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 Renfe to Trenitalia and 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—like moi—or someone who prefers to get to their destination refreshed and energised. 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 sleep 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 or more intimate single-berth cabins. Most couchette and sleeper cars come with power outlets, individual lighting, bedding, welcome drinks, breakfast (single berths get an upgrade on the stale croissant and coffee in couchettes), your own berth—and the opportunity to make new friends. Wi-Fi can be spotty so opt to get more data if you want to stay connected with the outside world.
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 OBB Nightjet—a partnership between Austrian National Railways and MAV (Hungarian Railways)—overnight 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 we would have a place to fully recline. Our bunk 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 getting in and out of a higher bunk can be tricky.
We hung out with our fellow travellers, many of whom were from Budapest and happy to offer tips. While we regaled each other with travel stories, the conductor offered us schnapps (gratis) and Hungarian beer (for a price).
Sleep was easily forthcoming as the whirring wheels lulled us to sleep. 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 night train journey
- Book early for the best cabins
- Prices fluctuate depending on the season
- Pack pyjamas and flip flops for trips to the bathroom
- Keep your valuables upon you at all times as night trains are more susceptible to robbery (I know this from personal experience)
- Be friendly and enjoy the scenery