Night trains often evoke images of romance and intrigue. One can’t help but picture opulent carriages steeped in mysteries only a canny Belgian detective could solve. While the Orient Express is out of the realm of possibility for most of us, night train journeys don’t have to break the bank.
A variety of train providers, from ÖBB to Serco to SJ, offer exciting overnight trips between European cultural meccas. These trips are a welcome, sustainable alternative to a flight and pricey hotel. Here are some tips and tricks to finding the right journey for you.
What to expect
Overnight trains are often less crowded than day journeys and are super convenient if you are a night owl or someone who prefers to arrive at their destination refreshed and energized. Many trains offer seated cabins as well as sleeper cars, depending on the length of the route. Most trips average eight hours, ensuring a restful night’s slumber as well as quality time to catch up on some reading or the latest blockbuster.
Once you arrive on board, the conductor will request your ticket and governmental ID, which they will keep for the duration of the journey. With COVID regulations in effect in most European countries, give yourself a bit more time to board and get settled into your cabin. And always wear a mask when walking between cabins or carriages.
Depending on the train provider, passengers can expect comfortable seats, four-to-six-berth couchettes, three-berth compartments or more chichi single-berth compartments. Most couchette and sleeper compartments come with power outlets, individual lighting, bedding, welcome drinks, breakfast (single cabins get an upgrade on the stale croissant and coffee in couchettes) and your own berth. Single compartments feature their own sink, and deluxe versions on many providers come equipped with private toilets and showers.
In the not too distant past, you could reserve a single berth in four- to six-person couchettes, which made it an ideal way to mix and mingle with fellow intrepid travelers. Unfortunately, some providers now require passengers to book the entire couchette if traveling alone or with a friend/partner to avoid the potential spread of COVID-19. Private single compartments are harder to come by today as many business travelers, who can’t or don’t want to travel on planes, are choosing to travel by train instead. The good news for everyone: Overnight travel is on the rise so more routes and trains will launch in the next two years.
While some night trains run within a single country, many afford passengers the chance to cross borders and experience a change in culture. Here are some of the most popular routes, both domestic and international:
We took the revamped ÖBB Nightjet—a partnership between Austrian National Railways and MAV (Hungarian Railways)—from Berlin, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary. Several of the cars separated during the night, with one heading to Vienna and another to Warsaw. The conductor will make sure you aren’t wandering in the wrong car when this happens.
We chose a six-berth couchette cabin as the price point was ideal and it’s always better to have a place to recline. Our bunks included a top and bottom sheet, blanket and pillow. If you have a fear of heights or have a disability, request a lower bunk as top bunks can be tricky to manage. Private cabins with wheelchair access are also available.
While we weren’t able to regale fellow passengers with travel stories, we still happily enjoyed a schnapps (gratis) and Hungarian beer (for a price), courtesy of the conductor.
Sleep was easily forthcoming as the whirring wheels lulled us to slumber. We woke up refreshed and ready for our whirlwind tour of the Pearl of the Danube.
Tips and tricks to making the most of your journey
- Book early for the best cabins, especially singles
- Prices fluctuate depending on season. Opt for late fall/early winter for best rates
- Bring a bolster pillow to elevate your knees, and earplugs to drown out the sound
- Pack pajamas and flip flops for trips to the bathroom
- Make sure you have a cloth mask and disinfectant wipes handy at all times
- Keep your valuables upon you as thieves find easy targets on night trains
- Wi-Fi can be spotty so buy more data if you want to stay connected with the outside world