Is this you? You’re on a Europe trip. You’ve been up since 4 am to get this plane, having only just caught it because a taxi happened along. You’ve coughed up three times your airfare to take your suitcase with you.
Now it turns out that this airport “Munich West” is very far west of Munich indeed – more than 70 miles.
Thank God there’s a coach service, for which you duly pay twice your airfare. At 2 pm you finally reach your hotel and flop down and go to sleep.
At 6 pm you’re finally on the Marienplatz, waiting to watch the clock dancers twirling. One day almost wasted.
It doesn’t have to be like this, introducing the best night trains in Europe.
Table of contents: ()
- Introducing one of America’s Great Inventions – the Night Train
- What the Europeans have Done with the Night Train
- 11 Great Night European Trains
- How Night Train Journeys Unfold
- Night Train smarts
Introducing one of America’s Great Inventions – the Night Train
You could have been on a European night train, covering the distance in your sleep, waking up at a civilized hour in the city center.
George Pullman built the first railway coach with sleeping compartments in 1864. His first full hotel train with sleeping and dining cars ran in 1867.
Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian businessman, got a concession to introduce trains like this in Europe in 1872. The Orient Express was born.
What the Europeans have Done with the Night Train
While long-distance rail travel has plummeted in the USA, in Europe it is still a popular mode of travel, and night trains are a crucial part of the mix. In Western Europe, they have been declining because of ever faster day trains and low-cost airlines subsidized up to the eyeballs, but in Central and Eastern Europe they are a pillar of long-distance transport.
Day trains generally have just seating, but European night trains have cars in which you can lie down and sleep.
Luxury sleeper trains in Europe
Sleeping cars are the most stylish way to travel. You can book a compartment completely for yourself (a single) or share it with one or two other people (double or triple). In addition to your A to B ticket, the berth will cost you between €30-130, depending on the train. Some sleeping car compartments have en-suite showers and toilets. Breakfast is nearly always included free of charge.
The economic option
Couchettes (coo-SHETTs, from the French, to lie down) are the minimum level of comfort I recommend. A couchette is a bunk in a compartment occupied by four or six people. Four-berth couchettes cost a bit more, but are well worth the extra money, as six-berth couchettes can get rather cramped and stuffy. A couchette will set you back between €8 and €40. Breakfast is included free of charge on some trains, the Nightjets for instance.
The self-defeating option
These are normal day train cars used at night. Saving money here will cost you. It will cost you sleep, and possibly your phone, your money or your bag if you nod off with your stuff within reach of strangers. It will definitely cost you the next day at your destination, as you’ll be a wreck. Avoid. Avoid by booking in advance when possible.
11 Europe Night Train Routes
Some of these trains have unique names, e.g. Caledonian Sleeper, Sud Express. Some are part of a branded network like the Nightjet and Thello trains. Yet others call themselves Euronights (EN) with an extra name, so EN 446/447 Jan Kiepura (sadly discontinued) or EN 463/462 Kálmán Imre.
The numbers are unique for each train. Uneven numbers are southbound services, even numbers are northbound.
Thus Nightjet 295 is the Nightjet service from Munich to Rome, and Nightjet 294 is the Nightjet from Rome to Munich.
1. Night Train from Munich, Germany/Salzburg, Austria to Rome/Florence/Milan, Italy
From Munich to Rome, via Salzburg, Bologna, and Florence. Some carriages split off at Villach and go to Milan. Leaves Munich at 8 PM and reaches Rome at 9 AM. On the return trip, it leaves Rome at 7 PM, reaching Munich at 8 AM the next morning.
Part of the Austrian Railways’ Nightjet network. It comes with seats, couchettes, and sleepers. The sleeper car has some compartments with en-suite bathrooms.
Accepts Interrail and Eurail passes, but you need to buy a reservation for a berth. This is possible only at the ticket office or over the phone. Also, the cost of a berth is often higher than a swiftly snaffled advance online ticket.
Ticket prices are dynamic. You can book up to 180 days in advance. Seats start at €29, 6-berth couchettes at €49, 4-berth couchettes are €59. Three berth sleepers start at €69, doubles €89, while a single sleeper all to yourself starts at €129. This pricing applies to all Nightjet services below.
2. Night Train from Munich, Germany to Venice, Italy
From Munich to Venice via Salzburg, Udine, and Treviso. Leaves Munich at 11 PM, arriving Venice 8 AM. On the return journey it leaves Venice at just before 9 PM, arriving Munich just after 6 AM.
Also a Nightjet train, so everything I said above about the Munich-Rome train applies to this train also.
The descent down the Pontebbana railway line from Tarvisio to Udine (5:30-6:30 AM) is one of the most exhilarating train journeys ever. In May and June, imagine whooshing through a valley of billions of poppies, mountains floating by bathed in the early morning sunlight and the Tagliamento river rushing underneath you.
3. Night Train from Vienna, Austria to Rome, Italy
Another Nightjet. Leaves Vienna at 7:20 PM. Joins the Munich-Rome train in the middle of the night. It also has some coaches to Milan that split off in Villach. Arrives at Vienna from Rome at 8:45 AM.
4. Night Train from Vienna, Austria to Venice, Italy
The last Nightjet on my list of favorites. Leaves Vienna at 9:30 PM and joins the Munich-Venice train during the night. Arrives at Vienna from Venice at 8 AM.
5. Night Train from Paris, France to Venice, Italy
From Paris Gâre de Lyon to Venice via Milan and Verona. Thello 221 leaves Paris at 7:10 PM, arriving Milan at 6 AM and Venice around 9:30 AM. Thello 220 departs Venice at 8:15 PM, Milan at 11:15 PM and reaches Paris the next morning at 9:55 AM
This service is run by the Italian Railways and uses old but refurbished Italian cars. Has couchettes and sleepers only, no seats. It also has a restaurant car, serving microwaved fare on plastic plates.
Best booked on thello.com. or loco2.com. Eurail and Interrail are „accepted“ in as much as you get a 25% reduction on the standard fare, which is a joke, as the price is still higher than a normal ticket booked in advance.
The Thello gets mixed reviews. It is not a premium service. But what it does really well is get you from Paris to Venice and back at a good price and in more comfort than a plane.
Dynamic pricing applies and you can book up to four months in advance. A 6-berth couchette starts at €35. 4-berth couchette comes in at €55, a 3 berth sleeper is €75, a double will set you back €95 and a single €115.
6. Night Train from Nice, France to Moscow, Russia – EN 409408
Once weekly service from Nice to Moscow, via Genoa, Milan, Verona, Innsbruck, Vienna, Warsaw, and Minsk. Run by the Russian Railways.
One of the most exciting European night trains. Before World War 1 it transported Russian nobility to the French Riviera. It was re-introduced about five years ago with brand new coaches.
Has four-berth sleepers or two-berth sleepers, plus super-deluxe VIP suites. It also has a Polish restaurant car as far as Brest (and trust me, Polish restaurant cars are the best. They still cook real food).
Best booked through the Russian Railways at pass.rzd.ru (select the English option) as you have more control over your berth, you have access to the super-deluxe cars, and most importantly: you can book, say, from Nice to Vienna. If you just want to go from Nice all the way to Moscow, it is easiest booked from the French railways’ site, en.oui.sncf.
Interrail and Eurail are not accepted.
This train doesn’t have dynamic pricing. Nice-Moscow is currently €335 in the second class four-berth sleeper, €505 in the first class two-berth sleeper or €1177 in the business class VIP sleeper – you buy a whole compartment which can fit two people. While this sounds expensive, bear in mind that it includes two nights of classy accommodation, a superb restaurant car and 1880 miles of distance, plus the scenery of riding along the Ligurian coast and through the Alps, sleeping Vienna, the mountains of Czechia and Poland, as well as the UNESCO, listed primeval Bia?owie?a forest.
7. Night Train from Lisbon, Portugal to the French Border city of Hendaye (Paris)
From Lisbon through Spain to the French border, where you can get onto a TGV to Paris.
This train has 1 and 2 berth sleepers, some with en-suite bathroom, 4 berth tourist-class sleepers and open-plan seated cars. I would opt at least for the tourist-class sleeper, as it is only a little more expensive.
Best booked on loco2.com. Eurail and Interrail are accepted, but you have to buy an obligatory reservation.
The Sud Express is another historic name. In its heyday, it went from Lisbon all the way to Saint Petersburg.
Prices start at €28 for a seat from Lisbon to Hendaye, €38 for one berth in a four-berth couchette. Second-class (Preferente) doubles are €135, singles €185. First-class (Gran Classe) with en-suite bathroom are €150 for a double and €201 for a single. A return ticket is cheaper.
8. Night Train from Warsaw/Kraków/Bratislava to Budapest/Vienna/Prague EN 406/407
From Warsaw via Kraków and Bratislava to Budapest. Has cars that split off and go to Prague and to Vienna, so you can also book directly from Warsaw and Kraków to these cities and vice versa.
Has sleeper cars, couchettes, and seated cars. I recommend going for the sleepers, as this is not an expensive train.
Booking is tricky. From Budapest to Poland, use Hungarian Rail’s website mavcsoport.hu/en. From Prague to Poland, Czech Rail’s website www.cd.cz/eshop and select the English option. For Vienna to Poland, use nightjet.com.
Out of Poland, Czech Rail also sells tickets on a Night Train to Prague from Warsaw/Kraków to Prague. This is great. Going to Vienna or Budapest, you can get tickets only at the Polish Rail ticket offices at the station. This is not so cool and something the Polish rail company PKP really should remedy.
Eurail and Interrail are accepted, but the train is so cheap that it is rarely worth sacrificing a travel day on it.
From Prague seats start at €19, couchettes at €29, sleepers are €33 for a triple, €40 for a double, €50 for a single.
9. Night Train from Budapest, Hungary to Bucharest, Romania – EN 472473
Budapest to Bucharest via Sibiu and Brasov in Transylvania.
Has seats, six- and four-berth couchettes, and first and second class sleepers. The first-class sleepers have an en-suite shower and toilet.
To travel from Budapest to Bucharest you can book on Hungarian Rail’s website www.mavcsoport.hu/en. From Bucharest to Budapest you can only get tickets from real ticket offices at stations in Europe. Eurail/Interrail is accepted, but you need a reservation even for a seat.
Seats start at €29, couchettes at €39, sleepers are from €59 for a triple, €79 for a double. I can’t get the Hungarian online system to give me singles. For singles, one would have to book at a station on the ground. Online-issued tickets have to be picked up from a ticket machine in Hungary.
10. Night Train from London, England to Scotland (Edinburgh/Glasgow/Highlands)
A service from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Highlands. Currently operates with single (first class) or double occupancy sleeping cars and extra comfortable seated cars. Also, a lounge car which is only for sleeping car passengers, serving Scottish food.
This service has exciting, brand new coaches coming into service this year, 2018, which will include en-suite bathrooms and double beds. Best booked under sleeper.scot.
The cheapest fares I could find were £50 seated, £90 in a shared sleeper and £140 in a first-class sleeper. It is bookable up to twelve months in advance. This train has dynamic pricing, so what you pay depends on demand.
11. Night Train from Vienna, Austria to Kiev, Ukraine
My favorite. Leaves Vienna about 4:30 PM passes through Budapest at 7 PM.
At the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, your carriage is jacked up with you inside it while cursing Hungarians change the wheels from normal European ones for broader, Russian-style wheels. It then clanks through the Carpathians during the night, arrives at Lviv the following morning and Kiev the following evening.
Has only 1, 2, or 3-berth sleepers. This “train” is actually one or two bright blue Ukrainian carriages that are attached to other trains heading east until they reach Kiev.
There are new coaches in the pipeline, but at the moment it is refurbished, Soviet-era stock running. Nice and warm, very comfortable.
Currently not bookable online. It has to be booked at a ticket office in Austria, Hungary or Ukraine. Doubles cost €70, singles €120. Eurail/Interrail not accepted.
Interrail/Eurail is accepted as far as the Hungarian border. Pass holders pay €47 for a T3 berth to Kiev, €57 for a berth in a double, and €100 for sole occupancy. For L’viv, expect to pay just over half of this.
Editor: Bonus trains
12. Modern Orient Express Bucharest to Istanbul
This Modern Orient Express leaves Bucharest at 1 pm in the afternoon and arrives in Istanbul at 7 am.
How Night Train Journeys Unfold
In the Evening
- At the station, you will look at your ticket and see the train number, your destination and also which berth in which carriage you have reserved. On night trains there is always a place especially for you.
- Get onto the train and find your berth. On some trains, you need to show your ticket to be let onto the train.
- Your attendant will visit you in your compartment and ask when to wake you up. If breakfast is included, they will ask if you want tea or coffee.
- The attendant may keep your ticket for the night. On certain cross-border routes, they will also offer to keep your passport, so that you are not woken by the border guards. You don’t have to allow this, it is a service, not an obligation.
During the Night
- Now you are left to yourself. Enjoy the ride, get to know fellow travelers, have a drink, go to the restaurant car if there is one.
- When you go to bed, make sure you lock the door with all the available locks.
In the Morning
- Your attendant will wake you with enough time before you have to get off. I don’t recommend setting an alarm. If the train is late, the attendant will wake you later, whereas an alarm clock will have you up too early.
- At your destination, the train may only stop for a minute or two. Make sure you are ready to get out quickly.
Is it safe?
Yes, it is. Rail is the safest mode of transport by far.
There can be pickpockets and thieves on any train, so take the usual precautions. If you leave your compartment, be sure to take crucial stuff with you. I tend to have everything I need to get back home on my person, even if I’m only going to the toilet.
Be sure to use all the locks on the door to your compartment. Usually, there are at least two, one that the conductor can open from the outside, one that only can be opened from the inside.
It would be good if your valuables were well stowed away. Under your pillow is a classic that still works well. For added difficulty, try under your pillow but inside your pillow-case.
People who do get robbed always had their door unlocked, their valuables on the table in front of them or in their coats hanging by the door.
Night Train smarts
Here are a few inside tips that will help you on your journey.
Managing your attendant
Your attendant. You want them on your side. While it is always wise to be polite to people serving you, if you are rude to a night train attendant, they have all night and the morning to get back at you.
And the ways are endless.
Once at Cologne my colleague was insulted by some Rhinelanders because another train had been late. At 4 AM the police came looking for drugs (this was the train from Amsterdam) and asked – “Have you seen anything suspicious?”. He had. He sent the police to frisk the Rhinelanders.
I used to keep yesterday’s coffee in a thermos especially for rude passengers’ breakfasts.
On the other hand, passengers I liked got my best coffee and the nice orange juice.
Five tips to help you sleep on a night train
Here’s what to try if you can’t sleep:
- Some people use ear-plugs. Bring these with you just in case. Me, I can’t sleep with ear-plugs, but some people can’t sleep without them
- Go for a walk up and down the train. Perhaps there is a restaurant car or a minibar and you can get a drink.
- Go to the end of the train and look out of the back windows. Watch the rails behind you writhing in the night. Look at the stars twirling as the line picks its way through the landscape.
- Pour your heart out to the attendant. At night, the sleeping car attendant is like a barman. I’ve often had passengers tell me their stories at 3 AM.
- Find someone else who can’t sleep and have one of those deep conversations one only has with strangers on trains at night.
Want to move?
If you are in a seat or a couchette and realize you want to upgrade, go and speak to one of the attendants. If they have a free berth, they can upgrade you. Be prepared to ask more than one attendant, and also to ask several times, always politely.
If you don’t like the other people in your compartment, you can also ask to move, but it is unlikely you will get your way. When I ran sleeping cars and couchettes, I always tried to keep empty compartments empty for emergencies. Someone not wanting to share with someone else never cut it with me, unless it was a woman not wanting to be with strange men or a woman with a baby.
If you feel you must have a compartment to yourself, read on.
When to bribe your attendant
There is a huge grey area between tipping and bribing. Americans tend to tip at the end of the journey, Italians do it at the beginning. Purely rationally, the Italian way is more sensible.
Nobody tips these days, so you don’t need to overdo it. €10 inside your passport or ticket should get you preferential treatment.
An Italian gentleman, seeing his wife and children off at Roma Termini, would give me €20 and tell me to look after them properly. And I made sure I did.
If your first attempt to move has failed, if you feel you HAVE to move, bribe your attendant. €10-€20 should do the trick.
WiFi and Outlets
Currently, few night trains have WiFi. I can only think of some domestic Russian services and the Astra-Trans-Carpatic in Romania.
Most night trains do have power outlets in their cars, so even in couchettes, you can expect to be able to charge your devices or connect a CPAP machine. If using a CPAP machine, do bear in mind that on some services, current can be interrupted during shunting or at borders. This is rarely more than half an hour.
Overnight trains are one of the most exciting ways to travel in Europe. They are also economical: they save you a travel day and a hotel stay. Covering distance in your sleep just makes sense, as your precious numbered days in Europe are not eaten up by travel and gruesome airport transfers.
To find out more about rail travel in Europe, come and visit my blog, railguideeurope.com, and sign up for my free newsletter and my free and ever-expanding e-guide library. It includes an extensive resource list, templates for buying tickets, and soon also public transport guides for major European cities.