Thoughts of epic train journeys once conjured up all sorts of romantic images.
Cruising through the Russian steppes onboard the Trans-Siberian, arriving into Venice onboard the Orient Express, or maybe the 06:45 Red-eye Express from Darlington to Leeds.
Ok, perhaps not the Darlington train, but you get the picture.
Having traveled through regions of the world, like Asia by train, I realized that rail travel is not all glitz and glamour. In fact speed, safety, and above all comfort far more accurately describe the positives. Also, when compared to bus or air travel, trains are not only far more efficient, rarely suffering from weather delays, but are also the eco-friendly choice. On a personal level, I like traveling by train because it gives me the option to read, to sleep, or perhaps to enjoy the scenery whoosh by from the comfort of the train’s restaurant carriage.
A big part of long-term travel is going slowly and making your way overland across large regions of the world, and doing so by train will most likely be a part of your journey. But, no two train rides are made alike, so here are some tips on how to maximize your time on the rails.
The quality and comfort of trains vary not only from country to country but within classes and even amongst different trains on the same network and route. So, while you cannot rely on the level of comfort on board, you can always make certain that you have everything you need with you to ensure the pleasantest of journeys.
Cushions or neck pillows are always a good choice for long distance trips where no bedding is provided, inflatable versions doing a similar job while saving on valuable bag space. Even on sleeper trains you can rarely expect more than a wafer-thin pillow and a similarly unsatisfactory blanket. A light sleeping bag or sufficiently layered-up clothing is probably the way to go. Additionally, in countries like India where linen cleanliness may be an issue, a silk sleeping bag liner, or similar, may be a useful barrier.
Train food can be surprisingly tasty in some countries, with onboard restaurants not only offering atmosphere but the perfect way to break up long rail journeys. That is not to say that all train food is of the palatable variety. It may be overly simplistic to say that food on trains represent the cuisine of its country of origin, but some correlation will naturally apply. For example, whereas a delicious meal on a Vietnamese train will set you back only about £1.00 ($1.60), a stale sandwich will cost about four times that on an English train.
“There are usually plenty of street food options available near train stations, and sharing an oversupply is a sure-fire way to make you plenty of new acquaintances.”
What is certain is that the quality and availability of train food is often unpredictable, and while hawkers will save the day at many station stops in Asia, this is not the case in Europe and the US. So take plenty of snacks on board; there are usually plenty of street food options available near train stations, and sharing an oversupply is a sure-fire way to make you plenty of new acquaintances.
Even when there are no curry-favoring treats to share around, the most boring of Billy no-mates is still guaranteed a captive audience amongst his fellow passengers on long train journeys. Make no mistake about it, for those not traveling in large compartment-filling groups, the results of the seat allocation lottery can be crucial to one’s enjoyment of a rail journey.
“The best way to make friends on a long train journey? Bring a bottle of the favorite local spirit to share with your train-mates.”
In less developed countries, first-class seats are often occupied by business travelers or foreigners, whereas lower value seats tend to be filled by the usual mix of travelers and locals. A long journey is the perfect place to swap travel tales, pick someone’s brain about the next destination, or learn a little about the country you are traveling through. If you’re lucky, you may even get a free city tour, an invitation to a party, or better yet, a delicious home-cooked meal when your fellow passengers get their thermoses out.
The best way to make friends on a long train journey? Bring a bottle of the favorite local spirit to share with your train-mates.
Sleeper compartments are rarely as swish as they are depicted in the movies. A private room with a lounge area and champagne on ice may be the only way that James Bond travels; however, those on a budget will usually be lucky to get a bed-sized area just to themselves. That’s not to say that sleeper compartments are not functional and that, under the right circumstances, they don’t offer ample privacy and comfort.
For a start they provide completely flat beds and are unlike sleeper buses in that they are not bumpy over rough terrain or dizzying on zig-zagged roads. They will also save you the price of a night’s accommodation, usually delivering you to your destination fresh as the proverbial daisy and ready to explore a new city first thing in the morning. It should be mentioned that sleeper trains are worth booking at least a few days in advance and more than that during local public holidays or at the height of high season.
Knowing what to book
Unless you’ve traveled regularly on a country’s rail network, it’s difficult to know precisely what each travel class or variety of train is like. For example, the position of your seat or couchette, close or away from an exit, or your traveling companions, can make a big difference to comfort and your enjoyment of a journey. It may, therefore, be helpful to enlist the help of someone who is in the know when booking train tickets; particularly in countries like Japan, with complex reservation systems or where the language barrier is an issue.
“Many hostels, particularly in countries like Thailand where train travel is prevalent, have all the information you need to know for booking a train journey.”
Travel agents may seem like an outmoded concept in this age of online bookings, but paying a small commission to an agent who speaks your language may be the key to a fast and efficient booking process. It also pays to talk to hostel or hotel workers. Many hostels, particularly in countries like Thailand where train travel is prevalent, have all the information you need to know for booking a train journey. In many cases, you can book seats straight from your hostel. While it’s always going to be cheaper to just go to the train station to book it yourself, sometimes the convenience is worth that extra bit of money. But if you have the time and want to save a few bucks, it’s plenty easy to gather the information yourself, in whatever way you can, and head to the train station to book yourself.
You’ll sleep a lot better on a long distance rail journey if you feel that you and your belongings are out of harm’s way. Passports and other valuables should always be kept on your person, and since you may not always be able to keep all your luggage close-by, chaining your bags to an immovable part of the train is a more than sensible precaution. If you’re on a sleeper train and have valuables like a laptop or expensive camera, keep those in a separate bag and simply sleep with it as if it is your teddy bear from your childhood days.
As for keeping yourself safe, there are factors like natural disasters or political strife which impinge on safety and are outside of your control. Avoiding routes through politically unstable regions or places which have recently been affected by landslides, earthquakes, or volcanoes is probably the best you can do to stay safe. It also goes without saying that basic commonsense rules should also be followed, like not riding on the roof, jumping between open carriages after a few too many tequilas, or popping your head too far out of an open window, especially when approaching a tunnel!
One of the great advantages of long distance train travel is that it is highly cost-effective. It’s usually cheaper than flying and compares favorably with all but the most rudimentary of road transport. However, not everyone is counting their pennies, everyone has a different budget, and travelers willing to splash a little more cash can travel First Class and look forward to a few extra perks.
“…nice touches like the free magazines and newspapers available on British trains certainly help to make a long journey pass more quickly.”
Increased legroom and seating recline are usually a given, as is access to first class lounges at certain stations. Ignoring luxury private trains, first class on standard sleeper trains also sometimes offer increased privacy (i.e. two to a room as opposed to four, six, eight, or no room at all) and more comfortable beds and linen. Although there may be something of a false economy in the idea that meals and beverages served by your carriage’s very own attendant are indeed “complimentary,” nice touches like the free magazines and newspapers available on British trains certainly help to make a long journey pass more quickly.
My best and worst train journeys
Train travel is undoubtedly a great way to travel, particularly for those on a budget; however, if you travel by train often enough you will experience good and bad journeys.
One of the most enjoyable train journeys I ever had was on the Hiram Bingham train in Peru. After a few long days traveling and many hours exploring Machu Picchu on foot, we were lucky to land the train’s front two seats for the return journey to Cuzco and enjoyed kicking back to stunning unobstructed views of the Urubamba Valley and the occasional “complimentary” Inca Cola.
Another train journey which sticks in the memory, though for different reasons, was the Ranakpur Express from Jodhpur to Bikaner in Rajasthan, India. We arrived at the station early and could barely believe our luck when we found that two tickets for this 6 hour journey cost us only around £2 (about $3USD). When we made our way to the train’s “unreserved 2nd class” section, we soon saw why the ticket was so cheap. There was nowhere to sit, let alone leave our backpacks since even the overhead luggage racks were filled with commuters, literally hundreds per carriage. Even though it was not the most comfortable of rides, being such a curiosity to our fellow passengers meant it was easy to make plenty of friends, and the journey passed relatively quickly. It’s certainly a train ride that will stay in the memory for a long time.
One thing’s for sure about travel by rail, you’ll always have some interesting stories to share.