A few years ago, sleeper trains were said to be dying out – made redundant by high-speed trains and cheap flights. But in this environmentally aware era the overnight train journey is staging a welcome comeback, especially in its European heartland.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.
Why trains beat flights
We all know the drill – daydream about taking a break, find a cheap airfare and book it, then endure the hassle of getting to a distant airport and being squeezed into sardine class before the holiday fun actually begins. Sometimes, however, catching a train to your destination is an option, and the rail journey then becomes an enjoyable part of your holiday, rather than a necessary means to an end. As the countryside rolls by your window, a train trip eases you into a relaxed mindset, ready to enjoy your vacation.
The versatility of the night train
A particular type of train, the sleeper train, takes that rail advantage and magnifies it. It has the usual benefit of departing and arriving closer to city centers than any airport, but with the added bonus of passengers being able to stretch out and sleep for much of the trip. Not only does that negate the expense of one night's accommodation, but sleeper trains are generally timed to leave in the evening and arrive first thing – leaving entire days free for sightseeing. Sleeper berths often come in attractive levels of comfort and price, too – from a couchette with several berths in a shared dorm-style arrangement, up to private single-bed berths of varying levels of luxury.
Food is usually available, allowing you to sit and eat in a far more civilised manner than from a plastic tray at seat 36,000ft. Some sleeper trains have cafe-bars serving simple snacks and drinks, others have a full-scale dining car cooking hot meals served on crockery. Either way, they’ll have seating which allows you to dine while gazing out the window at the passing world and chatting with fellow travelers. And if you happen to book a train without a dining car (always check in advance), there’s nothing more pleasant then assembling a picnic of local foods before departure, then enjoying it on board.
Going green by rail
So why has there been this sudden turnaround in the fortunes of sleeper trains, and why should travelers embrace the trend? One word (and it’s a Swedish one): flygskam. Meaning "flight shame", it signifies an environmental movement which has sprung up in the wake of the climate change activism of Greta Thunberg and others. Citing the high level of carbon emissions caused by commercial flights, its proponents have vowed to travel by surface means, and the sleeper train is key.
Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) is the hero at the heart of this story, having picked up the baton dropped by German operator Deutsche Bahn when it abandoned its own sleeper routes a few years ago. ÖBB is now reporting great success with its refurbished and increased Nightjet services across Europe, meeting rising demand from environmentally conscious travelers. On a roll, ÖBB has also revived dormant overnight routes such as Vienna to Brussels. Other operators (including Sweden’s) are planning new sleeper train routes such as Malmö-Copenhagen-Cologne, with connections to London and other major cities.
In addition to trains run by national rail companies, a range of privately run sleeper trains around the world offer luxurious journeys via upmarket "rail cruises". Sleeper trains may have seemed lost in the past – but thanks to flygskam, they’re once again part of the future.
Ten of the best sleeper train routes
- Vienna to Brussels: This useful Nightjet train passes from Austria through major German cities en route to the Belgian capital.
- Warsaw to Kiev: Ride this atmospheric old-school sleeper train, which requires a wheel adjustment for Ukraine’s different rail gauge in the middle of the night.
- Spirit of the Outback: Comfortable Australian sleeper train heading from Brisbane to Longreach, in the heart of the Outback.
- Eastern & Oriental Express: You’ll be dressing for dinner aboard this luxury train as it runs from Bangkok to Singapore with sightseeing excursions in Thailand and Malaysia.
- Coast Starlight: Features ocean and mountain views as it progresses from Los Angeles via Oakland and Portland to Seattle, USA.
- The Ocean: Go to sleep in Montreal, awake to the lakes of New Brunswick, then arrive at the Atlantic coastline of Halifax, Canada.
- Pride of Africa: Traveling through South Africa between Cape Town and Pretoria, this top-notch train offers fine dining and sightseeing.
- Belgrade to Bar: Night train traveling from Serbia through spectacular mountain scenery to Montenegro’s Adriatic coast.
- Ankara to Baku: This brand-new sleeper train service was due to launch in 2019 but has been delayed. Once it is running, it will head from the Turkish capital via Tbilisi, Georgia, to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.
- Caledonian Sleeper: Sip a fine whiskey as this upgraded sleeper service with all-new carriages heads from London to destinations across Scotland.