One of the journeys we were most looking forward to during our 10 day family holiday in Egypt was the sleeper train from Cairo to Aswan.
None of us had ever never taken a sleeper train before, let alone with kids in tow. So we expected it to be a memorable experience – and we weren’t wrong!
The train travels the 879km track from Alexandria to Aswan calling at Cairo, Luxor and a dozen other stations along the Nile.
Here’s what we found out taking the overnight train in Egypt.
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Our journey on the Watania sleeper train from Cairo to Aswan
We arrived at El Giza Station at the end of the third day of our Egypt itinerary. We’d seen the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids of Giza on day two and on day three taken a road trip up to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast.
Now it was time to travel south to Aswan where we were to spend two days seeing the Dam, the Temple of Philae and Abu Simbel.
Boarding at El Giza Station
We arrived at El Giza Station about an hour before our train time. It’s down the line from Cairo where a lot of people board the sleeping train so is a bit quieter and there are less platforms to worry about.
Our guide, Adel, had bought our tickets in advance. If you are buying your own tickets you can do this online (be aware that the Ernst sleeper train website doesn’t work on iOS) or at the Ernst Sleeping Trains Reservation Office at Cairo or Aswan stations.
However, you will need to do this a few days in advance as cabins sell out. This is the same service as the sleeper train from Cairo to Luxor.
Even though we had a guide we were escorted down the platform by the tourist police. At least one of them was armed.
You see a lot of armed police and check points in Egypt. This was the only time we had our own escort. The kids didn’t notice and I found it more interesting than alarming.
We bought some drinks at one of the station cafes and took a seat to wait for our train.
It arrived 45 minutes late – not uncommon. Adel told us it was always better be at the station early as on the occasions the train arrives early it doesn’t hang around. He has done this journey hundreds of times.
Once on board we met our steward (there’s one for each carriage). He pointed out our cabins and we settled in for the 13 hour ride.
What it’s like to ride the Cairo to Aswan sleeper train?
To be brutally honest, it’s a bumpy and uncomfortable ride.
At times the rumbling motion makes it feel like your body is being mined for gold nuggets. On the less bone jangling sections I managed to drift off into a light sleep only to be woken by jarring stops and bustling stations in the night.
Unsurprisingly my smartwatch did not register any sleep.
After our train journey we compared notes and decided the Egyptian sleeper train experience was one we were glad to have ticked off our bucket list. But next time we’ll fly.
It is a very raw travel experience. Think of the Orient Express. And now imagine its grubbier, more fidgety three-year-old sibling.
At times it’s exhausting and it would definitely benefit from a thorough scrub. But it’s also has its endearing side.
We emerged from our slumber to fleeting images of farm workers tending their fields by hand, donkey drawn carts full of crops, miles of banana tree plantations, and felucca and cruise ships slipping through the turquoise waters of the Nile.
And our girls seemed to sleep a lot better than us. How do kids do that?
10 things to know about the overnight train from Cairo to Aswan
If I haven’t put you off booking the sleeper train from Cairo (everything is an adventure, right?!) here’s some things we learnt that you might find useful:
Book the tourist train
There are two types of sleeper train that travel from Alexandria to Aswan – one for locals and one for tourists.
Visitors are deliberately separated from the local population. We were told this was for everyone’s comfort and security as tourists have been known to pick arguments with locals. This isn’t hard to believe as we saw this elsewhere on our trip.
However, it also allows the Watania Sleeper Trains company to add a premium to the price of tourist tickets.
When we travelled in April 2023 tickets cost $80 per person for tourists and $18 for locals. You can see the price difference on the Ernst website.
Our tickets were arranged for us and included in our Egypt tour. If you are buying your tickets separately don’t try to buy a cheaper ticket for the locals sleeper train. You’ll not be allowed to board.
What’s in your cabin?
Every cabin on the night train from Cairo to Aswan comes with bunk beds, a sink with packets of soap, a plug socket, bin and tray tables.
When you arrive you find the top bunk made and the bottom one laid out as seating for up to three people. There’s a table in the middle of the two seats that folds up to become the third seat.
After dinner the carriage steward or ‘captain’ pulls down the ready-made bottom bunk.
You have sheets, a comforter and one pillow. The beds are firm and the pillow is thin.
There is air con and an overhead baggage niche that is big enough for one large suitcase and a few rucksacks.
There’s two shared toilets with sinks at the end of the carriage but no shower facilities. The toilets gave me flashbacks to using UK trains in the 1980s. They empty straight on to the track below.
There was toilet paper and a sink with running water but no soap.
Extra things to bring for comfort on the sleeper train Cairo to Aswan
While the sleeper train is meant to be ‘First Class’, don’t expect 5 star.
We’d recommend bringing a hand towel and drinking water. Neither of these are supplied.
Wet wipes and hand sanitiser are also a good idea. I’ll cover more about hygiene below.
Cabins with inter connecting doors
Something we weren’t expecting was an interconnecting door between pairs of cabins.
This is a real bonus if you are travelling on the sleeper train with kids. They didn’t have to leave their cabin and go into the main corridor to find you in the night.
We wedged the connecting door open so we could hear our girls after they’d gone to bed.
The connecting door has independent locks on both sides. So if you don’t know your neighbours they won’t be able to make an unexpected call.
Securing your cabin if you leave it
It’s only possible to lock your main cabin door from the inside.
If you leave to visit the toilet or the Club Car take your valuables with you for peace of mind.
Our guide recommended not hiding things around the cabin as these can be easily forgotten in the morning. Chasing the train back up Egypt is not an option.
Decor and dirt
If you’re a clean freak your twitchy eye will go into overdrive on the Cairo to Aswan sleeper train.
The train’s decor is dated and tired. Apart from the bedding it’s impossible to find a surface that isn’t scratched or stained. Most of the fixtures and fittings have seen better days. Knobs and screws are missing, and the windows are cracked.
I’d also not like to hazard a guess at the last time the surfaces were cleaned. Most sported a thin layer of sand dust.
This is not the Orient Express. But for one night thundering through the Nile Valley it was functional.
Don’t drink the tap water
Adel also warned us not to drink or even brush our teeth using the tap in our cabin. Bring plenty of bottled water for your journey.
You can also buy this onboard for 15 EGP – about 45p, so it’s not expensive.
Food on the Cairo to Aswan sleeper train
Your First Class tourist ticket includes dinner and breakfast.
Our dinner was simple breaded chicken, rice and vegetables. This came with a roll and hummus and cube of chocolate cake for dessert. Drinks cost extra at dinner.
Breakfast was very carb heavy with two bread rolls, a croissant, a piece of cake, cream cheeses, jam and a box of juice. You could also have tea or coffee.
There’s no children’s meals but you can put in requests for different food if you have a special diet. Ask your carriage steward when you board.
Dinner is served very soon after you join the train. But it was still nearly 9pm by the time we ate as our train was 45 minutes late.
If you are travelling with kids or anyone who gets easily ‘hangry’ I’d suggest getting them a large snack at the station.
Breakfast was served an hour before we reached Aswan. We’d been told this would be at 8am the night before but it arrived at 9.10am. Our 10-year-old was ready to eat her little sister. Another good reason to bring your own snacks!
Drinks are not included with your dinner, but there is tea and coffee with breakfast.
You can buy hot drinks and soft drinks when you are served dinner or at any time from the Club Car.
However we were warned that the Club Car is somewhere to avoid. Smokers hang out here as its the only compartment where they can have a puff. As a consequence it was not a very healthy place to take children.
There’s no alcoholic drinks served onboard. We brought our own bottle of gin from duty free at the airport and then realised we had no glasses. An empty water bottle was the best substitute.
How long does the train take from Cairo to Aswan?
The train journey from Cairo to Aswan takes 13 hours. However it often runs late.
We should have arrived in Aswan at 9.30am but left the station for the next stage of our Egypt itinerary at 10.30am.
We weren’t worried as it just meant we had extra time to admire the view on the way. If you had a time dependant tour or transfer on arrival you might want to factor this in.
Should you take the Watania sleeper train in Egypt?
We don’t regret taking the sleeper train from Cairo, but we’d not want to repeat the experience.
There are much more comfortable ways to travel.
The one hour 15 minute flight between Cairo and Aswan would have cost about the same as our train tickets. Having said that, we’d have had the extra cost of breakfast, dinner and another nights’ accommodation somewhere else.
Overall the sleeper train is the cheaper and easier option. Just be prepared for something less First Class and more Economy.
You can find out more about our family holiday in Egypt by looking at my Egypt Story Highlight on Instagram.
If you are thinking of planning your own trip take a look at our full Egypt travel itinerary including amazing places to visit and trips for travelling to Egypt.
You’ll also want to read my top tips for visiting Egypt with kids.
Have you taken a sleeper train in Egypt or elsewhere? What was your experience?