We have entered a window of time which seems perfect for big adventures – my boys are 6 and 8, so small enough to want to have adventures with their parents, and big enough to appreciate them. And, of course, they are now old enough for adventures to be just a bit more practical too. And so I have found myself saying yes to more things recently, including ‘yes, let’s all get a sleeper train to Scotland.‘
My littlest boys have been asking when we can go on a ‘train with beds’ for at least a year, and I tended to respond with a deliberately vague ‘one day‘, as I do to many things. And then, for some reason I decided to actually look into it. And the more I looked into it, the more I liked the idea. So I investigated dates and found myself booking the Caledonian sleeper train all the way from London to Inverness.
I didn’t think too much about it after that – it would be an adventure, but I had absolutely no idea whether the sleeper train part of it would be a success. And then all of a sudden it was upon us, and we were waiting to board with three super-excited little boys.
If you also have this on your family to-do list, then here my attempt at providing you with some (useful?) information:
Where to go?
The sleeper trains go all over Scotland (from London), but if you are travelling with young children then you will just want to think carefully about timings – for some destinations, you would either have to depart very late or arrive very early. We opted for Inverness, partly because we fancied a little adventure in the Highlands, but also to give ourselves the longest journey possible – the train left London at about 9.30pm but boarding was from 8.20pm, and we arrived in Inverness at 8.40am; so perfectly civilised times for small children.
Is it expensive?
If you consider the cost of train travel these days, or compare it to the cost of booking flights for a family of 5, then it isn’t bad value. In total our booking came to just under £208.00 – about £72.00 each for the adults and just under £21.00 each for the children (one way). We did invest in a family railcard beforehand so saved a bit with that. We decided to book the sleeper train one way only – after three days in Inverness, we travelled down to Stirling and had a few days there before getting the regular East Coast train home.
How do the cabins work for families?
There are two bunks per cabin, and if you are travelling with children then you are allocated inter-connected cabins. You can buy a ‘Family Ticket’, which means that if you’re an odd number of people (ie a family of 2 adults and 3 children) then the spare bed is automatically reserved for you. HOWEVER, the family ticket deal does not apply if you book using a railcard…….something I didn’t realise before booking because I didn’t read the small print (d’oh). So I was a little surprised when I looked at our tickets to find that my husband had been allocated a berth a couple of carriages down from the rest of us. No harm done – we were fine and this didn’t really turn out to be a problem at all, but if you are an odd number like us then you might just want to ensure you’re actually booking the ‘family’ option.
Did the children sleep?
I’m happy to report that YES THEY DID! They were in their pyjamas and ready for bed when we left home, and so they were happily tucked up in bed just as we were pulling out of Kings Cross. I won’t pretend there wasn’t a lot of excitement and silliness, as well as 101 questions (‘Are you asleep yet, Mummy?……What about now?…….And now?…….And are you now, Mummy?‘) but the 6 year olds were asleep by 10pm and the biggest boy by 10.30pm. I found the eldest boy having a sleepy wander around the cabin at about 2am, but other than that everyone was quiet until just after 6am, which I consider a result.
Did the grown ups sleep?
My husband reports that no, he didn’t sleep particularly well; and I didn’t either. Whilst I was perfectly comfortable, I was essentially trying to sleep in a cupboard with three children. I was also extremely aware of every single noise the train made (it is a fairly bumpy ride), and was constantly listening out for boys falling out of bed. It then got to that stage where I couldn’t sleep because I was too busy working out how many hours sleep I would get in the absolute best case scenario. I finally dropped off for an hour or two, but had a very vivid dream in which the whole train had turned into a giant soft play centre with only me in charge…..so my hour’s sleep really wasn’t restful in any way. Having said that, I didn’t mind because the whole thing was a novelty and my children were quiet, so I was quite happy lying in my bed enjoying the experience.
Things you might just like to know…..
- My children are not too old to find playing with light switches totally hilarious. Each bunk gets its own berth light (with switch), as well as a switch for the main cabin light. Berth lights caused the most trouble – apparently playing with your own berth light switch whilst also shouting ‘TURN YOUR BERTH LIGHT OFF!‘ to your mum and siblings is one of the funniest things in the world. In the end, I realised that I would have to sit in complete darkness until the boys went to sleep – this was a bit of a pain, but worth it not to hear anybody mention berth lights for the rest of the night. And once everyone was peaceful, I popped my light back on, read my book and had my can of G&T.
- The gangways are extremely narrow and, obviously, cabin space is also very limited. I’m sure there must be somewhere to store large pieces of luggage, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me when we boarded. We had fairly small bags and so had everything in our cabin with us; but if you are taking sizeable pieces of luggage then you might want to check out where to store these before you board the train. Once you have boarded there is really not much space to be lugging around huge bags.
- In each cabin, the desk lifts up to reveal a SINK. A friend had warned me about this beforehand but I had totally forgotten about it until all my boys were asleep, and was thankful that I had – combined with the excitement over the berth lights, the discovery of the hidden sinks would have caused total chaos.
- The inter-connecting door can LOCK OPEN. Unfortunately I didn’t realise this until the morning and so attempted to keep it open with my rucksack…..I then spent the night listening to it swinging open and shut (or the part of the night when I wasn’t supervising the soft play centre).
- The top bunk is not for a nervous child – the barrier is, effectively, a couple of straps. There is no way my 8 year old would even go up there for a look, let alone sleep up there; so it’s a good job the 6 year olds have no such fear. If you have a nervous child then this is something to keep in mind.
Getting around in Scotland
Bus ride with a view
We didn’t hire a car and actually, this was one of the things I loved most about our trip – it made such a refreshing change NOT to have a car. Jumping on buses, coaches and trains made the whole trip even more of an adventure, and meant that everyone could relax and enjoy the views, rather than someone having to concentrate on the roads and follow directions. And of course we were up in Scotland so the views were incredible – this was in no way a similar experience to getting the buses in and around London; which is what we are used to. Obviously we would have had more options had we hired a car, but we went out and about from Inverness using public transport and had no problems.
Was it fun?
Was it fun?!? I would absolutely totally recommend it to anyone who enjoys an adventure. We went to bed in London, and woke up to views of mountains and lochs – it was magical. I loved the sensation of lying in my cabin and not really knowing quite whereabouts in the country I was (until Facebook asked me if I would like any recommendations for places to eat in Doncaster). Yes, there were stressful moments – trying to manage very excited little children in extremely narrow cabins, trying to get people and bags down the tiniest gangways, trying to get everyone washed and dressed without bumping your head, tripping over something or bashing into a door – but when a 6 year old flings his arms around you just before you board the train and tells you this is his ‘best life ever’, then yes, it is absolutely worth it.
The lesson I have learnt from the whole experience is that sometimes it is worth being guided by small people when making holiday plans, and occasionally saying yes to things that you would normally just say ‘one day‘ to. What came from a request to go on a ‘train with beds’ became a wonderful adventure and something which I know will go down as a highlight of 2018.
Here we go!
Beautiful Loch Ness
N.B I have written this from a London-Scotland point of view because that was what we did. Obviously the other way round exists too – I just can’t promise quite the same scenery as your train pulls into London.
If you’re considering a London-Scotland adventure, here are a few websites you might find useful: