What’s the difference between couchette cars and sleeping cars?


Today I found out that New Zealand has lie-flat sleeper buses, which I’m going to have to try while I’m here. I can’t sleep on planes, but I can on trains, so buses should be my next experiment.

This news reminded me that I intended to post about the differences between couchette cars (Liegewagen/Voiture-couchettes) and sleeping cars (Schlafwagen/Voiture-lits) on overnight trains in Europe. I searched for information about the difference before I took my first overnight train, and wasn’t too satisfied with the descriptions I found, so I went with the slightly-more-expensive sleeping car to be sure I’d be comfortable.

A couple of months ago, due to lack of available sleeping places, I took a couchette for the first time, from Vienna to Rome, and then took a sleeping place on the way back. I took some notes on the differences. Both trains were catered by newrest, as were other night trains I’d taken around Europe (between Vienna and Zürich or Amsterdam.)

Amenities

There’s not a lot of space in a cabin on an overnight train, so there are many things cleverly tucked away which you might not notice unless someone else in the cabin is more experienced than you. I probably missed a lot of things.

Sleeper

Secret washbasin, usually hidden under part of a table or inside a little cabinet (where there is also a mirror.) Fold-out table, no real seats, but sitting on the bed is comfortable as long as the bunk immediately above is folded away. On the trip from Rome to Vienna there was a little cubbyhole (with a door, but I’m not sure if it locked) for each bed, next to the washing cabinet.

Couchette

Small table, no washbasin, but the seats are normal, comfortable seats until the seat backs are folded away to convert them into beds.

Evening goodies

Sleeper

Thin newrest slippers (which I now have a collection of at home), a facecloth, 3M earplugs, a small container of potable water which I think is intended for tooth brushing. On other routes, there has also been a bottle of drinking water, a bottle of sparkling wine (which I mistook for sparkling water on my first trip, and tried to drink with breakfast), and something small to eat (a small packet of pretzels, or a tube of fruit compote) in the cabin on my arrival. On the trip from Rome to Vienna, the attendant asked if I wanted a fruit salad, and when I said yes, brought it back in a small glass bowl along with a bottle of drinking water, a bottle of sangria, and a packet of party cracker mix. In general there’s some kind of snack and something mildly alcoholic to put you to sleep.

Couchette

A bottle of water.

Sleeping place

Whether couchette or sleeper, the more people can theoretically fit into the cabin you booked, the cheaper it will be. There can be up to three bunks on each side of the cabin, some of which will stay folded away if the cabin is not full. If you’re lucky, you can get a cabin to yourself even if you booked a four- or six-person cabin.

Sleeper

Mattress with sheet on it (already tucked in etc.) duvet and fairly normal-sized pillow. Pretty comfortable to sleep on, though due to the movement and noise of the train I still wake up a few times during the night. On one train to Amsterdam, I barely slept due to the noise; I think I was at the end of a car or of the train, which might make a difference to the noise or movement.

Couchette

Lightly-padded bench-type seats that convert into narrow beds, with a sheet (which you have to unfold and spread out yourself after converting the seat to a bed) a blanket, and tiny pillow just big enough to fit a head on. The benches are soft enough to be comfortable seats, but not really soft enough for sleeping, unless you’re used to sleeping on fairly hard surfaces; I could sleep quite well, but when I woke up during the night I always found parts of my body still asleep. What’s more, couchettes are a bit narrower than beds, so probably wouldn’t be suitable for people who have enough natural padding to make up for this.

Breakfast

In both kinds of accommodation, breakfast is brought to you in the morning, a certain amount of time before the stop you’re getting off at; if you’re sharing a room with someone who’s getting off before you, chances are you’ll wake up when they get their breakfast. If I recall correctly, you can get free refills on the tea and coffee if you can be bothered getting the attendant to come back.

Sleeper

You get a menu to fill out in the evening where you can choose 6 items (more for €1 each) from a list that includes tea, coffee, orange juice (in a carton so you can save it for later if you want), two pieces of bread, yoghurt, and various cold meats, cheeses and spreads. Unfortunately I lost the photo I took of the menu. I usually get a hot drink, bread, yoghurt, and three things to put on the bread. The ‘two pieces of bread’ option is a bit of a mystery bag which sometimes gets you slices of bread and sometimes rolls; I recall getting a croissant on one train, but I can’t remember whether that was a separate option.

Couchette

White rolls with butter and jam, and a choice of tea or coffee.

Overall, the couchette car is just comfortable enough (it’s not going to be your best night’s sleep in any case, but it’ll do, if you’re the kind of person who can sleep on trains) and you wouldn’t notice anything wrong with it if you’d never tried a sleeper car. The sleeper car has a lot of nice luxurious touches, though, and I will continue to use them when I can.

If you have other experiences with couchettes or sleeper cars in Europe or elsewhere, please share them in the comments so we can compare.

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  1. #1 by Michael on December 18, 2014 - 3:20 pm

    What you get will really depend on which rail line you are taking and the type of ticket you’ve booked. Breakfast is certainly not included as a standard on most overnight trains in Europe.

    Like

  2. #2 by Hamesha India on February 2, 2017 - 8:28 am

    I only have travelled by indian trains before, and they seem very much like 4-bed or 6-bed couchettes to me. Except that they dont have lockable doors – only curtains for the night.

    Like

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