Travel Far, Eat Local
Egypt Overnight Train: Everything You Need to Know
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
I Promise It's Not as Scary as This Picture Looks
Train travel in Egypt is probably not what you expect. And that's exactly what I'm hoping in writing this post. This post is for those of you who have not been to Egypt; those of you planning a trip and wondering "Wow... it's really freaking far from Cairo to Luxor or Aswan. How do I get there??" Well, yes it is very far, but luckily for you, Egypt has a very efficient rail system, and even more fortunately, I've done it! On my last trip to Egypt, I took the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor and back again. This post contains everything you need to know about getting from Alexandria to Aswan, or vice versa and anywhere in between, by rail.
The thing about train travel in Egypt that you may not read in other blogs or see on YouTube is that it ain't straightforward, not even a little bit. I made a ton of mistakes, including getting off at an entirely wrong station, so I want to offer some wisdom to prevent those headaches on your next trip to Egypt.
The sleeping trains are run by a company called Watania, and they operate from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south and vice versa. There are two classes of trains, and interestingly, they are literally two different trains. Tourists are only allowed to purchase tickets on the first class train, and thus don't be surprised to see that most people, if not all, on your train are foreigners. The locals use the second class train, which does not contain sleeper cars. You have two options when booking a sleeper car: Single or double.
Single Berth: $120USD
Double Berth: $80USD
These are what Watania and others will refer to as "first class". Really, all that means is a sleeper compartment on the tourist train. You can buy tickets online here, and if you know your dates then I highly recommend you book before you leave your home country. Reason being is this: That website is frequently down and will not accept international credit card bookings. So I waited until the day before my trip from Cairo to Luxor, when I was already in Cairo, and the website would not accept any of my three credit U.S. cards.
If this happens to you, you can buy your ticket at the train station, but there are a few key things to keep in mind: The ticket office is not a normal window you would see at any other, normal train station; it's literally on the second floor, down a corridor, in a back office (unlabeled) full of people taking ticket orders by phone. Here's how to find it: Enter through the main entrance, go up the escalators to the next floor (cafeteria level), make a left and enter a hallway, make another left and follow the corridor to the end. When you reach the end, you will see a door open on your right; it won't be labeled, but go through it and boom, you're in the ticket office. They are cash only, Egyptian pounds. The lady who helped me spoke decent English, but I had a local with me to translate, which helped tremendously. Definitely DO NOT wait until the night of your train to go - they will be closed, or sold out, or both.
All trains depart Cairo from the main train station, Ramses Station. It's located centrally in downtown, and so you might be thinking to yourself "Oh nice! It'll be easy to get there". WRONG. Immediately outside Ramses Station is a complicated labyrinth of tight streets, low-hanging bridges, tunnels, and alleys. It is clogged... nay, jammed, to the point of utter frustration and headache. Cars literally don't move. Incessant honking, cars seemingly at both a standstill and swerving in/out of traffic will greet you outside the station. Don't even think about having a taxi driver drop you off curbside. No freaking way, it cannot be done. They will drop you a block or two away, so be prepared to walk with your luggage at night through utter chaos.
Now, depending on which side of the station you are dropped off on, you will have the option to either go overland and under bridges, or a walkway that goes above the street. But it was far too dark, congested, and chaotic when I was there to provide any semblance of meaningful direction... the takeaway is this: Find the station in your sights, and walk a straight line towards it without getting mauled by a car or bus. Whether it's over grass, street, or bridge doesn't matter.
Next you have to find the main entrance, and if you are taking the overnight train, that should be easy because a billion other people will be funneling into the same doors. But just keep in mind you will pass other doors on the sides of the building.. these are exits, find your way to the front. Go through the main entrance; most southbound overnight trains depart from Platform 8.
And for all you vloggers out there, this is the time to put the camera down and stop filming. The station has a heavy police presence, and filming is frowned upon (to put it nicely) in Egypt, but especially so in Cairo... more about that in a future post.
Ok, ok.. so I've done a lot of blabbing about the actual process of just getting onto the train, but what is it like?
Each train car has it's own attendant, and they will greet you upon boarding and guide you to your berth. They're small, but actually quite spacious at the same time. Each one has two bunks, and if you purchase the single berth, they simply don't pull out the bottom bunk, which instead converts to two seats and a center console. You will have a sink and mirror, hangers for clothes, window with curtain, and that's about it. The door locks, and it does feel quite secure. There's also a bar car, but alas... no alcohol. Just coffee and all the second-hand cigarette smoke you can inhale!
Ready to Explore the Train
As for food, there are really only two options: Eat the dinner on board or bring your own. I suggest brining your own. The food they give you is basically a cardboard box with some yogurt, juice, potato chips, and two rolls with mystery meat on them. None of it is good nor filling.
Overall, I had a very good experience on the overnight sleeper train from Cairo to Luxor. Although the food lacked something to be desired, the cabin was spacious, very secure, and it was just such a cool experience to be cruising along the Nile River in an overnight train. Further, I met a lot of fellow travelers that were in the berths on either side of me, and we had some great conversation as we rolled along in the desert.
This Sign Greeted Me After Disembarking in Luxor, Egypt
You could, of course, travel by EgyptAir to all these destinations, but why would you? Train travel is an experience. It offers something air travel cannot and will never provide... the ability to slow down and think, witness, ponder. See the countryside. Don't fly.. take the train. You'll be glad you did.
Have you taken Egypt's overnight train?? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Cheers.