12.04am. McDonalds. Zagreb. Sitting in one of the few establishments it’s acceptable to linger in for over 3 hours, periodically refreshing our Diet Coke supply. The night train we booked doesn’t leave until 2.30am, that leaves a mere 3 hours and 26minutes to fill, I think a McFlurry is in order! Having already boarded 2 night trains in the past 5 days and about to leave for Budapest on a third, I thought I’d put together a quick survival guide. This blog post could in theory be very short and sweet because my ultimate advise would be to avoid at all costs! However, they can be a great way to travel longer distances without wasting too much of your holiday time and we have lived to tell the tale thus far, so,here are my top ten tips:
1. Make sure it’s worth the trip.
If you are going to commit to 6-10 hours in a hot, cramped sleeper train think about how much you want to visit the end destination. If you haven’t devoted a minimum of 6-10 weeks Instagram scrolling its only a gap filler and isn’t worth the sleep deprivation.
2. Splash out on a private sleeper.
Do yourself a favour and spend a few extra pounds to get a private bunk. On our travels we have endured both a shared couchette and a two person sleeper. Both rooms are small and cramped, but reserving a private sleeper means you can leave you luggage on the floor. This avoids the kerfuffle of fighting with overhead lockers or worry about the impending law suit should you crush a fellow sufferer/passenger. You also get a wash basin, seems random but this means you can easily brush your teeth – small mercies!
3. Book early.
We booked over a month in advance and still only managed to secure 2 private bunks and had to take a shared couchette on our first trip. On all of the night trains we’ve taken, the sleeper carriages have been full and we have witnessed several people unsuccessfully try to reserve beds a few days in advance at the station. Book well in advance of your trip if at all possible, even Mr Spreadsheet himself wasn’t quick enough!
4. Don’t think it will be a cheap alternative to booking static accommodation.
Over our trip we booked a variety of types of places to stay from apartments and hotels to hostels. Shockingly a private room on a night train was actually the most expensive sleep of the entire trip. Remember it is compulsory to make a reservation on European night trains so they are definitely not a money saving move.
5. Pack an overnight bag.
With such little room to manoeuvre once in the bunk, access to our rucksacks is virtually impossible. A smaller backpack with the essentials will save you the sweaty struggle. Personally, I packed face wipes, toothbrush, deodorant, a change of clothes, charging bank, some breakfast brioche and a bottle of water. Rory also had ear buds and a face mask which are particularly useful if you are a light sleeper, somehow trains seem even more noisy at night. Just a few simple items can make all the difference in comfort.
6. Keep your valuables close.
We were repeatedly warned to ensure the bunk door was locked to offer increased protection against theft. When asleep passengers are evidently more vulnerable to criminals and opportunists, a stolen phone or the loss of significant amount of cash could easily ruin your trip, wear you bum bag whilst you sleep or keep you bag padlocked and by the head of your bed.
7. Give yourself time to recover.
In summer these trains are hot and all year round they are noisy and compact, you are not going to get the best nights sleep of your life. With this in mind don’t make any drastic plans to go sky diving or on a 20k hike the following day. After our night train from bled to split we spent the day on the beach in Hvar, napping between swims. Perhaps more importantly, learn from our mistake and allow yourself a couple of days after the night train before setting off to another destination for the next adventure, it is tiring!
8. Try to keep departure and arrival times sensible.
Ideally it would be wonderful if all night trains set off at 11pm and arrived at 9am but unfortunately that is almost never the case. With this in mind think about when amenities like bars, restaurants and coffee shops open and close. Arriving at 5.30am, hours before you could reasonably expect to get a cappuccino is my idea of torture. Similarly, departure times in the wee small hours, after McDonalds closes can mean hours spent at the train station and may even result in a rambling blog post (apologies, but it is now 3.30am).
9. Spend 5 minutes on google to find a decent cafe for when you arrive.
From experience, fresh orange juice, a croissant and a cappuccino is an excellent post train tonic. When still half asleep knowing the quickest route to this perverbial pot of gold will save you trudging the streets with your luggage for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
748. Get used to random numbering.
This is not caused by sleep deprivation, you just need to get used bizarre number patterns. There is literally no rhyme or reason to the carriage numbering system applied to the sleeper trains we’ve been on. You might think you’re going mad with exhaustion, but really it’s just a sick mind game the Croatian train companies like to play.