When I was a young budget traveler backpacking around the world, I spent a lot of time sleeping on night trains and overnight buses. The rail sleepers were often a real pleasure, the night buses not so much, but in both cases they combined lodging and transportation in one, which saved a fair bit of cash.
This was especially true in Europe in the days before the proliferation of budget carriers such as Ryanair, Easyjet, and Wizz Air. The savings could be significant then, on top of the fact that hostel prices were and still are more than a night bus often costs.
If you’re looking for a way to save on travel costs, taking overnight buses and trains can still be a great option. There are many countries where you can take these types of trips and get some sleep on the way. In this blog post, I’ll outline some of the best countries for overnight rail sleepers and overnight buses. If you’re looking to explore Europe, Asia, or South America on a budget, this article will give you a look at the options.
As you move up the scale with your travel budget, sleeping while moving from place to place can get a lot nicer and the potential savings aren’t so much of a consideration. If you’re spending $1,000 a day for a luxury train trip through India or Southeast Asia, you’re obviously not doing it to save money on hotels. It’s more about the experience. The same is true for Amtrak or Via Rail in the USA when you reserve a sleeper car: it’s for a “trip of a lifetime,” not an attempt to avoid cheap hotels in America.
When you get older and have more money to spend, it might be worth it to splurge on a terrific train experience on a night train that’s really something special. At the other end of the scale, rail sleepers and overnight buses can still be a net gain for your travel budget and they can keep a long trip from seeming so long and monotonous.
Here are a few places to consider on the budget end of the scale where you can sleep your way across long distances.
Rail Sleepers and Overnight Buses in Europe
It’s easy to find options in Europe for sleeping in transit, especially if you’re crossing from one country to another. The nations themselves often aren’t big enough to include a trip of eight hours or more, but moving from one capital city to another can involve long distances.
In general, trains in Europe are comfortable, efficient, and will provide a good night’s rest. Even if you opt for the cheapest overnight option, it’ll be roomy enough for you to stretch out fully at night. Here’s where I slept when I took the overnight train from Budapest to Transylvania.
Some example routes, with sample prices from Omio, include:
– Paris to Barcelona high-speed train – 7 hours, €79 and up direct
– Rome to Munich train – 14.5 hours, €40 and up
– Budapest to Sofia bus – 12 hours, €70
– Vienna to Milan bus – 15 hours, €37 and up
– Prague to Warsaw bus – 13 hours, €24 – €45
– Amsterdam to Berlin (bus) – 10 to 14 hours, €18 – €45
Ideally you want a route that only has a few stops and doesn’t require a change of train or bus. It’s not so important to look at how long it will take to get there since you’ll be sleeping through much of it anyway. If you care about the scenery though, you want to ride through the most scenic part when it’s light out, not during the middle of the night.
Overnight Transportation in Southeast Asia
When I traveled around Southeast Asia back when I was childless, I took overnight trains between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Georgetown (Malaysia), and between Jakarta and the Java jumping-off point to Bali. I also took plenty of overnight buses in Thailand and Vietnam.
When we took our daughter back to the region later, one of her favorite experiences was the night train we took from Hue to Hanoi in Vietnam. We got rocked to sleep in our sleeper bunks and arrived refreshed. The tickets were around $15 each for a 15-hour trip.
Southeast Asia is a great place to travel on a budget, and that includes transportation costs. While flying is often the quickest way to get around on long routes, it’s not always the most economical–especially once you add in fees for luggage and seat selection. If you’re looking to save some money and avoid lots of extra fees, consider taking an overnight bus or train.
Some of the most popular routes include:
– Bangkok to Chiang Mai train – 10 to 13 hours, $6 to $45
– Kuala Lumpur to Singapore bus – 8 hours, $10 to $16
– Jakarta to Banyuwangi (for Bali ferry) train – 18.5 hours, $17 to $48
– Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi train – 37 hours, $28 to $87
Now that last one is a bit much, I will admit, even if you’re a hard-core train enthusiast. It would be best to break that up into at least two trips with a stop in Nha Trang, Danang, or Hue. It’s a slow and rickety system.
The Great Indian Railway Adventure
India’s rail system is supposedly the biggest employer in the world and the system is a thing of wonder. The British built it quite a while ago and maintenance budgets are not always what they should be, but you can cover more ground in India by train, and get into more corners of the country, than probably anywhere else on the planet.
You won’t always travel in comfort on these trains though. If I can point to one example in the world where a small splurge made a huge difference in how pleasant my travel experience was, it was upgrading to a better train class in India. The air-conditioned classes are not only cooler, but they provide you with sheets and pillows, bring you meals, and keep those trying to separate you from your valuables at bay. The restrooms tend to be more pleasant and cleaned more often on these too as you move up past the cheapest sleeper class.
In India, there are plenty of options for overnight travel by bus as well though and on some routes, such as to Udaipur or Mt. Abu, that may be the only direct option. It’s tough to get up into some Himalayan regions to the north by train, though the “toy train” to Shimla is worth taking for the novelty.
Here are a few sample routes with prices for overnight journeys:
Mumbai to Goa train or bus – 10 to 15 hours, $10 to $29
Delhi to Varanasi train – 14 hours, $4 to $23
Delhi to Jodhpur train – 10.5 hours, $4 to $20
Bengalaru to Cochi train – 12 hours, $3 to $19
Kovalum to Mysaru (Mysore) bus – 12.5 hours, $12 to $24
South America Overnight Buses and Trains
Unfortunately, South America doesn’t have much of a train system that survived, so you’re usually left with an overnight bus to get you from one point to another. The trains that do exist in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile are usually not long enough to be sleepers.
Someday that could change — Colombia has made some encouraging plans at least — but for now they’re just dreams. Ecuador built a very high-profile train system stretching from Quito almost to Guayaquil, but then forgot to add any hotel infrastructure along the way for luxury travelers and forgot to make it possible for regular travelers to book a non-stop ticket.
The distances can be vast though, so the bus companies have adapted by putting in bunk systems where you can actually lie flat and get some real sleep. The best-known ones are in Argentina, where they might even serve you some sparkling wine as you make a 20-hour+ journey across the pampas from Buenos Aires down to Patagonia or up to Salta.
There are similar options in Peru to go from Lima to Cusco or Puno. If you easily get roadsick though, going across the Andes in a bus can be tough in Colombia or Peru. You might want to splurge for a flight to avoid all that.
The prices on these sleeper buses are not too bad, currently in the range of $30 to $80 for a long overnight trip in Argentina, less if you pay in cash at the blue rate. Lima to Puno is typically a 25-hour trip and costs $16 to $49. Lima to Cusco is nearly 20 hours and costs $14 to $35.
On regular routes with just reclining seats, Quito to Guayaquil is 10.5 hours and around $12, definitely saving you money compared to a night of accommodation. Potosi, Bolivia to Cochabamba takes at least 10 hours and is $5 to $20.
Other Places With Overnight Train Options
I’ve taken Amtrak quite a bit in the USA, including an overnight trip or two, but have never sprung for one of the rail sleepers with bunks. Once you get above the reclining seat class, which can be cheaper than flying or driving, it gets harder to justify the fare unless you’re doing it for the adventure. It’s usually cheaper to fly or drive.
Mexico is a different story when we switch to buses. The executive class buses in Mexico have three seats across, lots of legroom, and will recline quite a bit. I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep going from Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlan to my home city of Guanajuato. Just don’t expect much besides a seat anymore, especially from ETN. That company used to provide a high-end experience, but they cut all the extras during the pandemic — including WiFi inexplicably, and never brought them back. Some do have entertainment (Spanish only) and some buses have electrical outlets that will recharge your laptop.
In Mexico, you’ll generally pay $8 to $10 per hour of travel, so an overnight bus of 10 hours could cost you $100. Once you start getting into longer distances than that, flying is usually cheaper on one of the budget Mexico airlines.
Overnight Train and Bus Traveling Advice
Here are a few things I’ve learned from experience on overnight train and bus trips that are applicable almost anywhere:
– Make sure to bring along snacks and drinks for the trip. What’s available on a train or at a bus stop might not be something you really want to eat. Bring small bills in case there is something good.
– Have a toothbrush accessible, bring earplugs, earbuds, an eye mask, and maybe some gum for mountain rides.
– It can be helpful to download e-books, movies, or shows ahead of time to read or watch on the way. Assume you won’t have internet access and it’ll be a happy surprise when you do.
– Bring along any medications you might need, as well as toilet paper, tampons, etc.
– Bring some kind of external charger for your phone or tablet. There may be power plugs, but you can’t assume there will be or that they’ll definitely work.
– Be aware of when there will be rest stops so that you can take advantage of them and time your sleeping.
– Keep your valuables close to you at all times, even when you’re sleeping, and make it difficult for anyone to reach them. In India especially, second-class trains have open windows. One crafty thief was able to cut a lock on my daypack zipper and snag my camera from a few inches from my head — while I was sleeping!
Have you taken a rail sleeper or overnight bus in Asia, Europe, or South America? How did it go?