All aboard the Slumber Express: family travel by night train

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.

The Gelber gang on the Tehran to Shiraz night train © Ethan Gelber / Lonely PlanetThe Gelber gang on the Tehran to Shiraz night train © Ethan Gelber / Lonely Planet

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, not all family-friendly night trains are the same. So here are some personal favourites worthy of consideration. All aboard!

VIA Rail train travelling through the Canadian Rockies © grizzles / ShutterstockVIA Rail train travelling through the Canadian Rockies © grizzles / Shutterstock

VIA Rail’s Canadian, Canada

The Canadian runs an epic 4466km, five-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 café 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 and even designated spaces for larger groups to play.

Whether high-speed or at your own pace train travel in China is ideal for families © KoOlyphoto / ShutterstockWhether high-speed or at your own pace, train travel in China is ideal for families © KoOlyphoto / Shutterstock

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 recommended to bring their own food (or at least some decent supplies), avoid travelling during Chinese holidays and ideally book into a ‘soft sleeper’ – larger, quieter and more comfortable berths.

The berths on one of Egypt's night trains © Ethan Gelber / Lonely Planet The berths on one of Egypt’s night trains © Ethan Gelber / Lonely Planet

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 can be reserved for a family. Children aged four to nine pay a reduced fare; kids under four ride free, but don’t get a separate berth.

Swap the pre-bed routine for soaking up Europe's gorgeous scenery © FamVeld / ShutterstockSwap the pre-bed routine for soaking up Europe’s gorgeous scenery © FamVeld / Shutterstock

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, as well as iconic services, like the Paris to Madrid’Francisco de Goya’ hotel train or 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. Be aware that ‘children travel for free’ often means at the cost of their own seat.

A baby stares happily out of a train window © Black Salmon / ShutterstockIgnite the travel nostalgia across all generations with a train journey across India © Black Salmon / Shutterstock

Indian Railways’ overnighters

Any journey to India must include a ride on India Railways. If nothing else, it’s a fantastic way to meet the people. Overnight routes are common; from Delhi alone, night trains go to Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaisalmer, Chennai, Udaipur, Benares among many other destinations.

Travelling families might be well-suited to a two-tier, four-berth, air-conditioned compartment, either AC2 (second class with curtains) or AC1 (first-class, enclosed). Rajdhani Express include meals in the fare. Children aged five to 11 pay adult prices if occupying reserved berths (recommended!) or half fare without.

Let the Iranian night trains transport you to magical cities like Yazd © Leonid Andronov / ShutterstockLet the Iranian night trains transport you to magical cities like Yazd © Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock

Iranian Railways

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.

Los Angeles' Amtrak lounge car © Supannee_Hickman / ShutterstockLos Angeles’ Amtrak lounge car © Supannee_Hickman / Shutterstock

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.

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 have a café and a sit-down dining car. Kids two to 12 save 50% on adult rail fares, but pay full accommodation charges.

A young boy with his face pressed up against a train window © Romrodphoto / ShutterstockOlder kids might be best served to enjoy these icons, but there’s family fun to be had by anyone up for an adventure © Romrodphoto / Shutterstock

Multi-day overnight icons

Of course, there are other epic rail journeys that merit families’ full indulgence, including the world’s most iconic overnighters. The Ghan is a multi-day, luxury train that barrels through Australia’s fabled Red Centre between Adelaide and Darwin via Alice Springs. With off-train excursions and plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife amongst the ochre-hued Red Centre during the day, this sleeper train isn’t just a hotel on wheels, it’s the whole package.