Let’s be honest, overnight trains are tough. It doesn’t matter how experienced a traveller you are, how many times you’ve ridden a train, 15 hour train rides from Munich to Rome suck hard.
If you are not lucky enough to snag a deal on a sleeper car, or if you want to save a little ched’ and take an overnight train, then listen up. I too have been enchanted by the idea of a moonlight train speeding along the Italian countryside, the slight rocking of the car lulling me to sleep. Glamorous right?
Here’s the thing: Unless you spend triple the money on sleeper car or high speed train, you are going to be squeezed into a sweaty little car with five other cranky, tired people for 15 to 20 hours.
The last time I rode an overnight train (from Salzburg to Rome) I sat upright in a tiny cabin with a girl from Hong Kong asleep on my shoulder, a snooty Italian couple rolling their eyes at my cheap prosecco, and an animated Somalian guy who drank beer and smoked in the car all night long.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some awesome people on trains, other travellers enduring the grueling adventure with me, but it’s tough no matter who you are.
Here’s how you survive on a sleeper car in Italy.
Noise Cancelling Headphones
Headphones are crucial to getting any kind of sleep. They are also useful for creating the mirage of privacy when you’re forced to sleep sitting up facing four strangers.
If you are a light sleeper, a eye-mask is key. The politics of turning on and off the light in your little car are difficult, and it’s best to expect some people in your cabin will not want to sleep at all and have the lights on all night.
Snacks, water, and booze
Essential. Make sure you have enough food; train food is generally not the best, and if you’re travelling alone, it’s a big pain to cart your baggage to the dining car and back.
Bring wine, bring cheese, have a train picnic!
Layers are crucial!
In the summer time, these budget transports are sweaty. Wear light and breathable clothing in layers so you can adjust without digging into your backpack for a new sweater.
In the winter time, some idiot will inevitably want the window open, so wear layers.
A good book
You will definitely need multiple forms of entertainment for the journey. A great book (or two), cards, and crosswords are all very useful. Take the time to catch up on your travel journal and to write some postcards, you have lots of down time.
A smile and a knowing nod
When you get seated next to a chatty Somalian returning home to Rome after 3 years in France who is 5 beers in when you get on the train, you need to make sure that you have your polite smile and nod perfected. Make sure you acknowledge comments and politely pull out your book and mind your business (this is where those noise cancelling headphones come in handy).
This might seem rude, but otherwise you might be involved in a night long heart-to-heart that you didn’t really want to be part of.
The trains get really crowded the closer you get to a major city like Bologna or Rome. Many commuters will jump on the long distance trains to get into the city, so don’t be surprised if you wake up to find your sleeper car full of people, it happens all the time.
I’ve had some amazingly thoughtful moments on trains. Introspection is inevitable while watching a foreign country speed by. Enjoy the views, they are the best part of the train ride. One thing that always lives up to expectations is the sunrise. This is always beautiful whether you sit in first class, or in the cattle car. Gorgeous. Awe-inspiring.
Overnight trains are far from romantic, but they are a great way to travel long distances for cheap. You save money on a hotel room and you have a great story.