Europe, Travel Tips
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A lesson in taking an overnight sleeper train in Eastern Europe

I went back to Europe in July for a long summer break. To be honest with you, despite having travelled probably more than an average person, I don’t take the train very often. Being on the train is still a novelty for me, let alone sleeping in one. On this trip I tried to remedy that by taking not one, not two, but four sleeper trains in the two weeks that I was there. Here is my take on taking the overnight sleeper trains!

What to expect on a sleeper train in general

If you’re like me and have been living under a rock (because apparently everyone else has traveled in a sleeper train before), here is what I’ve learned about sleeper trains:

My Polrail Ticket with numbers

My Polrail Ticket with car and berth numbers

First, how to read your ticket. Your ticket will tell you which car and bed/berth numbers. This should be fairly easy as it’s the same as taking regular trains. Find the train number and make sure you are on the right platform for it. They might say “car” and “cabin” in local language so you may have to google translate but should be easy. Once the train arrives, find the car as numbered on your ticket, then within that car find your bed numbers.

Door of our cabin with bed numbers

Second, what to do before boarding. Give your tickets to the train car manager. They will keep your tickets for you and give it to the conductor so you don’t need to be woken up in the middle of the night, unless you are taking a cross border train. I will touch this subject later.

From the top bunk of a private cabin on CD Train

Third, cabin layouts. The cabins are all the same but the layout can be changed accordingly depending on the type of cabin you have reserved – private 1 bed cabin, or 2 to 4 beds cabins. If your car manager has not changed the cabin layout to the number of beds you have reserved, you can ask his/her help to do so.

Four, sharing cabins with strangers. I did not get to do this on the trip myself since I was always sharing with at least one friend, but I observed other cabins. If you booked for just one bed in a cabin to share with strangers, you likely will be put in a 3-bed or 4-bed cabin which would be bunk beds stacked on top of each other. If you are picky about which level to sleep in, I suggest you arrive earlier.

Each country has their own train ticketing rules, regardless of operators

For example, Poland did not let us buy sleeper train tickets online during the summer. So even though the train was operated by the same operator we took on another route, we had to buy tickets from a reseller to secure our spot and pay a hefty comission + shipping price. I am glad we did this because the train was full from Prague to Krakow!

For our train from Krakow to Lviv, Polrail would only let us pick up the tickets in person. So once we got to Krakow, we had to pick it up at a post office near the main station.

Consult seat61.com on the rules as they differ depending on the route / country.

Cabin Quality

Each train operator has different qualities… obviously. We took trains with two different operators on this trip. On Ceske Drahy (the main railway operator in Czech Republic, referred to from now on as CD), the trains were amazing. The beds were already made up for us and we had private washing basin, a mirror, individual lights, all the works.

CD Train from Budapest to Prague

Me, on the CD Train from Budapest to Prague. It was my first sleeper train ever!

CD Train from Prague to Krakow

Polrail from Krakow to Lviv

My friend Shekhar and the interesting carpet choices on the Polrail from Krakow to Lviv

When we took the trains to Ukraine however, we had to make our own beds and there was no private washing basin or mirrors in the cabin even though we had a private cabin.  You have to use the shared bathroom to brush your teeth.

Ukrainian Train on polrail

Even though the train was ticketed from Polrail, it was actually a Ukrainian train, as evident from the insignia on the exterior and the color of the train.

Furthermore, each train route may have different qualities even if they are from the same operator. We took two CD trains – the first train did not have shower, the second one does. The first train had a mirror, the second train did not. And so on.

2nd class, 4-bed Ukrainian Train

There is not much you can do but mentally prepare yourself, because unlike flights they don’t indicate the train model numbers on the reservation. But really, it wasn’t that bad at all!

Crossing borders on a sleeper train

If you value sleep – do not cross country borders in a sleeper train. They will wake you up at least three times at ungodly hours – once to cross the border out of the first country, once to cross border into the second country and collect passports for immigration stamps, and then once more to return the stamped passports.

I crossed the border from Poland into Ukraine and barely got three hours of sleep thanks to this. In my case, I was woken up one more time for a random inspection into the cabin in the Ukraine side. At 4am.

It makes for an interesting experience and stories but I was a zombie when we arrived in Lviv three hours later.

The pro and cons of taking a sleeper train

The pros:

  • You save money by combining transport and accommodation
  • You save time, for obvious reasons. You basically go to sleep in one country and wake up in another.
  • Most sleeper trains go to the main station of a city, which are always more conveniently located than airports. In most cases, it’s even possible to walk from the station to the city center which saves you money on transport as well.
  • You get more personal space than taking a flight or a bus. And if you are bored, you can walk around the corridor and stretch out a bit.

But of course there are also cons:

  • You don’t get to see much during the ride since it would be mostly dark outside. Most sleeper trains would leave at 10-11pm.
  • You would usually get in very early in the morning (6-7am) so you probably can’t check in to your next accommodation yet. You have to make arrangements for your luggage and tour the city first.
  • If you are a light sleeper, you might get woken up on random times of the night. And if you are unlucky you might have a noisy neighbour. Most cabins are not sound proof.

Final verdict on sleeper train

That being said, as someone who can sleep anywhere I absolutely loved taking sleeper trains and would recommend it to anyone. The pros outweigh all the cons listed above. The next time I go back to Europe, i am definitely doing more sleeper trains!

View from the Train into Ukraine at Sunrise

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