It’s difficult to express the magic of traveling by sleeper train, hearing the night rush by as you snuggle down ready to wake up in an exciting new place. The UK has two sleeper trains: the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Scotland, and the Night Riviera, speeding from London to Penzance in Cornwall via Devon. Here’s my guide to the Caledonian Sleeper, a route to the Highlands and Lowlands that takes you on the night train to Scotland. Here you can find out more about how to take the overnight sleeper train, prices, times and how to get the best from the experience.
This article was revised and updated in July 2018.
Sleeper Train To Scotland: Services And Routes
Ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye…”
Song: The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond
There are two services leaving London Euston station every night except Saturday night (also no service on the 24, 25 and 31 December), one heading to the Highlands and the other to the Lowlands. The Highland Sleeper, the service I traveled, has three sections which are divided at about 4.30am when the train reaches Edinburgh
- one section to Perth, Aviemore and Inverness
- another section to Dundee and Aberdeen
- a final section for Fort William
The Lowland sleeper has two sections, one for Glasgow and one for Edinburgh. I remember as a child hearing the magical announcement, so exotic to my ears, that “the train will be divided at Carstairs with the front portion going forward to Edinburgh and the rear to Glasgow”.
The sleeper train to Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow consists of a lounge car, a car with reclining seats and space for baggage, plus up to six sleeping cars. There are just two sleeping cars to Fort William, which is probably a good reason to book earlier if this is your final destination. Passengers for Fort William can use the Aberdeen lounge car in the evening, and will find that a further lounge car and seated carriage are added in Edinburgh for the morning part of the journey onward to Fort William. If you’ve chosen to travel in a seat rather than a sleeper to Fort William, you’ll need to change carriages at Edinburgh.
Accommodation Choices And Ticket Pricing for the Sleeper Train To Scotland
You have choices of accommodation for the sleeper train:
- first class accommodation consists of the lower berth in a sleeping compartment for your sole occupancy
- standard class accommodation gives you an upper or lower berth in a sleeping compartment
- you can also book a reclining seat for your journey
When looking at the pricing, bear in mind that you are saving on a night’s accommodation costs. As at July 2018, fares to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow are as follows:
- Standard class reclining seat for a fixed date from £35 and for flexible dates from £55
- Standard class with a berth in a two berth sleeping compartment from £70 fixed dates and £95 flexible
- First class with sole occupancy of a two berth compartment from £130 for fixed dates and £165 flexible
The equivalent fares for journeys to and from Inverness, Aberdeen, Fort William, Perth, Dundee and Aviemore are as follows:
- Standard class reclining seats £40 fixed dates/£60 flexible
- Standard class one berth in a two berth sleeping compartment £80/£125
- First class single occupancy of a two berth compartment £150/£180
Booking Your Overnight Sleeper Tickets
You can buy your tickets online here at the Caledonian Sleeper. You can use international cards for payment, and tickets can be printed from ticket machines at stations in the UK. You’ll need the card that you used to pay for your ticket to verify your identity, and an alphanumeric code which will be emailed to you.
If you need to add dogs or bikes, the ticketing system is ready for this too. If you are traveling with a group or with family, sleeper compartments have connecting doors to the next compartment which can be opened up to give you a room for four people.
You can now book for dates up to a year in advance. If you need to buy additional train tickets to cover extra services such as traveling to join the sleeper service from elsewhere in the UK, I’d advise you to buy them separately from one of the UK’s train operators. This is likely to give you the best discount opportunities. You can find out more at our guide to affordable public transport in the UK. Railcard holders get a 34% discount on most sleeper services, although this will change slightly when the new train services are introduced late in 2018 and 2019.
Joining The Overnight Sleeper to Scotland
You join the overnight sleeper train at London Euston from 2030 for the Highland route, with the train departing at 2115. The train then leaves Crewe just before midnight and Preston around 0100 before heading north of the border. Arrival at your destination time is varied, with early calls for Stirling and Gleneagles just after 0500, Dundee around 0600, Inverness at a very civilised 0830 and Fort William just before 1000. Services depart slightly earlier on Sunday night.
If you’re heading to Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Lowland service boards at 2300 for a departure just before midnight, seeing you in either destination just after 0700.
Your return sleepers from Scotland also enable you to board from 2000 for the Highland route and 2300 for the Lowland.
It’s always worth checking for any engineering works, especially at weekends, as this may alter departure times. You’ll find details of any changes available online.
London Euston Station
What to Expect on the Overnight Sleeper train to Scotland
If you’ve opted for the reclining seat option, you’ll find that the seat configuration is more like first class than standard, with two seats on one side of the carriage and one on the other. Seat passengers can use the buffet facilities in the lounge car, but not the lounge car itself. The seats themselves are airline style, with a drop down table.
If you book a standard berth, then you’ll find your compartment by carriage and number. Each compartment consists of an upper and lower berth with a tiny ladder, some hanging space and a basin. Large pieces of luggage can be stowed elsewhere on the train, and I’d encourage you to take as little as possible into the compartment with you. There are toilet facilities at the end of each carriage. If you are traveling first class, then the sleeping compartment is yours alone. If you’ve booked as a group, you’ll find the interconnecting door between compartments unlocked.
The Caledonian Sleeper train
Dining and Refreshments on the Night Sleeper
Passengers can use the lounge car, where you’ll find a good selection of meals and refreshments including haggis with neeps and tatties to get you in the mood for Scotland. I believe that officially the lounge car is for first class ticket holders at busy times, but in practice, there are plenty of standard class ticket holders there. Bear in mind that when moving around the train that the current corridors are very narrow. You need to pass fellow passengers at the ends of carriages.
You can have breakfast either in the lounge car, or in your compartment where it will be delivered by your steward at the arranged time. If you are leaving the train early, for example at Crewe, this acts as a good additional wake up call.
Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness
The Overnight Sleeper Train To Scotland: Our Experience
We took the overnight sleeper from London Euston to Inverness and back, joining and leaving the train at Crewe. We shared a sleeper compartment with bunks and breakfast served to the compartment. While in Scotland, we hired a car and drove to Skye and the Black Isle, visited Culloden and Fort William and circled Loch Ness.
It’s 1.30 in the morning, and we’re heading north on the night train. W.H. Auden had it right:
This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Overnight sleeper services have been running between England and Scotland for more than 140 years. That’s a rich heritage, and it’s certainly a journey that deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list.
We pick up the train at Crewe. It’s Valentine’s night, and we’ve been waiting in the hotel next to the station. There was a Valentine dinner, and all around the room, bored couples are toying with empty glasses. Balloons hang limply in the corners, and a few drooping roses are laid on the tables. But there’s an excited little gathering of people waiting for a train: not just any train, but the sleeper to Inverness and Fort William.
In good time, we all make our way to the platform. Then she appears out of the mist, sadly neither chuffing nor steaming. Instead, she’s a throwback to the 1970s diesels that spanned the UK in my youth. We find our compartment via a welcoming steward and squeeze our bags into the tiny spaces. It’s not exactly a room for huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ types, as you’d struggle to fit even a modest carp net under the bunks. Or indeed down the tight corridors, so pack light.
We head off to the buffet car, where all but the most hardy passengers have long since called it a night. Perhaps it’s just as well we’re too late for haggis, neeps and tatties. It seems to be a night of parties we’ve just missed. Back in our tiny compartment, we try and work out how (and indeed how much) to undress in the wildly swaying confined space. We’re standing in a place probably about half the size of your average toilet cubicle, and trying not to flail our arms too much. We raise the blind, and end up sitting on the bottom bunk, watching lights flashing past and hearing the chattering of the rails.
A Sense Of Occasion On The Overnight Train
Making my way down the corridor, I catch a sudden glimpse of a vision in peach satin. I stand amazed as a passenger in a beautiful nightgown and wrap works her way down to the toilets. I glance down at the floor and wince as I see her beautiful peach satin slippers make contact with the damp patches by the carriage doors. She’s misplaced the Orient Express, and yet I am so charmed by her sense of occasion that I can’t think she’s being silly. This really is the stuff of which dreams are made.
Hurtling Through the night To Scotland
Back in the compartment, it’s difficult to sleep. Like a child, I’m way too excited. The bunks run across the width of the train, and every time we take a curve or some points I slide either to my head or my toes. I am in some hurtling version of Willy Wonka’s nut sorting machine. Yet the very motion and sense of speed is so exciting that I really don’t want to sleep and miss any part of the journey. Instead, we’re chatting quietly, watching the lights pass, and fascinated to see the progress of our journey north.
Early in the morning, the steward knocks with a bag of breakfast goodies. We sit on the bottom bunk, marveling at the silhouettes of the Grampians and their big stark shadows. And as we eat, daylight fills in the contours and the hills come to life. By the time we reach Inverness, we are stunned at the sight of a troupe of hikers wandering the glens. In t shirts. In February. We really have entered a different universe.
One of the most famous views in Scotland: a misty Eilean Donan castle. You can check out some of the best beaches we’ve visited in Scotland here.
Returning To England
Our return trip to England took place mostly in the dark, as we made the journey in February. I’m thinking that taking the train in the summer, particularly June for the best of daylight, would be a magical experience. As we left the train at Crewe, we missed seeing dawn break, as would have been the case had we continued on to London.
The very beautiful Inverness, which was our base for the week
Tips and Recommendations
From our experience, I’d suggest:
- Consider joining the train at London Euston, rather than Crewe, even if you are beginning your trip in the Midlands. You’ll get more of the sleeper experience, and you might even get to enjoy the haggis, neeps and tatties en route.
- Pack something comfortable to sleep in, preferably something in which you can nip along the corridor to the toilets without either embarrassing yourself or freezing. It’s no fun trying to dress or undress in those little compartments, so do it as few times as possible.
- Pack as light as you can for the trip. Those train corridors are really narrow, and dragging a big bag behind you is difficult. Something fairly squidgy is also going to be easier to wrangle within the compartment space. You can leave a big bag with the steward.
- If you are staying over in Inverness or Fort William, see if the place where you are staying can hold your luggage until you board the sleeper. Had there not been a big event at our hotel on arrival, an early check in on arrival day would have given us the chance to shower and freshen up to maximise our time in Scotland.
- There are luggage lockers at the station at Inverness, and a left luggage facility at London Euston.
- Cheaper berth prices still exist on the Sleeper. If you are flexible with your choice of dates and can travel outside the peak season in June, then bargains are to be had. But if you want to head to Fort William, my advice is to book early, as there are only two sleeper cars on that part of the route. Or head to Inverness instead, hire a car, and make the drive to Fort William.
- Would I do it again? Very much yes!
The New Sleeper Services
New trains are coming into service from October 2018 to early 2019 to replace current rolling stock. You can see a preview of the new accommodation here. Along with the new trains will come new ticketing and fare arrangements, reflecting the changes in facilities such as rooms with double beds, showers and toilets. There will still be classic rooms featuring berths and washbasins as exist now, and the reclining seat option remains. Allow me to tip my hat here to the decision to use a Scottish social enterprise to create the mattresses that we’ll be sleeping on for future Scotland trips.
Changes will appear on the Lowland routes from October 2018, and on the Highland services from 2019. If you are booking well in advance, you may want to check with the train company to ensure that your preferred accommodation will be available.
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