Night Train Travel: A guide to snoozing across Europe by train

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City Night Train
A City Night Line train at Zurich station. Photo © hidden europe

With summer slipping slowly into fall, our thoughts turn to night trains. For many journeys across Europe, night trains make perfect sense — and as the evenings draw in, there is more good cause to hop aboard a train and snooze one’s way across Europe.

Do note a common misunderstanding. Just because a train styles itself as being a hotel train does not necessarily mean that it is any better than any other overnight train. So much depends on what grade of accommodation you opt for.

On most night trains in Europe, travelers have a choice of three grades of on-board accommodation: seats, couchettes and sleepers.

Night trains: what to expect

That’s the norm, but the situation does vary from train to train. Here are some exceptions. The services from France to Russia are very much top-of-the-range and there you’ll find only sleeping cars. On some other routes (eg. Paris to Rome, Prague to Copenhagen and Munich to Milan) there are couchettes and sleepers, but simply no regular seated accommodation. The night train from Berlin to Malmö consists exclusively of couchette cars – no seats or sleepers on that one. Move to Spain and many domestic overnight trains wholly within Spain have seats and sleepers, but no couchettes.

Even within the three broad-brush categories (ie. seat, couchette and sleeping berth) you will encounter great variations.

Take a seat

The seats on the Vienna to Venice overnight train are in classic six-seat compartments in a corridor coach. If you are lucky enough to travel on a quiet night, then two travelers might manage to bag a side each and stretch out in some comfort. But this is a train where seats are often in great demand, and a night spent sitting up in a regular seat in a full compartment just ain’t a bundle of fun. Believe us.

By contrast, the seated accommodation on the night trains from Zurich to both Berlin and Prague are spaciously arranged in an open-plan carriage. The seats recline and offer a measure of privacy – perfect for snoozing.

Opt for a couchette

Move upmarket to couchettes, and the key choice is between a four-berth or six-berth couchette option. Our view is that couchettes make sense for families traveling on a budget. A four-berther is a fun solution for parents traveling with a couple of children.

Take our advice. We’ve done the couchette deal, enduring long hot nights in stuffy couchettes shared with strangers traveling with mountains of luggage (and in one case a double bass). It does not make for peace and rest. You deserve more.

Enjoy sleeper carriages

So, if you possibly can, opt for a sleeper. Night trains were made for sleeping. And that requires quiet, privacy and crisp, clean sheets. An overnight journey in a comfortable sleeper is hard to beat. On some journeys (eg. Venice to Munich or Nice to Warsaw) there are even double beds on offer.

Even sleepers are infinitely variable, ranging from pokey little cabins to spacious compartments with en suite facilities. Russian Railways (RZD) have some very well-appointed sleeping cars on the routes to Moscow from Paris and Nice. But at a price.

Even those on more modest budgets can however enjoy stylish overnight travel on some City Night Line (CNL) services. The upper deck sleeping compartments on selected CNL trains are very spacious and have a small bathroom (with toilet and shower). There is space to stretch out and watch the evening scenery slip by beyond the window. You’ll find these luxury compartments on, among others, the CNL Aurora (Basel-Copenhagen), the CNL Sirius (Zurich to Berlin) and the CNL Comet (Zurich to Hamburg).

The great thing about the three trains mentioned here is that they all have a full-service restaurant car. Now that really is travel as it should be. A relaxed dinner on board, before retiring to bed, to awake refreshed and relaxed at your destination.

About the author


About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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4 thoughts on “Night Train Travel: A guide to snoozing across Europe by train”

  1. .
    Why buy a rail pass at all? If all you wish to do is travel from London to Rome and back, you can do that reasonably cheaply with ordinary tickets – provided, of course, you book well in advance.

    Outward clearly via Paris as you say you want that Paris stopover. Back you’d have more choice. Obvious routings are Roma-Milano-Paris-London or Roma-München-Köln-Bruxelles-London. In theory, the latter routing could be done (using the CNL overnight service from Rome to Munich, then onward by day train) for as little as €110 one-way, but you’d have to be mightily lucky to catch that bargain fare. Booking three months in advance, you’d probably be able to make this journey (by either route) for about €160 one-way.

    The issue with rail passes is that you’ll pick up hefty supplements.

  2. My husband and I are planning a trip to London, Paris going to Rome. We need to get back from Rome to London. Which rail pass is best and most inexpensive to buy

  3. Hi Pamela
    It is far too early to give details of 2015 rail schedules. You’ll get a good outline of the pattern of service for next year by December 2014, but even then you can expect season-by-season changes during 2015. You’ll be able to book your tickets (with confirmed timings) about three months before travel.

    To give you an idea, just now (ie. mid-January 2014) there are seven daily connections from Colmar to Venezia – five by day and two overnight. By day the journey takes about 8hrs 50mins, by night about 16 hrs.

    You mention a particular interest in overnight travel, so we’ll focus here on those options. They are:

    1. From Colmar at 16.37 with a local train to Strasbourg, then a fast TGV to München to connect there onto the CNL overnight train to Venezia, arriving there at 08.34.

    2. From Colmar at 17.31 with a fast TGV to Dijon, connecting there onto the Thello overnight service to Venezia. Arrival is at 09.35.

    Option 1 has the better quality sleeping accommodation (including First Class sleepers for single occupancy) so that’s the one we would recommend. The only downside of the routing via München is that the actual time on the overnight train is less than on the Dijon route. The CNL train leaves München at 23.40 and the journey to Venezia is just under nine hours. Some travellers favour overnight options which allow more time on board.

    Hope these comments assist you in your travel planning. When you come to book, there are very many companies which can sell tickets. One which might care to try is

    Nicky and Susanne
    editors of hidden europe magazine

  4. I’m looking into a night train from Colmar to Venice in 2015. I expect I’ll have to get to Munich to get my train. I’m interested in a first class sleeping car. Help?


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