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Premier Classe: South Africa’s budget-luxury train journey

Premier Classe: South Africa's budget luxury train journey

South Africa is home to one of the world’s most famous and luxurious train journeys. The Blue Train is the five-star way to cross the country, but will set you back an epic £800 per person one-way. If that’s a bit steep there’s a normal, no-frills overnight passenger train along the same route – the Shosholoza Meyl. But what not many people know is that there’s a third option, the budget-luxury Premier Classe train. It comes with some of the same perks as the Blue Train – private cabins, three-course meals and a Champagne send-off – but for a more budget-friendly £190 per person. It runs once a week each way between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and there’s also a route to Durban. So, never one to miss the opportunity to swap a plane for a train, we gave the Premier Classe a try on our way back to Johannesburg.

Premier Classe train ticket

Our ticket to ride

The train takes about 26 hours to make the trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg, so we arrived at the train station just before 8am and were shown to the Premier Classe lounge. After checking in, our bags were taken off us and tagged with our cabin number ready to be delivered to our room, and we were given tea and scones (the first of many opportunities to eat on this trip). About 8.45am we got on board and went to check out our cabin. The train’s a mirror image, with a kitchen in the middle then a dining car and lounge bar on each side, followed by the cabins with toilets and showers at the end of each carriage.

Premier Classe train South Africa

Getting on board and a toast

The trains aren’t hugely modern but they’re clean and well maintained. The cabins have been converted so what was originally a four-person cabin now sleeps two, and two-person cabins are now singles. So there isn’t an expensive single supplement if you’re travelling on your own, and nobody has to climb up into a bunk bed. Inside we had two seats/beds, a table which lifted up to reveal a sink and a storage area above the door for bags (the doors don’t lock from the outside but it all felt safe, though we did keep our valuables with us). You’re also given towels, dressing gowns and slippers, as well as toiletries and bottled water.

Premier Classe train cabin South Africa

Our cabin (in daytime formation)

As we pulled out of Cape Town everyone gathered in the bar for snacks and glasses of bubbly as we watched Table Mountain disappear into the distance. The other passengers were mainly South Africans plus a few tourists, and a mostly older crowd of couples and small groups of friends. Back in the cabin I planned to spend the morning reading or working but ended up transfixed by the view out of the window. The train’s slow pace and rocking motion had me too relaxed to do much else. We went from farmland and fields of ostriches through the vineyards around Paarl, then on through the Nuwelkoof Pass into the mountains. The landscape got rockier and drier as we went along, changing from green to gold and red.

Vineyards from the Premier Classe train South Africa

Passing through the vineyards

Our cabin steward called in to give us the menu and allocate us a table for meals – you can have a table for two or share a larger table like we did. There’s an immense amount of food included, with a three-course lunch followed by afternoon tea and a four-course dinner, then breakfast and morning tea the next day. The lounge also does a good selection of drinks (though was suffering from a major tonic shortage so no G&Ts!). The menu had local wines for 80–90 ZAR (around £5) which we thought was a bit pricey until we realised that was for the whole bottle not a glass. You can buy a bottle and the bar steward will look after it for you so you can just go and get a top up when you want or take it with you to lunch or dinner.

Lunch on the Premier Classe train South Africa

Lunch on board

At 12pm it was time for lunch so we headed to the dining car. We sat next to a South African couple in their 60s on their third Premier Classe trip. Over lunch (vegetable terrine, Chicken Kiev and strawberry cheesecake) we talked to them about all sorts of things to do with life in South Africa and how things have changed over the last 10 years. By the time we finished lunch the train was out in the Karoo – the semi-desert landscape that covers the middle of South Africa. For a while we followed the road past huge transporter trucks before leaving them behind in a vast expanse of empty land. But there are towns out here – we stopped in one, Beaufort West, to stretch our legs, and made another unscheduled stop that had the engineers out checking the train. But 20 minutes of tinkering later we were on the move again.

Karoo landscapes South Africa

Crossing the Karoo

The sky started to glow as the sun set behind us, disappearing below the horizon as we headed back to the dining car for dinner (afternoon tea too would’ve been a step too far!). The kitchen staff do an amazing job cooking up multi-course meals in a tiny space for so many people. Dinner was another feast of tomato soup, fish, lamb with peaches, chocolate mousse and cheese. Pretty much stuffed by this point we finished our wine in the lounge before heading back to our cabin. Our beds had already been made up for us so we crashed out for the night. The beds were really comfy but the train stops and starts a few times in the night and lurches around a bit, so we did wake up a few times (ear plugs are a good idea for light sleepers).

Premier Classe train dining car South Africa

The dining car set up for dinner

Just before 7am I woke up, opened the curtains and sat watching the scenery go by. The landscape had changed again, this time it was back to green with farms, roads and more signs of life. There’s a shower at the end of each carriage, and it’s a bit of a weird feeling washing while you’re moving around but it was warm and had decent water pressure. Then breakfast is served between 7am and 9am so you can wander down when you’re ready. We carried on the whole ‘eat until you burst’ theme of the trip with juice, yogurt and cereal followed by eggs, bacon, sausages and toast. The train is scheduled to arrive into Johannesburg at 11am so we packed up our cabin – which had been turned back into seats – ready to go.

Premier Classe train lounge bar South Africa

The lounge bar

The last stretch into Johannesburg seemed to take the longest, but we arrived into Park station spot on at 11.05am. From there you can catch the Gautrain out to the airport or around the city. Although we were on time the Premier Classe is known to have a few delays, so I wouldn’t rely on it arriving on time if you have a flight to catch. But if you have time to spare and want to relax, see South Africa’s landscapes, chat to a mix of locals and travellers, and eat practically non-stop, then the train definitely beats the plane.

Johannesburg on the Premier Classe train

Arriving into Johannesburg

The details

The Premier Classe train leaves Cape Town at 9.05am on Tuesdays and arrives into Johannesburg at 11.03 on Wednesday. Or in reverse it leaves Johannesburg at 10.30am on Thursdays and arrives into Cape Town at 12.40pm on Fridays. Tickets cost 3120 ZAR (£190) per person, or 3740 ZAR (£230) in peak periods from December–January and during school holidays. You can tickets book online through their website.

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Premier Classe: South Africa's budget luxury train journey

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    Darlene
    February 22, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    What a great way to travel and see the landscape. I love train travel and do it in Spain.

  • Reply
    Noelle
    February 22, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    Wow – so cool! I loved the scenery of South African so much; my dad and I did a road trip from Cape Town to Jo’burg and Durban – but there were quite a few road works along the way so this would have been a better way for us to see the scenery and relax. Will keep this in mind if I go again!

  • Reply
    Reena
    February 22, 2017 at 7:18 pm

    I love train journeys which a scenic view, and you won me over at tea, scones and bubbly! South Africa is on my wishlist and I’ve pinned this now for later! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    February 22, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    Train travel surely has to be the best way to see more of a country whilst travelling. And also to put on a pound or two! This reminds me of the Desert Express journey we took from Windhoek to Swakopmund in Namibia.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 24, 2017 at 10:02 am

      Namibia is next on my African hit list – will have to look up the Desert Express, can’t miss a scenic train opportunity!

  • Reply
    Tanja
    February 23, 2017 at 10:52 am

    this looks great! I love train journeys

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 24, 2017 at 9:59 am

      Me too, definitely my favourite way to travel.

  • Reply
    aeparker81
    February 23, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    This looks like the perfect middle ground. I toyed with booking the Blue Train for our honeymoon, but then decided I wanted to go to St Lucia on the east coast instead! This is a much easier way to travel too as I expect you don’t have to dress for dinner and the people on the train are I suspect easy-going

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 24, 2017 at 9:59 am

      Yes it was all really relaxed and everyone was very friendly. I’d love to try to Blue Train one day – though it’s not likely to be anytime soon, think I’d rather spend the £800 on another trip!

  • Reply
    Jaime @angloyankophile
    February 24, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    That looks like such a relaxed, comfortable ride! Definitely bookmarking this in case I ever make it there. I love informative posts like these as it’s EXACTLY what I search for before preparing for a trip! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 25, 2017 at 10:36 pm

      Thank you, it was a really good way to get across South Africa – hope you get to try it one day!

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    February 25, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    I love train travel and what a fantastic tip you’ve given us with the Premier Class. I’m not sure if i’ll ever get there, but if I do would love to take this trip with my husband.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 25, 2017 at 10:29 pm

      It was a fantastic trip, so nice to be relaxed and away from everything!

  • Reply
    Heather Cowper
    February 28, 2017 at 10:06 am

    It sounds like a great budget-friendly option and a unique way to see some of South Africa’s landscapes – I love the relaxing feeling you get when you travel by train.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 2, 2017 at 11:39 am

      Me too, there’s something so relaxing about the rocking motion on board.

  • Reply
    thebritishberliner
    March 4, 2017 at 10:19 am

    I’m a sucker for train travel and this has just made my list. And what a really good price!

    I’ve only been to South Africa once, and I spent the whole two weeks in Cape Town and on safari. Perhaps, if I ever return, we’ll go further afield!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 6, 2017 at 9:47 pm

      It was a real bargain! We did mostly Cape Town and safari but the train was a great way to get between the two and see a bit more than just flying.

  • Reply
    MummyTravels
    March 6, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    Oh that sounds amazing – really civilised way to travel and great to get a taste of some of the scenery along the way.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 6, 2017 at 9:45 pm

      So civilised – and relaxing, I would definitely recommend it!

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