Soft Sleeper Train outside of the Tai’an Station circa 2014

Have you ever wanted to go on a trip somewhere but couldn’t go because the airfare was too expensive? Have you ever wanted to try something different? Why not try traveling by train? 

In the U.S., there aren’t many train stations. We have Amtrack, but the closest one to me is about two hours away. Places like New York and Pennsylvania have more, but the rural areas don’t have the same luxury. 

In China, people take trains everywhere. Flying is still an option, but it’s cheaper to take a train most of the time. 

Sure it takes longer to get to your destination, but it’s a more relaxed atmosphere on the train. It’s easier to read a book when you have more space to stretch out than when you’re cramped. 

But what about traveling across the country? Do trains expect you to sit in your seat for hours at a time? 

Enter the Sleeper Train

Sleeper trains, or overnight trains, are a unique way to travel across the country. As the name suggests, you can buy a seat or a bed. Often, travelers leave late at night and wake up at their destination.

You can also get a bathroom so you can brush your teeth. There is a car for food if you didn't bring any on the trip.

Overnight trains are slower than bullet trains, but they're more comfortable. You can stretch out and have a little privacy.

Unless you're comfortable with everyone in your car, you can't stretch out naked or anything. You'll probably be sharing a car with a few strangers during your journey.

There are three different types of sleeper trains. They can be money-savers depending on your comfort level.

Each train has three things in common: carpets, beds and pillows. You can get a blanket on the train, too.

Bed prices vary depending on where you're sleeping. Bottom bunks are more expensive than top bunks. Hard and soft sleepers have varying costs too.

If you don't know what to expect, you could be overwhelmed and uncomfortable. But don't worry! I'm here to help you figure out the best way to travel on a sleeper train!

Let's Start With Hard Sleepers

Hard sleepers are the cheapest ways to travel across China. If you're not scared of heights, the top bunk is the most affordable bed on the train.

Each car has six-bed compartments. Three beds are stacked on top of one another. The lower the bed, the more space you have.

According to China Educational Tours, the bottom bunks give enough space to sit up while the top bunks don't offer much space besides lying down. There isn't a door to the corridor either.

As for the bathrooms, they're at the ends of the cars. All of the bathrooms are Chinese-style. I would suggest bringing toilet paper for your trip, too.

If you're looking to have an authentic experience as a local, hard sleeper trains are the easiest way to get that experience. Chances are you'll be one of the only foreigners on the train so you can practice your Chinese on the way!

I never tried the hard sleepers. They looked too cramped for me to enjoy. But if you're feeling brave, try it!

Next, We Have Soft Sleepers

Soft sleepers are the most common trains for foreigners, especially if everyone's traveling in a small group. Each car has rooms with four beds in them. There are doors for privacy, too!

My first sleeper train adventure in 2014

Like the hard sleepers, soft sleeper prices vary by bed, but not by much. These sleeper trains are twice the price of a hard sleeper.

I've tried two different bed prices, and I had good experiences with both. I highly recommend getting the bottom bunk if you're scared of heights. When I took a top bunk, I was afraid I'd fall off the bed.

Also, if you don't have enough people to fill a soft-sleeper room, you will share it with a stranger. There's a good chance the stranger will be of the opposite sex.

As for the bathroom situation, these trains have both Chinese and Western toilets. You should still bring toilet paper if your train doesn't provide it.

And Finally, Deluxe Sleepers

When I went to Hong Kong, I traveled with a friend on the Deluxe Sleeper. It was one of the best train rides of my life. We had a room to ourselves and could lock the door. We had a private bathroom with a Western toilet!

If we wanted to eat, we could go to the train restaurant, but we bought snacks for the trip. I learned the hard way to bring cash if I wanted to try the restaurant car. Honestly, I don't remember the food from the trip. I was too busy staring out the window and reading a book.

I'd heard of some Deluxe Sleepers having a sofa, but I don't remember one being in mine. We did have a desk for writing, though!

Deluxe Sleepers are the most expensive sleeper car in the country. If you want minimal interaction with people, it's the way to go.

Final Tips For Travelers

Sleeper trains are fun, but they can feel scary if you don't know what you're getting into. If you're brave enough to travel solo, you'll be sharing a car with strangers. 

Here are some final tips to make sure you have a smooth trip:

  • Pack as light as you can. There isn't as much space as you think there is in a sleeper car.
  • Have some cash on hand. WeChat Pay and AliPay are excellent, but trains often prefer cash if you want to buy food.
  • Stay as low to the ground as you can, especially if you fear heights. The beds are higher up than you think. The higher beds can be dangerous if you aren't careful. I know a girl who broke her shoulder from falling off a ladder on a sleeper train.
  • Don't forget to bring tissue paper. If you haven't learned to always have tissue paper on hand in China, you will on a sleeper train.

You don't have to break your budget traveling by plane all the time. Sleeper trains are a unique way to travel in China, and it's a great way to see the countryside!

Trains are one of the easiest ways to travel around China. Sleeper trains are a great way to get the actual traveling experience like a local.

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Keara Hopkins

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