Sleep your way across Europe
Night sleeper trains have gained in popularity with rail passengers in recent years.
Train conductor Wolfgang Kriesel stands beside the door to his Paris-bound sleeper train on platform 9 in Hamburg's Altona station.
Kriesel greets guests and checks their tickets as they arrive. There are increasingly more of them these days, he says.
In fact, night sleeper trains have gained in popularity in recent years as rail passengers have come to recognise that travelling in a "mobile hotel" does not cost the world and are looking for more comfortable travel options.
Night train to Lisbon
Kriesel’s train is owned by the Germany's national railway company, Deutsche Bahn, which offers 29 overnight connections to destinations in nine European countries. His train bears the number 236 and rolls out of the station on time at precisely 8:08 p.m. By 9:14 the next morning, it will be in Paris.
Kriesel, who has worked on the railway for the past 30 years, asks his guests at what time they would like to be woken or what they would like to drink in the morning. He also provides one guest with useful tips and suggestions about his favourite city, Paris.
That guest, Mike Berger, a logistics manager, will leave the French capital in the evening and travel onward to Madrid with another night train.
Berger is a railway enthusiast who prefers to take a train even on journeys where a plane would be much faster.
Madrid is not his final destination. "I'll put my luggage in storage and travel to Lisbon where I'll spend the next two months working," he said.
"There was a direct connection by night train from Paris up until a few years ago but that got cancelled," he added regretfully. "But it does give me time to spend one day in Madrid."
Popular but not so cheap
German railways also offers one-week night train journeys through Europe.
"It's become very popular with railway fans," says Deutsche Bahn's Michael Kolb.
Depending on the season, a berth in a couchette, equivalent to a student hostel, costs between EUR 280 and EUR 350 (USD 435 and USD 544) per person for seven nights. A sleeper car, more like a mobile hotel, goes for between EUR 455 and EUR 546. "Breakfast is included in the price of a ticket for a sleeper coach."
Gerd Mahnke and his girlfriend Silvia are also travelling to Paris aboard the sleeper coach.
The couple wants to travel to Munich after visiting Paris. Their journey will take them to Cologne, Berlin, Copenhagen and then Brussels before they return home to Hamburg.
Kolb says passengers are not limited to spending one day in each city as their ticket is valid with a number of sleeper train operators throughout Europe.
A prominent part
Due to its location, Germany plays a prominent part in the sleeper train network.
But Berger idolises Poland's trans-continental train, "Jan Kiepura," that connects Amsterdam to Moscow via Warsaw.
Destinations such as St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk or Odessa are all reachable by night train.
"It's possible to travel from Lisbon to Moscow by sleeper coach," he said. "You just have to change train a few times."
The by-word for railway luxury was once the Orient Express which linked Paris to Istanbul. It no longer exists although it is still possible to get a high standard of comfort on long-distance overnight trains.
Germany's night train service has several categories of comfort such as deluxe cabins with separate showers and WC or sleeper cars shared by up to four people.
There's also an economy class with washing facilities, simply furnished bunks, reclining chairs, and of course, ordinary passenger seats.
Passengers travelling with other companies, especially those in Eastern Europe, have to make do with a slightly lower standard of comfort. "But the trains in Spain and Portugal are wonderful," said Berger.
More than 300,000 passengers travel by sleeper cars every year with another 700,000 buying a couchette.
Many business people also travel by night train as they arrive at their destination at a convenient time in the morning and leave again in the evening with time enough for a decent meal.
"A lot of managers work in the evening in their compartments," said Kriesel.
Direct connections are easy to book online. But combining trains can be complicated especially when it involves different rail companies.
"You can get tickets in the bigger booking offices," said Deutsche Bahn's Sabine Brunkorst. "But it will take more than five minutes to complete a booking."
Berger agrees: "It took the women behind the counter quite a long time to book my three tickets to Lisbon."
Regardless, he is happily ensconced in his sleeper coach and looking forward to his end destination.
For more information, see www.nachtzug.de
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