There are two types of people who take Night Trains in Europe: the type that chooses a sleeping compartment, and the type that chooses a seat. I have been both of those people.
When I chose the seat, I was taking a train for 50 hours across the United States. When I chose a sleeping compartment, I was taking a train for 10 hours between Madrid and Lisbon. In retrospect, I realize that this may have been slightly counter-intuitive.
I enjoyed both trips equally.This is probably because a.) I was prepared for both situations before boarding the trains, and b.) train rides are pretty enjoyable no matter what type of accommodation you choose. The joy is being on the train, getting the chance to travel to a new place.
With that said, the two experiences — while enjoyable — required different types of preparation. Let’s start with the easy one first.
If You Choose a Sleeping Compartment
Most night trains in Europe have two types of compartments: single or double compartments, and four to six person couchettes. Couchettes are a smaller, simpler type of compartment and are generally the more affordable option for budget travelers. I myself, being a backpacker and therefore on a budget, chose the four person couchette.
Sometimes compartments are divided by gender, but it varies from train to train. My particular couchette was all female, and there were only three of us. We silently agreed — none of us speaking the same language — to use the fourth bed as storage for our luggage, which left us more room in the rest of the compartment.
I’ve never really been an earplugs person, but they were included in the little welcome packet waiting for me on my bed (along with a toothbrush, toothpaste, and what I believed to be mints), so I decided to try them. Aside from ear plugs, here are a few more pieces of advice for anyone planning to book a couchette or sleeping compartment for overnight train travel:
- There isn’t very much room to move around in couchettes, so digging through luggage to find your pajamas or socks will be difficult. When I was wearing my massive backpacking backpack, I got stuck between the two sets of beds and my roommates had to wedge me out. I recommend either wearing what you plan to sleep in, or packing a little carry-on bag that you can keep on the shelf above your bed or below the bottom bunk. I brought a little carry-on with my valuables in it and slept with it next to my face.
- Know how to use your rail products. If you’re using a rail pass, make sure you understand the overnight train rule before getting to your compartment. This will save you some stress once you board, and this way you can just relax once you’ve settled into your little bed. The overnight train rule is this: If you travel on a direct overnight train departing after 7:00pm and arriving after 4:00am, it’s only necessary to enter the date of arrival in the travel calendar, thereby using only one travel day. If you travel on an overnight train that departs after 7:00pm but has a change of trains or arrives before 4:00am, you will be required to enter both the date of departure and arrival in the travel calendar, using two travel days of your rail pass. Also note that often, the train conductor will collect all travelers’ passports and rail passes and return them first thing in the morning. A lot of people worry about the safety of this, but I promise it’s normal.
- Bring a flashlight. Or a cell phone, or an iPod, or something that you can use as a light source should you need to venture out into the halls and find the bathroom at three in the morning. Also helpful if you want to read before falling asleep, since keeping the compartment light turned on really late probably won’t make you very popular amongst your couchette-mates.
- Toiletries. I usually shower before going to sleep, but since I didn’t have access to one on this train, I brought toiletries that could sort of take the place of a shower — for one night, at least. This is more about comfort than appearance — I find that I am more relaxed and able to enjoy myself when I feel clean and refreshed, and I get somewhat grumpy once my comfort is compromised.
- Water. It’s easier to just have water with you than it is to wander through the hallways at night trying to find the dining car. And it can get kind of stuffy in the compartments sometimes, which always makes me thirsty.
If You Choose a Seat
Many of my tips for the couchettes will work here, too. There are a few tips I would add to the mix — but before I list them I want to preface this by saying that I had a really enjoyable time sitting in a seat for 50 hours, if you can believe it. The tips below may make it seem like it was uncomfortable and difficult — which, at times, it was — but it wasn’t awful by any means. It’s a good option for someone who doesn’t want to — or who can’t — spend a good deal of money on a trip. It’s also better for people-watching as you’re falling asleep.
- Bring something to use as a pillow and blanket. I’m not saying these things need to be actual pillows and blankets — on my 50 hour trip I used a maxi dress as my blanket and my purse and jacket as my pillow. Not the most comfortable, but I wasn’t really expecting to be comfortable in a seat, anyway. I’m pretty sure I was also a form of entertainment for a few of my fellow passengers.
- Bring something warm. My train car was very air-conditioned throughout the night, probably because there were so many of us, but I was sitting right near a vent and I got pretty cold a few times. Luckily I’d brought extra socks and clothes that I could layer over my maxi dress blanket. I was traveling in style.
- Bring a covering for your eyes. Ear plugs are crucial if you are even slightly a light sleeper, because several travelers may exit or board the train during the night. In a compartment, the noise is muted, but out where all of the seats are, you’ll get the full brunt of it. This means that there may also be lights going on and off, so a sleeping mask may be a good addition to the ear plugs.
If you’re traveling in a single or double sleeping compartment for overnight train travel, you’re pretty much set. Maybe I will write a follow up survival guide someday when I decide to splurge on one of these compartments for myself.
In the meantime, I will stick to my couchettes and my reclining seats. I believe that traveling should be full of as many different types of experiences as possible (well, within reason), including the potentially uncomfortable ones. Overnight trains are a great way to skip on spending money on a hostel or hotel for a night, and they are a unique way to get from one place to the next. Europe is probably one of the best places to try them out — whether in a seat, couchette, or sleeping compartment — because the continent boasts some of the highest quality trains in the world. Check out our listing of the most popular night trains in Europe on this page on our site.
And may you be as lucky with couchette roommates as I was on that trip — those girls were passed out in five minutes and did not make a sound until the train arrived the next morning. Sweet dreams indeed!