The Caledonian Sleeper is worth it – even if flights to Scotland are cheaper

The Caledonian Sleeper is worth it – even if flights to Scotland are cheaper

It’s Friday night and the bar is packed and convivial: couples are hunched conspiratorially over tables; people who didn’t know each other ten minutes before are now sharing booths and swapping tales; and groups who left it too late are being urged to come back in an hour.

This isn’t just any bar – it’s the Club Car of the Caledonian Sleeper, and I’m on my way up to Inverness, an 11.5-hour overnight journey. I’m travelling up for a few days in nearby Speyside – the morning arrival of the train and evening departure two days later means I can pack three days of exploring in.

Caledonian Sleeper
An accessible ‘classic room’ on the Caledonian Sleeper (Photo: Caledonian Sleeper)

This ability to maximise time is a common theme with my fellow travellers. Jamie and Hannah Parker from Islington are heading to Aviemore for a weekend of skiing, returning on the Sunday evening train so they’re back in time for work on the Monday morning. “It’s ideal if you want to go up to Scotland without taking any holiday [from work],” Hannah says.

Hannah has travelled on the sleeper “between seven and ten times” – the pair even incorporated it in their honeymoon two years ago. Normally they travel in a Classic room, which has a bunk bed and sink, but today they’re in a Club room, which has an attached toilet and shower. “It’s only really worth it if you really like an en suite,” Jamie says. “And I do,” jokes Hannah.

Caledonian Sleeper
It can be easier to reach a train station than it is heading to an airport from central London (Photo: Caledonian Sleeper)

In Club, you also have priority access to the Club Car, breakfast is included and use of the guest lounges at the main terminals. My own journey had begun in the smart new lounge at London Euston, where snacks and soft and hot drinks are provided, alongside meals and alcoholic drinks to purchase.

Here I met Sarah Paramor, who had been in Birmingham for two days of meetings and was now heading home to Applecross, 80 miles north-west of Inverness. She too is no stranger to the train, having at one point used it every week to commute to a course in London. “Even now, I still get a child-like feeling of excitement waking up in the Highlands after falling asleep in London,” she told me.

My own love affair with the sleeper is perhaps surprising: the first time I took it, it was with my family in tow – and I barely slept, mainly because my youngest (then three) insisted on sharing a bed with me. I’m a light sleeper at the best of times, but on that journey I felt every jolt and bump along the way. Still, it was all banished the next morning when the children opened the blinds in our adjoining rooms and we were greeted by the sight of a shimmering loch behind towering pine trees.

Even now, with a dozen sleeper journeys under my belt, I still wake frequently, but it bothers me little – the bed is cosy and comfortable, and it’s not long before I’m lulled back to sleep by the rocking of the train.

In the morning, after a pleasingly hot shower, I return to the Club Car for breakfast (a delicious smoked fish frittata), served by staff who are remarkably friendly given they probably haven’t slept themselves. Outside, the world is still dark, but I can just about make out the outline of hills spotted with snow.

It is a luxury, arriving into the heart of the city with the whole day ahead of me. It’s a luxury too, to travel like this: the cheapest rooms start at £240 for two people (or £50 per person in the seated compartment), with two suitcases or rucksacks and one piece of hand luggage allowed per person. Is it worth it? I think so – but you have to embrace the idea of the journey being a part of your trip, rather than just something you do to get to your destination.

For comparison, the cheapest one-way flights from London to Inverness start at around £60 for two people, with one small cabin bag per person. While, according to Rail Europe, the cheapest price for a single ticket on non-sleeper trains between London and Inverness is £58.61 per person (£117.22 for two people).

Reflection of Inverness City and the River Ness, Inverness city in the Scottish Highlands, United Kingdom
‘It is a luxury, arriving into the heart of the city with the whole day ahead of me’ (Photo: Apisak Kanjanapusit/Getty)

According to an online carbon calculator, the CO2 emissions for a one-way rail journey between the two cities is 31.66kg CO2 e (carbon dioxide equivalent), compared to 194.49kg CO2 e for a one-way flight.

“When you compare [the Caledonian Sleeper] to the time wasted on a plane journey, and the cost of a hotel in London, it’s good value,” Sarah had said to me.

This comes into sharp focus on my return when Storm Isha sees the rail network close down and I’m forced to fly home. Though the flight is only 90 minutes, I lose a whole day to travelling and arrive home exhausted – and hankering for the slow, steady overnight journey I’d had on the way up.

Three of the best luxury rail journeys in the UK

Royal Scotsman

This isn’t so much a train as an experience – a choice of 12 different experiences to be exact, all starting in Edinburgh and ranging from a two to seven nights in the Highlands. All meals and drinks are provided, as well as excursions, and in the evenings there’s fine dining and traditional cèilidhs. This year sees the launch of their Grand Suites, designed to replicate the feel of a country house – on wheels. Cabin prices from £4,000. belmond.com/trains/europe/scotland/belmond-royal-scotsman

British Pullman

Taking this restored 1920s train is like stepping back in time – though of course in a very elegant, refined way. Dress up (T-shirts and jeans are a no-no) for a day (or a night) travelling through the English countryside from London Victoria: perhaps to the Nyetimber Estate, which includes brunch, a vineyard tour, and a three-course dinner on the way back; or an evening in the Carriage Club, which combines dinner with cabaret. From £400 per person. belmond.com/trains/europe/uk/belmond-british-pullman/

Northern Belle

Departures on this beautiful 1930s train take place from all over the UK, varying from a lunchtime trip along the stunning West Highland Line to a day out in Llandudno. Perhaps the most famous offering is the steam journey along the Settle–Carlisle line, considered one of the UK’s most scenic railway journeys. From £295 per person. northernbelle.co.uk