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Sleeper Cars on Trains in Europe: What to Expect

Sleeper Cars on Trains in Europe: What to Expect

The romance of backpacking Europe by riding the rails has lured many travelers to the trains of Europe, a rocking experience that lingers in the mind long after the train has pulled into the station. Sleeper cars seem to be an ideal way to get from A to B in a timely and unique fashion, but what can you really expect when you reserve an overnight cabin on a train in Europe? 

  • First of all, check the particular website of the train you will be taking; each country has different rules and each train has different cabins and sleeper cars. Depending on the route, a sleeper car can have one to four bunks.
  • Reserve your sleeper car at least a day in advance from a travel agency or at a train station. If you are lucky you can book last minute from the conductor on board, but don’t count on it.
  • Some sleeper cars are “deluxe,” with shower and toilet, but the standard sleeper car will be “cozy,” without a lot of room for spreading out your things or yourself.
  • If you are bunking with strangers and are female, you can request an all-female room. Your bunk will have curtains to pull for privacy, a light for reading, and a little net pouch for valuables. ALWAYS sleep with your valuables (camera, money, ID) in your bunk with you, preferably under your pillow.
  • Most sleeper cars have two berths; a lower one used as a couch during the day, and an upper one which folds down from the wall at night. Both will have sheets, pillows and blankets and usually will be made up for you.
  • Most sleeper cars will have a small hand basin (do NOT drink this water) and a tiny little pot for pissing- good luck (see photo above). You will probably just use the loo at the end of your car.
  • Rocking puts babies to sleep, and backpackers usually find the same- or the complete opposite. Either way, the night in the sleeper car will probably not be the best night of sleep in your life.
  • The conductor will take your tickets and your passport if you will be crossing borders overnight. Handing over your passport is nerve-racking, but necessary.
  • Snacks, drinks, and coffee will be sold on board. Correction: very expensive snacks and drinks, and tasteless coffee will be sold on board. Bring your own.
  • The train will stop during the night, usually several times, accompanied by a loud overhead announcement in a language you probably can’t understand. This is where earplugs come in handy.
  • Do NOT assume the whole train goes to the same place; often the train will split apart in the middle of the night and half will head for Berlin and the other half to Munich. Make sure you know where you are and where you are going.
  • Every train has a thief. Fasten your luggage to the racks above the bunk, lock it, and/or have your friend watch it if you have to leave your car. Sleeper cars have locks, but you cannot engage them from the outside.
  • Finally, consider if you really want the added expense of a sleeper car. Another option is a couchette, a small room where the seats fold down for a sort-of bed, the travelers are co-ed and six to a room, no one gets undressed and there are no sheets or blankets. You can also always rough it old-school style and just sleep in your regular seat, saving the money you would have spent on a cheap hotel room or sleeper car. In fact, this is an old backpacker’s trick for those with Railpasses, to ride the train for a night from wherever to wherever and save the cost of a hotel. Factor in your time, money, and plans for the next day to make the train sleeping choice that is right for you.

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