Travelling from Tbilisi to Yerevan or vice versa? The bi-nightly sleeper train (winter months, October to May) or daily afternoon/evening train (summer months, June to September) is a safe, convenient way to travel between Georgia and Armenia. Tickets are cheap, the ride is comfortable, and waking up to early morning views of Mount Ararat as your roll into Yerevan is something you won’t soon forget. If you’ve been to Azerbaijan, the Armenian immigration experience is also memorable – but for different reasons.
We took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Yerevan and back in April 2017. This report from the road (or rather, the tracks) summarises both legs of our journey and highlights some key travel tips.
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Tbilisi to Yerevan by train
During low season (approximately October to May), overnight sleeper train number 371 from Tbilisi to Yerevan departs Tbilisi Central Station (Station Square) every second night on odd days of the month (i.e. the 3rd, the 5th, the 7th, etc.). During the summer months (approximately June to September), train 202 takes over this service, making a nightly trip from Batumi to Yerevan via Tbilisi. Since we were travelling in winter, we travelled on train 371.
We bought our second-class tickets a day in advance from the desk at the station using the same process described here. As with before, we needed our passports and had to pay in cash. Second-class tickets cost us 56 GEL (approximately 22 USD) each.
Overall, the trip from Tbilisi to Yerevan was smooth and enjoyable. The train departed on time at 8.20pm, and since it was still shoulder season, we shared our four-bunk berth with only one other traveller. We did, however, experience a few headaches at Armenian immigration.
[Update April 2018]: Good news! Many nationalities—including Australian, US and British passport holders—do not require a visa to enter Armenia as a tourist. (This was always the case for US passport holders, but the list of visa-exempt nationalities has now grown to 45 countries.) That means no more visa fee, and no more disembarking the train for immigration procedures at the Armenian border (as was the experience of traveller Sven, who recently made the journey). Please visit the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website for a full list of visa-exempt countries. For travellers who do require a visa (Canadian, Chinese, Israeli passport holders and others), you may still need to disembark the train to obtain a visa inside the visa office. If you’ve made the journey recently and this was your experience, I would really appreciate an update for other travellers in the comments section below. The unofficial policy on travellers who have previously visited Azerbaijan still seems to stand. If that’s you, please do take note of my immigration experience so you can be well prepared.
We passed Georgian immigration at around 10pm. Our passports were collected and after about an hour, returned to us with exit stamps inside.
Why can’t every checkpoint be as straightforward as Georgia’s?
By the time we pulled in to Armenian immigration just after 11pm, we were tired and irritable. Those of us who needed to buy a visa on arrival disembarked into the cold, dark night (anyone who didn’t require a visa was allowed to stay on the train). We were ushered into the first of two immigration rooms, where we filled in a pretty standard visa application form (length of stay, address of first hotel, etc.). There was a space at the top of the form to attach a passport photo, but no one had one.
Two good-natured immigration agents processed our forms and printed off our 21-day tourist visas. (These are full-page visas, so make sure you have enough room in your passport.) The official fee for a 21-day tourist visa is 3,000 AMD or 6 USD (not 10 USD as stated here). The agents insisted we pay in AMD. None of us had AMD, so we paid 20 GEL instead, which is roughly the right amount – although we should technically have received some change. There is a staunch anti-bribery policy at the border, so the agents were reluctant at first to except the Lari should we think they were short-changing us. One woman who presented a 10 USD note was turned away and we had to lend her Lari. The agents told us to bring AMD next time so we could pay the correct amount.
Once our visas were pasted in, we were led into another room where a different agent scanned our passports and ran through the pages. As he was handing my passport back to me, he asked if I had ‘been in Azerbaijan?’ I answered honestly, ‘Yes’, and at that, he snatched my passport away again.
So began a long process of sweating it out on the sidelines as every other passenger from the train sailed through immigration. We were the last ones standing.
The agent asked a series of questions about our visit to Armenia (where we were going, for how long, etc.) as well as the nature of our trip to Azerbaijan. He soon pulled out a piece of scrap A4 paper and started taking freehand notes. He wanted us to confirm our travel dates, give him a list of all the places we went to in Azerbaijan, plus the name and address of our hotel in Baku (which I thankfully had on me). After a few more tense minutes, he handed the passports back and we were free to board the train.
Our bunk mate – an elderly Japanese man who was travelling solo and like us, had just come from Azerbaijan via Tbilisi – didn’t fare so well. His limited English (paired with the fact that he didn’t have his hotel information with him and kept having to return to the train to rummage through his papers) meant that he was kept in the immigration office for over an hour. He seemed to take it in his stride, but it couldn’t have been a pleasant experience.
By the time the three of us got back on the train, it was well past 1am. The steward must have forgotten about us because he neglected to make our beds before he turned in for the night. Luckily we had our silk sleeping bag liners with us and we were able to use those for sheets. We arrived in Yerevan at 7am with a stunning view of Mount Ararat to welcome us. It almost made up for the dramas of the night before.
Yerevan to Tbilisi by train
Our return journey to Tbilisi was comparatively easy with no issues at immigration. In winter (October to May), train 372 leaves from Yerevan’s main railway station every second night on even days of the month (i.e. the 20th, 22nd, 24th, etc.). In summer (June to September), train 201 takes over this service, leaving Yerevan in the afternoon and arriving in Tbilisi just after midnight. Technically, it’s only possible to travel from Yerevan to Tbilisi by overnight sleeper in the winter months—which is exactly what we did.
A second-class bed from Yerevan to Tbilisi costs 1400 AMD (approximately 29 USD) per person. Our train departed on time at 9.30pm. The only downside to this leg of the journey is that immigration takes place in the (very) early hours of the following morning. The steward woke us at 3am for Armenian immigration and we didn’t get back to sleep until Georgian immigration was cleared at around 5am. The train arrived in Tbilisi at 8am. Mercifully, all the immigration proceedings take place inside your berth using a portable computer, so you don’t have to leave the train.
Do you need a visa for Armenia?
As of April 2018, 45 nationalities no longer require a visa to visit Armenia for tourism purposes. This includes Australian, United States and British passport holders. Other nationalities (including Canadian, Israeli and Chinese passport holders, among others) are still required to obtain an Armenian visa on arrival. Please visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia website for full lists of who does and doesn’t need a visa.
Can you enter into Armenia after you’ve visited Azerbaijan?
The short answer is yes. There is no law or rule against visiting Armenia after you’ve been to Azerbaijan – as long as you’re visiting for tourism purposes and you meet Armenian visa requirements. However, it’s no secret that the two neighbours don’t exactly get along, and immigration agents seem to be mandated to discern your prior movements in Azerbaijan. Having just come from Azerbaijan (via Tbilisi), we were singled out and questioned far more intensely than the other train passengers who had not been to Azerbaijan.
While everyone’s border experience seems to be slightly different, I don’t think our encounter with Armenian immigration was unusual. Other travellers have reported a similar situation of having to turn hotel details over to border agents – one traveller’s report on Seat 61 tells of how immigration went one step further and actually telephoned the hotels in Azerbaijan she had stayed at to verify her information. Be prepared to answer the border agents’ questions, and make sure you have your hotel information written down and on your person.
For up-to-date information about visas and border requirements, I recommend contacting the relevant consulate.
Is the train safe?
In my opinion, the train was safe and I’d have no trouble recommending it to travellers, including solo females. Just how much security and privacy you have depends on what kind of berth you choose (see more below). The door to our four-person berth was lockable from the inside and fitted out with good lighting. The hallways were also well-lit throughout the night.
What classes/ticket types are available?
There are three types of berth on this train – first class spalny vagon, which sleeps two people; second class kupé, which sleeps four people; and third class platskartny, which are open-plan sleepers (no doors). As mentioned, we chose the second-class option and found it to be comfortable enough. Our second-class tickets cost us 56 GEL (approximately 22 USD) each. First class is obviously more expensive – around 75 GEL (29 USD) – and third class cheaper – around 35 GEL (13 USD) – according to Seat 61.
Where can you buy train tickets?
Tickets are available to purchase at the railway station (or online—see below for more details). To be safe, I recommend buying tickets a few days in advance. Tbilisi’s main railway station is located at Station Square and serviced by the metro line of the same name. The ticket counter is located on level 3, and according to Lonely Planet, open 7am until 11pm daily. Yerevan’s main railway station on Tigran Mets Ave is listed as ‘Yerevan Railway Station’ on Google Maps. Opening hours are similar.
Can you reserve tickets online?
As of March 2018, it’s now possible to purchase train tickets for the Tbilisi to Yerevan/Yerevan to Tbilisi sleeper train online via the Armenian South Caucasus Railway website. From the homepage, navigate to the ‘Ticket Online’ window (right sidebar) and set up an account. You’ll need to enter the passenger details (names and passport info) and you can only pay by MasterCard or debit card (no Visa). You can buy up to 4 tickets at a time. The page is available in English and Russian. Ticket sales open 40 days prior to departure and you can buy online right up until 2 hours before the train leaves. Thanks so much to traveller Arek for sharing this update!
• During the low season winter months, the overnight train between Tbilisi and Yerevan runs every second night (even days for Yerevan to Tbilisi, odd days for Tbilisi to Yerevan)
• From June to September (high season), a daily train takes over the route, also continuing on to Batumi
• If you need an Armenian tourist visa, you can obtain one on arrival at the border
• A 21-day tourist visa costs 3,000 AMD or 6 USD – and Drams is the preferred currency, so try to change some in Tbilisi before you board the train
• If you’ve previously travelled to Azerbaijan, you should have your travel details and hotel addresses handy (i.e. written out on paper and kept on you during the border crossing)
• There is no dining cart on the train and no stopping for food, so bring your own snacks
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