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.
An introduction to overnight travel...
Travelling in a sleeper: A hotel on rails, with beds, carpet & washbasin...
Travelling in a couchette: A youth hostel on rails, with basic bunks, rug & pillow...
On other pages...
Information about specific sleeper trains...
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, Paris-Madrid, Paris-Barcelona, Paris-Munich, Paris-Berlin, Amsterdam-Prague, Amsterdam-Copenhagen, Amsterdam-Zurich, Amsterdam-Warsaw, Budapest-Bucharest) you can now 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. Once in the room, you stow your luggage - 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, and (in Western Europe) your passport. You will not normally be disturbed by either ticket inspections or (except in eastern Europe) passport control, and your tickets and passport will be handed back to you at the end of your journey. 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, sleepers & couchette cars do not have power sockets, apart from 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). A key exception is City Night Line Comfortline sleepers, which do have a power socket specifically for laptops & mobiles, 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.
In many cases, the sleeping-car attendant can sell you 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 City Night Line 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!
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:
Single: 1st class ticket + £80-£100 supplement (£45-£60 in eastern Europe).
Double: 1st class ticket + £40-£60 supplement per person (£25-£35 in eastern Europe). Only a 2nd class ticket is now required on many central & eastern European routes, such as Budapest to Krakow, Vienna to Warsaw, Prague to Krakow, Budapest to Bucharest and Bucharest to Istanbul.
- Tourist 3-berth (T3): 2nd class ticket + £35-£45 supplement per person (£18-£35 in eastern Europe).
A typical sleeper is shown below. Although this particular example is an old Italian type now getting quite rare, 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:
Sleeper in evening/ morning mode, with beds folded away, seat folded out.
1st class single. The middle & top berths remain folded away, unused.
1st class double. The top berth is folded away. 2-bed sleepers now 2nd class on many routes.
2nd class 3-berth ('Tourist' or 'T3'). Lower, middle & upper berths all used.
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 page. Couchette 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 class, (2) economical couchette class and (3) sit-up-all-night seat class, and I recommend specifying exactly the type of sleeping accommodation that you want rather than just saying you want 'first class'. One traveller subjected himself and his wife to 12 hours in a seat because he selected 'first class' and got a mere reclining seat on the Paris-Barcelona trainhotel, because these seats just happen to be technically classified as 'first class' even though it's less comfortable than a bed in a safely-locked 2nd class 4-berth sleeper. Similarly, the French reservation system classifies 4-berth couchettes as 'first class' (even though the German & Italian systems classify them as 2nd class on exactly the same trains!), so don't book 'first class' on the Paris-Germany sleeper trains and think you're automatically getting a comfy first class sleeper when you could actually getting a very basic 4-berth couchette. Indeed, a 3-bed sleeper is infinitely preferable to a 4-berth couchette, yet it is classified as 2nd class, even though it is identical to a 1 or 2-bed first class sleeper, they just fold a third bed out from the wall! You get the picture, forget first class or second class, specify seat, couchette or sleeper!
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 Germany's City Night Line sleeper trains (Paris-Munich, Paris-Berlin, Amsterdam-Prague, Amsterdam-Copenhagen, Berlin-Zurich etc.), only a 2nd class ticket or railpass is needed to travel in a 3-berth, 2-berth or even single-berth standard sleeper with washbasin. With City Night Line, a 1st class ticket is now only necessary if you want a 2-berth or 1-berth deluxe sleeper with private shower & toilet. In Austria, 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 the new (or rather, quite a few years old now!) rules.
Spanish Railways run special trainhotels on important national and international routes including Paris to Madrid, Paris to Barcelona, Madrid to Lisbon, Madrid to Vigo, Barcelona to Vigo, and Barcelona to Granada.
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 Spain page for photos & info, or www.elipsos.com for an excellent virtual tour.
Note that with Gran Clase sleepers both within Spain and on the international Elipsos trainhotels Paris-Madrid, Paris-Barcelona, only whole compartments can be booked, you can't share with other passengers. However, berths in Turista & Preferente compartments can be booked individually in shared single-sex compartments.
City Night Line: Double-deck sleeping-cars
City Night Line is the brand name for German Railways' sleeper services crossing Germany between The Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Austria & Prague. Some City Night Line trains (including Berlin to Zurich, Hamburg to Zurich) use impressive double-deck sleeping-cars which have deluxe rooms on the top deck with 1 & 2-berths, small table and chairs, private toilet and shower, and very compact economy rooms mostly on the lower deck with 1 or 2 berths with washbasin. There is also one 4-berth sleeper compartment per sleeping-car. Although not a City Night Line service, similar double-deck sleepers run on the Wiener Walzer between Zurich and Vienna.
City Night Line: Comfortline sleeping-cars
Other City Night Line services now use brand-new single-deck sleeping-cars called 'Comfortline'. These run from Paris to Munich, Paris to Berlin, Amsterdam & Cologne to Prague, Munich and Copenhagen. They have 9 'economy' compartments with 1, 2 or 3 beds with washbasin and 3 'deluxe' compartments with 1, 2 or 3 beds plus private shower & toilet. There's a shower at the end of the corridor for 'economy' sleeper passengers, there's CCTV in the corridor for security, and all rooms have wing-card locks so you can lock up when you go to the bistro-restaurant. Click for more pictures & information about these City Night Line sleeping-cars.
Thello 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 two types of sleeper on most overnight trains in Italy. The first is the traditional sort, described above with 12 largish compartments each of which can be used as 1, 2 or 3 bed (one bed above the other). The second is the 'T2S' design with 17 much narrower compartments, each with an upper and lower berth for 1 or 2 bed occupancy. On the Trenitalia website, berths in the former type are referred to confusingly as 'Single seat compartment', 'double seat compartment' and '3 bed cabin' depending on the occupancy you want. The much smaller T2S compartments are described as 'Special seat compartment' (if used as single-berth) and '2 bed cabin'. I recommend the larger traditional type if price isn't critical, as they have much more space than the T2S type.
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 (the picture of the French couchette below shows the middle bunk lowered to form the seat back in daytime mode). 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. Here are some some German City Night Line ones:
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 €27 (£23) for a bunk in a 6-bunk compartment. On certain routes (including those linking Paris, Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark & Italy) 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 pounds more than travelling in a 6-berth compartment (about 37 euros or £32 per berth as opposed to £23), but it is well worth paying the extra few pounds for the additional space and privacy. An increasing number of 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 (including Paris-Italy, Paris-Germany and most overnight trains passing through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands) 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, see the photos below. 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-Rome departing 19:25 and arriving 10:18 next morning) the extra space to spread out over the 3-a-side seats is very welcome and well worth the extra few euros.
Note: Just to complicate matters, for historical reasons, the 4-berth couchettes on the Paris-Germany trains are classed as '1st class' by the French Railways reservation system used by raileurope.co.uk & voyages-sncf.com, so you must select '1st class' in order to book them online, but they are really second class, identical in every way to the 6-berth variety but with lower occupancy. 4-berth couchettes are correctly categorised as 2nd class by other countries' reservation systems.
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.
Numbering system: Your 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.
First class couchettes...
1st class couchettes, with 4 berths per compartment, are available on overnight trains 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 (the French 1st class couchettes are carpeted), but much less comfortable than 2nd class sleepers.
Right: A French 1st class couchette compartment in night-time mode. A rug, pillow and sheet are provided for each berth.