The Kiwi.com guide to night trains in Europe

The Kiwi.com guide to night trains in Europe

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Sleeper trains are sometimes the best way to travel around Europe. Here we’ll be looking at how to book, what to expect, things to remember, and some of the best overnight sleeper train routes connecting major European cities

I recently decided to take a sleeper train from Prague to Zürich. Not all the way to Zürich, actually; the aim was to get off earlier and attempt to walk across Liechtenstein in a day with my pal Joe (but that’s another story). It was the first time on a sleeper train for both of us and we learned a lot — from the booking process to the layout of the train, what to expect when it comes to accommodation and facilities, what extras you get for your money and, of course, how well you sleep. Here’s the Kiwi.com guide to European sleeper trains.

Plan your route

This might sound obvious, but as well as simply getting you there, you might want to think about what you’d like to see on the way. A route across Northern Germany, for example, is less spectacular than one through the Swiss Alps, and therefore a prime candidate for overnight travel. It’s also great for visiting cities with far-flung airports — why fly to Paris Beauvais (around 90 minutes from the city) when you could arrive directly at the city center?

Book your tickets carefully

The options you’ll generally get are sleeper, couchette, or seating. A sleeper is a three-berth setup that can be booked for one, two or three people; a couchette is a six-person compartment in which the seats can be folded away to create a six-berth bunk layout; a seat is… well, it’s a seat, possibly one that reclines a bit.

Sleeper car numbering can seem confusing. There are generally six sets of two compartments; the paired compartments are divided by a thin wall and a connecting door which will generally remain locked, but if six people have booked together the door can be unlocked, removing the need to go into the corridor and back in again to see your friends.

Sleeper train bed diagram — Kiwi.comA visualization of sleeper car numbering

The beds are numbered 11, 13 and 15, floor to ceiling in compartment one, then 12, 14 and 16 in the adjoining compartment. 21, 23 and 25 come next, then 22, 24 and 26. Compartment one (odd numbers), compartment one (even numbers), compartment two (odd), compartment two (even), etc. all the way down to 62, 64 and 66. So as you can see, booking beds 31 and 35 might seem like you’re not in the same compartment but, in fact, you are.

On some services, your sleeper reservation will also come with a regular seat so you can sit in the main body of the train as well as have access to your sleeping compartment.

Pack and prepare

When packing for a sleeper train, make sure you have all of your documents within easy reach. Even within the Schengen Area, you’ll probably have to present your passport at some point as random spot checks can occur.

You’ll also probably need the full version of your ticket, not just the booking on an app. The full ticket contains all the details that the sleeping car manager requires to check you in and assign you your berth, so make sure you have it to hand.

Arrive and board

It makes sense to arrive a bit before departure time. This way you’ll have plenty of time to find your train and go through the rigmarole of boarding. As mentioned above, a sleeper car is different from a regular seated ticket as you can’t just get on; the sleeping car manager has to check everyone in one by one, so don’t leave it too late to get to the train.

David sat on bunk of sleeper train — David SzmidtMiddle bunk up — time for a break and a (small) bottle of Bohemia Sekt — David Szmidt

Our sleeping car manager on České dráhy, the Czech national rail carrier, was a middle-aged guy who was friendly, efficient and funny. He clearly very much enjoyed meeting people and doing his job, and his well-rehearsed spiel was full of amusing anecdotes about issues previous customers had had and how best to avoid them. We immediately put the middle bunk up to get more space, realized we couldn’t put it down again, and sheepishly asked the manager to help. With an “Oh, you guys!” smile, he explained there was a special key to unlock it from the wall and not to try and get it down ourselves for fear of it dropping on our heads “which might help you sleep, but not exactly when you wanted to!”

Joe and I had booked beds 22 and 24, with the understanding that we’d have the compartment to ourselves. We did, and the manager was happy for us to keep the middle bunk folded away while we sat and chatted into the evening — we just had to let him know when we were ready to turn in and he’d put it down again. I considered taking the very top bunk just for the fun of it, but there was late-night ladder-climbing involved, and I’m not here for that.

Facilities on board your sleeper

Frankfurters and bread roll on a plate with sauces on train — Getty ImagesExpect a snack like this if you’re getting a long-distance train through Central Europe — Getty Images

Your three-bed setup will have some luggage space at the very top of the compartment, as well as a sink, dustbin, mirror, a few coat hangers and a corresponding rail. There are also plug sockets, although we found them slightly inconveniently placed (the only place for my phone to sit when plugged in was in the sink, for example), but it’s absolutely fine for one night.

There’s a small bathroom at one end of the corridor, and a larger bathroom at the other end that also has a shower. The shower is an adventure of juggling and trying not to fall over as the water only appears when you press a button, meaning it’s not going to be the most thorough scrubbing down you’ve ever given yourself, but it’s better than nothing.

You’ll also get water and a breakfast selection, the latter of which they’ll wake you up for around half an hour before your stop, if you’re not up already. The sleeper manager will ask you what you’d like for breakfast — our options were tea or coffee, orange or apple juice, then sweet (cakey things) or savory (bready things) food. There’s a small selection of evening food available for an extra charge, but it’s also fine to bring your own.

Arrive

Interior of main hall at Zürich Central Station — Getty ImagesZürich Central Station — Getty Images

As mentioned, you’ll get a wake-up call with breakfast around half an hour before your stop, which is lovely, but I wanted to attempt the shower (try anything once!) so I was up a bit earlier.

It really is something to arrive absolutely right in the middle of your destination, as well. We hopped off the train, if not fully refreshed then certainly awake and full of a decent breakfast, marveling at the commuters just heading into work. We’d gained time. We were ready to start exploring right away.

Popular European sleeper train routes  

When considering whether to take a sleeper train, one piece of advice is to book quite a way in advance. It’ll be cheaper, and the popular routes sell out quickly. With that in mind, where could you go?

Brussels to Berlin

 

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Linking up with the Eurostar (so connecting London as well), this train goes via Amsterdam and Rotterdam before blasting across the plains of Northern Germany to the capital.

Vienna to Paris

 

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Two mighty European capitals link up here with a route that harks back to their 19th-century glories. Austrian national rail firm ÖBB supplies a lot of the routes across Central Europe, including this one, with trains running three times a week in both directions.

Munich to Venice/Genoa

Make sure to wander every corner of Venice and you will find hidden passages and cute little corner streetsFall asleep in Munich, wake up in Venice — Shutterstock

Both Deutsche Bahn and ÖBB offer Nightjet services to Northern Italy, either to the splendor of Venice or to the port city of Genoa where you can catch a morning connection for the spectacular run down to La Spezia.

Hamburg to Stockholm via Copenhagen

 

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An eco-friendly way to link some of Northern Europe’s coolest and greenest cities, it’s also a nice hop-on-hop-off route. Plus, you get to cross the spectacular bridge linking Denmark to Sweden.

Budapest to Bucharest

Train runs along old mountain bridge — Getty ImagesThe rail route from Budapest to Bucharest will see you through the Carpathians — Getty Images

Leaving Budapest at around 7 pm and arriving in Bucharest just before lunch the next day, you sleep across the plains before a gorgeous early-morning run through the Carpathian Mountains and on to your destination.

Check out sleeper train options on Kiwi.com. Some popular routes include Paris to Venice, London to Edinburgh, and Berlin to Prague.

We have more travel hacks and inspiration on Kiwi.com Stories.

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