What’s it like getting an overnight train in Europe?


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Have you ever thought about taking the overnight train in Europe instead of flying? Setting off from one country and waking up in another? It seems like a great way to travel – city centre to city centre, no weight or liquid restrictions, and no queues at security – but what’s it really like?

I’ve taken three overnight European trains in the past few weeks for work so I thought it would be a good time to write about them. The journeys were all in “couchette” compartments. This is the inbetweeny class, with a standard seat at the cheapest end and a sleeper cabin (for single, double, occasionally triple occupancy) at the most expensive end.

6 berth couchette DB Bahn Germany

A 6-berth couchette on a German train

Couchettes are compartments which in the daytime have two benches facing each other and a door closing the compartment off from the corridor. By night, they can sleep 4 – 6 people on fold down bunks.

Many European trains offer this middle option, although notably the sleeper between the north of Scotland and London doesn’t. But this Caledonian Sleeper Service shines above its European neighbours. On the one hand I’m not comparing like with like there (the Caledonian service doesn’t offer the middle grade “couchette” service) but on the other, Bargain Berths on the UK service can be just as cheap as European couchettes, starting at a brilliant £19 one way. Another post on that later. It’s a journey we take quite often, visiting family back in Scotland.

The European routes I’ve just taken were……

– DB Bahn (German rail service) from PARIS to MUNICH,
– OBB (Austrian rail service) from VIENNA to VENICE,
– Trenitalia (Italian rail service) from VENICE to PARIS.

Two websites I’d highly recommend looking at if you want to travel by train in Europe are

The first gives fantastic information on all aspects of rail travel more or less from anywhere to anywhere (beyond Europe to the other side of Russia if you fancy). It’s by far and away the best rail site I know.

The second allows you to book tickets in France, Italy and Germany (more on the way I think) at good rates. This site is a new discovery for me – it does all the piecing together for you. Capitaine had the route sorted, the journey booked, and the tickets rolling out of my printer within 5 minutes. I generally book train tickets direct with the train company – it can be less than half price if you piece together the route using the services of several national train companies. Capitaine is the first company I’ve found that does that job pretty well for you.

So what about the journeys?

JOURNEY 1

PARIS – MUNICH (I was actually going to Passau, with a change at the sleeper end stop in Munich)

Booked through: DB Bahn
When and how: direct, online and about a month before. Printed tickets at home.  English option on website.
Cost: 79€, no breakfast
Type: 4 berth couchette
Times: we left at 2005hrs and were supposed to arrive at 0710hrs. It was late. Missed the connection to Passau, caught the next one.

Departure station: Paris Est – this is the station where all trains from Paris travelling East leave from. It’s a big station, there are lots of shops, and there’s free wifi.

Arrival station : Munich – there are a few shops and fast food places, there’s supposed to be free wifi, but I couldn’t get any except in Starbucks.

The Journey itself

The temperature was fine in the cabin and it could be adjusted. I’ve been frozen or roasting on some sleepers before. A blanket, sheet and pillow are provided. I had an emergency sleeping bag just in case.

Upper berth couchette sleeper train Germany

Upper berth on couchette – it’s the same whether there are 4 or 6 beds in the compartment

The 4 berth gives a little more space for luggage and the like compared with the 6 berth. The 6 berth is exactly the same size of cabin with two extra beds in the middle. On my journey there were two other people (male) in the compartment for 4.

Couchette train

Couchette corridor.

There’s a personal night light, a mesh holder by your bed for valuables; no individual sockets but there may have been some hiding behind luggage.  A buffer car was further down the train; breakfast was not included in the ticket.

There’s a wake up call 30 mins before arrival. The beds are quite comfy, but the train was pretty jerky stopping and starting.

Tips

1. Wear layers of clothes just in case the temperature is too high or low.
2. Take water – none was provided.
3. Arrive 30 mins before to get settled in (if you are at the first departure point)
4. DB Bahn seems to always be LATE on their sleeper service. I’ve been on them half a dozen times and every time it’s been late. Sometime up to a hour and a half. If you are booking onward transport, only book DB Bahn: they will put you on a later train by reauthorising your ticket for another train. You will have a hassle trying to change other prebooked services if they are not with DB Bahn.

JOURNEY 2

VIENNA (got on at Amstetten, a little further along the line) to VENICE

Booked through: OBB
When and how: direct, online about a month before. Printed tickets at home.  English option on website.
Cost: 49€, breakfast included.
Type: 6 berth couchette
Times: Amstetten was a 2205hrs departure, and arrival in Venice was 0800hrs. Everything was on time.

Departure station: In Vienna, major upgrading work is being done at the main station, the Hauptbahnhof. These were due to be completed a few days ago on 14 December 2014. I got on a little further along the line at Amstetten.

Arrival Station: Santa Lucia in Venice has been upgraded recently. The main service you’ll want to know about if you have a short stopover is the baggage drop off centre. It’s not very well signposted, but looking out to the exit of the station, it’s round to your left. 6€ for the first 4/5 hours, then 90 cents per hour, reducing to 40cents.

Stepping out of Santa Lucia station is a bit wow, the first and every time. Cars and roads have suddenly become boats and canals.

Arriving at Santa Lucia station Venice

Crossing the Venetian lagoon into Santa Lucia station

Santa Lucia train station Venice

The view from the steps of the Santa Lucia train station in Venice. No more cars……

This is always a busy train. There were 5 girls sharing the cabin with me, aged between about 20 and 40. It’s a very popular European railcard route.  The guard took our tickets till morning, for crossing the border I presume; we were not woken up.

Austrian couchette 6 berth

A tight squeeze with 6 -berth  Austrian couchette service.

The temperature was fine and it was quite a smooth ride. This sleeper couples up with another train at Salzburg for the journey south. You can hear this happening about midnight.

A sheet, an ultra tiny pillow and a not-so-nice blanket is provided. There’s a night light and a mesh storage area; there are no sockets, and there’s not much space for luggage when the cabin is fully occupied. There is a socket below the bottom bunk, and more spaced along the corridor.

Breakfast on train

Breakfast.

Breakfast was a tea, hot chocolate or coffee, a croissant, some bread and butter and jam. We were served it about 45 minutes before arrival. A bottle of water each in the cabin was also provided. The staff were by far the friendliest out of the three trains.

Tips

1. Book in advance, it’s a busy route.
2. If you feel claustrophobic you might want to avoid a 6 berth. You can’t sit up, in any bed, when they are all in use.
3. If you are ever at Amstetten train station, the Rock Bar across the road serves chicken wings/ burger type food and has wifi. There’s not much else nearby.
4. Make sure you are awake and looking out the window as you cross from Mestre to Venice – it’s an impressive view crossing the water.

JOURNEY 3
VENICE to PARIS (got off at Dijon)

Booked through: Trenitalia via La Capitaine app
When and how: online about a month before. Printed the tickets at home.
Cost: 81€, no breakfast.
Type: 6 berth
Times: 1920hrs departure, and arrival in Dijon at 0635hrs (Paris 0930hrs) Everything was on time.

Departure station: Santa Lucia above

Arrival station : ordinarily it would be Paris Austerlitz (the Parisian station for trains arriving from the south). I got off early at Dijon, and what a lovely surprise it was. A station cafe serving croissants and coffee when I arrived just after 0630am, with free wifi, and even sockets.

Dijon train station cafe

Dijon train station cafe

The Journey Itself

Bottled water was provided, but no breakfast. Again there was only one socket at ground level in the carriage. It was the same ultra tiny pillow, but a new duvet instead of a blanket.

The carriage was quite hot, then freezing. The temperature control didn’t really work. In the middle of the night, the window blew open and we couldn’t get it shut again. It was really noisy. The same happened in the next door carriage, so we wondered if it might have happened when we were passing at speed through a tunnel. It took more than half an hour to find a member of staff on board to help close and lock the window.

ID is taken from you at Venice when the tickets are being checked and not returned to you until morning. That I didn’t particularly like, seeing as it was my passport.

This was a holiday weekend in Italy. We originally had 6 in our 6-berth but the guard agreed to move 3 of us to another empty cabin. It’s worth asking. Another woman in the carriage had paid 35€ for the ticket by booking in February ie 9 months before, so it is also worth booking as early as possible.

Tips

1. Book as early as possible for the best savings.
2. If your carriage is full and you see other empty ones, it’s worth asking if you can be moved. It’s pretty crowded with 6.
3. Again, be prepared for a temperature you can’t control.
4. The toilets on all three trains stank. You would think that these days some better system could be found to keep them fresh, or at least there should be a regular cleaning and defumigating service. Go to the loo if you can before you board.
5. Keep minimal toiletries in an easily accessible bag for the journey. You won’t want to be opening your case inside the carriage – there’s very little space.

So what’s the verdict?

Four and six berth carriages can be pretty crowded. But they are much comfier than a seat, and it’s a cheap and convenient way to travel quite long distances during the night, rather than taking up a whole day. If you want to avoid the multiple sharing, you need to pay the higher first class rates.

The toilets were awful on all three services.

Security

There are locks inside the compartments which mean that the door cannot be opened from the outside, and your luggage is inside with you. You are never entirely sure who you may be sharing with in a couchette, so take the usual precautions with money, passports etc. The two men I shared a 4-berth with were nice, but if I had felt uncomfortable I would have asked to move.

I’ve had friends who have had possessions stolen on overnight trains before. Use padlocks and keep anything you’d be gutted having stolen with you at all times. It’s sad that you need to retain a little bit of mistrust – I love speaking to strangers – but I have also had my bag cut open and unattended money stolen during moments when I let my guard drop a little too much.

A quick note on daytime travel

For a journey which spans several countries, it’s amazing how much you can save by breaking the route down into sections and piecing it back together using different rail services. Often there is a “special”, in Germany and Austria for example, which is the same price from anywhere to anywhere within the country. Choose the two furthest points in that country, as near to the border as you can get, and put your journey together that way.

It’s really worth playing around with ticket combinations. It’s not a few pounds saving you’ll make, it’s often half price or less.

Have you been on a European overnight train journey? Let us know what was it like.

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