Sleeper trains combine travelling with a place to sleep. Before the breakthrough of air travel, sleeper trains were the preferred way of travelling long distances overland. A few trains, including an "Orient Express" which formerly ran from Paris to Istanbul, became famous through film and literature. Both the rise of aviation (now cheaper than many long train journeys) and high speed trains (slashing travel times) as well as financial concerns on the part of the operators have made sleeper services disappear.
A few new sleeper services have been introduced for leisure travellers in recent years. These offer a level of comfort and sightseeing not possible while flying. Tourist railways may bring them back for nostalgia. In some cases, they may also be the cheapest or only way to reach certain places.
Sleeper trains often have different categories of accommodation. The exact details vary from train to train, but will typically be one or more of the following, at different prices:
- Sleeper Cabins These are often one or two (bunk) berth cabins, and are usually sold for exclusive use, similar to a hotel room. However a cabin will feel very cramped compared to a hotel room, and often has no or very limited washing facilities, such as just a sink.
- Couchette These are bunks in a shared compartment or carriage. In Europe, couchettes are usually in compartments with 6 bunk beds.
- Seats These can be the same seats as in a regular daytime train, or they might be reclining. These may be intended primarily for those travelling shorter distances, or be offered as a budget option. With some rail passes you can travel in a seat on a sleeper train with no supplement.
On many trains – especially those that run more than one night – cabins have a "day" and "night" mode with bed either converted to seating or folded away in the day mode. During the daytime the bunks are folded up, with the lowest bunk forming a seat. You will usually get help from the train staff in converting your cabin to night mode and may even ask for a wake up service.
Usually a carriage of couchettes or sleeper cabins will have an attendant who will check your ticket and show you to your berth. In Europe, if the train crosses an international border, the attendant may take your passport to show to officials, or you may be woken at the border. If you are in a seat you may be woken for ticket checks as well as border crossings. In the Schengen area border crossings may not be noticeable in any way, but there are still often controls on international trains.
Rail systems with sleeper trains
Sleeper trains normally appear on long journeys which cannot realistically be completed in a single day:
- Australia - Both transcontinental routes operated by Great Southern Rail offer sleeper service. These cater mostly to leisure travellers with a lot of time and money on their hands. Sleepers are also available on NSW Trainlink's overnight services from Sydney to Melbourne and Brisbane, while Queensland Rail's train from Brisbane to Cairns offers lie-flat seats similar to those in international long-haul business class on airlines.
- Canada - Several sleeper services are available on Via Rail's longer routes, such as the Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. Don't expect to see them on the short-haul but beaten path Windsor-Quebec corridor, as that trip can be completed in a day.
- China has the (to date) only high speed sleeper service. Conventional sleeper services are still available on many routes, but often complemented by high speed connections that do the trip in a single day. The Beijing-Lhasa route is one of the most notable for its journey through high-altitude areas, and its use of oxygen-enriched air to help passengers cope with the higher altitude.
- While Europe invented the concept, and many legendary routes of yore criss-crossed the continent, much has been shut down in recent years and many of the existing ones are under threat. There is still quite good coverage though, especially in the east and in the Nordic countries. After several railroads, most notably Deutsche Bahn have greatly reduced or eliminated night train service altogether, Austrian Railways (ÖBB) has taken up the mantle, running a fairly extensive network throughout Central Europe with a focus on the German speaking countries and former Austria-Hungary under the brand Nightjet. Nightjet is budging the trend and actually expanding night train service both in Austria and outside of it. In the United Kingdom, there are three sleeper services: two between London and Scotland, and one between London and Cornwall. Spain has much slashed its erstwhile "Trenhotel" network, especially with regards to routes to France, but a few domestic routes and one to Lisbon remain.
- India also offers sleeper service in different classes (levels of comfort at different price points) for their longer journeys.
- Russia has sleeper trains, especially on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Russian Railways also runs sleepers westward for people willing to spend more than comparable plane tickets would cost.
- United States - Amtrak, the de facto federally owned passenger train operator, offers sleeper service on most of its longer routes, which is a great way of seeing the US without a car
- Argentina (only sleeper services in South America) - trains to Tucuman, Cordoba
- Some African countries - Egypt (Alexandria - Cairo - Luxor - Aswan), Morocco (to Marrakesh), South Africa (several routes), Namibia, Tanzania
- Turkey, Iran
- South East Asia countries - Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia (only jungle line)
Unlike daytime trains, sleepers usually must be booked in advance.
While most railways allow you to simply book sleeper trains the same way you book any regular train (e.g. at ticket counters, online or via phone), you often have to get a seat – or in this case berth – reservation, which often includes the surcharge for sleeper service. Often passes, like Interrail, only cover the price for a "standard seat" in second class and the sleeper surcharge has to be paid on top of that.
Accommodation is usually sold on a first come first served basis and you may get bargains by booking early or by getting an "upgrade" when already on the train if berths happen to be available.
Most sleeper trains also have a dining car, while almost all of the others offer food at your cabin. However the dining car can have limited supplies which may run out if the train is running late, so you may wish to bring some food with you as a backup. Many train companies post their menus (including prices) on-line and you can usually rely on these being at least somewhat accurate. However serving sizes are often smaller and prices often higher than comparable food outside a train. Depending on the route and railway breakfast or even all meals may be included in premium fares or all sleeper fares.
The tap water on a train is usually not fit to drink – in Europe this is usually clearly indicated either by a pictogram or in so many words (usually in more than one language), in other places it might be apparent from context. You may want to bring some bottled water with you, as it will be cheaper to buy this in the station (or a regular supermarket) than on the train. In the rare cases of catastrophic air conditioning failure, you might get free drinks to ease the heat. But as sleeper trains travel mostly at night, this is rather unlikely.
In some countries you are not allowed to bring your own alcohol, as the train is "licensed premises" like a pub. On some trains all alcohol is prohibited, but in most countries this rule only affects commuter trains and has not yet spread to sleepers.
While some people love the rumbling and bumbling of the train that "rocks them to sleep" others hate the noise and cannot sleep. While some countries invest a lot in their rail networks to reduce bumps, in other countries you are definitely in for a bumpy ride. Your mileage as to sleeping may certainly vary. In bunk accommodation that is shared with several other people snoring may also be a problem, so bring something to cover your ears. Sleeping in a regular seat, even if it is reclining, is certainly not all that comfortable, but a lot of budget conscious travelers have done so in the past and regular seats are still available on most trains with sleepers, sometimes for quite affordable rates indeed, compared to more comfortable options.