Why a Night Train Should Be on Your Next Europe Itinerary

Sleeper trains are gaining momentum throughout the continent, thanks to a boom in demand for environmentally friendly travel and new political backing.

The Nightjet passenger train traveling through snowy mountainous scenery

The Nightjet train will take you from Paris to Berlin in 13 hours for around $85.

Photo By Harald Eisenberger

The night train from Stuttgart in Germany to Venice, Italy, leaves at 8.30 p.m. and arrives almost exactly 12 hours later. If you’ve lucked out with the snoring volumes of fellow passengers in your six-berth compartment, you might have managed to sleep for eight hours. You’ll be finishing your breakfast and coffee as the train leaves the Italian mainland, and suddenly, improbably, you’re skimming across the water of the Venetian lagoon. Maybe you can make out islands shrouded in fog in the distance and small motorboats riding over the humps of small waves.

The buildings of Venice rush to meet you, and the train pulls into the station on the island. You’re already in the heart of the city, with the canals and the sights and a whole day before you. That’s the magic of a night train.

Fortunately for travelers, European night trains are seeing a renaissance. New routes are being drawn across Europe’s map, with connections between Brussels and Berlin, Munich and Genoa, Salzburg and Kraków, and Paris and Berlin. Several private and public rail operators are opening up the continent in a way that hasn’t been seen for years.

In December 2023, Austrian train company ÖBB launched its Nightjet service between Paris and Berlin, in partnership with French state railway operator SNCF and its German counterpart Deutsche Bahn. The journey takes 13 hours, and the cost starts at €80 ($85)—if you book in advance—for a bed in a shared compartment.

Night trains haven’t run between the French and German capitals since 2014. The reinstated connection is symbolically and economically significant: It reawakens an old route that was discontinued due to diminishing demand and connects two countries that account for a quarter of the European Union’s total rail passenger transport.

The stacked beds inside Nightjet's "mini cabin," with pillows, folded sheeting, and red, white polka-dotted bed covers

Nightjet’s “mini cabins” sleep four to six people. The price includes a breakfast of coffee or tea and bread rolls with jam.

Photo by Harald Eisenberger

“It’s a hugely important international line. It was absurd to get rid of it,” said Nicolas Forien of French campaigning group Oui au train de nuit. Since being founded in 2016, the collective has organized protests and campaigns to put pressure on the French government to prioritize night trains. “We hope that it’s a first step to other international routes, like France to Spain, Italy, and Portugal,” he continued. These international routes have existed in the past: The direct sleeper line between Paris and Madrid and Paris and Barcelona was discontinued in 2013 when a high-speed day service was introduced, while the Paris-Venice night train, run by the operator Thello, ended service in 2021.

Unfortunately, Europe is far from its nocturnal travel heyday, according to ÖBB’s spokesperson Bernhard Rieder. “Night trains are still a niche product,” he said. “There are only 40 percent of the night train lines that Europe had in the 1990s.” An abundance of low-cost and quick flights was largely to blame; a bed on a night train is more expensive than an easyJet seat, after all.

Juri Maier, chairman of Back-On-Track, a European network that promotes cross-border night trains, thinks that’s why a true revival is unlikely. “The great leap forward would be more attractive prices,” he explained. “And to do that we need lower track-access charges.”

These charges are at the heart of a cross-border diplomacy issue. You can get France and Portugal’s approval for a new route between Paris and Lisbon—but with the train going through Spain, you need Madrid’s cooperation too. Some countries charge more to use their railway tracks, and that’s what bumps up ticket prices. As a result, night trains in Europe are often more expensive than the equivalent flight—but fans of sleepers say that the journey is more rewarding.

Ria Exworthy and her partner decided to take a night train for their honeymoon in Berlin in August 2023, starting their journey in the United Kingdom. “We wanted to reduce the environmental impact and went by night train to save time—time we’d otherwise have used to pay to sleep in a hotel. When we realized we could use the journey to spend a day in Brussels, a city neither myself nor my partner had ever visited, that just felt like an added bonus,” she explained. She also liked the sociability of it: chatting to and sharing snacks with the people sleeping in their cabin. “A plane ride feels impersonal and maybe a little clinical in comparison.”

The renewed interest in night trains is partly driven by people like Exworthy, who are worried about their emissions when traveling. “There’s a younger generation that wants to travel without flying,” noted Forien, adding that “the number of passengers on night trains has doubled between 2019 and 2022” on France’s Intercités night trains. There’s also support from the very top: The European Union has made rail transport part of its environmental strategy to become carbon neutral by 2050. In 2021, the European Commission launched an action plan to boost passenger rail services across the continent, and it has also thrown its support behind 10 pilot cross-border projects, run by both national and private companies. These include “new services connecting Hungary, Austria, and Romania” and a route connecting Catalonia and the south of France.

“They have to get rid of emissions in the transport sector, and how are they going to do that?” asked Maier. “People don’t like to sit for a whole day in a train to make a trip they could have done in three hours by plane. Night trains are the best alternative.”

Another advantage of taking a night train in Europe is the continent’s cultural diversity. “Europe is the ideal size for night trains,” said Forien. “The thousands of kilometers between neighboring capitals are the perfect distance.” You can leave blustery Munich and be drinking a spritz on the beach in Cinque Terre by lunch the next day, swapping city streets for beautiful coastline, German for Italian, and pretzels for pesto.

Frequent traveler Sofia Karaskiewicz Salwa grew up in Spain, lives in Cardiff in the United Kingdom, and regularly takes the night train to visit family in Poland and Germany. Even though “flying has been an important part of [her] life,” she decided to look for less harmful alternatives. “Since stopping flying, I feel like my trips have become more interesting and more fulfilling,” she said. “Traveling by train helps you discover the continent in a slower and deeper way. Now every trip is a new adventure.”

Catherine Bennett is a French-British journalist and translator based between France and Italy. She writes about travel, cities, culture and the environment. She has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, Wired and Atlas Obscura.
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