How to sleep well on sleeper trains

Get off your train feeling fresh and ready for action in the morning. Matthew Woodward prepares you for a perfect night’s sleep on the rails...

5 mins

1. Bag the best bed

If you have any choice in the matter, a compartment in the middle of a carriage is usually preferable to one at either end. This is because it generally offers a smoother ride and you will also be further away from the toilets, banging doors and smokers who congregate at each end. I always aim for a bottom berth and facing the direction of travel. The bottom berth gives you control of the table and of course avoids any undignified falling out bed in on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It’s usually cooler down under and you can watch the sunrise out of the window from your bed. 

2. Manage the climate

The number one problem for travellers not used to sleeping on a train is being able to get a comfortable temperature in their compartment. Be careful though, as what is perfect for you maybe unacceptable to your fellow cabin dwellers. I carry a gas cupboard meter key to open locked windows, and a roll of kitchen foil to cover over the heating vent if there isn’t a lever to turn it down. If you are in a modern carriage with air conditioning you may of course be able to persuade the carriage guard to adjust it for you. A small battery fan can make quite a difference should it become too hot in your compartment.

3. Don't forget the creature comforts

I always carry a small bag for things that I might need in the night (without having to get into my big bag). This includes earplugs, an eyeshade and a torch. Some trains (and passengers!) can have a rather special aroma, and a bottle of essential oil sprinkled on your bedding can make things a bit more pleasant. My bag also contains my phone (as an alarm clock and back-up torch) and an emergency battery pack to recharge it when there is no power socket. An extra pillow can make quite a difference – befriend the carriage guard or see if there is a spare one on an empty bed.

4. Be aware of the world outside your cabin

Explore your train. Some toilets are kept in much better condition than others, so take a moment to visit both ends of the carriage. Find out if there is a restaurant car (it may only be there for part of the journey), and where it is in relation to your own carriage. Aim to get up a bit earlier than you need to – you might find that the bathrooms are freshly cleaned and empty. 

With your ablutions completed, there should then be time for a reasonable cup of coffee before you arrive at your destination. Most Russian and Chinese trains have a hot water boiler (samovar) in each carriage near the guard’s day cabin, so you can make hot drinks at any time. A cup of hot chocolate before your retire for the night might help you sleep. Failing this, try a glass of local wine!

5. The perfect bedtime dress code

Bring comfortable clothes to wear at night, and layers that you can easily put on or take off. A tracksuit and t-shirt can be ideal. Plastic sandals are essential, as you definitely don’t want to venture to the bathroom in your socks or bare feet. By making the effort to change into 'bedclothes' you are actually more likely to get yourself in the right frame of mind for good sleep.

6. Have a cunning plan

Part of the secret to great train sleep is being able to switch off and not worry about what’s ahead the next day. Prepare by making sure you know the time you need to get off the train in the morning, which time zone this is in, and the name of the stop before the one you need to get off at. By reviewing this information before turning in, you will sleep soundly.

7. Keep safe

Trains are generally very safe places to be, but is always worth following a few simple rules. Always lock your door at night, and use the second deadlock when there is one, as it is actually possible to open the door from the outside with a very simple key. Always keep your valuables with you. I carry mine in a shoulder bag, which goes with me wherever I am or under my pillow when I'm sharing a compartment. Use lockable luggage and keep your bags in your compartment, not outside it.

Matthew Woodward has recently returned from his third Trans-Siberian rail adventure, now having covered over 50,000 km on the train from his home in Edinburgh, reaching Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo. His blog can be found at Toad's Travel Adventures.

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