In this review we will take the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan in Egypt.
After a great couple of days in Cairo it was time to travel deeper into Egypt. Some of the most important historical sites of Egypt can be found between Aswan and Luxor in the south of the country.
A popular way to visit some of these sights is by making a multi-day river cruise on the Nile between these two cities – and that was exactly what I was planning to do.
As I had booked a downstream Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor I had first to make my way south from Cairo to Aswan. The most popular way to travel the 680 kilometres as the crow flies between Cairo and Aswan is to take the plane – and unsurprisingly this is the fastest and usually the most expensive option.
Taking the train
There is however also the option of taking the train from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan. The Egyptian Railways run daytime trains between these cities, while the privately-run company Ernst Watania runs overnight sleeper trains from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan.
Most tour operators will suggest you to take a domestic flight. Heck, the tour operator where I had booked my Nile cruise (the highly recommended Luxor & Aswan Travel Agency) even writes on their website that they “never recommend [trains] to anyone except for those who have tried them before and asked for them again” and even concludes that “sleeper train cabins are very tiny and uncomfortable”.
Personally, I disagree with this. Trains make for a wonderful way to travel as you absorb so much more of the country you are travelling in. Whether it’s the landscapes you are passing by or the local life along the railway line and on board, you get a much better impression of place, distance and time on the train than you would ever get from a plane.
That of course includes sleeper trains as well. It’s a mode of transport which I adore and I’ve always had great experiences on board. Nothing beats going to sleep in your cosy and comfortable compartment and waking up the next morning to completely different views. What’s not to like about going to sleep just out of Cairo and waking up the following morning when the train trundles along the banks of the Nile?
My plan therefore was to take the Ernst Watania Sleeping train from Cairo to Aswan on the outbound and to take an ordinary daytime train back to Cairo after my Nile cruise to see how the two experiences would compare.
Booking your ticket
You can book your Ernst Watania Sleeping train ticket online or at the Ernst Watania reservation office at the station. It’s straightforward enough to buy the ticket online – and you are well-advised to do so in advance if you want to be assured of a place on board.
Just like most other businesses in Egypt there is three-tiered price system in place, with cheaper tickets available for Egyptians and Arab nationals while other foreigners pay full price.
For example, I paid the full price of 120 USD for a one-way ticket in a private sleeper compartment (‘single cabin’) from Cairo to Aswan. Egyptians would only pay 700 EGP (44.50 USD) for this, while nationals of other Arab states pay 1,050 Egyptian pound (67 USD).
When you have completed the online payment you will immediately receive a PDF with your train ticket. There is no need to visit the Ernst Watania reservation office at the station if you have booked online as you can just board the train by showing this PDF to the carriage attendant.
From the great Sofitel Nile El Gezirah hotel in Zamalek where I had stayed the previous nights, I took an Uber to Ramses Station. Also called Misr Station, Ramses Station is the main hub of the Egyptian Railways and a Cairo landmark.
Ramses Station was built in 1856 as the terminal of the first railway line of Egypt, linking Cairo with Alexandria.
The current station building however hails from 1892 when British architect Edwin Patsy redesigned the station in a neo-Classical style with Mamluk influences.
There are several entrances to the station building and you will have to place your luggage on an X-ray baggage scanner before you can enter.
The Ernst Watania reservation office can be found in an archway next to the station entrance on the western side (before you go through security to enter the actual station). Inside the station, you can find ticket booths as well as ticket machines from where you can buy tickets for the normal Egyptian Railways trains.
Inside Ramses Station
The interior of Ramses Station is a far cry from the neo-Classical and Moorish Revival architecture of the old station façade. What you see here is the result of a controversial renovation of the station which took place between 2001 and 2011.
Although the renovation project was criticised by some for ruining the original character of Ramses Station, I personally adore the new interior.
The central hall of Cairo’s Ramses Station is dominated by some kind of Art Deco steel-and-glass artwork with a reversed obelisk on the ceiling which just looks absolutely amazing.
There are a couple of shops and kiosks in the main hall and on the platforms selling all kinds of snacks and drinks for the train ride, although you may find a larger selection at the many stores outside the station. You can also find a left-luggage office at Ramses Station as well as a few ATMs.
Given that there is no WiFi internet on board Egyptian trains, I visited the handy Vodafone shop inside the central hall to buy an Egyptian SIM card for the ride.
In the central hall you will see escalators leading up one level to the mezzanine floor where you will find a food court. It’s a great place to wait for the departure of your train and have a drink, snack or light meal.
From the food court, you have some amazing views over the railway tracks and platforms 1 to 4 down below in the train shed. Watch for packed commuter trains arriving at Ramses Station as it’s good fun to see thousands of people suddenly jumping out of the train and crowding the platforms.
As I had no idea what to expect from the food on board the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train, I decided to order a light meal just in case. The Hawawshi (a kind of pita bread stuffed with a mixture of ground meat, onions, peppers and garlic) was delicious.
Although Cairo Ramses Station was originally built as a terminal station, it has a couple of through tracks as well these days. Terminus platforms 1 to 4 are underneath the impressive train shed while terminus platforms 5 to 7 can be found just outside it.
If you walk from the central hall to the platforms, you will find the four through platforms (platforms 8 to 11) on your left-hand side. Of these platforms, platform 8 can be accessed right away from the central hall while you need to take an underpass to reach platforms 9, 10 and 11.
The Ernst Watania Sleeping Train usually departs from platform 8 – but do confirm whether this is indeed the case by looking at the electronic departure boards which switch from Arabic to English every 30 seconds or so.
On Seat61.com – the world’s best railway website – you can find more general information about the station and train travel in Egypt.
Ernst Watania Sleeping Train Cairo to Aswan
Train 86 – Departure: 7.45pm – Arrival: 09.25am (+1)
Duration: 13h40m – Distance: ~913 kilometres
Carriage 3, berth 3 – Costs: 120 USD
Boarding the Ernst Watania Train
Some 20 minutes before departure, the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train pulled into Cairo Ramses Station at platform 8. Each train carriage has its own attendant, who will check your ticket at the door before you board the train.
I was rather excited to board this special train as I walked through the narrow aisle towards my compartment.
The Ernst Watania Sleeping Train exists entirely out of sleeper carriages with two bunk beds in each compartment. These compartments can be booked for single (private) occupancy if you are travelling solo or as a double when you are travelling as a couple.
As a solo traveller you can also just book a berth, in which case you have to share the compartment with another passenger of the same sex.
If you travel as 3 or 4 passengers together (and opt for private occupancy) you will be given adjacent compartments with a connecting door which can be opened.
The sleeper compartment itself is rather similar to those found on European sleeper trains. When I entered my compartment, the lower bunk was still in daytime mode with a tray table fixed between the two seats.
It can be easily converted into a bed when you go to sleep. If you cannot find out yourself, the carriage attendant will be glad to help you out and do it for you.
Each compartment has a small wash basin. If you open the doors, you will find a mirror and power socket inside. There is plenty of storage space both underneath the lower bunk as well as into a recess right above the compartment door.
The Ernst Watania Sleeping Train is fully airconditioned and you can adjust the temperature in the compartment with some easy-to-use buttons found next to the door.
Of course, the compartment doors can be locked from the inside – and it’s highly recommended to do so before you go to sleep in order to secure your personal belongings.
At exactly 7.45pm, the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train departed and slowly rolled out of Cairo Ramses Station for its long run south.
Minutes after departure, the train crosses the River Nile as it makes its way through the Cairo suburbs towards Giza Station, which would be the first stop of this journey.
Even though Giza Station (sometimes called El Giza Station) is still a good 9 kilometres away from the actual Pyramids of Giza, it can make sense to board the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train here instead of Ramses Station.
If you happen to stay in a hotel near the pyramids, a taxi ride to Giza Station will be significantly shorter than the one to Ramses Station – especially so at rush hour.
Including in the fare of the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train is a light meal for dinner, as well as breakfast the following morning. Soon after departure from Giza Station, the carriage attendant brought the dinner box and informed me that he would serve breakfast about an hour before arrival in Aswan
I found both meals to be rather disappointing, so I would certainly recommend anyone to eat a proper meal before boarding the train and to bring some snacks with you on board.
The ‘dinner’ box contained two rather stale sandwiches, an orange, some orange juice, a small desert and a bag of cheese crisps.
Breakfast consisted out of a dry croissant, a bun with a cup of jam, a piece of cake which tasted better than it looked and Egyptian “feta” cheese, which was quite revolting and an insult to Greek cuisine.
The Ernst Watania Sleeping Train also has a lounge car attached. It’s open throughout the entire journey and makes for a great place to sit down for a while.
Although this bar wagon is built in the 1980s, it’s refurbished in such a way to make it look like an old-fashioned dining car. It certainly oozes an old world railway charm thanks to its dark wood interior, red carpet and sturdy chairs.
You can buy tea, coffee, bottled water as well as sandwiches at the bar counter. Alcoholic drinks aren’t sold on board the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train, although you are free to bring along your own beers or bottle of wine and drink them in your own compartment.
I can certainly recommend to visit the lounge car in the evening for a cup of tea as it’s not only such a beautiful train carriage, but also makes for a perfect place to socialise with other travellers.
Egyptians are a friendly bunch of people and in a few minutes after sitting down I was already engaged in some lively talks with fellow passengers.
Do however note that smoking is allowed in the lounge car, so if you might be uncomfortable with this you may want to stay away as Egyptians do like to smoke! Although I’m not a smoker myself, I wasn’t bothered with it that much as it only added to the cigar lounge charm of this unique train carriage.
One aspect of the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train which pleasantly surprised me was the cleanliness of the toilets.
There are shared toilets at each end of the carriage. Although the toilets were very basic, they were kept immaculately clean by the train staff and there certainly wasn’t any shortage of toilet paper, soap and paper towels either.
Time to sleep
Having visited the lounge wagon, it was time to retreat back to my compartment, where I made myself comfortable with a cold beer and a good book before going to sleep.
I found the beds on the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train to be spacious and very comfortable – certainly on par with the average night train in Europe.
That said, the ride was certainly less comfortable than you may be used to in Europe. Due to the bad quality of the railway tracks, the ride on the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train (or on any other Egyptian train for that matter) is rather shaky and noisy.
Although it took me some time to fall asleep and I was woken up several times at night by some loud honking or rattling sounds, I did manage to get a solid five hours of sleep all combined.
The following morning I woke up to some lovely views of the River Nile just north of Edfu, one of the places I would visit in the next days as part of my Nile cruise.
It’s just such an amazing feeling to wake up, open the curtains and see a completely different landscape from the evening before. It just adds enormously to the anticipation of what’s next to come on your grand tour of Egypt!
Irrigation canals and river views
As the railway line from Luxor to Aswan is built parallel to the Nile, you often have some great river views from your compartment window.
But even when the train runs a bit more inland away from the riverbank there is still lots to see from the window. Already since antiquity, the Egyptians have mastered the art of irrigation and you can therefore see lots of irrigation canals and agricultural fields.
As most of Egypt consists out of inhospitable deserts, most of the population lives within these fertile lands within a few kilometres from the Nile. You can therefore also see many settlements, from small villages to bigger towns and cities with all their human activity.
It’s well-worth it to wake up on time and to admire some of the views before you reach Aswan – especially so if the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train will be your only railway adventure in Egypt.
The city of Kom Ombo is another major stop between Luxor and Aswan and just like Edfu I would visit it later on as part of my Nile cruise.
With only some 50 kilometres to go until Aswan, it was also time to get fully dressed and to prepare myself for arrival.
Arriving at Aswan
Perhaps the best views of the entire train ride from Cairo to Aswan are on the last few kilometres before arrival in Aswan.
This southern Egyptian city is famous for occupying a particularly attractive stretch of the Nile with yellow sand dunes forming a spectacular backdrop to the deep blue waters of the river.
With only a few minutes delay, the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train pulled into Aswan station.
I had a great and amazingly fun experience on the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train from the moment we departed Cairo all the way to the arrival in Aswan.
This classic train journey begins at Cairo’s wonderful Ramses Station and watching other trains arrive and depart already builds up the anticipation for what is to come.
Once on board the Ernst Watania Sleeping Train, I had a comfortable compartment all to myself for a very reasonable 120 US dollar. Although it’s certainly faster to fly from Cairo to Aswan, you would miss out on a fabulous experience if you don’t take the overnight train.
Whether it’s drinking a cup of tea and chatting with fellow passengers in the beautiful surroundings of the lounge wagon or admiring the scenic views of the River Nile as you wake up the following morning, the train journey from Cairo to Aswan is one you are unlikely to forget.
Sure, not everything will be perfect on board the train. The Egyptian railway tracks are old, which makes for a shaky and noisy ride. If you are a light sleeper, you may not get much shut-eye on board this train. Besides, the food on board left something to be desired.
In the grand scheme of things, I personally think these are all rather minor downsides compared to all that makes this train journey such a fun ride.
Ernst Watania clearly runs a professional operation and you can expect a friendly service on board the train, clean toilets and comfortable compartments. Taking the Ernst Watania night train really makes for a great way to travel from Cairo to southern Egypt.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian: A Grand Tour of Egypt‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Red-Eye Ramblings of a Late Night Flight to Cairo
2. A Visit to the Pyramids of Giza by Camel
3. Review: Sofitel Nile El Gezirah, Zamalek, Cairo
4. Exploring the Medieval Old Town and Islamic History of Cairo
5. Visiting the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo
6. Mar Girgis: The Churches of Christian Old Cairo
7. Review: Ernst Watania Sleeping Train Cairo to Aswan (current chapter)
** rest of the chapters to follow soon **