror at the possibility of losing an earbud in your sleep. Trust me, I’ve had to chase down an earbud as it rolled under several rows of seats! Since then, I only use my Bluetooth headband when I’m on public transportation trying to doze.
eye mask for sleep
(if you are meeting someone and want to arrive at your destination looking great, use my tips from my article on how to look great after a long flight and use a cooling gel eye mask in place of a fabric eye mask) and eye mask is essential for sleeping on an overnight train – especially if you don’t have a private sleeper compartment.
🥽 My recommendation for a travel eye mask is Bucky brand eyemasks, which you can buy here at Amazon. (I use this model). They’re ultra-lightweight and molded, making them perfect for travel.
If you are sleeping in the coach section or first class with reclining seats, you’ll find that the train never gets quite as dark as an overnight flight. Because of that, an eye mask is even more essential on a sleeper train than it is on an overnight flight.
water + food & drink
While overnight trains should have food and drink options available, this isn’t guaranteed. I discovered only after booking a long train trip in Romania, that trains departing from Romania do not have any food or drink available on the train.
If your train does have a restaurant car or even a vending machine, expect the price to be hugely inflated from what you would have paid at a grocery store near the train station.
Now, I load up on food before an overnight trip on a train. In fact, one of the things I enjoy during a very long train trip is watching other travelers slowly eat the contents of their luggage as I do the same.
I recommend bringing some tissues and hand sanitizer with you. I don’t think I need to explain why, but just in case you’re unsure, think festival toilets, but on a train. 😬
What to wear on an overnight train trip
On my first overnight train trip to Romania, I wore jeans – and boy did I regret it! These days, if I’m stuck on a sleeper train, I opt for leggings. Trains can have an unpredictable temperatures, but leggings are comfortable in many ranges of temperatures. While it is basically impossible to change clothes in a train toilet compartment, you can change back into your more stylish travel outfit after you’ve arrived.
Wear Layers. Trains tend to have strange and unpredictable heating and air service. I’ve never been on a train that felt just right, they’re always a little colder or a little hot. Dressing in multiple layers makes it possible to adjust your clothing to the train’s temperature, increasing your chance of getting a bit of shuteye on the journey.
Tips on overnight train safety
This is never the most fun part of planning an international trip, but a reality. When booking a sleeper train, it’s absolutely essential that you give some thought to personal safety and to security for your belongings.
There are two ways to think about safety on overnight trains. Clock to jump to the section:
Keeping yourself safe
To keep yourself safe on an overnight train, be smart, and stay aware.
👨👨👧👧👩👧👨❤️💋👨👪 Safety in numbers.
Don’t be lured into complacency just because you are traveling with another traveler- if you’re both asleep, you may both be targeted. Avoid sitting in an isolated train car on an overnight train. Even though you may think you’ll sleep better by doing so, there’s safety in numbers. If you’re traveling alone, be friendly and strike up a conversation with another traveler during boarding. Families with young kids are usually safe allies around the world.
👀 Stay Aware
Similarly, avoid drinking alcohol or taking medications that might slow your reaction time or it impact your ability to make decisions safely.
Keeping your stuff safe on an overnight train
🧳👀 Know where your stuff is at all times.
This means not letting your suitcase or carry-on out of your sight. If you go to the bathroom, take your suitcase. If you take a nap, have a body part draped over your bag.
If possible, check your luggage and allow the train company to store it in a secure cargo area.
Avoid using luggage storage racks on the train (these are typically safe to use on day trains, however are regularly pilfered on night trains)
No, your luggage lock is not enough to keep your luggage safe on a night train. Instead, check your bag or keep it on your person.
✋🏻🧧🤚🏻 Keep anything valuable on your body.
While I tend to think that money belts are a little overkill, on an overnight train this is exactly the kind of security you want. Make sure that your essential items (cash, cards, identification, passport, and phone) stay on your body. This can be zippered pockets, a waist bag, or yes, the good old traveler’s money belt.
🎀 Tie stuff down.
This is one of my more unique tips, For larger items, such as the carry-on containing your laptop or expensive camera, an easy way to prevent a thief from grabbing your bag and dashing off the train as it pulls into a station, is with a tether. Simply tie the handle of your bag to your seat using a lanyard or a length of twine.
Any attempt at a grab-and-dash theft will likely result in the bag slipping out of the thief’s hand as they continue to run. It’s a tiny insurance policy with potentially a huge payoff. I certainly sleep better through train stops knowing that if anyone tries to grab my bag, they’ll have a more complicated job than simply running off the train with it.
Why I, a Professional Traveler, Won’t Book Sleeper Trains
Every budget travel guide, travel book, and backpacking blogger talks about how night trains are a great way to save money while traveling. Theoretically, an overnight train or international ferry makes it possible to save money. Since you don’t have to pay for a hotel room or hostel bed for the night that you are on the train, the savings can add up.
That is in theory, at least
In practice, well, sleeping on a night train is not for everyone.
Night trains do save tons of money, but if you’re a light sleeper like me you may not find it a very restful night. Between the screeching of metal wheels on the train track, regular stops, ticket checks, and disruptive announcements, it can be difficult to fall asleep – let alone stay asleep.
My first night train was from Vienna Austria to Timisoara in Transylvania, Romania. It was a very long trip, so I decided to take a night train to save time and money on lodging. That, friends, was when I learned my first rule of taking a night train: only book night trains with sleeper cabins.
On my night train between Austria and Romania, there were no sleeping cabins – there weren’t even reclining seats! I had to distort my body and dangle my legs in the aisle in order to get comfortable enough to sleep. I made a makeshift pillow out of a sweater (this was before I carried the raw supplies to make a travel pillow for two dollars). However, I didn’t get any sleep on that train trip.
As soon as I’d start to doze off, the wheels of the train would shriek as we turned the corner or the conductor would push his way through the I’ll and I’d be wide-awake again. As a no longer twenty-something traveler, the scrunched-up sleeping position made it impossible to get comfortable. Alas, my first overnight train trip was a complete bust and I found myself in Romania on my first morning singularly thinking about how to find a bed and get some sleep.
While night trains seem like a great way to maximize your travel time, in reality, it’s better to just dedicate one day of your trip to being a transfer day and take a train during the day.
Travel can have major impacts on our sleep schedule, and this is especially true for overnight transportation. 1 While theoretically, night trains let us sleep on a train without wasting a single day of our trip, the expectation versus reality of night trains is harsh. Rather than saving a day for travel, they usually just leave travelers with a miserable night on a train and with no energy to explore the following day.
Final thoughts on traveling Via overnight train
Overnight trains are best enjoyed by the most adventurous travelers. For folks who’ve decided that a sleeper train is the best transfer option for them, pack carefully (including a sleep kit and plenty of food and drink), and plan for safety.
By following some safety tips and using some of these travel hacks for enhanced comfort, you can make the best of an overnight train and arrive at your destination more refreshed and more able to enjoy your following day of travel.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com
- Jonasdottir, S. S., Bagrow, J., & Lehmann, S. (2022). Sleep during travel balances individual sleep needs. Nature Human Behaviour, 6(5), 691-699.