What’s It Like Taking a Night Train in Europe?

Earlier this week, I talked about European train passes and whether or not they were worth the money. As part of the continuing train series, in this week’s video, I highlight my night train from Madrid to Paris, a long twelve hour ride on an old Renfe (Spanish) train. (Quick note to Renfe: upgrade your trains!)

Here’s the journey:

(Want more travel videos? I now update my YouTube channel each week with a new video. Subscribe here and get free videos!)

While I had a good time and the journey was comfortable (and the food surprisingly good), as I said in Monday’s post, I don’t find overnight trains to be good value with their high costs. If you are traveling through Europe and want to save money on accommodation, a second class seat will work out cheaper than a hostel or hotel but avoid the cabins. They are too expensive.

Unless you are a train enthusiast, I’d save my money, take a cheap flight, and avoid twelve hours of travel. Unlike the famous Ghan in Australia, or the VIA rail in Canada, I don’t find anything special or unique about the overnight trains in Europe (I’ve taken three).

Editor’s Note/Disclosure: This post is the beginning of a series of blogs, videos, and giveaways revolving around train travel in Europe. As mentioned in the beginning of the post, Rail Europe gave me my pass for free and also paid the reservation fees. Rail Europe has been a site partner since 2009.

  1. Mike in NYC


    I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned the couchette/liegeplatz option. MUCH cheaper than a private cabin and more comfortable than just a regular seat. (Albeit, depending upon the configuration and load factors, you share with 3-5 other passengers…..sort of like a hostel dorm room…on rails.)

  2. I have to disagree that Renfe has old trains – the infrastructure Spain has in one of the best in Europe! Yes, the overnighters are older than the AVE high speed trains, but that’s due to the big push the interior ministry is putting on the high speed train travel. They’ve lowered prices this year and are working on more lines to connect the entire country.

    On my first trip to Europe, we took an overnight train from Rome to Paris, but apparently the tracks weren’t turned, and we ended up in Switzerland! I also had a private car while traveling overnight in Romania. I got on the wrong car and wasn’t allowed to go to my car until the next stop – nearly two hours later!

      • I agreed, Spanish trains are on average ANCIENT. And while Austrian and Swiss national rail companies still employ some older trains, those that I road are old but clean and in good repair. Left me feeling retro and steampunkishly stylish. Spanish train that I took from Geneve to Barcelona was left me worrying if a bunch of rustlers might come riding up along side the train to get to the mail car and make off with the Western Union gold delivery.

    • Adam heighes

      If you look at train travel as part of the experience rather than just transportation you will get more out of it. On a trip backpacking through Europe 2 years ago by best meal was lasagna to die for travelling through Tuscany. My best conversati

  3. I took the overnight train from Venice to Paris, in a cabin and it wasn’t bad. It was in 2009 so I don’t recall the price. I slept decently, though my cabin did fill up with a family and it was awkward…

    The only part I didn’t like was that one of the crew told me he had to keep my passport overnight for the border crossing. He had a bunch so it seemed legit but I still only gave him a paper photocopy of my passport.

  4. I took a night train from Milan to Rome with TrenItalia last summer. I was on a Eurail pass, so my interest was in getting from Barcelona to Rome in 24 hours so that I only used up one space on my “7 day” pass. This was one of the worst mistakes of my trip. The train boarded at midnight. I didn’t have a bed… clearly with a youth pass on Eurail, you’re getting the cheaper seats. I was in an enclosed space with two rows of 3 facing each other. 4 Italian men and one Senegalese man were in there with me (an American girl). Nobody could stretch their legs for fear of kicking the person in front of them. The head rest extended on the sides so that you didn’t fall on the other person if you nodded off (thank goodness lol). It was VERY uncomfortable, and impossible to sleep. The air conditioning was broken, so we had to open the window. Around 5 am, the train broke down. There was no announcement… people just started wondering why we hadn’t moved in 45 minutes and started getting off the train en masse. The Senegalese guy was the only one in my area who spoke English, so thankfully he explained to me that a new train was coming. I just followed along with everyone else. I had no seat on the new train… I just had to sit on my luggage by the door. Also the train took me to a different station than I had wanted. Soooooo my night train story was a huge nightmare (although funny looking back).

      • Adam heighes

        Get off the beaten track and find out where the locals go though English may not be understood and you may find yourself in the middle of nowhere! Just go with it! I was trying to find Sperlonga Italy as I heard Romans rather than international travels go to the beach there instead of Naples! I found it after learning to get off the train in Fondi and paying someone one in the local bar to drive me the last 30 km (a bus is available but I didn’t know the schedule). I spent the day with a new friend from Latvia who was as lost as I was. The food and drinks were a quarter of what they cost in Rome!

  5. Night trains also have the advantage of including accommodation and transportation to city centres, which cheap flight don’t have. These are two costs worth factoring in when comparing options.

    • NomadicMatt

      Those are mentioned in my previous post on the costs of passes. It’s not always the case you save money with overnight trains.

  6. Matt,

    I have mostly only done the Night Trains in Germany and Switzerland. I know you mostly write from the Hostel living backpacking travelers point of view, so I get why you find the Cabins too expensive. But as a business traveler who likes to sprinkle in a little bit of touring between meetings; the cabins can be a great deal.

    Night trains if they connect two cities where I have meetings is a GREAT deal. I recently made the trip from Zurich (my companies World HQ) to Dortmund (our German engineering center). As I had meetings late one day and more in the other city the next morning; booking a single sleeper was a bargain.

    One way airfare between the two cities was much more than the single sleeper, and having the room to myself let me do my morning routine before the meeting (washing up, shaving, etc) without bothering others. If I had to fly I also would have needed a hotel room either for the extra night in Zurich (REALLY expensive) or in Dortmund (still pretty expensive).

    Also, to weigh in on the Railpass question from earlier: For sheer flexilibility one should give credit for the Railpass, as you can when you need to just get on a train in one country and go. Something that you can’t rely on Ryanair or Easyjet or Vueling or AirBerlin everytime. So while they might not be the cheapest, flexibility is worth something.

  7. Robert Green

    Hi Matt! I love your videos and enjoy reading your blog. Your adventures, and the ones of many others, inspired us to create new and fantastic tool for anyone planning a trip, or for those just wanting to travel the world without leaving their homes. It’s called Travel Videos and is the first search engine for travel videos only. Please give it a look at http://www.travideos.com and let us know what you think, we will love to hear from you. Best, Robert.

  8. Jacq G.

    I took an overnight train from Odessa to Simferopol in Ukraine. Although not amazing (I took 3rd class)… was cosy… with locals carrying chickens…. didn’t have a cabin but had a bed to sleep on with dozens of other people in the same carriage. The 12 hour journey cost me about 6 Euros… I would recommend giving these train journeys a go in Eastern Europe!

  9. Great post and video there Matt. I took night trains in Europe ages ago and it looks like they have improved a lot – I actually prefer a 12hour journey on them than taking a plane can you believe!! My favourite countries for night trains have to be China and SE Asia though. Cheap and easy to sleep in. The advantage of your cabin is the safety and the comfort. Like most things in travel you get what you pay for. Heading on another night train in China in a few weeks, I’ve taken plenty of videos of my trains too, just personal snippets though rather than a professional overview! Safe travels, Jonny

  10. Still love living vicariously through your posts. Years ago, I took a train from Asti, Italy to Paris, and my favorite feature was the pitcher in my cabin. No, it wasn’t for water. You’d urinate in it and then put it back in this receptacle that would dispose of the mess. I likewise slept well, though. And Paris was AWESOME! Look forward to seeing your video from there!

  11. Kelly O

    I took an overnight train in Europe many years ago and had these nostalgic memories of train travel. So when I booked an overnighter from Prague to Krakow recently, I thought I would be gently lulled to sleep by the rhythmic rocking of the train. Instead, it was a nightmare. I was in a 6-bed car and the “mattresses” were so thin that your hips or tailbone was always in pain, there was no room to sit up or move, and the car was boiling hot (not to mention, someone SHUT the window in the middle of the night!) I didn’t sleep for even one minute. I will never make this mistake again. I will at least upgrade to a higher class. Or maybe I’m just getting too old for this stuff. :)

  12. Daichovo

    Ditto for trains in eastern Europe being a good deal/pleasant.

    Flight Budapest-Belgrade (RT) $363 on dates I needed, 4.5 hr one way, 10 hr other way. Miles don’t count because of fare code

    Night train Budapest-Belgrade (RT) 26 Euros = $36 roughly. 8 hr trip (if they run on time. Frankly, I hope it’s a little late, since it gets to each city at 6am!)

    ALSO, I don’t have to get a hostel for the night. Technically you are supposed to pay a small fee (I heard it was 10 Euros) for a sleeper supplement, but they just let me on an empty bunk no charge (not sure if it’s because I was obviously neither Serb nor Hungarian, or because I was a solo woman, or what).

    One of the rides involved a small amount of rakia and my truba (Serbian trumpet) and a mute (I have a LITTLE consideration for fellow passengers). A great farewell!

  13. Four years ago we took the overnight train ( train travel being the experience) from Budapest to Bucharest. Woken up five times to check passports,get entry/exit stamps. No sleep but had paid for a two berth cabin. I think that if you are travelling through several countries and plan to do this overnight, I would recommend getting a seat and not sleeping accommodation.
    Last month took the L.A. to Seattle train. Departed and arrived on time. Cost $580 for two in a couchette room. Great experience. Food was tasty, more than enough per serving and very presentable, free wine and cheese tasting and tea/coffee at the end of the carriage. Met many different nationalities, even one couple from the town where our son lives in Australia.
    Due to this experience we decided that our future plans will include an Amtrak trip from Chicago to L.A. or visa versa.
    Next year we plan travelling by train through parts of Myanmar (anybody done this recently) and Hanoi to Saigon.

  14. andrewjohnston

    Go east! Trans Siberian, overnighters down from Budapest to Bucharest, Riga to St Petersburg and Warsaw – Moscow – all great and not expensive sleeper trains – 1st class a good alternative to flying too. And what about the environmental cost of flying. And you get to meet so many more people. And you see the countryside. And you have time to think. And you love slow…

    And stop moaning about old RENFE trains!

    (check out In Praise of Slow Carol Honore http://www.amazon.co.uk/Praise-Slow-Worldwide-Movement-Challenging/dp/0752864149/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1371913219&sr=1-2&keywords=carl+honore+slow)

  15. I’m surprised you didn’t enjoy the train, I caught night trains while backpacking in 2010 and I loved it! It seemed like such an adventure to me… though, I must admit, I haven’t travelled on VIA or the Ghan (despite being Australian!) and was able to qualify for the student price. Plus I have an enormous fear of flying (terrible for such an avid traveller!) so anything to get me away from the skies is fine in my book!

Leave a Comment