Picture this: you’re researching your next overseas adventure. You want to go somewhere you’ve never been before, do something a bit different, meet new people and taste new food. All the key ingredients of adventure, right?
Through a Google search or past travel experiences or a recommendation from a friend, you find yourself at Intrepid’s website. And there, you find your perfect trip. Well done. You flip through the image gallery, read through the highlights, and find a date that works for you. You start reading the day-to-day itinerary – it’s all looking so good.
But then, something stops you in your tracks. Your perfect trip involves a night (or more) on an overnight train. ‘Nope’, you think, shutting your laptop in a huff. Your trip’s ruined.
For many travellers – Intrepid travellers included – a night on an overnight train is often a deal breaker. But it shouldn’t be. A trip on an overnight train is a fun and immersive local experience; in fact, it usually ends up being a travel highlight on almost all of our group tours.
Full disclosure. When I travelled to Northern Thailand in 2016, I almost chose a different trip, based solely on the fact that it included a 13-hour overnight train journey between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. But I’m so glad I didn’t. The train was clean, comfortable and safe, and was a brilliant time to chat with my fellow passengers and our leader, Katie.
So – here’s what to expect on an overnight train on an Intrepid small group tour:
Between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Intrepid groups travel on a 2nd class soft sleeper train in multi-share compartments. Face-to-face seating – perfect for chatting with new friends, or gazing idly out the window – convert into beds, while overhead bunks are lowered from above (train attendants are available to help with this). Passengers are given clean sheets and pillows (provided in sealed plastic bags), and there’s a curtain you can pull across your bed for extra privacy. Inside your personal cabin, there’s a power outlet, a reading light, and a small pocket against the wall for storing any personal items.
The air conditioning on the train can get a little bit chilly, so pack a jumper or cardigan, in case you get cold. The bathrooms (which have a Western-style toilet and basin) are kept in reasonably good condition, but the floor can get pretty wet, so it’s important to wear shoes when you go. Bring your own roll of toilet paper and some hand sanitiser too.
Depending on whether you’re on an old train or a new train, you have a couple of options for food. The older trains have an on-board kitchen, where you can pre-order meals and have them delivered to your seat. On the whole, this food isn’t too bad, but it’s nothing to write home about. The newer trains have a dining cart, but no on-board kitchen, so everything is pre-prepared – reheated frozen food, sandwiches, chips, etc. Both trains have carts that wheel up and down the carriages, selling water, soft drinks and snacks.
On trips between Hue and Hanoi, we stay in air-conditioned, 4-person shared cabins (two single bunks) – with a small table in the middle (I travelled on Intrepid’s Vietnam Express Northbound a few years ago, and our cabin was decorated with a vase of fake flowers and a lacy curtain, which felt quite quaint really).
You’ll almost always stay with other travellers in your group, but in some cases you may share with strangers.
The cabins are equipped with a power outlet (usually in a very convenient place, like above the door, thus NOT convenient at all), have reading lights above the beds, and are secured with sliding doors (keep these locked when you’re inside).
There are two bathrooms in each carriage – one with a Western-style toilet and the other with a squat toilet. They’re cleaned throughout the journey, but can get a bit on the smelly side. Again: wear shoes, bring toilet paper, and make sure your hand sanitiser supplies are fully stocked.
There is a meal trolley on the train, but we recommend bringing your own dinner and snacks (some of the meals can be a tad questionable, and it’s one instance where we advise against trying the local cuisine). Your group leader will order dinner before you set off, and there are plenty of shops selling all kinds of delicious, weird and wonderful snacks in Hue and Hanoi. You can buy water, beer and soft drink on the train.
Overnight trains in India have a similar layout to trains in Thailand: face-to-face seats along the windows, that convert into bunks (two in First Class, three in Second Class) at bedtime, with an aisle down the middle. However, unlike Thailand trains, there is very little privacy – no sliding door, no curtain, nothing. If you’re accustomed to sleeping au naturel, now’s a good time for you to invest in a pair of pyjamas.
Clean sheets and blankets are provided, but we recommend packing a pillow case, and perhaps a lightweight silk sleep sheet as well. If you find yourself on the top of a triple bunk, getting up and down the ladder can be a little precarious. Also, you’ll be quite close to the ceiling (and a fairly blowy ceiling fan), so avoid sitting up too quickly. Luggage is stored under the bottom bunks.
There’s no dining car on the train, but you can get masala tea, bottled water and snacks on board; we recommend stocking up on a few snacks before you get on the train though.
There’s one Western-style toilet on every carriage; at first glance, it appears that they’re all squat toilets, but the back left toilet is always European. Tourists are generally the only people who use them too.
There are LOTS of train attendants on overnight trains in India, so toilets and carriages are kept relatively clean throughout your journey (but as the saying goes, remember to pack a roll of toilet paper and some hand sanitiser!).
On the Trans-Siberian Railway
This is the big one. Three nights on the train between Irkutsk and Moscow in Russia (four if you do the trip in reverse) on one of the most famous railways in the world.
Four passengers travel in each cabin, made up of two bunk beds, and you’ll be given clean sheets and blankets when you get on the train in Irkutsk. Your luggage travels in the cabin with you. There are power outlets outside the cabins in the hallways, but we advise against using these (they’re quite often broken and can damage your electronics); it’s better to invest in a portable charger and use that instead – just make sure it’s fully charged at a reliable electricity source before you leave.
The temperature gets pretty hot and stuffy, so it’s a good idea to pack a few t-shirts and a pair of shorts or leggings (yes, even when it’s snowing outside).
The bathrooms are reasonably clean; there’s one at the end of each carriage, with a toilet (either a drop toilet, or a suction toilet, similar to those on planes) and a sink (no shower). Bathrooms are locked when you’re approaching a station, and remain closed until the train starts moving again.
The train makes quite a few stops along the way – some short, some long – and you can get off the train for a bit of fresh air and to stretch your legs. BUT. Stick with your leader and always take your passport with you – when you’re passing through so many different time zones, it can be pretty easy to lose track of time, and if the train leaves without you, you want to make sure you’ve got your most important travel document in hand.
Each carriage has a dedicated attendant – do everything you can to befriend your attendant as soon as you get on the train. They’ll let you know when the next stop is, when the toilets are closing (and when they’re open again), and they sell snacks as well.
The on-board dining car doesn’t sell amazing food, but they do sell cold beer, soft drinks and snacks. It’s a nice spot to sit in the evenings, play cards, and practice your Russian language skills with the locals. Stock up on snacks before you leave, and buy more substantial meals from the babushkas at the train stations – they usually have delicious homemade pastries and sandwiches. Looks for the babushka with the longest queue, as they’ll have the best food.
Three nights on the train might seem like a long time, but the trip passes pretty quickly. You’ll wind through three different time zones, through forests, snow, tiny villages and huge industrial cities. If you’re not swept up watching the changing scenery go by, it’s a great opportunity for reading, listening to podcasts, and getting to know your travel mates. Win win!
A few packing tips to make your journey on an overnight train more comfortable:
- Pack a roll of toilet paper and some hand sanitiser
- An eye mask, for some shut-eye when the lights are still on, or naps during the day
- Consider investing in a lightweight silk sleep sheet. Provided bedding will always be clean, but having your own sheet is nice for peace of mind
- A small towel or face washer, to freshen up in the bathroom (you can hang it up to dry in your cabin)
- Flip flops/thongs/jandals are great for slipping on when you go to the bathroom. Also, never go to the bathroom in bare feet. Never.
- Feeling creative? Pack a whiteboard marker, so you can leave notes for your cabin mates on the window, or just play noughts and crosses
- BYO mug and a selection of teas, hot chocolate sachets, or cup noodles. Most trains will have a hot water tap for anytime cups of tea
- Stock up on healthy snacks like fruit, nuts and sandwiches before you set off.
Don’t let a night or two on an overnight train put you off your travels. Just think of them as busy, moving hotels.
Staying on an overnight train is all part of the adventure! Check out our range of part-train, part-hotel journeys here.
Feature image by Lucy Piper.