Have you heard of the Nightjet?
The Nightjet is an overnight train service.
Night trains differ all over the world. This post is about a particular brand of night trains in Europe, the Nightjet. What they are like, where they go and how to get tickets.
I hesitated for a long time about putting you through my take on the Nightjet.
Why? Because I’m too involved in night trains. I worked on them for six years. Night trains are my thang. I know so much that it is insanely hard to keep it short.
And the temptation is huge to descend into endless tales of my adventures.
Endless tales of my adventures
- The time in Venice I drank two litres of Tocai on the hotel roof and the alarm clock fairy set my alarm for me.
- My Milan-Munich couchette with 50 Albanians from the same village.
- The time the Austrian police arrested a refugee family off my couchette. They wouldn't let the little boy keep his balloon.
- The time at Stuttgart at 2 AM the police brought me a man and his 5 year old daughter. The man was so drunk he couldn't get onto the train. The girl had her little orange bucket and pink spade from that day's Bodensee outing.
- Meeting my wife on platform 3 at Roma Termini.
- Taking her to Milan with me in the guard’s van, just because I could.
But I digress.
Night Train Basics
First, some absolute basics.
Night trains are not just trains that run at night. Any train can run at night. Night trains are trains that cover vast distances over night, with beds and bunks in which you can sleep.
There is also an attendant who ensures your safety.
Most continental European night trains have three types of carriage
- seated cars, like on day trains. These are the cheapest, least comfortable option for a long journey over night. Fine if you have a compartment to yourself. Not fine if it is you and five other smelly people.
- couchettes (say: cooSHET). From the French "to lie down". Carriages with four or six bunks per compartment in which you can take your trip lying down. Think hostel on wheels. Cheap, but you do get to sleep.
- sleeping cars. Your hotel on wheels. One, two or three proper beds stacked over each other in one compartment. The compartment has a wash basin or even an en-suite bathroom.
Enter the Nightjets
The Nightjets are trains like this. Here is a link to their website with 360° views of all types of carriage. The Nightjet is a network of overnight train services run by the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB - Österreichische Bundesbahnen) in Central Europe.
It has its hub in Austria. The Nightjets go to the most glamourous cities in Europe: Vienna, Berlin, and Hamburg as well as Rome, Venice and Milan. They also serve Zürich, Düsseldorf and Cologne.
What is the difference between Nightjets and EuroNights?
Very little. EuroNights are international night express trains that have a high service level. Great comfort, few stops, high(-ish) speed. EuroNight isn’t a brand, it is a service standard. “Make your train like this, then you can call it a EuroNight”. They used to run all over continental Europe, but there are fewer of them these days.
The Nightjet is a better EuroNight.
In some countries it crosses, the departure boards display it as a EuroNight. The difference is that the Austrian Railways have branded “their” EuroNights. They have special livery, extensive marketing and a higher service level. All coaches are air-conditioned and the attendants have Sound-of-Music uniforms.
Here is a map of all the Nightjet services. As you can see, its hub is in Austria.
Nightjet: How to get the best tickets
These are the easiest ways to get Nightjet tickets:
- You can buy Nightjet tickets online. I favour nightjet.com and oebb.at. They are the same booking engine, run by ÖBB directly. I’ve always got the best deal from them.
- Or download the ÖBB app. You can buy your ticket within the app. Then you can show your attendant a QR code.
- The 1890s way to get tickets. Buy them at a ticket office or a licensed agent. However, not all of them can get you special promo deals. Thus you may end up paying more than necessary. Of course, nothing beats a real paper ticket to treasure as a memento.
- Here is the full breakdown of everywhere you can get tickets.
You can get your ticket up to six months in advance. The earlier you buy them, the cheaper they'll be.
...and how much Nightjet tickets cost
The Nightjet has a dynamic pricing system. Below you will find the cheapest rates for all categories. I can't book six months in advance because I don't plan my journeys that far ahead. But if you do, you can get your berth for one of these prices.
I booked my last sleeper about two weeks in advance and paid €204 for a single deluxe sleeper.
As you can see, going by Nightjet is more expensive than going on a day train. But it is more work to run a night train. I gladly paid €204 so as not to use up a precious day of leave trapped in an overfilled, late ICE train with a toddler.
Nightjet with a Eurail or Interrail pass
The Eurail and Interrail pass is accepted on the Nightjet.
You need to reserve a berth on the Nightjet. Either do it at a ticket office, or over the phone under +43 5 1717-3. You can’t get Pass holder reservations online. Here is what you have to pay for these supplements:
Newrest Wagons-Lits: Inventors of the Orient Express
Now about the staff in the Sound-of-Music uniforms:
The people working on the service are not Austrian Railways' staff. They work for the subcontractor the Austrians have retained to run these trains.
I haven't got a single decent picture of the Sound-of-Music uniform. You'll have to see for yourself.
So far, so sleazy, right?
In fact Newrest Wagons-Lits is the original night train company. In 1872 their founder, the Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, introduced the first sleeping car in Europe. He founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) and went on to invent the Orient Express.
In its heyday CIWL owned sleeping- and dining cars that travelled from Lisbon to Saint Petersburg and from London to Constantinople.
This is how famous they are.
After World War II the company declined and was bought and sold several times, losing its own carriages along the way.
Although Newrest Wagons-Lits may only be a white dwarf after the star that was CIWL, they still trace their lineage back to the very zenith of the Grand European Expresses. They are the real thing.
I think it is fantastic that the Nightjets hark back to such a glorious past.
Sitting up or lying down?
The Nightjet has three main types of carriage. There is only one type of seating car I know of, two types of couchette, and two models of sleeper carriage. Here come descriptions of the coaches used on most lines.
A happy and cheap way to travel
In Europe, compartments in seated carriages are disappearing. It's saloon everywhere. However, not so on the Nightjet. On the Nightjet the compartment rules.
When I was little an air trip was something so rare you got dressed up for it. The norm was to go by train and boat.
So when I was four my mother and I went to England by train to Oostende and jet-foil to Ramsgate.
I remember the orange seats on the train and that we pulled them out a long way. This gave us a huge surface to lie on. That was how we spent the night.
A huge communal mattress
And this is a great thing. The Nightjet seated carriages still have these seats you can pull out. And this gets you a mattress that takes up the entire compartment.
This is most comfortable if there are two or three of you. And less so if you are six, as you have to lie like sardines with your feet in each other's faces. Perhaps your Interrail-feet.
ÖBB allow you to book an entire seated compartment for yourself, even if it is just two or three of you. This is a fantastic idea. Your compartment is marked with a big notice "private compartment" in German, English and Italian.
Until the 11th of April 2019 you can book a private compartment for up to three people for €99. After that, the price starts at €174
In Italy, the Nightjets to Rome and Milan are part of Trenitalia's Intercity network - that means that commuters and other internal passengers get into the seated cars.
If you haven't booked a private compartment, expect to find your seat occupied. Be ready to insist on the occupant moving. This is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Just say: Scusi, è il mio posto. (SCOOzy, eh il MEEo POsto).
There is no breakfast included in the seated car, so bring something with you or buy something from the staff.
Good couchettes and bad couchettes
Couchettes are a good thing. A couchette is the minimum level of comfort you should go for. They are cheap, and you get to sleep.
It is possible that the younger you are, the better you will sleep in them.
On my recent couchette trips on the Nightjet, I found the bunk very hard. I also hated the way it sloped towards the wall.
Fortunately, they are going to be phased out, starting 2021. ÖBB are working on new couchettes. They allow more privacy and comfort. Here is what these are going to look like.
The Nightjet also has some old German couchettes with blue bunks. ÖBB snaffled these after DB took down its night network. These are softer and flatter. They usually run on the Vienna-Zurich and Zurich-Berlin lines. I've always slept well on those.
What I can say is this: on every one of my trips, the couchettes were pristine. Everything clean and fragrant and working.
And believe me, it is hard work keeping trains clean and working.
Again, ÖBB allow you to book yourself a whole compartment for a flat fee. Even in Italy this will definitely be yours all the way. I have done this before and it is a great idea.
The feeling is wonderful to look forward to your trip and know that you won't have a stinker or a snorer in your compartment.
On Nightjet couchettes breakfast is included. Coffee or tea, two rolls, butter (NOT margarine!) and jam. Most definitely the best couchette breakfast there is.
I know the Nightjet sleepers because I worked on this equipment for six years.
Before they ran for the Nightjet, the carriages belonged to Deutsche Bahn. As a Deutsche Bahn night train manager, I got to know them well. In 2016, Deutsche Bahn closed down its night trains and sold the cars to ÖBB.
Every time I worked as an attendant in a sleeping car, I drew a little line in a secret place - so that I would know how often I had had this car. Now these carriages roam Europe without me, but my marks are still there.
The Nightjet sleeping cars are only about 15 years old - new by rail standards.
Each carriage has twelve compartments with three beds. Nine compartments are standard, with a wash basin. Three compartments are "deluxe" with an en-suite loo and shower.
As I wrote in my viral tweet:
When booking the Nightjet sleeper, always book Deluxe (berths 32-36, 42-46, 52-56) if possible. If not, ask for 31-35, 41-45 or 51-55. These compartments have more space. Avoid 11-15 (next to loo) and 62-66 (next to kitchen - keys jangling, attendants cursing).
It only costs a tiny bit more for the deluxe option: between €10 and €20 per berth, but it is SO worth it. Because:
- You have more space.
- If you wake up at 3:37 AM and sort of feel you might need a pee, you just go to your en-suite loo.
- No obsessing about whether to get dressed and go to the loo at the end of the corridor or trying to sleep against your bladder.
- Showers are also a good thing
The carriages have pneumatic suspension (the car body lies on air cushions, rather than springs), and this makes for a smooth and silent ride.
They are awesome.
An extensive breakfast is included, which I shall elaborate below.
Want to use the Nightjet in your wheelchair?
Nearly all Nightjets have a compartment for people in wheelchairs, with walking frames or who have other special needs, such as sleep apnoea.
This is a lovely, spacious compartment with two beds in it - one for you and one for whoever is accompanying you. The wheelchair-accessible loo is next door.
There is only one of these per trainset, so it is best to book it as far in advance as possible, but at least 48 hrs beforehand. By the following means:
A trip worth every cent of €204
I go to great lengths for you, my reader. One of these lengths is to book myself a single deluxe sleeper and travel in it. For added difficulty, I took my baby daughter with me. With a buggy.
All so I could report back to you what it is like to go on the Nightjet, and what the service is like. After all, I have worked on trains like this, so I should know, right? Well, maybe.
We managed to get on. Somehow. In spite of all my experience, I managed to fluff getting onto the train with a buggy. Buggies and prams cause absolute mayhem on trains. I hate them. This isn't ÖBB's fault.
Sidetrack: since going to Bulgaria and back by train with a pram, I've come to love low-entry, wide-door trains. From Bucharest to Ruse I had one of those and it was such a relief not having to dismantle the pram.
Prams shouldn't be anywhere near trains. As a train manager, one of my worst Flixtrain nightmares is the Eurocopter/SUV-style pram stuck in the corridor, with a throng of people trapped behind it.
Going to bed
The attendant had everything ready, including a small bottle of Prosecco.
I found a goodie bag which I liked so much I took it home untouched (apart from the prosecco. I guzzled that immediately). I took it home untouched and decided to do an unboxing video for you. Here it is. Don't laugh, and please don't cry, either.
Nightjet Goodie Bag Unboxing Video
There are all sorts of lovely little things in the goodie bag that make you feel pampered.
- a nice Nightjet towel
- ear plugs
- a refreshing wipe
- little pretzels to go with your drink
- a squeezy fruit thing
The breakfast interrogation
When I worked on sleepers, asking 30 people what they wanted for breakfast was tedious and took ages.
After getting on to the sleeper, I found the following questionnaire, which I duly filled out. A very clever idea.
I ticked all the stuff I liked and that I thought a toddler can eat and handed the form to the attendant. Then we were left to ourselves.
By now we were whooshing through the Rhine valley. By day, the Rhine valley railway is a wonderful trip. At night it is even more beautiful. The moon and the lights from the opposite embankment reflecting on the waves, the dark hills drifting under the stars.
I needed all of the space of the deluxe compartment. It isn't huge. Furthermore, baby stuff spreads out so quickly. I jammed the collapsed buggy and luggage into the nook behind the en-suite bathroom.
In the sleepers, luggage can go underneath the bottom bed, or in the baggage racks. These are high up. Try and have as little luggage with you as possible. In the smaller of the standard compartments (11-15, 12-16, 21-25, 22-26, 61-65 and 62-66) a big suitcase won't fit anywhere. It ends up blocking the floor.
Getting up and out
As always when I am on a night train, we were bang on time. I was woken up with a knock 45 minutes before we arrived.
The Nightjets have lots of extra time in their timetables. Firstly, so that you don't arrive at 4 AM, and secondly so that if the train is delayed it can catch up again. For this reason, the Nightjet stands about in sidings in the middle of the night quite a bit. If you notice you're not moving, don't worry. Everything is probably fine.
My breakfast pictures didn't turn out. However, my good friend from Twitter, @_DiningCar, helped me out and sent me this lovely picture:
What I think of breakfast in sleepers
I've already written this in my post on Astra Trans Carpatic: I think breakfast is a waste of time, money and food. I've seen so much thrown away. I favour the Slovak model of weapons-grade instant coffee and Tatranký waffle bar.
However: The Nightjet breakfast is nice. The selection is staggering, and all the food is above-average quality. Even fussy people can find something on the breakfast menu. I think Newrest Wagons-Lits (the people working on the Nightjets, in case you skipped the Newrest chapter) have made a huge effort. It has paid off and they deserve credit for it.
The breakfast I served on the CityNightLine (Deutsche Bahn's moribund night train network) was not nearly as nice. Lucky passengers.
What I think of the Nightjets
For two decades since the 1990s, the night trains in Europe have taken one beating after another. Railway company after railway company abandoned them. The Swiss, everybody's darling when it comes to rail travel, were among the first. Then in 2016 Deutsche Bahn finally axed its own CityNightLine network, after sabotaging it for years.
The Austrian Railways picked up the pieces of the CityNightLine and put it together with their own EuroNight network.
But not just that: they did much more. They devised a vibrant new brand, a fuck-off marketing strategy and lots of new ideas to accommodate 21st century tastes (e.g. the private compartments). In its very first year, the Nightjet network made money for ÖBB.
The Austrians have proven that it is possible to run exciting, modern night trains as a sustainable, profitable business.
Excitement and Indulgence
The Nightjet gives you that feeling of excitement and indulgence so lacking on most modern trains. From the moment you buy your ticket to the end of your journey you feel the tingle of European overnight adventure, even if it is from one boring German city to another.
This is why it is worth going on the Nightjet at every possible opportunity.
Have another look at Nightjet.com and see when it next fits your plans.