Overnight trains while a great use of your travel time are both a curse and a blessing. Yes it is great to leave Paris and wake up in Venice but that is 12 hours of travel time where you can be cooped up in a 6 person couchette with complete and total strangers. It can be fun, interesting and culturally enlightening if you get stuck with a gregarious Italian family. Yet it can also be uncomfortable physically (as the accommodations are not 5 star) and socially especially if there is a language barrier. Whatever happens this all adds to your experience and you must approach the situation openly or yes you will probably be miserable.
Overnight trains make for efficient use of time and depending on your sleeping accommodations can turn out to be a little cheaper than hotel. Any trip longer than six hours should be done on an overnight train if possible to make the best use of your travel time. As long as the train departs after 19:00 (7:00 PM) it still only counts as one travel day. Some overnight trains require a reservation.
There are several options for overnight trains. For second class rail pass holders you choose between a seat and a couchette. First class rail pass holders select between a couchette and a sleeper. Whether you book a seat, couchette, or a sleeper the train is still going to the same place. It is up to your personal preference and budget as to the best option.
Overnight Train Seats
If you have a second class ticket you can choose to sleep â€œuprightâ€ in a 6 person enclosed compartment car (usually has a door leading to a corridor) or coach car seating (open seating with a center aisle and seats on either side). The compartment car is typical of older trains and consists of 2 banquettes facing each other that seat 3 people each. This is by far the cheapest route because you donâ€™t have to pay an additional supplement but you also probably will not get much sleep.
If you do board an overnight train with compartment cars sometimes you can try and get away with snagging a compartment all to yourself. On the window of each cabin/compartment if you see little tiny slips of paper that means that the seats have been reserved. The seats may be empty when you board but that just means that the passengers will be picked up en route.
If you are lucky enough to find a compartment with no slips of paper you can immediately shut the door and do everything in your power to make the space as unwelcoming as possible for anyone looking for seats. The only disadvantage to this is that many a backpacker/traveler is well aware of this trick and itâ€™s a gamble to pull off. At worst at the moment you may have managed to fall asleep 4 very happy and loud Germans will have loaded into your compartment laughing all night and eating sausages (yes, this comes from personal experience).
If there are other people in the compartment count on an uncomfortable nights sleep. But hey thatâ€™s one night where you donâ€™t have to pay for a hotel/hostel which should provide solace when you are trying to keep your sleeping head from bobbling all over the husky German sitting next to you.
If your train does not have compartment seating (second class ticket) your the seating will be coach car seating (open seating with a center aisle and seats on either side). On high speed trains this is not an entirely uncomfortable option because the seats usually recline and are a little plusher than the old school compartment cars on older trains. You still have to pay a supplement to ride on high speed trains. However, a reservation supplement for a seat on an overnight trains will cost less than reserving a spot in a couchette or sleeper.
Sometimes overnight trains do not have either form of seating available and only provide couchettes and sleepers. Check your train timetable and decipher from the symbols if seating is available. If no seating is available then you must make a reservation for a couchette or a sleeper. If you have more time than money then consider taking the trip during the day, you lose a day of train and tourista time but you wonâ€™t have to pay an extra reservation supplement (unless it is a high speed train).