The best European sleeper trains

CNN  — 

As the train pulls out of the station, you slowly drift off to sleep. Several hours later, you wake up in another country, exciting new scenes speeding past the windows.

A world away from the experience of a stressful budget flight, you arrive refreshed and ready to discover a new destination.

Welcome on board the sleeper train service.

Once a stalwart of international travel, sleeper trains were the go-to for travelers crisscrossing Europe in the mid to late 20th century.

In more recent years, thanks to the ease and price of air travel, there have been far fewer trains whisking sleeping passengers from country to country through the night.

But things are changing – for one, sleeper train travel comes hand-in-hand with connotations of romance and adventure – and we live in an era where collecting experiences is covetable travel currency.

Plus, there’s the eco-impact – carbon footprints of train travel are way lower than flying.

“They’ve always had a romance,” says train travel expert Mark Smith, founder of popular train website The Man in Seat 61. “Sometimes the romance is built up – even the romance of the Orient Express has been exaggerated beyond the reality.

“But, of course, romance is not something you buy, it’s something that happens. It’s in the eyes of the beholder, as it were.”

Intrigued? These are some of the sleeper services you can currently hop on to traverse Europe.

Caledonian Sleeper – London, England to Fort William, Scotland

The Calendonian Sleeper whisks passengers from London to Scotland.

It’s only an hour flight from London to Scotland’s main cities – including cultural hub Glasgow and beautiful capital Edinburgh.

But why battle airport security at Heathrow when you could fall asleep in the bustling city center of London and awaken on Rannoch Moor, surrounded by spectacular Scottish scenery?

“You wake up at 30 miles an hour on a single track in the middle of the West Highlands, with deer bounding away from the train,” says Smith.

The Man in Seat 61 says the Caledonian Sleeper is his favorite sleeper train, spotlighting those stunning views, plus the addition of a lounge car.

There are two trains that depart London nightly and both split to take passengers to their various destinations. Depending on the route you pick, you can head to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen, Fort William, Perth or Aviemore.

The Inverness train also makes stops at Gleneagles, home to golf and whisky – and the Fort William service includes a stop off at Corrour, known as the UK’s most remote station.

These luxury suites will be introduced on the Caledonian Sleeper later in 2019.

Traveling London to Fort William takes just shy of 8 hours.

The Caledonian Sleeper is currently undergoing a makeover, with new trains set to replace the current carriages – built in the 1980s – in summer 2019.

They will include Caledonian Double Rooms with an en-suite toilet and shower and double bed.

Club Rooms are the next ring down, with en-suite toilet and shower.

Those staying in Club Room or Caledonian Double will have access to the club car.

There are also classic rooms and comfort seats.

Trenhotel Lusitania – Madrid, Spain to Lisbon, Portugal

Arrive in style at Lisbon's Santa Apolonia station.

Travel from one great Mediterranean city to another via Renfe’s Trenhotel Lusitania, a night train that links Madrid, Spain to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.

On board, get into vacation mode with wine and hot food from the bar/café.

First Class sleeper compartments are sold as one cabin, so you can nab a whole room to yourself. If you want to splash out, enjoy Grand Class and get an en suite too, plus free newspapers and use of the club lounge.

One of the other advantages of sleeper train travel is arriving in the middle of the city center, in this case, Lisbon’s beautiful Santa Apolonia Station.

As Smith says, it’s the savviest travelers who choose sleeper trains over budget flights: even if the journey takes longer – and is potentially a little pricier – it’s a more economical use of time.

“Flying even a one hour flight ends up taking four hours – by the time you get to the airport, you check in and you check out the other end, and so forth. So a sleeper train can save four daytime hours straight away,” says the Man in Seat 61.

Thello sleeper train – from Paris, France to Rome, Italy

Thello will take you from Paris to Venice and back.

Leave Paris Gare de Lyon in the evening, speed through the Italian countryside, stop in chic Milan and wake up to views of gondolas and watery streets in Venice.

On board this Thello service, there’s no regular seats – you’ll either be in a sleeping berth or a couchette car that sleeps four to six people.

There’s a premium cabin option, which gives you maximum privacy and access to a shower.

The service also has a waiter service restaurant car, but the Man in Seat 61 clarifies that it’s not exactly Orient Express level.

Sleeper trains are fun for all the family.

Sometimes, Smith says, it’s preferable to bring your own snacks.

“It’s much better to bring a bottle that you choose yourself and then crack it open – have a midnight feast.”

One of his other top tips is picking a good restaurant near your departure station:

“Researching a good restaurant can often fill the waiting time before a late night sleeper departure – and it gives you somewhere to wait and it just transforms that part of the experience.”

Tolstoy – Helsinki, Finland to Moscow, Russia

There's a variety of sleeper options on Russian Railways overnight trains.

The Russian Railways Tolstoy service takes you from Helsinki in Finland to Moscow in Russia, with a variety of sleeping options – from a second class four-berth sleeper to a deluxe business class sleeper with en suite.

The restaurant car is kitted out in rich red curtains and seating, which is an experience.

Oh, and for added drama – the train is named after Russia’s most famous writer, Leo Tolstoy.

The train takes roughly 15 hours to cross Northern Europe.

French intercités de nuit – Paris, France to South of France

Travel from the bright lights of Paris to the gorgeous South of France.

You can travel by train from Paris’s city lights to the South of France – although that route’s been severely chopped down over recent years.

Still, you can currently catch the French intercités de nuit train to the city of Toulouse and picturesque Latour de Carol. You can also depart the train at Rodez and Briancon, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.

There’s the budget reclining seat option or the couchette option.

For Smith, this journey was his first ever sleeper train experience, on a high school French exchange. The students were sleeping in couchettes, but he sneaked a look inside the sleeping cars:

“I thought, ‘This Is the way I want to travel in future,’” recalls Smith. “So when I did my first Interrail a couple of years later, I splurged on paying for a proper bed in the sleeper – and I have never really looked back.”

On board, expect a sleeping bag rather than blanket. You also get a bottle of water, ear plugs and tissues, which sets you up nicely for the night.

Russian Railways – Moscow, Russia to Nice, France

Some of the sleeper compartments on this train are pretty swanky.

Some of the journeys on this list are fairly short and sweet, but this Russian Railways train travels an incredible 2,164 miles across the European continent, from Paris to Moscow.

It’s one of the longest passenger trains in Europe – and also makes stops in Berlin, Germany and Warsaw, Poland.

The train’s a spiritual successor to the Nord Express, recognizable from its striking Art Deco posters. This iconic service operated until the World War II, stopping off at cities across Eastern Europe before terminating in Russia.

There's a restaurant car on board too.

The cars are pretty modern by sleeper train standards.

As you might expect for a journey of this length, there’s a restaurant car – and for added excitement it switches halfway through the journey. For the first part it’s a Polish restaurant car. When the train reaches Brest, a Russian dining car is added.

If you really want to splash out, you can travel in a VIP First Class deluxe sleeper – which Smith muses is probably for Russian oligarchs. It’s got an en suite shower and toilet, flat-screen-TV and a hot breakfast included.

Santa Claus Express – Helsinki, Finland to Rovaniemi, Finland

When a train’s called the Santa Claus Express, you know it’s going to be an exciting experience.

This double-decker train travels north into a snowy winter wonderland, across Scandinavia from Helsinki, Finland to Lapland – taking less than 15 hours.

On board, there’s a restaurant car and you can opt for the economy seat, a double sleeper, single sleeper or a double/single sleeper with private bathroom.

Hurtling through the snowy scenes is an unforgettable experience and the double-decker views offer incredible views – you might even spot the Northern Lights.

Austrian Nightjet sleeper trains – Linking Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy

Nightjet trains are omnipresent in Austria.

Austrian Railways (ÖBB) sleeper trains – dubbed Nightjet – loop up Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

That’s a lot of countries, so the Nightjet logo is one of the most omnipresent on continental European train stations.

According to Smith, that’s largely because the Austrian train service has made the sleeper trains economically viable.

“The Austrians have worked out a way to run sleeper trains that makes economic sense and they’ve got the political – with a small ‘p’ – will to do so,” he says.

The train expert also explains sleeper trains can only run successfully when track access fees are reasonable.

Nightjet operates on train tracks spanning Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

ÖBB has even taken over retired routes and operates train services – such as a Berlin, Germany to Zurich, Switzerland sleeper – that don’t even start in Austria.

The success of Austrian Nightjet leaves Smith hopeful for the sleeper train’s future:

“The question is whether someone like ÖBB can expand further and perhaps bringing back sleeper trains that are wholly outside their normal stamping grounds in Austria?”

On board Nightjet, go for a sleeping car or a couchette. Sleeping cars have a washbasin, or an en suite if you book the deluxe version.

You can use this service to travel from Vienna, Austria to Venice, Italy. Other routes include Berlin, Germany to Basel and Zurich in Switzerland.

Sofia-Istanbul Express – Sofia, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey

The Sofia-Istanbul service whisks passengers from Bulgaria’s capital to the historic metropolis of Istanbul.

It’s known for being pretty cheap, with a single sleeper only costing about $40.

It takes about 10 hours and there’s no catering options, so here’s another service where it’s worth stocking up on food and drink beforehand.

Also worth noting – your sleep will be interrupted when you get off the train at the Turkish border to go through passport control.

Additionally, the train’s currently terminating at Halkali, a bit further out of Istanbul, and you have to jump on a bus to complete the last part of the journey.

EuroNight Chopin – Prague, Czech Republic to Krakow, Poland

The real question is, will you look as glamorous as this while on board your sleeper service?

The Euronight Chopin sleeper service links Prague in the Czech Republic with Krakow in Poland.

There are four and six person couchettes, but also deluxe hotel-style sleeping cars – complete with en suite, slippers and your own breakfast.

There’s also a bistro car with snacks, plus draft beer on tap.

Meanwhile, the EuroNight Lisinski service takes you from Austria via Croatia to Slovenia in less than nine hours and EuroNight Kálmán Imre whisks you from Munich, Germany or Zurich, Switzerland to Budapest, Hungary – with stop offs at Vienna and Salzburg in Austria.

Meanwhile EuroNight Ister takes you from Budapest to Bucharest in roughly 17 hours, with a stop in Brasov, home to Bran Castle, aka Dracula’s Castle.

Dovrebanen – Oslo, Norway to Trondheim, Norway

Norway’s a stunning country, and seeing it from a train window is pretty spectacular. This night service meanders through the Gudbrandsdalen valley and the Dovrefjell mountain range.

It takes seven hours in total and culminates in the historic city of Trondheim.

You can opt for a standard seat or compartment.

The Night Riviera – London, England to Penzance, Cornwall

Fall asleep in London and wake up by the sea in Cornwall on the Night Riviera.

If you’ve seen photographs of Cornwall’s rugged clifftops and sweeping beaches, it probably won’t take much to persuade you to hop on the Night Riviera, falling asleep in London’s cosmopolitan center and waking up to bracing sea air.

You can nab a seat, which train operator Great Western Railways describe as “airline-style,” share a compartment or enjoy one to yourself.

The lounge car is open all night, perfect for midnight feasting, and passengers can also make use of a station lounge at departure station London Paddington.

Baltic Express – Tallinn, Estonia to Moscow, Russia

This eastern European sleeper service takes you from Tallinn, Estonia through the night to Russia, with stops at St. Petersburg and Moscow.

The service offers either a two-berth or four-berth compartment – or, on the cheaper side, there’s an open car with sleeping berths or a carriage with seats.

Smith always advises against going for a regular seat, comparing it on his website to sleeping on a park bench. Most of the time, couchettes are pretty economical and worth paying a little more for as they provide more privacy and security.

This is another train where you’ll go through passport control as you enter Russia.

Berlin Night Express – Berlin, Germany to Malmö, Sweden

The Berlin Night Express is a particularly unusual journey – not only does it transport you across the continent at night, the route also encompasses a sojourn on a ferry.

This summer-only sleeper train has to cross the Baltic Seat between Trelleborg and Sassnitz via ferry. During this four-hour stint of the journey, you can stay on the train or wander around the shops and restaurants on board the ferry.

As for your sleeping arrangements, you can book a bed in a six-person couchette or go for the whole compartment to yourself.

SJ Train –Malmö, Sweden to Narvik, Norway

Journey north in Sweden on board the SJ Night Train, operated by Swedish rail company SJ – the tracks span from Malmö in the south to Narvik in the far north of Norway.

The sleeper compartments on board SJ trains look pretty inviting.

You can travel economically in a seat, opt for six-bed couchette, three-bed sleeper or single sleeper with shower. Facilities-wise there’s a restaurant/bistro and bar.

The views on SJ's trains are often pretty spectacular.

These compartments are particularly well kitted out – think mood lighting and included duvets for the higher end tickets.

First Class passengers can also enjoy the SJ Lounge in Stockholm and Gothenburg.

Snalltaget - Malmö, Sweden to Åre, Sweden

Snalltaget is a seasonal Swedish service that runs from Malmö to Åre in the north west – a winter sports hotspot. The train syncs up its timetable for when visitors are arriving and departing the ski resorts.

On board there’s a restaurant called Krogen, Swedish for pub, where you can stock up pre-skiing. The service prides itself on serving up food on porcelain plates and dining options include Swedish cheese pie and a cinnamon bun.

There are four different night train options – from a berth in a couchette, private compartment, private compartment plus breakfast or a private compartment for your family.

Kiev Express – Warsaw, Poland to Kiev, Ukraine

The Kiev Express carries passengers from Warsaw, Poland to Kiev in Ukraine, with options to sleep in a three-person compartment, double sleeper or single.

It takes over 17 hours and there’s no food available, so another service where it’s worth stocking up before you jump on board.

Still you get morning tea or coffee and a snack.

You can also travel within Poland on a few night services – from Swinoujscie, for example, to Warsaw.

Italia Rail Night Trains

There are several night train routes in Italy that’ll transport you around this boot-shaped country.

Via Italia Rail, you can travel on routes such as Rome to Palermo, Naples to Milan and Bolzano to Naples.

The services have the usual accommodation choices – sleepers and couchettes and different routes have slightly different carriages. The swankiest option is the Excelsior Sleeper, offering a private shower and including complementary continental breakfast.

At the other end of the spectrum are the couchette carriages, which are pretty standard.

Smith says passengers should remember that not all sleeper trains need to be the pinnacle of luxury.

“The reality is you’ve got comfortable sleeping cars and more economical couchettes on European trains, so it’s not all luxury. It’s just ordinary comfort to get from A to B and it’s great fun being with your friends,” he says.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – London, England to Venice, Italy

The Orient Express takes you from London to Venice in style.

You didn’t think we’d compile a list of European night trains without including the most famous sleeper service of them all?

The Orient Express is synonymous with glamor and was memorably immortalized in print by Agatha Christie.

Of course, the original service is long since discontinued and the Venice-Simplon Orient Express is a pricey private service that aims to combine old school glamor with 21st century luxury.

The trip takes 24 hours, so you have plenty of time to enjoy the experience.

It's pretty luxurious and comes with a high price tag.

The vintage aesthetic is captured via the use of sleeping cars from the 1920s, 30s and 50s.

This Orient Express is actually made up of two different train services.

When you reach Kent, in the South East of England, you depart the first train and cross over to France inside the the Channel Tunnel, before boarding restored French blue-and-gold 1920s Wagon-Lits sleeping cars for the remainder of your journey.

These sleeping cars are the real deal, so don’t expect showers or air-conditioning – but the chic wooden paneling and vintage air surely makes up for this.

If you want more modern-day luxury, you can now book a Grand Suite with a parlor and and en suite bathroom.

Worth noting – food’s included but you’ve got to pay extra for drinks. One of the big drawers of the Orient Express is the delicious food – it’s several levels beyond your usual sleeping train fare, with three restaurant cars with fine dining options.

Forget wearing your jeans or sweatpants, there’s a dress code in the evening – and many embrace the Art Deco vibes and go full flapper.

Lovcen Sleeper Train – Belgrade, Serbia to Bar, Montenegro

On the Lovcen sleeper train you can travel from Belgrade, Serbia to Bar, Montenegro.

It’s almost a shame to book a night berth on this vintage train that rumbles southwest from the Serbian capital all the way to Montenegro’s sparkling Adriatic coastline. That’s because, during daylight hours, this is hands-down one of the most dramatic rail journeys on the planet.

The train clanks through hazy mountain scenery, with dizzying trackside plunges, high railway bridges, long curving tunnels and birch forests hiding deserted Alpine lakes.

There's some incredible views on this train.

On the plus side, the night train is a true retro rail ride, from the ancient sleeper cabins, to the midnight border stops (the route also crosses briefly into Bosnia and Herzegovina). And even by the light of the moon or stars, the scenery is impressive.

Better still, take a return trip. Sleep one way, gawp the other.

Booking isn’t easy though. With no online service, it requires turning up to the station at either end to secure a berth, although it rarely sells out, even in the height of summer.

For more European sleeper train insider tips, check out Mark Smith’s website