Guide to riding the rails by night
I love trains, but night trains in particular hold a special kind of mystery for me. There’s something infinitely exciting about going to sleep in one city and waking up in a completely different place at dawn. I’ve put together this night train guide to help you get the most out of riding the rails by night.
Know the different types of sleeping compartments
Getting to know the different types of compartments on night trains is crucial to know what you’re signing up for. So here’s the lowdown to give you an idea, ranging from the cheapest to the most expensive.
It does what it says on the tin, it’s a seat and it reclines, but not all the way down to a bed. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t mind not having the best sleep in the world, then this could be a good option. It is however not for everyone.
These are usually 6-berth compartments, although a less crowded 4-berth version is available on some routes. The difference in price between the two isn’t huge, so it’s a good idea to check if a 4-berth is an option. Believe me, it is worth it, especially on a longer journey. Don’t forget that everyone has to have their luggage in the compartment with them. Saying that, a 6-berth is totally manageable, just be prepared to deal with minimal space. Once you’re in your bed it is relatively private – some couchettes have curtains, others don’t. In a couchette you normally sleep in your clothes and you get a blanket and a pillow rather than bedding. So if you’re travelling this way, dress comfortably and pack a little bag separate to your suitcase with the things you’re likely to need for the journey, like toiletries, a book, valuables etc. Trying to get things out of your suitcase in a packed compartment is no fun – not for you or your fellow passengers. Quite often the price of reserving a couchette on an overnight train will be cheaper than paying for a night in a hostel or hotel. I won’t lie and say you will get the most amazing night’s sleep ever (unless you’re one of those people who who can sleep anywhere – I envy you!). However, for a night here and there it can be a great option to save a bit of money whilst gaining a day you would have otherwise spent travelling.
Sleeper compartments come in 1, 2, 3 and 4 bed options with a wash basin and proper bedding. They are more expensive than a couchette, but still check the difference in price as it really does depend on the route. Sleepers are for those who need their privacy and extra comfort. Prices for a private sleeper are still usually cheaper than staying in a hotel, plus you get the added bonus of the night train experience.
Tips for riding the night train
Safety and valuables: In both couchettes and sleepers there are secure locks so you can sleep without worrying. The train manager will also patrol the train during the night and I have always felt safe. Keep you wits about you though, like you would anywhere when travelling and know where your valuables are at all times. I usually have them in a small bag that I keep on me while I sleep or packed away securely in my suitcase.
Pack a picnic: I’m a great believer in train picnics, whether you’re on a budget or not. That way you’re not restricted to the choices offered on board and you have snacks ready for whenever you’re hungry. Sharing your food with fellow passengers is also a wonderful way to break the ice and get chatting. I had a fantastic feast with my fellow compartment dwellers as we combined our food and wine on a journey from Zurich to Ljubljana. It turned out to be a really fun evening!
Try the dining car: There’s something romantic, nostalgic even, about dining cars on trains. As you speed through the night, a slightly festive atmosphere is not unusual as people gather for a nightcap or something to eat. Even if you go for one drink, it’s worth it just for the experience. Only certain night trains have a dining car, others may only have a vending machine offering basic drinks and snacks, so make sure you check this when you make your reservation.
Charge your devices: Don’t count on there being a power socket in your compartment, so make sure your electronic devices are charged prior to your journey. An external power pack is a great investment for your Eurail journey in general but especially so for longer, overnight journeys.
Passport control and customs: Depending on the route, you may be woken up as the train crosses borders, usually by customs. The train manager is likely to keep hold of your passport overnight so don’t be alarmed if he or she asks for it. This is normal practice. I have been woken up by customs at various points however, which is also normal.
7 p.m. rule: Knowing this rule can save you valuable travel days if you have a flexi Eurail pass! If you’re taking a train that departs after 7 p.m. and arrives at its final destination after 4 a.m. the next day (even if you get off before that) then the journey only counts on the date starting after midnight. For example, if you leave Amsterdam in the evening of July 20 and arrive in Zurich on the morning of July 21, then the journey will only count as one day’s travel on July 21. One thing to note is that this doesn’t count for the day of activation of your pass.