Getting from London to Scotland is a pretty easy affair by train, but on my first visit to Scotland, I wanted to do something a little special, and also to maximise my time, so I booked myself a berth of the Caledonian Sleeper overnight train and took a ride through the Scottish Highlands to Fort William. I took a sleeper bunk up and roughed it out in the seats on the shorter journey back from Edinburgh to London. Here’s what that journey was like if you’re contemplating whether you want to do the sleeper service or just take the ordinary train.
A version of this post was first published at Income Travel Made Different Blog (no longer available) and republished here with permission
When I visited the United Kingdom in winter, one of the highlights I was looking forward to was my overnight train journey that would take me through the highlands of Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper.
Travelling by train is one of my favourite ways of exploring a country. Not only does it get you from point A to B without having to do much work or worry about getting lost if your GPS fails, there is also much more room on a train to walk about and stretch your legs, and you don’t have to worry whether your liquids are in the right sized bottles.
The Caledonian Sleeper through the Scottish Highlands is famous as one of the most scenic train routes in the world that starts at London’s Euston Station in the evening. It goes up into the highland region of Scotland and finally ends at Fort William about 12 hours later.
A slow start
But my train adventure was not shaping up to a good start. The train we were supposed to be on was late to arrive due to train faults on the tracks, and it was only after about 2 chilly hours of waiting in the station that I could finally board the train and start my journey.
I had decided to splurge a little and instead of a standard seat, I booked a lower bunk ticket in the sleeper twin cabins so that I could lie down and have a good sleep. Perhaps it was the odd weekday timing, but there were few guests in my part of the train and I had the room all to myself, which turned out to be a good thing – the rooms on the Caledonian Sleeper are pretty tight, consisting a bunk bed and a sink that converts into a mini table, and of course, a little window to look out of. You have just enough floor space to stand and turn around.
As the train set off, I eagerly looked out the window, but it was a pitch-dark winter’s night, so there wasn’t much to see other than the lamp lights of the stations we passed through. The bed and the small room reminded me of many hostels dormitories I’ve been in, but the mattress and comforter were very warm and soft, and I knew I was going to be very comfortable. There was a dining car where one could get a meal or a dram of Scottish whisky to warm up, but I decided to make full use of the bed I had paid for and laid down to rest while we trundled through the night.
A dawning revelation
I woke up the next morning at the faintest hint of light shining through my window. As I brushed my teeth over the tiny sink, I marvelled at the view through that tiny window. At some point we had climbed up into the Scottish Highlands with nary a building in sight, just stunning nature right outside my window.
When you grow up in a city like Singapore, vistas of mountains and lakes always seem a little unreal, like you’ve accidentally dropped into the middle of a movie set. A light layer of pure white snow covered the grass and trees next to the tracks, adding that perfect wintery touch to a postcard-worthy view. I could have gone into the dining car with its full length windows stretching on both sides of the carriage to properly admire the view (truth: there were too many people for my liking and I was the only non-white person and feeling a little scruffy that morning), but there was something magical about taking it all in through my tiny window.
About 13 hours after we set off, we pulled into the station at Fort William, an almost anticlimactic ending to a spectacular and comfortable train ride. I would continue to encounter more of Scotland’s dramatic scenery in my week of travel, but none of the views were quite as memorable as those that silently flashed by on my train ride.
Cost and Details
My Caledonian Standard Sleeper Twin Berth Fixed ticket from London Euston to Fort William cost 90 GBP (about S$160) – prices vary and get more expensive closer to date, so book your ticket as early as possible to get prices as low as 70 GBP.
I had a Highland breakfast add on for 9 GBP. It was pretty ok but I wouldn’t pay that much for breakfast, but I was just curious about what breakfast was like.
Know your travel rights – my train was 2 hours late to depart but ended up arriving just 1 hour late. There is a late policy and I still managed to get 50% of my ticket refunded via credit card via an easy to submit Delay Repay form online, so make sure you read your T&Cs. Otherwise, having travel insurance never hurts, especially if it makes you miss a connection.
The Caledonian Sleeper is scheduled to leave London Euston at 2057hrs and reach Fort William at 0955hrs, about 13 hours in total. It saves you time travelling through the night. I actually wanted to go to Edinburgh, but you reach Edinburgh pretty damn early while it’s still dark, and the prettiest part of the train journey is the bit through the Highlands as sunrises after 6am, which is why I ended up going to Fort William and caught the bus to Oban right after I got off the train.
This seems to be the most direct option – any other train option to get from London to Fort William requires you to make a change in Glasgow. Your fastest option would be to take a 1hr 35min budget flight to Inverness which is much further north or Glasgow in the south, but you still need to change to a train if you want to get to Fort William specifically.
From Edinburgh to London
I decided that I wanted to see what the standard seats of the Caledonian Sleeper were like on the way back – I travelled from Oban to Glasgow to Edinburgh, and from there it was back to London. The train left Edinburgh pretty late – close to midnight so I had a lot of time to muck around in the evening before heading to the train station because my hostel was just a 5 minute walk away.
The seats do recline a fair bit and it’s definitely more comfortable than an Economy plane seat. The seating arrangement is 2 and 1 – I’d debated booking the single but am glad I didn’t because I lucked out massively – the person supposed to be in the seat next to me didn’t turn up so I had 2 seats to myself and ended up lying down to sleep, woohoo! Also, I don’t know how my window seat ended up being an aisle, and some of the single seats are facing each other – I saw two very tall dudes trying to slot their legs past each other and it looked very awkward.
Still, I didn’t get much of a sleep, even with the spare seat next to me because it just isn’t as comfortable as being able to actually lie down properly in a berth – I was pretty damn groggy by the time the train pulled into Euston Station.
Cost and Details
My Caledonian Standard Sleeper Seat Fixed Ticket cost me 45 GBP (about S$80), half that of the sleeper berth, but this was also a shorter journey. Again, book as early as you can to get the best prices as low as 35 GBP. There is no discount whether you buy 1-way or return.
The Caledonian Sleeper is scheduled to leave Edinburgh Waverly at 2315hrs and reach London Euston at 0707hrs, around 8 hrs in all. There’s no view to speak off most of the entire journey, especially in winter.
There are faster options to get from Edinburgh to London:
- Virgin trains take about 4-5 hours to make the same journey throughout the day, but they also cost around 60-80 GBP and up depending on how much in advance you book and whether it’s peak hour.
- Buses are much cheaper at around 20-30 GBP but take around 12 hours in total
- You’re better off taking a short budget flight which is 1.5 hours (well maybe 3-4 hours if you add in airport time) but if you don’t have a lot of stuff, costs about the same as the bus.
The Caledonian Sleeper itself is set to change in the near future, upgrading its cars to newer versions that promise a more ‘hotel-like’ experience (en suite bathrooms and showers if you are willing to cough up the cash!) in late October 2018. But one thing that I hope will never change is that marvellous view outside the train window of the Scottish Highlands and that magic of train travel no matter what class you are in.
Tell me about your epic train journeys – I’ve been on the old train from Nairobi to Mombasa that took 19 hours (it takes just 5 hours now) and my first epic 16-hour train journey from Danang to Hanoi.