Back in the early days of visiting the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I’d always look forward to the long train ride up north and watching the world go by from my window seat. However, after a fraught train journey last year, involving delays, confusion and crouching in a packed corridor for several hours, I decided to try the Caledonian Sleeper for this year’s trip home.
Would it be worth swapping a hotel room, or an early evening train and a night in my own bed, for a night on the tracks in a Standard Sleeper Twin Berth? There was only one way to find out…
How much does it cost?
My ticket, for a twin berth shared with my mum, was £48 – booked in February for travel in August, with a Young Person’s Railcard (1/3 discount for those aged 18-25). You could also use other applicable discount cards, such as the Senior Railcard for over 60s. It pays to be freakishly organised, as you can book 12 months ahead of your journey.
When you look at the price, remember what this is buying you: a bed for the night. It’s seriously cheap compared to an extra night in Edinburgh accommodation during August – or during other peak times such as Hogmanay – when a bed in a large hostel dorm could easily cost £50+.
Equally, getting the London to Glasgow or Edinburgh train will save you the cost of hotel or apartment rental in London for the night. If the berth is still too expensive, cut costs by reserving a reclining seat rather than a bed.
I took the Lowland Route, leaving Edinburgh at 23:40 (or 23:15 on Sundays). It joins another portion of the train (which left Glasgow at 23:40) in Carstairs, then crosses the border to Carlisle and Watford Junction. It’s scheduled to arrive in London Euston at 07:10.
The reverse journey leaves Euston at 23:50 (or 23:27 on Sundays), then splits at Carstairs, with both the Glasgow Central and the Edinburgh Waverley portions arriving at 07:20. There’s also a separate Highland Route from Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William to Euston. There’s no Saturday service on either route.
Any pre-travel tips from Edinburgh Waverley?
- Anyone who leaves luggage at the station during the day (which costs £10 for up to 24 hours) will need to pick it up before 11pm. Find the left luggage office next to Platform 2.
- Book ahead for on-board disabled/mobility assistance – email firstname.lastname@example.org and they can arrange an accessible berth and toilet, with beds for a carer or companion.
- Visit the well-hidden Virgin Trains First Class Lounge, which isn’t just for First Class passengers. Find it towards the back of the station beside Platform 10/11, beside the taxi access road (look for the Caledonian Sleeper board outside). The lounge offers comfy seats, TV, free tea/coffee/hot chocolate and free biscuits. However, the toilets are pretty dodgy.
- Want a different free snack? Grab a drink at Caffè Nero, which stays open until 10:30pm. Not long after 10pm, the staff have to throw away the day’s uneaten pastries, and they offer them to customers for nothing. Time for a croissant binge.
- If you want to read before you go to sleep, make sure you’ve already packed magazines and books. I found Edinburgh Waverley’s WHSmith shop had already closed before 10pm on a Friday night, missing the chance to sell snacks and reading material to sleeper train customers. With no nearby competitors, they’ve definitely missed a trick here.
- The sleeper arrives at about 22:30 and you can board from about 23:00, even though it doesn’t set off until 23:40. Early boarding means you’ve got longer to faff with your cases, sort out who’s sleeping on which bunk, and discover the hidden sink, before the motion of the train begins.
- A member of staff will check you in as you get to your carriage. We were met by Ruth, who was genuinely lovely, and told us everything we needed to know. She also asked us if we’d like a free tea or coffee in the morning.
What’s it like on board?
Call it cosy or call it compact, there’s not much room in a berth, but all the basics are covered. Instead of a wardrobe, use a padded double hanger; instead of a separate sink, find one underneath the table by the window. You’ll also find separate berth reading lights and call buttons to alert a member of staff if you need help. Added to this, look out for helpful extras like the Sleeper magazine, two free bottles of water, and fold-out shelves for each bunk bed.
Whilst I shared the Twin Berth with my mum, sharing with a stranger would have been fairly awkward, as you have to squeeze past each other and there’s no real privacy. However, if you’re travelling solo, you can book a single berth option instead (from £101), or pick a reclining seat for the cheapest option (from £24).
Still hungry or thirsty? Grab seasonal food, including Haggis, neeps (turnips) and a regional cheeseboard, using the counter service provided. Obviously the drinks menu includes a range of Scottish whiskies, wines and craft beers. If you have small but totally nocturnal children, bear in mind under-12s can eat for free.
The bunk beds are genuinely comfy, and alongside the Fairtrade bed linen you get two pillows each (some hotels only stretch to one). The only real difficulty is getting down the ladder, which can slide away from the bedside a little too easily, and doesn’t have very generous steps.
It takes a while to get used to sleeping sideways in a bunk bed as the train moves forwards. There’s also a lot of engine noise, and the complementary earplugs don’t do much to drown it out. However, if you’re tired enough, you’ll soon drift off to sleep. As this is hardly a party train, other passengers shouldn’t keep you awake.
Standard passengers will find toilets are just along the corridor, which isn’t ideal in the middle of the night as you scramble over your luggage and try to find your shoes, but designer Ian Smith’s upcoming renovations to berths by 2018 may improve the situation. In First Class you get a bath (an actual bath!!) with complementary Arran Aromatics toiletries, plus other perks like priority access to the Lounge Car. First class tickets are priced from £142.
What happens in the morning?
Your free Scottish breakfast tea or coffee (both Fairtrade) will be personally delivered with a wake-up call and some shortbread biscuits. You can wash at the sink, but there are no shower facilities – however, you might want to book a shower ahead at Euston Station’s lounge, where towels and shower packs are provided.
When the train arrives at Euston, you don’t need to leave straight away. Though we weren’t due in until 07:10, we actually arrived at 06:20, which meant we could get up slowly but still leave ahead of schedule. Passengers actually have until 08:00 to leave their carriage.
I’d definitely use the Caledonian Sleeper again – it was convenient, comfy and good value for money, and it gave me those extra few hours in Edinburgh before I travelled down south. The added perks made it feel welcoming, and the staff were much friendlier than the ticket inspectors on your average train (always a bonus). Whilst I can’t vouch for the Highland Route, it looks like a useful alternative to flying.
Have you ever taken a sleeper train? I’d love to hear how you got on. Tweet me @misspallen.