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Cape Town to Johannesburg by train: On board the budget-luxury Premier Classe train

Cape Town to Johannesburg by train: On board the budget-luxury Premier Classe train

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 travel from Cape Town to Pretoria, but will set you back 18,000 ZAR (£842/$1088) per person one-way. If that’s a bit steep, there’s a normal, no-frills overnight passenger train between Cape Town and Johannesburg – the Shosholoza Meyl. But there’s also a relatively unknown third option, South Africa’s budget-luxury Premier Classe train.

Read more: What does it cost? 10 days in South Africa budget breakdown 

Cape Town to Johannesburg by Premier Classe train

Premier Classe train ticket

Our ticket to ride

Premier Classe comes with some of the same perks as the Blue Train – private cabins, three-course meals and Champagne send-off – but for a more budget-friendly 3120 ZAR (£146/$190) per person. It runs once a week in each direction between Cape Town and Johannesburg  (departing Cape Town on Tuesdays and Johannesburg on Thursdays), and takes about 26 hours.

My journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg by train started at Cape Town station at 8am, where we were shown to the Premier Classe lounge (shared with the Blue Train). 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).

South Africa's Premier Classe train carriage and a bubbly send off

Getting on board and a toast

On board the Premier Classe train

At 8.45am we got on board and went to check out our cabin. The train is 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. The Premier Classe 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 that means there isn’t an expensive single supplement if you’re travelling on your own, and nobody has to wobble their way up a ladder into a bunk bed on board a moving train. 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, slippers, toiletries and bottled water.

Cabin on board the Premier Classe budget-luxury train in South Africa

Our cabin (in daytime formation)

The journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg by train

As we pulled out of Cape Town station, all the passengers gathered in the bar for snacks and glasses of bubbly as we watched Table Mountain disappear into the distance. The other passengers on board the Premier Classe train were mainly South Africans along with a few international tourists, and a mostly older crowd of couples and small groups of friends.

Back in the cabin, I had 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 shades of green to gold and red.

Passing through the vineyards of the Cape Winelands, 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 during my trip so there were no G&Ts!).

The bar menu featured a selection of local wines for 80–90 ZAR (around £4/$5) which we thought was quite pricet by South Africa standards until we realised that was for the whole bottle not just a glass. You can buy a bottle of wine 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 from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 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 (which was 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 for them over the last 10 years.

By the time we finished lunch the train was out in the Karoo – the semi-desert landscape at the heart 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 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 in 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 was 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 as it travels through 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 in 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.

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.

The lounge bar on board the Cape Town to Johannesburg train

The lounge bar

The last stretch of the journey through the suburbs of Johannesburg seemed to take the longest, but we arrived into Park station spot on at 11.05am. From there you can catch the Gautrain around the city, to OR Tambo International Airport, or out to Pretoria.

Although we were on time, the Premier Classe train is known to have a few delays, so I would allow plenty of extra time if you have a flight to catch (we stayed overnight in Johannesburg so we had a day to look around the city too). 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 journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg by train definitely beats the plane.

Arriving into Johannesburg on the Premier Classe train

Arriving into Johannesburg

The details

The Premier Classe train departs from Cape Town at 9.05am on Tuesdays and arrives into Johannesburg at 11.03 on Wednesday. Or in reverse it departs Johannesburg at 10.30am on Thursdays and arrives into Cape Town at 12.40pm on Fridays. Tickets cost 3120 ZAR (£146/$190) per person one way, or 3590 ZAR (£168/$217) in the peak periods from December–January and during school holidays. You can tickets book online through their website.

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  • Reply
    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
    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
    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
      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
      Lou Petrovsky
      August 31, 2019 at 11:27 pm

      You will be well rewarded, but heed the good comment of Noelle, as the infrastructure of South Africa, at one time on par with the best of the world, has been on a rapid road of decline. What that means is, allow at least one third extra time to whatever time may be officially posted, and pack lots of patience. This is coming from someone who lived in South Africaq for over 30 yers and traveled the length and breadth of the country by car, train and air.

  • Reply
    February 23, 2017 at 10:52 am

    this looks great! I love train journeys

    • Reply
      February 24, 2017 at 9:59 am

      Me too, definitely my favourite way to travel.

  • Reply
    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
      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
      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
      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
      March 2, 2017 at 11:39 am

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

  • Reply
    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
      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
    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
      March 6, 2017 at 9:45 pm

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

  • Reply
    Graham Astle
    November 13, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    We did the same journey in January 16. I love your review, because it is so balanced. Our train was delayed by around 4 hours and I have also heard that this is not unusual, but the journey is peaceful and relaxing and there are some amazing sights to see. We found the cabins private and comfortable, though as you mentioned, it was a bit rocky from time to time during the evening.
    We would recommend it too 🙂

    • Reply
      November 15, 2017 at 10:29 am

      Thank you! And glad you enjoyed your trip – I found it such a relaxing way to travel and really enjoyed soaking up the views.

  • Reply
    Heather Marshall
    March 12, 2018 at 6:23 pm

    Are there any other expense besides the alcohol? Do you tip in South Africa?

    • Reply
      March 15, 2018 at 11:20 pm

      Hi, no that was all we spent – tipping isn’t always expected but for bar staff people often round up or give around 10%.

  • Reply
    Carolanne Evans
    October 5, 2019 at 9:17 am

    I have just booked the premier class trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg, for February 2020. I read your review and found it extremely helpful . Happy travels.

  • Reply
    Reinet van der Merwe
    October 20, 2020 at 9:17 am

    Is it possible to travel by train from Port Elizabeth to George for Christmas?

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