The cheapest sleeping car with Interrail
Istanbul has exactly two connections to Europe: The night train "Bosphor" from/to Bucharest, which you can read about [here] (https://rail.cc/de/blog/bukarest-istanbul) and the night train "Sofia-Express" from/to Sofia, which I would like to report about now. Why it has such comfortable sleeper compartments, how much the reservation costs and why you should beware of the border controls, you can find out here.
Of course you can use the train all the way with Interrail! You can buy your Interrail pass here.
If you want to take the train with normal tickets, it is possible to go to a ticket window at a railway station in Europe, or buy locally in Bulgaria or Turkey.
You can buy a ticket on the internet here.
Reservation with Interrail
On this train you can choose between the following categories:
- couchette 6-berths compartment
- couchette 4-berths compartment
- sleeping car 2 beds (2nd class)
- sleeping car 1 bed private (1st class)
The reservation prices with Interrail are, in ascending order, 9,40 EUR, 14 EUR, 15 EUR and 35 EUR. For the single sleeper compartment, you may need a 1st class Interrail pass.
You can also find the train on rail.cc.
I chose the highest comfort category: the 2-person sleeping car. The reservation costs only about 15 EUR, which is not much by European sleeping car standards. I don't know exactly whether you can take the compartment alone. Just buying two reservations is not really possible, because the man at the counter wanted to see the Interrail pass for the reservation. I bought my reservation in Istanbul-Sirkeci at the "International counter". The price was 97 TRL (Turkish Lira).
International counter in Istanbul-Sirkeci
In Germany at the Deutsche Bahn (DB) travel centre it didn't work despite several attempts and efforts by the staff. You can try online for reservations here.
The train runs all year round with night train wagons. The Bucharest-Istanbul train, on the other hand, only runs in summer as a scheduled coach.
Departure from Istanbul-Halkali is 21:40, in winter it is 22:40. Pay close attention, as there is no time change between winter and summer in Turkey. Arrival in Sofia is 8:38, the stop in Plovdiv (worth seeing for tourists) is reached at 5:27. Again, be careful: the times change every year and due to delays they are not considered very reliable.
A feeder bus (free of charge) from Istanbul-Sirkeci leaves there at half past eight in front of the station.
The way to the railway station
Once upon a time, the train departed directly from Sirkeci station in the heart of Istanbul, next to Topkapi Palace. That was once upon a time, because there is "too much trafik" on the light rail to Istanbul-Halkali. Too much traffic due to the Marmaray suburban railway, as I asked a conductor later that evening and he explained it to me in these words. There are supposed to have been plans to bring the night trains back to the centre, what became of it I cannot say.
So there are two ways to get to the night train departure station "Halkali" on the outskirts of the city:
1) with the Marmaray. Halkali is the terminus of this train. You can get on at different stations.
2) by the free shuttle bus. Departure 20:30 in front of Sirkeci station. I chose a mix. My host in Istanbul lived on the Anatolian side.I had stumbled across his project by chance on Instagram a few years ago and he had later invited me to his place. His project is called "Meetingchallenge".
I got on the Marmaray train at Sögülücesme station (one of the first stops after the tunnel), which was also going to Halkali.
Marmaray stop Sögülücesme
Marmaray stop Sögülücesme
Marmaray stop Sögülücesme: Signposts show you in which direction the trains leave from which platform.
Prices are (I'm not sure & it can change): 11 Lira. As far as I know, you can travel as far as you like. So I could have stayed on the train and even got there earlier. Anyway. The journey to Halkali takes about 66 minutes from Sögülücesme and 53 minutes from Sirkeci. Trains run direct about every quarter hour.
Marmaray railway in Istanbul
Marmaray railway in Istanbul interior
On the way to Istanbul-Sirkeci with the Marmaray
But in Sirkeci I got off to take the feeder bus, as most interrailers probably do. It leaves at half past eight in front of Sirkeci station. Since you usually arrive in Istanbul by night train: If you arrive in Halkali by night train, a shuttle bus will also take you to Sirkeci. The bus will leave exactly where you arrive in the evening. Very simple! The journey takes about 40 minutes. I chatted with Emerson from the United States, who was also on an Interrail tour. Our paths were to cross again later in Stockholm and Narvik! A true ode to Interrail!
Exiting the Marmaray tunnel underground.
Istanbul-Sirkeci station inside
Istanbul-Sirkeci station outside: this is where the bus leaves!
Istanbul-Halkali station: departure point for night trains to Europe.
Comfort sleeping car on the Sofia Express
Once you arrive in Halkali, just follow the crowd and you will find your way to the platform where the night train is. Optionally, you can just ask people. In Istanbul I was always helped in a friendly way. The train leaves at 21:40, so you are not in a hurry. We arrive on our white Turkish night train with red and blue stripes. A really striking creation with a certain charm.
Our TCDD night train ready to depart from Istanbul-Halkali.
On the track opposite is the "Ankara Express" night train to Ankara. It runs from Halkali through the Marmaray tunnel, but I don't know exactly where it stops. But it is certain that if a night train does pass through the tunnel, the "Trafik" can't be that narrow. Well.
The night train from Istanbul to Ankara is on the track opposite.
I move into my compartment. I share it with a young man from Hong Kong, whose monosyllabic name I have unfortunately forgotten. As I said, it is a two-bed compartment. The two beds are on top of each other, it is very spacious.
2-bed sleeping compartment in day position
On the right the cupboard with built-in fridge
Refrigerator with small snack (included in the price)
Luggage rack and coat hook
There is even a fridge. There is a water bottle for everyone, a small tetra-pack of delicious cherry juice and a packet of snacks.
The packed lunch at a glance
This compartment also has a washbasin. And all that for only 15 euros. It was worth it!
Washbasin in the sleeper compartment. With socket for razors or mobile phone charging.
This makes it officially the cheapest sleeping car you can take with Interrail! Even the temperature can be regulated.
Temperature control in the sleeper compartment
As you are used to from me, I go to bed quite soon after the train leaves, after trying to catch the lights of Istanbul in the darkness. My compartment mate is still in the compartment next to us for a while, chatting in wild Cantonese with two young ladies, as they are also from Hong Kong.
The lights of Istanbul. The journey to Sofia begins.
Lower berth occupied: this is what it looks like when you use the compartment alone
The ladder for the upper bed is behind the door and still has to be mounted
My upper bed is ready
General view of our compartment in night/sleeping position
What are Bulgarian toilets?
There's a myth I don't want to deprive you of, of course. Before my first holiday in Bulgaria in 2011, my family warned me that there would be "Bulgarian toilets". Actually, not only there, but in many parts of Eastern Europe. But since my parents, in turn, also saw them first in Bulgaria, we call them Bulgarian loos. If you've ever had to go to the bathroom on holiday in Eastern Europe and wondered where the toilet bowl had gone, you know what I mean. Because in this type of toilet there is no toilet seat to sit on, but roughly speaking only a hole in the floor. The Turkish sleeping cars also have one. But I can comfort you: there is another "real" one at the other end of the carriage!
Bulgarian toilet in the Turkish sleeping car
Real toilet at the other end of the coach
There is actually one in the sleeping car as well, but only one for the whole carriage. And actually, I'm writing because it was used as a "storage room" on my trip. See for yourself:
Shower on the night train Istanbul-Sofia
Let's move on to the couchette car. Here you have to make a big difference between the 6-berth and the 4-bearth one. The 6-berth couchette consists of a carriage from an old Bulgarian set. Not a feast for the eyes, neither from the outside nor from the inside!
Toilet in the ouchette car on the night train Istanbul-Sofia
6-berth couchette on the night train Istanbul-Sofia
Bulgarian couchette on the night train Istanbul-Sofia
The 4-berth couchette, on the other hand, is of the same (good) Turkish standard as the sleeping car. The only difference is that there is room for 4 people in the compartment and there is no wardrobe and no washbasin. These cars are also used between Bucharest and Istanbul. They also cost extra, albeit less, but again not much less, so the sleeper is really worth it.
4-berth couchette to sit in day position
The train stops at Kapikule at 02:37. "Border control-Outside!" The conductor walks through the carriage and announces. Unlike when you enter Turkey, however, you don't have to take your luggage outside, just your passport. Then you stand in line with the other people waiting until it's your turn and your passport is checked by the Turkish staff. Not very strict, but it's still unpleasant to get out at this time.
The train stops at the EU border in Kapikule.
In this building you have to go to passport control
Queuing for passport control to leave Turkey
Shortly after, it doesn't get any better. The train rolls a few kilometres over the border to Swilengrad. External EU border. Again they check you, but this time you stay on the train and your passports are collected. Nevertheless, I actually find it even more unpleasant. It takes ages to get your pass back. I think it was longer than an hour. My fellow passenger below me has fallen asleep once again with pleasure, but I startle at every noise outside. That's because you are already required to react quickly as soon as the border police officers enter the train or knock on the compartment to give back your ID card. They are not particularly friendly or patient, at least that's how it seemed. I startle about 5-10 times, thinking each time that the time has come.
In the meantime, my mobile phone receives Greek network. We are near the border triangle between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. At some point the time has finally come. We hurriedly get our passports and the train continues. Of course we are very late.
Arrival in Sofia with a hefty surcharge: delay compensation with Interrail
In the morning we are woken up by the conductor. My fellow passenger had already got up earlier. We are about 2 hours late.
Shortly before arrival in Sofia
Since you can also get a refund for delays with Interrail, I also have the conductor certify the delay. However, this is not necessary. If you remember the exact arrival time and delay with the day of travel, you can apply for a delay compensation on the website after your Interrail journey. However, only delays within the European Union count towards this. So this train does, the opposite direction towards Istanbul does not. As a rule, however, you need several long delays (more than 1 hour) for the whole thing to be successful. But in my case it was. I am digressing from the topic.
Train from Istanbul after arrival in Sofia
Train connection to Belgrade
In any case, it would be important to know that we missed the train to Belgrade, which was supposed to leave in 2020 at 09:15 in the morning, by a long way. As I heard from others, this was also the case in the days before. So I strongly recommend NOT to plan with this connection, despite the (by German standards generous) scheduled transfer time of 37 minutes, and rather spend a day in Sofia or book a bus or similar.
At the bottom of Sofia station there is a good luggage storage, where you can leave your backpack for little money (I think about 1 or 2 Euros), if you want to continue to Thessaloniki in the afternoon, as I did. You can read about how to get there by train from Sofia and why this connection urgently needs an upgrade in my next blog.
Sofia station seen from the city
Sofia station entrance hall
Sofia station entrance hall: in the middle/right of the picture the ticket counters
Signposts to the luggage storage in the basement
Night train Istanbul-Sofia-Express
If you have any questions, you can always contact our forum! See you soon!
Posted 6 months ago