Red-eye flights have a certain appeal to cash-strapped, time-savvy travelers. For one, they’re generally cheaper that a daytime flight, and two, they can help you maximize daytime sightseeing hours. But for travel within Europe, people take night trains instead of overnight flights. When I lived in Münich, Germany for four months, I spent nearly every weekend boarding a night train to wake up in a different city, finding myself in places such as Berlin, Florence, Venice, and Prague. I found each of my night train experiences to be surprisingly comfortable and culturally fascinating. Plus, taking these trains saved me time and money. Here’s why they’re better than red-eye flights.
You Don’t Have to Sleep Sitting Up
Sure, you can just book a regular upright seat on a night train, and then slouch against the seat cushions to get some shut-eye. But why would you want to? For only $25 to $45, you can sleep in a “couchette,” which gives you a padded bunk complete with sheets, pillows, blankets, and reading lamps. Couchettes tend to have four to six sleeping berths, and things can get a bit cozy with everyone’s luggage packed inside. If you don’t mind shelling out a few extra bucks, you can sleep more comfortably in a three-bed, two-bed, or single-bed sleeper compartment, costing between $50 and $150—much less than a business-class seat on a flight. These pricier sleepers have more floor space, wider beds, and private sinks. Luxury sleepers—such as the “Comfortline” trains travelling between cities like Paris and Berlin, or Hamburg and Copenhagen—even have their own toilets and showers.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Some European train companies allow you to request the top, middle, or bottom bunk in a couchette, or request a single-sex compartment. But be flexible if plans go astray. It’s not unheard of to find someone already sleeping in your berth of choice, especially if they got onto the train a few hours before you. It’s also possible that a single-sex couchette won’t be available—even if you requested one—if other passengers of the same sex didn’t request one as well. This is what happened to me when I boarded a night-train in Münich to travel overnight to Venice. At first I felt quite perturbed, thinking I’d be uneasy sharing a compartment with men. But it ended up being fine—the men were very respectful, and I ultimately enjoyed meeting an assortment of people.
It Pays to Be Cautious
Of course, it’s important to take precautions on night trains. While most of the people I encountered seemed genuinely kind, they were still strangers, and I kept my valuables close while I slept at night. Most night-train horror stories I heard involved outside people creeping into your compartment to rob you while you slept. For this reason, make sure you and your cabin-mates lock your compartment door from the inside, and re-lock it each time someone takes a trip to the bathroom. Having said this, crime on night-trains is pretty low, and as long as you practice common sense, you should be fine.
Sleep Better with Earplugs
Call me a killjoy, but my least favorite thing about traveling aboard night trains was the sound of the train rolling on the tracks. Yes, the rattles and clatters and clinks can be romantic, but when you’re trying to nod off at 1 a.m., it can be distracting. Other noises—people talking in the corridors, your cabin mates shuffling through their belongings, your cabin mates snoring, the compartment door being opened and closed—can certainly disturb you as well. Definitely pack some earplugs. Lots of them.
Room Service, Please!
When you check into most European night trains, an attendant will ask if you’d like tea, coffee, and a light breakfast—usually a croissant or bread roll—delivered to your compartment in the morning. They’ll also give you an individual wakeup call before your stop so you have time to gather your belongings. When on my overnight trips, I usually slept in my clothes (as most people do), so I was able to scramble out into the corridor before my stop to sip coffee and watch the scenery rush past the windows. I remember doing just that when I travelled to Florence. Before we arrived at the station in the morning, the train crawled past green hills and vineyards and Florentine churches, and I was glad I’d gotten up to catch the view. And it felt so good knowing I had the whole day and night to explore the city.