All across the globe, night trains clickety-clack through the darkness, defying gravity in the Canadian and American Rockies, lacing together Europe's many capitals, bringing culture alive in India and Iran, even reaching land speed records in China that challenge airlines for point-to-point ease and cost of transport. Of course, while most night trains are family friendly, some are more accommodating than others. Here's why you should consider taking the night train with your family, along with a few personal favourites worthy of consideration. All aboard!
Why you should take the night train with your family
There's something deeply satisfying about family travel by night train. The rhythmic, soporific pulsing is as good as a lullaby – even with kids excited about their bunk beds on wheels. A train's reliable honesty, guided by unerring tracks, puts everyone at ease. And the seemingly effortless forward motion, requiring no attention from the passengers, allows for restful family time – talking, playing cards, eating an uninterrupted meal or even just getting some well-earned sleep.
But it's the comfort and perhaps a sense of travel nostalgia – especially in some luxury night accommodation, and certainly in relation to that of other mass transit options like planes, buses or cars – that really seals the deal, all the more so when the journey involves kids, the elderly or less-mobile adults. How good is it to wake up in a new city having saved the cost of a hotel and gained time for sightseeing? Any concern about missing beautiful scenery along the way is quickly forgotten during a day maximised doing something other than spending hours in transit.
Australia's transcontinental journeys
The Ghan and the Indian Pacific are multi-day, luxury trains that barrel from one extreme of this island-continent to the other through its fabled Red Centre – The Ghan north–south between Adelaide and Darwin via Alice Springs, and the Indian Pacific west–east between Sydney and Perth via Adelaide. With off-train excursions and plenty of opportunities for wildlife spotting during the day, these all-inclusive sleeper trains aren’t just hotels on wheels, they're whole holiday packages.
Fares reflect the high-end service, including the gourmet food and drink. Slight discounts for children aged four to 15 may sometimes be available, but not in all classes.
VIA Rail's Canadian, Canada
The Canadian runs an epic 4466km, four-day/four-night route between Toronto and Vancouver via Winnipeg, Edmonton, Jasper and, most spectacularly, the Canadian Rockies. The Sleeper Plus and Prestige classes include comfortable beds and freshly prepared restaurant-car meals, while Economy offers a reclining seat and cafe car.
All classes enjoy access to kid-favourite panorama cars with stunning views of changing scenery and sometimes musical entertainment. Children aged two to 11 get 50% off their rail fare and many other family needs have been anticipated, from proper changing tables in the bathrooms to free wi-fi, games and activity books. There are even designated spaces for larger groups to play and microwaves for heating baby bottles and food.
China's sleeper classes
In parallel with China's rapidly expanding high-speed rail system are slower and cheaper sleepers with inexpensive seats or more costly and snug six-, four- and two-bed compartments. However, on routes between Běijīng and Shànghǎi or Xī’ān, for example, there are also sleek and very modern high-speed overnight trains. All night services have a buffet car and free boiling water.
Larger compartments are perfect for families, and children 12 and under may be eligible for discounts based on how many children are travelling and (rather unusually) their height. Families are often recommended to bring their own food (or at least some decent supplies), but some enjoy eating in the dining cars. It's best to avoid travelling during Chinese holidays and ideally book into a ‘soft sleeper’ – larger, quieter and more secure compartments with more comfortable berths. 'Deluxe soft sleepers' are even nicer.
Egypt's Watania deluxe sleeper train
While there are several thousand kilometres of track in Egypt, the only year-round overnight service trundles between Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. It's a deluxe, air-conditioned train operated by a private company called El Watania, otherwise known as ERNST, with reclining seats and two-bed cabins equipped with private sinks. Cabin service also includes airplane-style dinners, breakfasts and hot drinks.
Adjoining cabins with a door that opens between them can be reserved for a family of four. Children aged four to nine pay a reduced fare; kids under four ride free, but don't get a separate berth.
Europe's surviving sleepers
Europe is criss-crossed by rails, most now purpose-built for high-speed trains that increasingly dominate the long-distance transport scene. However, some overnight routes persist, particularly in eastern and northern Europe. Other services on iconic routes include Hendaye to Lisbon Surexpreso hotel train (which combines with the Madrid to Lisbon Trenhotel Lusitania) and the London to Scotland Caledonian Sleeper.
Night trains provide comfortable options for every budget, including reclining seats, family-suited six- or four-berth couchettes (padded bunks with bed fixings) and fancier private sleeping cabins. Children and families usually pay reduced fares in Europe, but the rules vary by country. Also, children under 12 travel free on a Eurail Child Pass with an adult on a Eurail Adult Pass. Be aware that 'children travel for free' often means free on an adult's lap or in open seats on unreserved trains. Any trains requiring reservations also mandate that a child occupying a seat must pay for it.
Indian Railways' overnighters
Any journey to India must include a ride on India Railways. If nothing else, it's a fantastic way to meet local people. Overnight routes are very common; from Delhi alone, night trains go to Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaisalmer, Chennai, Udaipur and Benares among many other destinations.
Travelling families of four are well-suited to two-tier, four-berth, air-conditioned compartments, either AC2 (second class with curtains) or AC1 (first-class, enclosed). Rajdhani Express intercity trains include meals in the fare. Children aged five to 11 pay adult prices if occupying reserved berths (highly recommended!) or half fare without.
With complimentary snacks and drinks waiting in the compartment on arrival, the top-notch first impressions of the Iran Rail night services leaving Tehran set the tone for a memorable trip across the country's vast central desert plains to cities like Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Gorgan, Kerman and Tabriz.
First-class carriages contain four- or six-berth sleepers, perfect for families, with built-in screens for Persian movies. Additional food is served along the way or is available in the restaurant car. Children aged two to 12 pay half price.
Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway
The Trans-Siberian Railway spans mind-spinning distances of Siberian tundra and taiga between Moscow or St Petersburg and Vladivostok, with branch lines to Běijīng. Without stops, the route takes roughly a week and trains don't have child-specific amenities. The journey therefore might be better suited to older kids or adolescents, or one worth breaking into segments. Regardless, the cultural experience is undeniably rich, taking you a third of the way around the globe by train.
Families may prefer four-berth, second-class sleeper compartments or, for more room, adjacent two-bed, first-class compartments. All trains have a restaurant carriage serving freshly cooked local dishes (the dining car changes in every country), and hot and cold drinks. Children aged five to 10 pay 50% off full adult train fares and kids under five travel free if sharing a seat or bunk.
How to pack for the Trans-Siberian Railway
Amtrak routes, USA
Amtrak helps knit the US together through evocatively-named, long-distance services with quality sleeping options. The Coastal Starlight is the most popular and stunning route, running for 36 hours between Seattle and Los Angeles; while from Chicago, the Empire Builder, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief push through the Rockies to the west coast at Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. The Texas Eagle chugs Chicago to Los Angeles via Dallas; the City of New Orleans and Sunset Limited fan out from New Orleans to Chicago and Los Angeles; and, in the east, the Lake Shore, Cardinal, Silver Star, Silver Meteor and Crescent all take in major east coast metropolises.
Overnight options for families include wide reclining chairs with adjustable footrests and a multitude of different rooms from cosy ‘roomettes’ to four-person bedrooms and even larger family rooms. All services west of the Mississippi have a cafe and a sit-down dining car, but new 'enhancements' to food service have eliminated the dining car on the east coast. Kids two to 12 save 50% on adult rail fares, but pay full accommodation charges.
Southern Africa's super-luxury multi-day escapes
For a real change of pace, the rail route between Cape Town, South Africa, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, carries super-luxury tourist trains right through the heart of Southern and East Africa, complete with amazing wildlife viewing. This epic 15-day escape is ideal for families looking to thread together several mini adventures.
Separately, the weekly, two-night Blue Train between Cape Town and Pretoria is, to some railfans, the greatest 'public' (i.e. not 'museum piece') luxury sleeper train in the world. It is priced to match, but has a strict Children Policy, including behavioral guidelines and no kids' meals at the elegant dinners. Children under six travel for free when sharing a bed in the doubles-only suites, and kids aged six to 11 pay 50% off for accommodation in separate suites.
Families on a budget may prefer the non-luxury Premier Classe deluxe trains, which cover the same route in one overnight with private sleepers, including four-bed family compartments for kids up to nine years old, a lounge car and all meals included. Kids aged three to nine pay 20% off adult fares.
Article first published in November 2018, and last updated by Ethan Gelber in December 2019