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Sleeping on a night train
Mar 12

13 Hacks for Sleeping like a Baby on Any Night Train

By Edward | Ask Me Anything

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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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      Batumi Harbour
      Feb 19

      How to get to Georgia by Train

      By Edward | Ask Me Anything

      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...

      How to get to Georgia by Train

      Dagmar writes: I want to go to Georgia by train. Have you got any tips about how to get there? Where can I buy tickets? How does train travel work in Georgia? What does one need to know?

      A lovely question for kicking off our Ask Me Anything series. How does one get to Georgia by train? I went to Georgia by train on my honeymoon and am thus well equipped to answer this.


      First things First


      If you look at the map there are three ways:


      • Across the Black Sea
      • South of the Black Sea via Istanbul and Ankara
      • North of the Black Sea via Russia

      Going north via Russia is not an option as it has no rail links with Georgia proper since the 2008 war.


      Going south via Turkey is daunting: getting through the Balkans involves multiple changes. Not all trains can be booked online. There is a longish coach journey through Eastern Turkey that you cannot avoid (yet).


      Across the Black Sea you get comfortable sleeper trains to Odessa on the Black Sea, followed by a two-night voyage across the Black Sea to Batumi. This post explains how to go via Odessa and the Black Sea.


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        1.

        Georgia by train and boat via Odessa and the Black Sea


        This is the route I went in 2016.


        If you have an EU, US or Canadian passport, this is the most painless way as you don't need any visas at all. Furthermore, you can book the whole lot online - all the way from Western Europe to Tbilisi.


        You travel through the EU, Ukraine and Georgia. There are regular ferry sailings from Chornomorsk (formerly Illichivsk) to Batumi. This service is all year round and run by Ukrferry. During winter the boat goes twice a week, during the summer more frequently.


        Here is how I did it


        1. Starting from Munich, I went to Cheb with a Bayern Ticket. Such a humble beginning for such a long journey, but there you go. This ticket I bought on the day.


        2. At Cheb, I got the (now defunct) Slovak sleeper to Košice. This I had booked a bit in advance from Czech railways.


        3. At Košice, I changed on to a train to Čierna nad Tisou. This ticket I bought at Košice station. It is cheap and cannot sell out.


        4. At Čierna nad Tisou I got the border hopper to Chop, in Ukraine.


        5. From Chop I went to Uzhgorod in a Marshrutka. This was to cut down my wait. I could have stayed at Chop, but a four hour wait at Chop gets boring.  


        Bogie change at Ukrainian border

        If you go on a direct Ukrainian service (i.e. Vienna-L'viv) the bogies will be changed at the Ukrainian border.

        6. From Uzhgorod to Odessa I went on the Ukrainian Railways' Khadzhibey train. Train №107/108 "Хаджибей/Khadjibey" runs daily between Odessa and Uzhorod. It left Uzhorod in the evening and reached Odessa at lunchtime the next day. This ticket I also got online directly from Ukrainian Railways.


        "Khadjibey" is what the clutch of shacks and fortress was called that the Russians nabbed from the Ottomans when they conquered the Black Sea coast. Odessa was founded on the ruins of Khadjibey in 1794,


        7. After a four day wait at Odessa, I went by taxi to Chornomorsk and embarked on the Kaunas Seaways to Batumi. This was a two-night voyage. Left Chornomorsk in the late afternoon, arrived Batumi in the early morning. 

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        About the Odessa-Batumi Ferry


        Here I shall go into some detail about the voyage across the Black Sea. The Ukrferry ships are primarily goods ferries. Ukrferry transports lorries and (freight) railway coaches between Georgia and Ukraine. Most of the passengers are lorry drivers. We foot passengers are a side-hustle. This is why the ferry uses the goods port of Chornomorsk, rather than Odessa.

        Ukrferry Chornomorsk

        Leaving Chornomorsk. The little ferry in the background is the Caledonia, as seen in Andrea Maria Dusl's film "Blue Moon".

        Booking the Odessa-Batumi Ferry

        I booked the ticket online and paid for it on the ground at Ukrferry's head office outside Odessa. The booking process has changed since then, for the better. The whole thing can be done in English and you can pay online. 


        Getting to the port


        The district where the ferry terminal is, is called Burlachya Balka. It is on the southern outskirts of Odessa.


        The № 25 bus gets you there from Odessa's main station. It is seventeen stops and currently costs 24 hryvnas (7o¢). In Odessa you usually pay the driver at the front when you get off the bus.


        The stop you want is called "Burlachya Balka". It is a request stop and there is no bell to ring. You have to know where you are and bellow (bellow!) "Ostanaveetye pozhaluysta" (stop please) or "Na slyeduyushy" (..at the next stop) or "Burlachya Balka!"


        Or go by taxi. I went by taxi. Taxis in Odessa are cheap. Get your hotel to order a taxi for you. Hotels will ring reputable taxi companies that tell you the price before your taxi even arrives. This makes it harder for you to be quoted a fantasy price. 


        Meta comment: I just spent two hours looking at maps, retracing my steps and poring over Ukrainian public transport fora. I staked the district out on Google Streetview. My conclusion is that unless you are familiar with post-Soviet transport and speak some Russian, you had best get a taxi to the ferry terminal.


        The lengths to which I go for you

        I go to great lengths for you, my reader. One of these lengths is to ring up Ukrferry in Odessa and ask what the correct procedure is for 2020. Yes, in Russian. You're welcome.


        • When you have booked, you will receive a booking confirmation. This is not your ticket. You get your tickets at registration.
        • Registration is done at Ukrferry's office in Burlachya Balka, near the harbour at Chornomorsk. It is the highest building in the area and unmissable. 
        • Here it is on Google Maps. And here is the address, so you can give it to a taxi driver: Бизнес Центр "Борей", с. Бурлачья Балка, ул. Северная 41, (Business Centre "Borey", Burlachya Balka, ul. Severnaya 41.
        • Registration of foot passengers takes place before the lorries and railway carriages are processed. This means you have to be at the Ukrferry office quite a while before the ship sails. Exact details ought to come with your booking.
        • A minibus transfers you from the Ukrferry office to the terminal and customs.
        Open window on Ukraine-Georgia ferry

        No dolphins in this picture


        Embarking

        The ship moors with its stern to the pier and foot passengers walk on though the same entrance as the cars, lorries and trucks. The low-point of my honeymoon was watching my wife pick her way across the rails in the floor, in the half-light of the cavernous ship's hold.


        But then there were dolphins.


        sun set on the Black Sea

        Dolphins. Completely invisible in the waves and sunset.

        What is the passage to Georgia like?

        This is a real boat trip. You get to walk about on deck and watch the dolphins and seagulls. You can climb steep metal staircases. And open your cabin window. 


        You are fed three times daily in the ship's canteen. There is no buffet or menu. Everyone eats the same food. It is Slavic canteen fare with meat, sides and always a salad. There is no gluten-free or vegan option. Lactose-intolerance? What do you mean, you can't drink milk?


        An announcement is made on the tannoy in Russian, Georgian and English - "food is served, don't be late". Seriously, don't be late. They chuck you out of the canteen after 45 minutes or so.

        Kaunas Seaways at Batumi

        Kaunas Seaways moored at Batumi harbour

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        Train Travel in Georgia


        Georgia has inherited its railway system from the Russian and Soviet Empires. 



        • Not all parts of Georgia are easy to reach by train. Most major cities are connected to the network, but the trains are not frequent. Even the Tbilisi airport express only runs a few times per day.
        • The eastern wine-growing region of Kakheti has no regular passenger services from Tbilisi. Tracks go as far as the regional capital Telavi, but not trains. I don't know if these will ever be reinstated.

        Arid landscape close to Tbilisi

        • it is Russian broad-gauge (1520mm)
        • Night trains have the Russian three-class system (Luxe, Kupé and Platskart). As of 2020 these run between Tbilisi and Ozurgeti (Georgia's tea capital) and between Tbilisi and Zugdidi.
        • Except for on local services (e.g. Elektrichki) you always have an assigned place. And that is where you bloody well sit, too.

        I used the Georgian Railway to get from Batumi to Tbilisi. In 2016 this was with rather squeaky Chinese trains. Now this line is served by Georgia's flagship trains - double deck Swiss-designed Stadler sets.


        You can only move if the guards let you. My wife was one month pregnant and didn't take to travelling backwards through mountains. I only managed to get us moved by telling the guards that my wife was pregnant.


        If you translate the Georgian "she is pregnant" literally, you get: "she is two-souled". Isn't that a beautiful way to say it?  But I digress.


        Buying Tickets

        You can buy tickets for the Georgian Railways online and up to 40 days in advance.

        The e-ticket system is quite easy to use, and it is in English. Sadly this only works for domestic services, so if you want to go to Armenia or Azerbaijan, it won't help you.


        I shall shortly be adding guides to booking on Georgian and Ukrainian railways to the Insider Rail Guide library.

        My two-souled wife enjoying her Georgian pregnant VIP treatment.

        2.

        On the horizon: Georgia by train with the Ankara-Baku direct sleeper


        It has been postponed several times: The Azerbaijan Railways direct sleeper service from Ankara via Tbilisi to Baku. 


        The new Swiss-made dual-gauge carriages are already in Azerbaijan. The border station at Akhalkalaki and the Tbilisi-Kars railway line are finished. Smiling leaders have cut ribbons, watched by men in sunglasses. But the train has yet to enter service.


        However, when it does, this will be a supremely comfortable way to get to Georgia by train. If you make it through the Balkans.

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        3.

        Bonus: Abkhazia via Russia

        Abkhazia is a breakaway region that belongs to Georgia, but is currently not controlled by the Georgian government in Tbilisi. It has its own government and you need a visa to enter. 


        Abkhazia relies on Russia for protection and is reachable by train through Russia. Indeed, since the 2008 war, Abkhazia is the only part of Georgia with a direct rail link to Russia.


        There are trains from Moscow to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. During the winter, train № 306M runs every two days, during the summer it runs daily. The journey takes 43 hours.


        Bear in mind


        If you enter Abkhazia via Russia, you have to leave via Russia. You will therefore need a multiple visa for Russia.


        Were you to travel onwards into the rest of Georgia you wouldn't get an entry stamp and thus be entering Georgia illegally.


        How I recommend you do it

        Until the Azerbaijani Railways Ankara-Tbilisi-Baku sleeper comes online, the route via Odessa is king. Here is what I recommend you do:


        1. Get yourself to Vienna
        2. From Vienna, get the daily Ukrainian Railways sleeper service to L'viv. Spend or don't spend a couple of days in L'viv. Book this online through ÖBB. Check out this post on booking the Ukraine sleeper on ÖBB's site. It costs €72 in a double sleeper.
        3. From L'viv, get one of several overnight trains to Odessa. Spend or don't spend a couple of days in Odessa. The journey takes between 10 and 12 hours. Book this online through UZ. Expect to pay €25/$28 for kupé (4 berth sleeper) or €90/$95 for luxe (2 berth sleeper). Or - get this - €8.50/$9 if you go in platskart, the 3rd class open plan sleeper.
        4. From Odessa, get the Ukrferry service to Batumi. Book this online with Ukrferry. A berth in a standard double outside cabin costs €165/$180. A single in the suite is €380/$420. Budget roughly €350/$380 for two people sharing an outside cabin. If you bear in mind this includes two nights' accommodation, two days' food, plus the chance to see dolphins, it is a good deal.
        5. From Batumi, go on Georgian Railways to Tbilisi. Book online here. 1st class is about €20/$22, 2nd class €8/$9.


        Most romantic journey ever


        If you pull this off, you are in for one of the most romantic journeys imaginable

        Vienna, L'viv, Odessa - the stops along the way are already oozing with romance and excitement. 


        Add a two night voyage on a real ship from which you may see dolphins. I certainly did.

        Batumi morning

        Batumi, rising shimmering from the night horizon


        Then arrive in a part of the world that God had kept for himself, but in his goodness gave to the Georgians because of their singing and celebrations.


        I can't think of anything better. Please go forth and send me the pictures.


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