There’s something enduringly romantic about train travel. The slower pace, the gentle rhythm, the ability to surrender responsibility and just gaze out of the window. It’s true of all – well, most – rail journeys. But it’s especially true of the sleeper train, the hotel-on-wheels aboard which you can bed down in one country and wake up in another.
Romance aside, train travel is also far less damaging to the planet: it releases the least amount of greenhouse gasses of all forms of transportation. You’re better able to understand the connections that exist between places on a rail trip, watching the scenery change as cities become suburbs, which become farmland, which become foothills or deserts or plains.
There’s a variety of experiences to choose from when booking overnight train travel, from the budget to the luxe. Here are some of the most epic overnight train journeys to take for those looking for a dream of a ride.
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Nicknamed the Reunification Express when it resumed service after the Vietnam War, this 1072-mile (1726km) ride between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City runs the length of the country, providing a perfect Vietnamese diorama: historic towns, bustling suburbs, rice paddies, emerald hills and the glittering South China Sea.
How: Choose from hard seat (cheapest) or soft, hard berth (six-bed compartment), soft berth (four-bed) or VIP cabin (two beds; book in advance). Tickets can be booked online.
Duration: About 35 hours.
Chicago to San Francisco, USA
On its epic 2400-mile (3900km) journey, the California Zephyr tackles sheer gorges, hot desert, snowy mountains and a tonne of tunnels and switchbacks. In 1869, these tracks were the first to cross the Continental Divide, linking the Atlantic and the Pacific.
How: The Zephyr leaves Chicago at 2pm daily. Book early for the lowest fares and best availability; tickets can be booked up almost a year ahead.
Duration: The entire journey to San Francisco takes 52 hours non-stop.
Kapiri Mposhi to Dar es Salaam, Zambia and Tanzania
A sleeper train? Or a rolling two-day safari? The Tazara Railway crosses rivers, gorges and some impressive feats of railway engineering while trundling through the enormous, wildlife-filled expanse of Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania. You might spot elephants, rhinos, lions and more from your window.
How: Tickets can’t be bought online; buy them at stations in Dar es Salaam or Kapiri Mposhi or via a local travel agency.
Duration: About 44 hours.
Brisbane to Longreach, Australia
Most of Australia's overnight trains are multi-day journeys across the continent, such as the Ghan that runs through Australia's "Red Centre" between Darwin and Adelaide, and the Indian Pacific that links Perth and Sydney. The Spirit of the Outback, however, is just over a day-long jaunt from Brisbane to Longreach. After flirting with the coast the train turns inland to reveal a changing landscape as it heads into the outback.
How: The tickets can be booked online. The train departs Tuesdays at 6:10pm and Saturday at 1:55pm.
Duration: The 1325km journey takes 26 hours.
Rome to Syracuse, Italy
To get from the Italian capital to the historic Sicilian city of Syracuse, this overnight loco has to board a boat. Having traced the Calabrian coast, it’s lifted on to a ferry to cross the Straits of Messina, before being lifted back off to continue on its way.
How: Two sleeper trains leave Rome nightly at around 9.05pm and 11pm. Tickets can be ordered online.
Duration: About 12 hours, including 30 minutes at sea.
Caledonian Sleeper, London to Scotland
There are actually two overnight sleeper trains that run under the umbrella of Caledonian Sleeper. One that runs the “Highland route” making stops between London and Aberdeen, the other runs the “Lowland route” from London Euston to Glasgow or Edinburgh. Rooms include either double beds or bunk beds with all the amenities of a hotel, including wifi, room service and ensuite bathrooms. There’s also a Club Car for those interested in meals outside of their rooms.
How: Trains run six times a week, with boarding times and schedules varying depending on the particular route, however both timetables and tickets are always available online.
Duration: 8 hours
Red Arrow, St. Petersburg to Moscow
The Red Arrow or Krasnaya Strela, is possibly Russia’s most famous train. It first launched in 1931 when it was used to transport Russian elites. The glamorous retro interior of the train harkens back to this era with plush red seats and elaborate matching curtains on the windows. There’s a dining car on board and meals are included for passengers riding in either first class or the VIP car.
How: The train runs every day, leaving from both Moscow or St. Petersburg at 11:55pm and arriving at the opposite end in the morning at 7:55am. Tickets can be purchased online.
Duration: 8 hours
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Paris to Venice
Perhaps the most luxurious, and most famous, of the overnight sleeper trains, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is nothing short of a legend. There are several different routes guests can take on this historic train, but the most iconic is the one from London to Venice. The train itself is a throwback to the 1920s, with a restored art deco interior and luxury dining options included.
How: Venice Simplon-Orient-Express runs several times per month. Check the website for specific dates and times as well as to book.
Duration: 31 hours
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