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Caledonian Sleeper – An Easy Route to Scotland.
Take the train and you’ll find that travelling from London to Edinburgh takes around five hours during the day. Its a journey I love, particularly once you reach the heritage Northumberland coastline but, it does take time. If you fancy going a little further north to Dundee or Aberdeen you can easily add another hour or two onto your journey. And, it’s much the same if you are travelling along the West Coast Route to Glasgow or beyond. What if, instead of eating into your waking hours, you could travel overnight with hotel standard services and your own en-suite cabin, arriving the next morning with a freshly cooked hot breakfast inside you, ready to go. Sounds like an excellent idea to me – and it’s that service which the Caledonian Sleeper aims to provide.
A million miles from the days of random bunks in sleeper carriages with snoring strangers, much of the new service has been upgraded to provide a luxurious alternative to day-time train travel that will leave you with a bill rather less than a hotel for the night and a rail fare during the day. The budget option is still there in the form of sleeper chairs but you can choose from cabins without ensuite to cabins with ensuite and bunk beds (solo travellers get their own cabin), right through to spacious ensuites with a double bed.
I’m a bit nerdish about train travel, especially luxury train travel and I was intrigued to find out more. The launch of the new Caledonian Sleeper Service is recent – a soft launch from the end of April to the end of May to the lowlands (that’s Edinburgh and Glasgow to you and me) with the rollout of a fully commercialised service over the next few months. Travelling in early June, it’s perhaps not surprising that there were a few teething problems.
If you are travelling club class from London you can use the Virgin lounge at Euston. It’s recently been refitted and is actually very pleasant now with hot and cold drinks, bar service and light snacks. However, it closes at 11 pm and so if the Caledonian Sleeper boarding is delayed you’ll currently find yourself back on the platform waiting to board. I’m sure this is something that will be fixed in the near future.
In theory, you can board the train an hour or so before it is due to depart to allow you to settle in. I’d imagine that’s particularly useful if you are travelling with children in your group – and it’s worth noting that some of the cabins can be joined together to provide an interconnecting family suite for four.
Our train was late and we eventually boarded about 20 minutes before departure. The first thing you need to do is collect your keycard from inside your cabin, which works like any conventional hotel card, although you have to set it yourself (there are instructions).
The cabins are still compact, but the addition of cleverly designed ensuites had the train nerd in me really excited. And, there are some great details – a pull-out table from under the sink which is big enough for dining or working and large luggage storage space under the bottom bunk.
I struggled a bit with the shower to begin with – it operates by pushing the central control in. It did work well enough for a quick splash, though I left washing my hair simply because the power sockets in the cabins won’t operate a hairdryer.
That said, it’s a huge step up from the old sleeper service. There are several USB ports in each cabin and full-sized sockets too. Each bed has its own reading light and its own ‘call button’ for room service. There are neat wall pockets too, so you can pop your phone on charge but have it right by your side during the night. When you arrive, your bed will be covered with a special mat so you can put your suitcase on the bed without muddying the duvet. Behind the door in the en-suite, there should be a net bag holding bathmat, bath towel and that all-important spare loo roll (mine was missing on the way up, but provided on the way back). Oh, and there are complimentary toiletries, a sleep pack with earplugs and eye mask, bottled water and a magazine that’s actually quite interesting!
In my case, once I’d stowed my luggage I headed for the club car to enjoy a drink and bite to eat before turning in. If you prefer there’s an excellent cabin service with both hot and cold meals and drinks. Those travelling in the sleeper chairs can order at their seats too.
The club car offers a short but well thought out menu of hot dishes, cold platters, sandwiches and snacks together with a great range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Perhaps used to London prices I was impressed how reasonable everything seemed and enjoyed a prosecco mini bottle and haggis, tatties and neeps (well I was going to Scotland) on the way up. The haggis was every bit as good as any I remember and I liked being given a 200ml bottle of prosecco rather than the 125ml glass which is standard. at £9 for a reasonable portion of haggis and £6 for a 200ml bottle of prosecco, I knew I’d end up coming back on the return journey. Other menu options include a venison casserole, macaroni cheese and various cheese and charcuterie platters. And, if you are celebrating, a bottle of Champagne is £45.
Back in my cabin, I settled down for the night. The single bunk beds are made up with decent sized duvets and there are two proper pillows. It’s comfy if a little confined for anyone used to sleeping alone in a double bed. The WiFi works, albeit in the same patchy way that any train WiFi works!
You order breakfast from a hotel style door card. I don’t normally eat at 7 am in the morning so picked the bacon roll as being one of the lighter options. It’s complimentary with cabin service and generally, you can eat in your room or go to the club car, although certain dishes are only served in the club car. I regret having room service both times simply because I don’t know if the club car offering would be a better standard. Certainly, the room service bacon roll was just a little tired by the time it reached me and I was disappointed by the plastic cup and UHT milk pouches. I suspect from a culinary point of view I’d have been better served in the club car – where the evening service had proper cutlery, crockery and glasses. The design of the train means that the corridors are really one-way only – and I can imagine a room service hot breakfast could be something of a challenge to serve – especially as everyone is given time options just like any normal hotel.
All in, I arrived in Edinburgh feeling a little worn around the edge but no worse than if I’d taken an early flight to arrive before 9 am.
The return journey followed much the same pattern. In Edinburgh, the lounge is shared with LNER and is not the same standard as the Virgin lounge in Euston. But, it’s manned by Caledonian staff after 9 pm so passengers benefit from being able to stay as late as necessary. The Caledonian Sleeper has some of its own lounges – and I’d be interested to see their own offering. There’s great attention to design in the Caledonian’s own product – beautifully fitted out cabins with subtle ‘Scottish’ notes in the wall coverings and carpets and with high-quality bedding and linens. For the most part too the staff are charming although there are clear struggles with service at times.
There are good, if limited, accessible sleeper options too, with specially adapted cabins for wheelchair users which have been situated next door to the accessible loos. The Caledonian Sleeper offers support for boarding and disembarking and the accessible cabins have emergency alarms. And, the sleeper chair cabin also has facilities for wheelchair users. I peeked inside the accessible double cabin and was impressed at how spacious and comfortable it looked.
Is the Caledonian Sleeper service worth it? Well, I guess that depends on what you are looking for. The sleeper chair service is remarkably good value at £45 each way to Edinburgh for a seat which reclines a little and is the equivalent to a first class seat on a day time train. The cabins vary in price, depending on whether you are travelling alone or with a companion. Unlike the old trains, you won’t find yourself paired up with a stranger for the night, so a single person will pay a considerable premium. For a couple, the costs are broadly comparable with London hotel rates, so if you’d have to pay for a night in a hotel anyway, this is a good option as there’s no extra train fare to pay. The most expensive option, double bed cabins are around £400 for double occupancy with twin en-suite clubrooms at £280 for two or £230 for single occupancy. And the twin cabins without ensuite are £170 for two or £140 for one. There are special rates for family bookings and various railcard discounts, usually of around 34%. It’s not the cheapest way to travel, but if you are visiting the UK and are short of time, you’ll save a day of travelling by using the sleeper service and avoid having to pay a hotel bill for the night.
For more information and to book for yourself, please check the Caledonian Sleeper website
There are definite teething problems, but it’s the kind of operation that I genuinely hope will smooth things out quickly because it has the promise to provide a better alternative for the business traveller to an early morning trip to the airport and to any visitor to the UK a way to reach Scotland cost effectively. And for me, there’s always that sense of adventure. An overnight journey on a train has a real sense of romance to me and I like my love stories to end happily ever after.
Thinking of trying for yourself? Why not pin this post for later?
Disclosure: My trip on the Caledonian Sleeper was gifted for the purpose of review All content is editorially given.
For more about Edinburgh, do check my review of the Balmoral Hotel, conveniently located just next to Edinburgh Waverley Station