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In late December this year I'll be travelling on an overnight train in Russia. Unfortunately all of the tickets have already sold out for that particular train, with the exception of the sitting compartment.

What's the best way to get some sleep in these conditions?

  • I'm aware that there is a similar question about sleeping on airplanes, however train travel and air travel have significant differences in my opinion :) – JonathanReez Supports Monica Nov 24 '14 at 11:12
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    Be tired. Be sufficiently warm. Block too much light and noise by covering your eyes and plugging your ears. – hippietrail Nov 24 '14 at 12:44
  • Better never sleep while travelling in a train ! - due to air-conditioners there can be sleepy-making-gases (narcotics) caused by exchanged filters ?! So open the window - in case they are not nailed ... – dschinn1001 Nov 24 '14 at 12:59
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    Get a couple of kids. Once you're a parent, you learn to (and permanently need to) sleep in any conditions, with no fuss :) – DVK Nov 24 '14 at 14:13
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    Also, watch out for pickpockets and baggage thieves. That for me is a primary reason either to: 1) not sleep, 2) take turns sleeping with my traveling companion; or 3) get a private compartment. – RoboKaren Nov 24 '14 at 20:29
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Get a Window Seat

When I reserve a seat on train (or a plane, for that matter), knowing that I would like to sleep during the journey, I often book a window seat. That way I can lean my head on the window, rather than having it hanging in the void, causing me to wake up every ten minutes as soon as the neck ache kicks in. Moreover I place a jumper/t-shirt/soft-layer between my head and the window. This layer acts as a pillow and temperature insulator.

As the comments below suggest, the windows seat is also strategically placed so that you will not be woken up when your neighbour needs to go to the bathroom. However, you can always climb on top of the seat, or find another acrobatic way out, in case you are the one who needs to go to the bathroom. From my point of view it is better to be the one climbing over rather than to be climbed over.

Pack for Sleeping

If you want to sleep, bring sleeping gear. Since you are travelling by train, you don't have to abide by weight rules for your carry-on. So you can pack as much gear as you like. For me, necessary can't-sleep-without-it gear includes:

  • Sleeping mask
  • Ear plugs
  • Travel pillow
  • Some form of cover: blanket, jacket, sleeping bag

Anticipate Pickpockets

As others have mentioned in the comments: sleeping on a long-haul night train makes you a target for pickpockets/thieves, especially if you don't have the extra safety of being inside a private/locked compartment. To be fair there is not much you can do to make yourself, and your stuff, completely 100% thieve-proof. More so if you are sleeping in an unlocked, unsupervised space. What you can do however is make sound assumptions on thieve behaviour and plan ahead. Your objective should be to make your stuff less appealing for thieves because it requires more effort on their part to take it.

Here and here are some general pickpocket-prenvention tips. Here is some advice on sleeping in couchettes on Italian trains. Below is a summary of what I think are the most relevant points for the purpose of sleeping in a train:

  1. Keep your money/documents/phone/valuables on you, either in your pockets or in dedicated supports (for example money belts). Clothes and other less-valuable items can go in your rucksack/suitcase.

  2. If you have a small backpack/laptop bag, strap/clip/tie it to some fixed support. This can be either your leg, the seat itself, the table between seats, etc. The point is that anchoring the bag to a fixed support makes it harder to be snatched away.

  3. Similarly, you can also strap/clip/tie your rucksack/suitcase to, for example, the luggage rack. Once again this makes it harder to snatch.

  4. Lock the zippers on all your bags with padlocks/zip-ties/key-ring/paper-clips. This will obviously make the bag harder to get into.

  5. Make sure that the topmost item in your backpack/rucksack/suitcase is something that a thief would have no interest in taking. My personal favourite are dirty underwear and socks, kept in a plastic bag with its opening towards the opening of the backpack. This way its content is the fist thing a potential thief would see, when accessing the bag. I always laugh when picturing what their face would look like.

Final Remarks

Having said this, note that I somewhat agree with this guy:

If you’re determined to avoid paying for a couchette, [and fail to find anything else but a standard (non-foldout) seat] book a couchette — what you’ll spend is less than what you’d waste by arriving at your next destination too fatigued to enjoy it.

This is especially true in case of long-haul train journeys such as the one you mention. Moreover, couchette compartments can be locked from the inside adding an extra level of safety for you and your belongings.

  • In all honesty, the quotation is not really truthful of what the original author meant. In the [...] part he actually provides a sort of alternative, while from the excerpt this doesn't appear. The point you make is quite clear and reasonable, anyway. – clabacchio Nov 24 '14 at 14:35
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    Another argument in favour of a window seat would be that you don't have to worry about the person(s) next to you going for a bathroom break (which, in my experience with Russian trains so far, is quite often also a smoke break. Come to think of that, consider plugging your nose too. ;) j/k). – MH. Nov 24 '14 at 14:58
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    @clabacchio I fixed the quotation by paraphrasing what the original author said. Note that the point he makes is exactly the one I reported: Trying to sleep overnight without a bed can be more lumpy than dreamy., so book a couchette. I avoided putting the full text in simply because I do not think that foldout seats exists in the train the OP mentions. – JoErNanO Nov 24 '14 at 15:11
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    Thanks for the input. I am considering getting a ticket for the deluxe compartment, however it costs 200$ more. Couchettes are all sold out on this train. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Nov 24 '14 at 17:28
  • @RoboKaren since I agree that security also matters whilst sleeping, I added specific tips for pickpockets and the like. – JoErNanO Nov 25 '14 at 15:47
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  1. Bring a self-inflating camping air mattress such as a Thermarest.
  2. Rearrange the luggage on the luggage rack to make sufficient room. 2a. Put some of the bags from the luggage rack on your allocated seat if necessary.
  3. Lay your camping mattress on the bars of the luggage rack.
  4. Get at least some of the other passengers onside by making light of it (presumably the luggage rack bars will be too uncomfortable for anyone without a camping mattress to consider it)
  5. Climb up and go to sleep.

I did this a few years ago in Kenya on a train from Mombasa to Nairobi. A ticket inspector came around about 10 minutes before we arrived and was not impressed ("how can we be having such elements on our trains!") but by that time it was around 7:30 am - time to wake up anyway. It was actually very comfy.

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    Although practical, expect to be yelled at by passengers and personnel when doing such things in most non third-world countries. – Mast Nov 25 '14 at 13:01
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    While Russia's railways are far from the world's best, I don't think this would be allowed :) But thanks for the tip! – JonathanReez Supports Monica Nov 25 '14 at 15:20
  • Few trains in the world have luggage racks that are big enough for adults, it used to be a more common way to have kids stretch out in a busy train. – Willeke Nov 9 '15 at 19:54
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In addition to the preparations suggested in other answers, I'd like to add an upright sleeping technique that works well in my experience. Check this guy out:

Sleeping upright with a lap pillow

It's a surprisingly comfortable position. I've taken multiple-hour naps on several flights this way. It doesn't require sitting next to the window or aisle, and it doesn't require multiple seats.

He's resting this specially-designed pillow on the tray in front of him, but it could be rested on your lap. Pillows like these tend to be collapsible and/or inflatable for travel convenience.

If you don't want to buy a special pillow, you can just use a large backpack or similarly-shaped piece of luggage. This is what I do, and it has the bonus of making the bag you sleep on particularly difficult for pickpockets and thieves to access. Alternately, multiple regular pillows (or one body-length pillow folded up) can do the trick too, especially if wrapped in a blanket or towel to keep them together.

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    I like the idea of using your bag instead of this off-the-shelf product. However I think this is more of a solution for short journeys. Would you be able to sleep like this for several hours? – JoErNanO Nov 26 '14 at 16:39
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    As I mentioned, it's surprisingly comfortable, and I've slept for multiple hours in this position. I imagine comfort could vary widely between different people, though. I'm pretty tall and have some back problems, so this is the only position I can use to sleep in a confined space for more than 20 minutes as it seems to be the only way to remove pressure from the spine while sitting upright. I suspect you'd also find this position comfortable if you find the fetal or "balled-up" position comfortable on a normal bed, as they are fairly similar. – talrnu Dec 1 '14 at 15:09
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    @JoErNanO I have slept for hours like this in both cars and trains, though for me the motivation is primarily to prevent pick pocketing, in the car I prefer to alternate between a couple of different positions. – David Mulder Jun 14 '15 at 20:28
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Leaning against the window. Optionally resting on your hand with elbow against the bottom of armchair. Also, crossing your arms, with your hand tucked under your arm pits, can help to keep warm while sleeping enhancing your resting: then lean to the side of train wall to hold your body.

A few more tips, I do long commutes:

Don't rest with your head on the window, so you won't grease it grossly with your hair. Find a place with sufficient train wall with no window. Sitting by the window, is also the best place for charging devices like a phone. While charging, the battery of the phone can keep your hand warm for a while. Use an iPad charger, it charges faster. Being on the window side, there can be AC on the ground of the train window, to warm your feet. Also, bring the daily commute newspaper with you. If no one is in front of you, you can place the the newspaper on the seat and put your feet over it, without having to take off your shoes. I would also prefer now a wider phone, instead of an iPad for videos, either you need to carry both devices all day in the bag.

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    "grease it grossly with your hair"?!? You're that guy? I've been promising myself to buy you a bottle of shampoo for years! – dotancohen Nov 24 '14 at 18:50
  • Nope, not that guy :) I'm decent enough not to do that. – Rui Nunes Nov 9 '15 at 8:27

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