Night train bookings save money and time, but they're becoming harder to find. With faster trains and more budget airlines, there is less demand for overnight train rides.
It's still worth trying to find a night train along your route. If you've ever planned a multi-week trip, you know hotel costs can break the budget.
Even budget hotel buys can cost $100 USD/night in many places. Factor in the cost of 14 nights and the result might keep you awake at night.
One way to reduce those costs is to look for a few night train passages. This works especially well if you're touring Europe.
Night trains can be found in many places, but much of the focus here on Europe, where most budget train travel occurs.
Keep in mind that if you are using an option like the Eurail Select Pass, the cost of overnight quarters will not be included in the pass. Sleeping upright in your seat is uncomfortable but free.
This idea of night train travel won't please everyone. To be honest, every night train I've booked has been noisy, jolting and annoying. But there are those who would be just as ill-at-ease in a campground or hostel.
If you're willing to be less comfortable in exchange for some budget benefits, read on. If your vacation allotment is limited, there's tremendous benefit connected with stepping on the train in, let's say, Paris (where the greatest number of night trains still depart), going to sleep, and stepping off the next morning in Berlin.
Three Kinds of Night Train Accommodations
One is free, another is a bargain, and a third can be a bit pricey. Each is frequently cheaper than a hotel room.
The most comfortable way to go is to rent a sleeper, which is a small compartment with two to four bunks and even a small sink. These arrangements can exceed $150/night. If you need privacy, this might be the best option. It is not the cheapest way.
Couchettes, largely a European phenomenon, are in the $50 USD/bunk range. These are more widespread than the sleeper, and less private. Generally, couchette rooms are unisex and equipped with six bunks (three on each side). This option combines economy with safety: couchettes are usually assigned to a conductor, who keeps thieves and border agents away during the night. He or she will hold your passport and awaken you in time for an unhurried departure.
Many European trains are arranged in compartments, offering three seats on each side and a door or curtain that separates the area from the train's aisle. These seats slide together to form a sort of bed. It's often possible on less crowded trains to stake out one of these compartments for your own. There is no charge for sleeping in this way.
Pros and Cons
The cost savings are significant, especially on an extended trip. Replacing three nights in a hotel (which could easily total $500 USD) with train stays should cut your expenses in half for those nights.
More importantly, think about the time savings. You will own the daytime to sight-see, eat, drink and be merry. This makes your travel efficient.
Arriving early in your new destination brings advantages, too. You'll be first in line at the museum, tour office, or budget hotel of your choice.
Thieves sometimes prey on overnight travelers, especially those who are trying to sleep "for free." If this is your plan, find a way to secure your baggage -- tie it to your ankle if you must! Be certain to keep your passport and money very close to you.
You must weigh the scenic appeal of a particular route with your need to save time and money. Don't sleep through the Alps or Fjords, but you shouldn't spend an entire day of your European vacation looking out the window at Germany's industrial heartland, either.
I've already mentioned perhaps the most obvious drawbacks -- noise and motion! Trains speed up and slow down through the night. Brakes squeal. These forces can awaken you frequently.
Finally, don't attempt this unless you are somewhat patient with strangers. Snoring and coughing can be a problem in a cramped compartment.
There are a few practicalities applying to train travel that you might not have encountered. Take the following into account as you plan your night train trip.
Find out the location of sleeper cars prior to boarding
I learned this one the hard way. We boarded near the back of a long and overbooked train leaving Naples for Milan. People were sleeping in the aisles, luggage and all. We had to lift our own belongings over bodies and baggage en route to the sleeper car, where we were the last to arrive. Ask a conductor which cars are the sleepers, and do your walking on the station platform.
Avoid consecutive nights on the train
Sometimes it can't be helped, but make the effort. Your body will thank you for it.
Step off the train and book a room
In popular cities like Amsterdam or London, budget accommodations fill up quickly -- sometimes before lunch. Take advantage of your "early bird" status. Once done, it's likely you'll still be near the front of the tour lines.
Book sleepers and couchettes at least a few days in advance
It's generally cheaper to do it from the road than through your travel agent at home, but sometimes those few extra dollars buy peace-of-mind. If you want a reserved bunk, it is very risky to wait until the train is about to leave. Free space can be scarce, especially in peak season.
Alert the conductor to your intended stop
This isn't a problem for couchette and sleeper patrons. Some will even be awakened with morning tea and shortbread. But if you plan to sleep in a seat or a standard compartment, tell a conductor or nearby passenger that you'd appreciate a nudge when the train approaches your destination. Better yet, invest in a compact travel alarm.
Don't forget to keep your valuables secure and your attitude in the "flexible" mode. A night train might not make you happy, but it will pamper your budget and give you another set of travel stories to tell when you get home.