A 2-berth German sleeper

Sleepers...

Sleepers have proper beds with washbasin.  This is a 2-berth sleeper on a Nightjet train...

 

Couchette compartment on train NZ 243

Couchettes...

Couchettes are flat padded bunks with rug & pillow.  This is a 6-berth couchette.

An introduction to overnight travel...

European overnight trains have two different types of sleeping berth, sleepers & couchettes.  This page explains the difference, and tells you what travel by sleeper or couchette is like.

  Travelling in a sleeper

  Travelling in a couchette

On other pages...

Information about specific sleeper trains...

  Austrian Nightjet sleeper trains

  Spanish trainhotels from Madrid & Irun to Lisbon

  Thello sleeper train from Paris to Italy

  Italian overnight trains

  French Intercités de Nuit

  Prague to Krakow

Travelling by sleeping-car

What are sleepers?

A sleeper is the most civilised, comfortable, and romantic way to travel...  European sleeping-cars are hotels on rails, with compact, carpeted bedrooms with proper beds freshly-made up with mattress, sheets and blankets or duvet.  There's a washbasin, towels and toiletries are supplied.  On a handful of routes (for example, Cologne-Prague, Cologne-Warsaw, Cologne-Vienna, Zurich-Vienna, Amsterdam-Zurich, Amsterdam-Munich, Berlin-Zurich, Hamburg-Zurich, Vienna-Venice, Vienna-Florence/Rome, Munich-Florence/Rome, Munich-Venice, Budapest-Bucharest) you can opt for a deluxe room with private shower & toilet.  For the daytime parts of a journey, rooms normally convert into a sitting room with sofa and small table.

Cabins or compartments?  Trains don't have sterns or bows, or port or starboard.  They also don't have cabins, as they are not a ship!  The correct term is sleeper or couchette 'compartment', not cabin.

How many people per compartment?

 

Sleepers come in 1, 2, 3 and occasionally 4-bed varieties, depending on the route and type of sleeper.  Berths are sold individually, so one ticket = 1 person = 1 bed.  I'll spell it out for you:  If you book one ticket for a 2 or 3 bed sleeper, you get one bed and the other beds in the compartment will be sold to other passengers of the same sex.  Sharing with other civilised sleeper passengers like this is much cheaper than paying for a single-berth sleeper all to yourself.  Compartments are single-sex unless all the berths are booked by people travelling together.  So a woman booking one berth in a 3-berth sleeper will share with two other female passengers.  A man and woman travelling together and paying for two berths in a 2-berth sleeper will share the same compartment.  A man and a woman travelling together but choosing to pay only for berths in a 3-berth sleeper will be booked into two different 3-berth rooms, one for male passengers and one for female passengers.

What's sleeper travel like?  Luggage space?  Security?  Power sockets?

The sleeper attendant will normally greet you at the door to the sleeping-car, check your reservation, and direct you to your room.  You walk down the carpeted corridor, looking for the door with your room number on it, just as you'd walk down a hotel corridor.  You take your luggage on board with you and stow it in your compartment - there's plenty of room on the rack above the window and in the big recess above the door projecting over the ceiling of the corridor.

The attendant  will come round shortly afterwards to take your rail tickets or passes so you aren't disturbed by ticket inspections.  They'll be kept safe and handed back to you next morning.  In western Europe the sleeper attendant used to take your passport as well so you weren't disturbed by border controls, but there are now no border controls (other than occasional spot checks) between countries in the Schengen area.  In eastern Europe you keep your passport, and may be briefly awakened by a knock on your compartment door at the border, you open the door, show your passport from your bed and are soon back asleep.

If you're sharing, you can agree a time when you ask the attendant to convert the seats into beds.  It may be polite to stand in the corridor while the other person(s) get undressed and into bed.  Once in bed in your own cosy berth, you can't see the people above or below you, and this gives you all the privacy you need.  Compartment doors have both normal locks and security locks (or chains) which cannot be opened from outside, even with a staff key, so you'll be both safe and snug.

Generally speaking, most sleepers & couchette cars don't have power sockets other than a simple shaver socket (which can often be used to recharge mobile phones etc., if you have a 2-pin adapter.  I wouldn't recommend relying on a shaver socket to work a sleep apnoea machine, though).  But Austrian Nightjet sleeping-cars are a key exception, they have a power socket specifically for laptops & mobiles, usually under the berth/seat at one end, and so do the 1, 2 or 3 bed sleepers on the Thello sleeper trains from Paris to Italy.

Room service...

In many cases, the sleeping-car attendant can sell you a limited range of drinks or snacks on request, and may ask you in the evening whether you would like morning tea, coffee or light breakfast.  A light breakfast is included in the fare on Nightjet trains, EuroNight trains and an increasing number of other sleeper services, either delivered to your compartment or in some cases taken in the nearby restaurant car.  However, you should never assume that there will be a buffet or restaurant car unless you are told that there is one on your particular train - always take provisions with you, including perhaps a bottle of wine!

The traditional European sleeper...

Until recently, sleeping cars all over Europe came with one standard layout:  Each sleeping-car had 10, 11 or 12 identical compartments, each room capable of being used with a lower, middle and upper bed folded out, as:

A typical sleeper is shown below.  Although this particular example is an old Italian type, it illustrates the traditional European sleeper layout.  You can see that exactly the same compartment can be used as a 1, 2 or 3 bed compartment, with the berths one above the other.  1st or 2nd class?  It's the same!  Only the number of beds and the occupancy vary between classes, with 1 bed & sole occupancy it's first class, but with 3 beds folded out & triple occupancy the same compartment becomes 2nd class.  The berths fold away to form a sitting room for evening & morning use.  You'll find sleepers built to this layout on the Paris-Italy & Austria-Italy overnight trains, on sleeper trains within Italy, and all over Eastern Europe:

1- 2- or 3- berth sleeping-car compartment in daytime mode

Sleeper in evening/ morning mode, with beds folded away, seat folded out.

 

First class single room

Single.  The middle & top berths remain folded away, unused.

 

First class double room

Double.  The top berth is folded away. 2-bed sleepers now 2nd class on many routes.

 

Second class 3-berth room

3-berth ('Tourist' or 'T3').  Lower, middle & upper berths all used.

Sleeper berth numbering system...

Here is the standard numbering system used for sleepers, which can sometimes be confusing.  If you book a 2-berth sleeper, the berth numbers will be those for the bottom & top bunks, with the third bunk unused.  So for example, berths 21 & 25 are in the same compartment.  If there are enough of you to need two compartments, you can often ask for a pair of compartments with a connecting door between them (in the diagram below, 11/13/15 will usually have a communicating door with 12/14/16, 21/23/25 has a door with 22/24/26, and so on).  You'll find berth numbering plans for specific sleeper trains on the train seating plan pageCouchette car numbering plan.

First or second class?

I strongly recommend that you do not use the confusing terms first class & second class when booking overnight trains.  In terms of comfort, the 'classes' on an overnight train are really (1) comfortable sleeper, (2) economical couchette and (3) sit-up-all-night seat, and I recommend specifying exactly the type of sleeping accommodation that you want rather than just saying you want 'first class'.  Indeed, on Nightjet trains all accommodation can be booked with a 2nd class ticket or pass, even a deluxe sleeper with shower.

Double sleepers, are they 1st or 2nd class?  A 1st class ticket used to be necessary to travel in a 2-berth 'double' sleeper anywhere in Europe.  But the rules have changed.  On Austrian Nightjet sleeper trains (Cologne-Vienna, Cologne-Innsbruck, Hamburg-Vienna, Hamburg-Berlin-Zurich, Zurich-Vienna, Vienna-Rome, Munich-Rome. Munich-Venice, Vienna-Venice and so on), only a 2nd class ticket or railpass is needed to travel in any accommodation type, including double and single deluxe.  On international routes in much of eastern Europe and in much of Scandinavia, only a 2nd class ticket or railpass is now required to travel in a 2-bed double sleeper, including Munich-Budapest, Prague-Krakow, Budapest-Krakow, Budapest-Bucharest (unless you want a deluxe with shower & toilet) and Bucharest-Istanbul.  A 1st class ticket or railpass is still required to travel in a 2-berth sleeper in Italy, Russia, Ukraine and domestic sleeper routes in Romania plus some other countries.  A word of warning:  Rail Europe still insist on issuing first class tickets with double sleepers regardless of which route you are booking. I suspect that their French-based reservation system cannot cope with the new different rule for double sleepers applying in much of central & eastern Europe. Challenge them to make sure the route you're booking isn't one where only a 2nd class ticket is now needed, or book through German railways (DB's UK office on 08718 80 80 66 or www.bahn.de) instead, as DB are fully up to speed on current rules.

Austrian Nightjet trains:  Comfortline & double-deck sleeping-cars

Nightjet is the brand name for Austrian Railways' sleeper services linking Austria, Germany, Italy & Switzerland, including several routes originally run by German Railways now-discontinued City Night Line trains.  Click for more pictures & information about these Nightjet trains.

Spanish Trainhotels...

Spanish Railways run special trainhotels on some national and international routes including Madrid to Lisbon, Irun & San Sebastian to Lisbon, Barcelona to Vigo.

These trainhotels use unique articulated Talgo coaches, with 4-berth compartments in tourist class (Turista), 1- & 2- berth compartments in 1st class (Preferente), and 1- & 2- berth Gran Clase rooms with private toilet & shower.  There is also a restaurant & café-bar.  See the London to Portugal page for photos & info.

Note that with Gran Clase & Preferente sleepers, only whole compartments can be booked, you can't share with other passengers.  A 1st class ticket or pass is required for these.  However, berths in Turista 4-berth compartments can be booked individually in shared single-sex compartments, and only a 2nd class ticket or pass is required.  Of course if you book all 4 beds in a 4-berth, gender doesn't matter.

Thello sleeper train from Paris to Milan, Verona & Venice

This train uses refurbished Italian sleeping-cars, see the Paris to Venice by Thello page for more information.

Sleepers within Italy...

There are several types of sleeper on most overnight trains in Italy, see the Train travel in Italy page for more information.

Travelling in a couchette

What are couchettes?

Couchettes are basic, inexpensive sleeping accommodation, with 6 bunks per compartment.  On many routes you can also choose to travel in a less-crowded 4-berth compartment, for only a few euros more.  By day, a couchette compartment is an ordinary seating compartment, with three-a-side bench seats facing each other.  At night, the seats convert to bunks.  Each bunk is basically a padded ledge supplied with pillow, sheet and blanket which you arrange yourself.  Each berth has its own reading light.  Washrooms and toilets are available at the end of the corridor.  The sexes are normally mixed in couchettes, as you do not normally fully undress, but on many routes women can ask for a berth in a ladies-only compartment.  Couchette cars come in many different designs, all based on the same format.

CityNightLine couchette (4-bunk)

4-berth couchettes...

 

Couchette compartment on train NZ 243

6-berth couchettes...

How much extra is a couchette?

A small supplement is charged for travel in a couchette, in addition to the 2nd class fare or railpass.  It varies by route, but you can reckon on about €20-€37 for a bunk in a 5 or 6-bunk compartment.  On certain routes there is now a choice of a berth in a 6-berth or in a less crowded 4-berth compartment.  Travelling in a 4-berth compartment costs only a few euros more than travelling in a 6-berth compartment, but it is well worth the extra for the additional space and privacy.  Many overnight trains now charge inclusive fares covering both travel and couchette or sleeper accommodation, at competitive rates.

Should you choose a 6-berth or 4-berth compartment?

On many routes you get a choice of a couchette in a 6-berth compartment or a couchette in  a 4-berth compartment.  The compartments are identical, but in 4-berth compartments the top two bunks remain folded away and the middle bunks are folded out in their alternative slightly higher position. The difference in price can be as little as €10 between travelling in 6-berth couchettes and travelling in a 4-berth, but you get far more room per passenger in 4-berth.  If there's a long evening/morning component to the journey (for example, Paris-Venice departing 19:11 and arriving around 09:30 next morning) the extra space to spread out over the 3-a-side seats is very welcome and well worth the extra few euros.

Luggage space?  Security?

There's plenty of space for luggage under the seats, on the rack above the window, and in the big recess above the door projecting over the ceiling of the corridor.  All compartments now have a security lock which cannot be opened from outside, even with a staff key, in addition to the normal lock so you'll be quite safe!  On most international routes, there's an attendant in charge of one or two couchette cars, and they may take your tickets on departure so you are not disturbed by ticket checks during the night.  There are no border controls between countries in the Schengen area, although you might be briefly awakened at borders in eastern Europe to show your passport.

Couchette numbering system...

Numbering system:  Your car & berth number will be shown on your ticket.  The first digit is usually the compartment number, the second digit is the berth number:  Berths 1 & 2 are bottom bunks, 3 & 4 are middle bunks, 5 & 6 are top bunks.  So for example, berths 32 & 34 are both in compartment 3, and are the bottom and middle bunks on the right-hand side of the compartment.  In 4-berth couchettes, the middle bunk number isn't used, so for example berths 41, 42, 45 & 46 would be in one 4-berth compartment.

First class couchettes...

1st class couchettes, with 4 berths per compartment, are available on several domestic overnight trains still running in France, but hardly anywhere else.  The supplement is the same as for a 2nd class couchette, but you need to have a 1st class travel ticket or railpass.  They are more comfortable than 2nd class couchettes, but much less comfortable than 2nd class sleepers.  See the Intercité de nuit page.

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