If you’re planning to travel in Europe, whether it’s a long vacation or a weekend trip, the easiest and cheapest option is usually flying. Budget airlines offer ridiculously low rates, making it an appealing option.
But we all know that flying is terrible for the environment, the flight times are usually inconvenient, and budget airlines are notorious for underpaying their staff. Not to mention the long wait times, the hassle with luggage restrictions and getting to and from remote airports to your destination.
So if you’re interested in being a more sustainable traveler and learning how to travel in Europe in a fun, easy and budget-friendly way. Then stick around!
Because in this post, I will convince you to pick a greener and better alternative: trains. And I’ll teach you exactly how to travel on European sleeper trains without breaking the bank. You’ll get the inside scoop on the different providers, the best routes, the ticket options and how to book them.
I believe that night trains in Europe are the best way to explore the continent for budget backpackers and green travelers alike. Come on this journey with me, choo-choo!
Why you should take overnight trains in Europe
There is something so iconic and romantic about traveling by train through Europe. It evokes images of bygone eras, the Grand Tour and the orient express. But also of young backpackers making their way through Europe on a shoestring budget.
Like with most things, the reality is less romantic. Train travel in Europe isn’t as glamorous or adventurous as movies have made it out to be. But that’s not to say that it isn’t great! There are still many benefits to traveling by sleeper train in Europe.
Benefits of travel by sleeper train in Europe
Do you know how they say “It’s about the journey, not the destination”? Well, when you’re traveling by train, that holds true. You get to see the countries you’re traveling through, watching the landscapes roll by. And sure, on a sleeper train, you’ll be traveling in the dark and (hopefully) sleeping. But there’s a special kind of magic in watching a sunset or sunrise from a train.
Sleeper trains offer all the same benefits as regular trains that you don’t have with air travel:
- Loose luggage restrictions
- No fussing with tiny bottles for liquids
- No long customs lines
- No waiting for hours at the airport
- You get picked up and dropped off right in the center of town
And those are all just practical benefits because the biggest upside of train travel versus airplanes is how much more sustainable it is! A flight from Amsterdam to Vienna has a carbon footprint of 2312.43 KG of CO2 per person. While the same journey by train emits just 50.87 KG CO2. So, picking trains over planes is a no-brainer if you want to be a greener traveler.
Disadvantages to traveling by night train
So, I know what you’re thinking: “This sounds too good to be true, what about the downsides?”. Sure, as with anything, there are downsides to night trains. The first is that they drive slower than day trains, so you’re in for a long journey. Especially since sleeper trains often rack up a delay of 30–60 minutes.
But the whole journey seems to pass so much quicker on a night train, since you’ll literally be sleeping through it! And unlike trying to catch some rest in an uncomfortable airplane seat, you’ll have an actual bed to lie down on.
Cost is another deterring factor for trains in Europe. Because of the super cheap flights often offered by budget airlines, it’s enticing to just book one of those. But it’s not a fair comparison. Because for those flights you have to add travel costs to and from the airport and luggage fees. And a sleeper train will save you a night of accommodation. So once you factor all that in, the difference suddenly isn’t that big anymore. Especially in the off-season and on week days, sleeper trains are a great budget option for traveling through Europe.
If you want to travel even cheaper, consider traveling by long distance bus in Europe.
Best destinations in Europe by night train
The great thing about traveling by train, is that you go straight from one city center to the next. With regional trains, you can even reach small towns throughout the continent. The European night rail network isn’t as detailed as the regular train network. But it is still possible to reach capitals and other major cities in most of Europe by sleeper train.
Unfortunately, the infrastructure and services are not in place yet to take you across the whole continent. But especially in Western and Central Europe, there is a dense network of sleeper trains. And many European countries and train companies have committed to expanding and improving long-distance train options in Europe.
Check out this fun map of the current night train network in Europe.
As you can tell when looking at the map, there are a few hubs that connect different routes. These are primarily Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Milan, Paris, Munich and Madrid. That makes these cities especially attractive to visit by night train, or to use as a layover cities.
Some of the most popular sleeper train connections in Europe are:
You can book frequent (usually daily) trains between these cities. But because of their popularity, they tend to book out fast during the high season.
Different types of tickets for sleeper trains in Europe
Which brings us to our next question: what are the ticket options for night trains? And which ticket category should I buy?
Because sleeper trains in Europe are operated by different companies, there isn’t one universal standard for ticket options. The different categories and accommodation option depend on the type of train.
But generally, you can choose between three options:
- A seat
- A bed in a shared cabin
- A bed in a private cabin
Booking a seat is always the cheapest option, but it defeats the purpose of taking a night train. These are just regular train seats, that decline slightly but don’t fold out into a proper bed. So if you plan on sleeping on your journey, I would not recommend booking one.
Unsurprisingly, this is the least popular category, despite being the cheapest.
A bed in a shared cabin functions similarly to a hostel. A shared cabin usually has 4 or 6 beds, which look like bunk beds. The bottom beds fold into seats to be used during the day. Most sleeper trains have designated women’s only cabins so that female passengers can travel safely and comfortably. Shared cabins don’t usually have a private bathroom but a shared toilet and washroom.
When I travel by sleeper train in Europe, I usually book a women’s only shared cabin, and I’ve always found them quite comfortable.
If you want to get even better sleep, don’t like sharing a cabin with strangers, or are traveling in a group, there is a third option. You can splurge and get a private cabin. Depending on the size of the group, this isn’t always that much more expensive!
A private cabin will have a certain number of beds, usually 2-4, and a private bathroom. Some night trains have quite luxurious private cabins and more basic ones. Private cabins often come with nice linens and a full breakfast.
European overnight train providers
Because most night trains are operated by national railway companies, there are quite a few to choose from. The provider you go with depends on the route you wish to take. I’ll introduce the different providers for budget overnight trains in Europe below:
The ÖBB NightJet is the king of sleeper trains in Europe. Run by the Austrian National Railway company ÖBB, these trains will take you all through Central and Southern Europe.
They connect Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. Living in Berlin, the NightJet is my go-to overnight train. You can find the exact destinations here.
Some NightJet trains are a little lived-in, but provide enough for an okay sleep. As a seasoned backpacker, my standards are pretty low. But each cart has its own conductor who’s responsible for checking tickets and also wakes you up before your stop and serves breakfast, which is a fun additional service. Recently, ÖBB announced that they are updating their fleet with brand-new trains that will provide more comfort to travelers.
NightJets are pretty reasonably priced, especially if you book further in advance. You might even find tickets that are as cheap as flying! Some connections, however, sell out quickly, such as summer trains to Italy.
Confusingly, EuroNight trains are also run by ÖBB. But instead of using their own trains, these are operated by local partner companies. As such, the service can be different from what’s offered on a typical NightJet. You can also book overnight trains from other companies through them.
Most of the EuroNight connections run in Central and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. For instance:
- Berlin, Zürich and Stuttgart to Budapest, Zagreb and Prag
- Bratislava to Split
- Hamburg to Stockholm
- Graz to Warsaw
France has their own night train network, operated by SNCF Connect. These Intercites de Nuit (or night intercities) can take you from Belgium to the south of France while you sleep. You can also use their platform to book regular trains.
These trains are surprisingly affordable when booked in advance, with seats starting at €19. SNCF also runs frequent specials and regional offers for specific destinations.
Spanish and Portuguese railway operators Renfe and Talgo have gotten into the night train business as well. They run the Trenhotel, the sleeper trains designed to be a moving hotel.
The trains are modern and comfortable, making them a great way to travel sustainably across the Iberian Peninsula. You can find their connections here.
You can’t just travel to Italy on a sleeper train, you can also travel through Italy on a sleeper train. The Italian railway company Trenitalia offers several night trains from the north to the south and back. That way, you can fall asleep in Sicily, Calabria or Puglia, and wake up in Rome, Naples or Bologna.
These Italian night trains are a good option for people who are limited on time and don’t want to spend a full day traveling these distances.
Trenitalia also owns and operates Thello, a high-speed service running between Venice and Paris, with stops in Padova, Verona, Milan and Dijon.
European Sleeper is a brand-new railway company based in the Netherlands. They plan to use their own fleet of refurbished trains to provide long-distance connections throughout Europe. In doing so, they are competing with established national railway operators.
The maiden voyage will be between Brussels and Berlin, by way of Amsterdam. It will be the only direct connection between Brussels and Berlin currently available. It also aims to compete with the regular day service from Amsterdam to Berlin offered by Deutsche Bahn.
In the future, European Sleeper hopes to offer connections to destinations in Southern Europe as well, with the first being Barcelona.
As they start their service in May, time will tell how successful this venture will be. But there is already a lot of buzz in the sustainable travel and train travel community.
VR and SJ
Trains are a great option for those wishing to explore Scandinavia in comfort. Modern sleeper trains can take you all the way up to Northern Lapland, through the magical landscapes of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Like everything in Scandinavia, these trains aren’t cheap but still an excellent way to get around.
In Finland, trains are operated by VR. They also offer a sleeper train from Helsinki to Lapland, nicknamed the Santa Claus Express. You can find connections by SJ and SJ Nord for train travel in Sweden and Norway. Looking to travel further south? The new Berlin Night Express takes you from Stockholm to Berlin.
Travelers in the UK profit from great railway connections throughout Britain, including a sleeper train. The Caledonian Sleeper runs between London and the Scottish Highlands, providing an eco-friendly, fun, and comfortable way to travel.
The Caledonian Sleeper is a little bit more expensive than the other trains on this list, but when booked in advance, it still offers good enough deals. Unlike other sleeper trains, the Caledonian Sleeper does not have dorm-style shared cabins. The options are two person cabins, with either a double bed or bunk bed, or a simple seat. So this night train is especially suited to couples and friends, not so much for solo travelers.
For those looking to venture further east, there is the option to travel by sleeper train from Budapest to Bucharest. These trains are operated by the Romanian national railway and connect perfectly to the ÖBB Nightjet network.
How to plan and book sleeper trains in Europe
So, our final question to cover here is how actually to plan and book night trains in Europe.
For planning your trip in the initial stages, I highly recommend visiting Seat61. The website looks outdated, but don’t judge a book by its cover. This is undoubtedly the most comprehensive European train travel guide on the internet. You can easily search for train connections to and from different major cities, and they will give you a detailed overview of your options, how to book, and what to expect.
Seat61 is not a route planner, though! It won’t give you detailed timetables and options as Google Maps does. Instead, I recommend using Omio or Rome2Rio when initially seeing how to best travel between your destinations. There is a good chance you’ll need an additional bus or regional train to get to your final destination.
Once you know where you want to go and how to get there, it is time to book your ticket. I will always recommend booking directly with the railway company. That is how you get the best rated and the best service in case of cancellation, but there are other platforms that you can use. Most European railway companies have a full English version of their website and booking engine.
Trainline is a popular booking platform, especially among North Americans. The website is easy to use and allows you to book tickets with different companies. However, they do charge a small service fee, and it can be harder to change or cancel your tickets when you book through a third party.
Many people also buy a rail pass, such as Eurail or Interrail. These have been around for a while and now also offer easy online trip planning and booking. Eurail is for non-European citizens, and Interrail is for European citizens, but they belong to the same company. With these passes, you can flexibly travel a certain number of times within a certain number of days. The more time and trips, the more expensive the pass. While they have their advantages, like not having to book everything in advance, they are usually more expensive. Especially because international trains require seat reservations anyway. So since the popular night train routes tend to sell out in the high season, this means that even with a rail pass, you won’t be able to take them.
New travel companies have sprung up to meet the increasing demand for train travel in Europe. They offer packaged train holidays or booking services, making planning an environmentally friendly trip around Europe even easier:
The UK company Byway specializes in flight-free holidays in Europe. They have a few standard options available but also offer a customized travel agent service. While they primarily focus on train travel, they can also include buses and boats.
If you live in the Netherlands, you’re in luck. The new company Green City Trips offer special vacation packages from Amsterdam to Prague and Dresden, with plans to expand to other cities. They have their own sleeper trains, and the package includes a return ticket and a hotel in the city.
I hope that through this post, I’ve been able to convince you to give traveling by night train in Europe a try. I think it is a much better way to travel than flying, and not just because it’s more sustainable. Traveling by sleeper train in Europe might seem intimidating, but it can be easy, affordable, and comfortable. And not to mention: fun!
I hope you follow the tips I’ve given you and book an overnight train trip so that you can experience it for yourself. And if you have any questions left unanswered, feel free to comment or contact me directly!
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