13 Hacks for Sleeping like a Baby on Any Night Train

By Edward | Night Trains

Mar 12
Sleeping on a night train

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    13 Hacks to Sleeping on any Night Train

    Sleeping on a night train. Silent Hunter asks: "What is your advice for getting a good night's sleep on a sleeper or couchette train?" Here is what I came up with in one morning. I haven't done all of these things yet, but I shall definitely try them next time.

    It is always a challenge, sleeping on a night train. Or indeed any environment to which you are not accustomed, be it at your in-laws, under a bridge, or just on a new mattress.


    I've racked my brains and screwed up all my years of experience with night trains. I touched this subject in a post I wrote for Amateur Traveler Podcast. Here is what I came up with to help you sleep:

    1.

    Be tired

    "Oh come on, Ed! I thought you said HACKS?" Sorry for stating the obvious, but this is a big one. It helps to be tired. Get this right and nothing else matters. Be up nice and early the morning of your journey and do lots of stuff. Say, trudging around Venice all day. 

    2.

    Drink

    I mean alcohol. If you can. Beer contains hops and hops make you sleep. Beer contains alcohol and alcohol relaxes. Relaxation makes you less tense. This can help with sleeping on a night train. Aim for a small, strong IPA. In Germany, some kind of Export. In Italy, Speciale. Or just have red wine.

    3.

    Don't drink

    Beer contains water and water makes you pee. So don't have too much. There is nothing worse than waking up on a night train and sort of needing to pee and then agonising for hours whether to... 

    • put on your wig and clump down the corridor with your strappy sandals not strapped up? 
    • or just go back to sleep?
    The answer to this, by the way, is immediately to get up and get it over with. If you force yourself back to sleep against your bladder, guess what? In the morning, when everybody is going to the loo, you'll be desperate and have to wait. And end up gulping stone-cold coffee half inside your coat as your train stops at your destination. But I digress.
    Sleeping on a night train

    Polish Rail are very generous with the beverages. It's a trap.

    4.

    Consider ear plugs

    Personally, I don't ever use ear plugs. But other people do. Ear plugs are definitely a thang for sleeping on a night train. The train is moving, there will be noise. 


    Once I had a sleeper in which somewhere, behind the cladding, something  kept softly tapping at irregular intervals. It drove me insane and I slept about one hour. I would have needed ear-plugs then.


    The Hungarian couchettes that run between Zürich, Munich, Vienna and Budapest have very loud air conditioning. Imagine sleeping on the wing of Concorde. Ear plugs would be good there.

    5.

    Go for a walk

    If you really cannot sleep, don't just lie there, fuming. Put on your wig and your strappy sandals and go for a wander up and down the train.


    If you are on a train with a dining car, and it is open, good for you. Have yourself a drink. If there is no dining car, you might still get something from the staff. I remember an American waking me coming at 3.30 AM and buying peanuts and a coke from me.


    Go to the very front of the train and watch the engine powering through the night. Then go to the very back and watch the stars spiralling in the vastness of the cosmos as the train winds its way through the dark. Ponder your insignificance.

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    6.

    Pour your heart out

    Chase down the attendant and strike up a conversation. A sleeper attendant is like a barkeeper. If you want to pour out your heart, they are there for you.


    Many's the night I've listened to some insomniac's story. Once on the way to Venice I had a beautiful chain-smoking Albanian (let's call her Aferdita) telling me about her forced marriage all the way from Rosenheim to Tarvisio. That's five hours.

    7.

    Bring sticking plaster, newspaper and blu tack

    I'm on a roll now. Keep a small roll of sticking plaster and a little bit of blu tack (Americans: Poster Tack) in your toiletry bag. These can be invaluable for keeping the door of the washbasin shut or preventing said door from vibrating in its hinges. Newspaper is also good for such interventions. 

    Sleeping on a night train

    Doors can sometimes open or vibrate. Tape, blu tack or newspaper can help fix this.

    8.

    Try lying the other way

    Sometimes it helps to lie the other way. Let's say you are lying in a bottom couchette with your head next to door. Now let's say someone keeps getting up, putting a wig on, fumbling with their strappy sandals and banging the door. You'll have much more peace with your head at the window. 


    Here is something fun to try: lie on your back, looking upwards out the window at the stars. Now imagine everything upside down. All of a sudden you are soaring through the darkness, watching the stars drift light-years below you.

    9.

    Leave your phone alone

    Another old hat, but I'm still going to mention it: try and resist the temptation to play with your phone. If you see what time it is, you might feel stressed by how little time you've got left. Then there's the blue light the screen emits. Scientists say this screws up your sleep cycle.

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    10.

    Master the air conditioning

    Most sleeping cars now have air conditioning. Me, I prefer windows, but I'm an old fuddy-duddy. Always have been.

    Sometimes the air conditioning can emit very dry air, parching your nose and mouth. This has stopped me from sleeping on a night train, I can tell you. Here's what to do:


    1. if there's a control knob, turn it down to cooler. It won't make much difference, as there is only one unit feeding all compartments. However, cooler air absorbs less moisture.
    2. Moisten (don't soak!) a flannel with water and drape it over such vents as you can find. The main vent is often at the bottom of the window frame. The aim is not to obstruct the air - merely to humidify it as it streams into your compartment.
    3. Don't ask the attendant to turn the air conditioning off. They won't. If they did, it would be 30 seconds before someone else came complaining. 
    Sleeping on a night train

    Polish Sleeping car compartment

    11.

    Safeguard your valuables

    This applies in all compartments, but especially if sharing with other people.


    Put your valuables somewhere safe when sleeping on a night train. You needn't be super original. It's enough that your wallet is harder to find than other people's. Also, spread your stuff about so that if something does get stolen, you don't lose everything.


    That said, things don't get stolen that often. More important than anything else is to acquaint yourself with the locking mechanism and use it.


    In 2015-2016 we had a terrible infestation with pickpockets on the Munich-Amsterdam line. After Frankfurt I would make a round and check that every couchette door was locked from the inside. Most were open, in spite of my exhortations to lock them.



    12.

    Book something in the middle of the carriage

    This is advanced geekiness, but for some people this makes a difference. I factor it in. When booking, ask to be placed in the middle of the carriage. In couchettes, that is berths 51-56, 61-66 and 71-76. In sleepers it is harder to say, but 31-35, 32-36 and 41-45 are a safe bet. The benefit is threefold:


    1. You are not above squealing bogies
    2. You are far from the loos, so fewer people lumber by
    3. You are further from doors opening and closing.

    On the Russian and Ukrainian railways' sites you can choose your berth on a little map. The Nightjet hasn't got this cool feature yet.

    13.

    Try not to give a toss

    If you follow all the above tips to the letter and turn up expecting to sleep, you are doomed to fail. You won't sleep a wink. Sleep is about letting it happen, rather than making it happen. [Insert more trite wisdom about sleep here].


    If you really can't sleep, just accept that it wasn't to be. You are more likely to sleep on a night train then.  

    Bonne nuit / Buona notte / Gute Nacht / Спокойной ночи

    I started off writing 6 tips, then went up to 9 and finally 13 as new ideas kept piling in.


    A combination of these tips ought to help you get to sleep quickly on a night train. I have aimed to give you stuff that is relaxing, changes your thoughts and makes you more ready for sleep.


    Then when the conductor knocks and brings you your breakfast you'll wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.


    This post is part of my Ask Me Anything series. If you want to Ask Me Anything, join the Rail Guide Europe club and shoot me an email...

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      About the Author

      After crisscrossing Europe for 6 years as a train conductor, I guide intrepid travellers roaming Europe by rail.

    • Thanks for really enjoyable and fun post. I like your combination of philosophy and practicality! The blue tack idea is brill.

    • Ros says:

      Thank you! I would add- lower your expectations: you’re not in a five star hotel. If you doze for half an hour or so, it’s a win. Spend your time looking out of the window. I spent a night from Cologne to Vienna just watching the moon turn the Rhine silver. Magical.

    • Alex W says:

      To reconcile (2) & (3), drink whisky. Especially on the Caledonian Sleeper.

    • Nicolas says:

      Edward, I much enjoyed your “night train” list (and agree with all you said). I am another ex-night train “conductor” (Amtrak, SNCB), and I have one more. It was advice I always gave infrequent riders, and many thanked me effusively for it the following morning.

      Whatever your night routine is, respect it as much as you can. It seems to psychologically help you “feel at home” in your new space, and thus “safer,” more serene (which obviously helps sleep). If you usually brush your teeth before you go to bed, brush them. If you wear pyjamas, dig them out, and wear them. If you listen to music, listen to some. If you read, read. If you sip a cognac, sip one.

      Obviously, some aspects of this are easier in a sleeper than in couchettes (one imagines “sleeping in the nude,” for instance), but every little bit seems to help. Half an hour invested in not-always-easy “pre-sleep” prep adds a couple of hours of rest to your night.

      • Edward says:

        Thank you, Nicolas, for your wonderful addition. It makes absolute sense. In fact that is what I did with my little girl when I took her on the Nightjet – stick as rigidly as possible to her bedtime routine.

    • Nora Szponar says:

      Great article. It helps to be small like me as well. I love travelling on night trains but my husband does not. He is 1.85m and I am 1.5m. Also, have babies – you can sleep anywhere after them!

    • Monika Gause says:

      Can’t stress #1 enough. I had my best sleep on a night train from Munich to Hamburg when I had jetlag. 6 people in the compartment and I was alone in Hamburg, but didn’t notice anyone leaving 😀

    • Chris says:

      About lying the other way: if you lie with your head away from the corridor (to avoid the noise of people walking up and down in Doc Martin boots), and if the train is oriented such that the track in the opposite direction is next to the window, expect to be wakened with a start as the train in the opposite direction shoots by at 100+ km/h, shaking the window with a WHUMP, and resulting in a wide-awake “what the *@! just happened” moment.
      Voice of experience.

      • Edward says:

        I feel you. Here’s something more insidious that has sometimes afflicted me: As I hover on the brink of sleep I start to worry that a tree trunk on a passing goods train might come loose and tear into the carriage, ripping my head off. Then I have to lie with my head to the door. It is silly, but what are you gonna do?

        Thanks for commenting and stay safe!

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