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.