Over spring break, we took the night train to Berlin with our two kids, a really fun trip for our family. It wasn’t anything like the glamour depicted in old movies, but it was very convenient, an efficient use of time, and definitely more comfortable than a car or plane. Plus the novelty of sleeping on a train was super fun for the kids.
Having only done it once, I’m certainly no expert and I suspect the experience is different depending on the destination and which train you get. But there are a few things I would have liked to know before going. So here are a few tips and observations from our experience.
Overview & Schedule
The night train from Zurich to Berlin is run by ÖBB Nightjet. The train generally leaves Zurich at 20:00 and arrives at 6:15 in Berlin. It makes stops in Basel and some southern Germany cities to pick up more passengers, then spends most of the night speeding on to Berlin.
The train is not a fancy Orient Express style experience, but rather just like regular public transportation with no-nonsense sleeping cars. There are no common areas or dining car for hanging out, so you’ll be spending all your time in your room, which is quite small. So set your expectations accordingly.
The fares vary widely depending on when you go, how early you book, which cabin you book, whether you have a half-fare card, etc. I’m not going to list all the fares here. For our family of four, we booked two Standard Double rooms in the Sleeping Car, which cost us about CHF 460 one way from Zurich to Berlin.
A less expensive option for families is the family Couchette car, which has 6 bunks (for 2 adults and up to 4 children) for about CHF 300 one way. More about the different room types below.
There are a variety of seat and cabin types, from a simple seat in a shared cabin (Seated Car), to shared rooms with bunks (Couchette), to private rooms with bench seats that convert to bunk beds (Sleeping Car). We had two Standard Double rooms, described in detail in the next section.
I walked the whole train to look at all the rooms for future reference. I’m sorry I didn’t take pics of all the room types, but I didn’t think it was polite to ask people if I could take a photo while they were getting ready for bed.
The couchette with 6 bunks (shown above) didn’t have a bench, which seemed uncomfortable. The couchette with 4 bunks looked the most comfortable at with high clearance between the bunks so you can comfortably sit on the bottom bunks when not sleeping. You can read about the room categories here. More about family compartments here.
Rooms in the Couchette and Sleeping cars include breakfast, linens and pillows for the beds, and have a lock on the inside of the door for security while sleeping.
In Couchette rooms, you book bunks so you might be sharing with strangers if you don’t book all bunks in your room. Our rooms only slept two, so this wasn’t concern.
There is no lounge car. The only place to sit on the train is your booked seat. Keep that in mind when selecting which type of room to book and when packing your things.
Our Standard Double Sleeping Room
Here’s what our Standard Double room looked like. It had a small bench seat as shown on the right. When we were ready for bed, the attendant converted the bench into a bed and pulled another bed out of the wall. This requires a special key, so you can’t do this yourself. In the morning, the attendants did not have time to turn the beds back into benches, so plan on lounging horizontally until you get to Berlin.
The standard rooms are small but manageable. They have a small sink in the room, unnecessary in my opinion. Shared toilets are down the hall. The deluxe rooms are bigger and include their own toilet and shower; I would definitely not shower on the train, but a private toilet would probably be cleaner.
During booking, make sure your family is booked in adjoining cabins or beds in the same cabin. Upon boarding the train, we discovered that we had two rooms (each with two beds) but on separate train cars. Not ideal. Luckily, we convinced another family to switch with us. One train personnel said was allowed, the other said it wasn’t. But in the end, we made the switch and it was much better to be all together.
Bring small bags. There is no separate storage on the train for luggage. So whatever you bring must fit in your tiny room. We had carry-on sized bags and backpacks and it was a tight fit. I was very glad I hadn’t brought a bigger suitcase.
Our room had two cupboards that each easily fit a large backpack, perhaps a small carry on roller bag. Our suitcases had to sit in the limited floor space. There wasn’t enough clearance under the seat to fit our small roller but we could smash the backpack under there.
Since we had adjoining rooms, we could set our luggage in the public space between the rooms while we were awake.
Rooms in the Couchette and Sleeping Cars lock from the inside. However, if you are sharing a car with strangers, that lock is only semi-helpful. I would only travel on a night train in a private cabin that could lock, especially with kids. I could never sleep, worrying about our personal safety and security of our valuables. Our room had a very secure lock from the inside. But we couldn’t lock it from the outside if we wanted to leave the room. The next class up in rooms had a key card to enter the room and a bit more space.
What to expect on the train
There was no info about how everything works on the train. So we quite confused. The attendants were friendly but so busy that they didn’t have time to explain . Here are a few things I would have liked to know.
Order breakfast. Shortly after settling into your room, the attendant will come by to have your order breakfast for the next morning. Our attendant was a little impatient so we had to fill our out quickly before understanding what was really happening. Basically, breakfast is included, you check few boxes of what you want and they’ll bring it in the morning.
Sleeping: Where is my bed? Some of the rooms were already set up with beds, others required the attendant to convert the seats into the beds. The attendant doesn’t come at a specific time like on a cruise, where you leave the room and when you come back, it’s all set for bed time. You have to go find an attendant and ask him to set up your bed. They have a special to do it, you can’t do it yourself. All rooms that have beds also come with linens, a blanket and pillow.
Be ready to disembark quickly. When the train arrives in Berlin, you need to already have your bags packed and immediately leave the train as you would on any regular train. You do not have time to gather your belongings and take your time. The attendants were running around the train hustling people off. I was in a bit of panic, worried that I had left something behind. So just be ready so you aren’t scrambling at the last second.
Food on the train
Pack your own food!!! I was disappointed to find that our train didn’t have a dining car. I had this silly idea of dining with tablecloths and candlelight like in the movies. Our train only had a small kiosk service on some of the cars, basically with coffee, sodas and a few sandwiches and snacks. The food we ordered was pretty bad. I noticed other people had brought lots of yummy food and I was jealous. Next time I’ll pack some good picnic food.
There is no dinner service. If you want food, push the service button in your room or walk to the kiosk at the end of one of the cars and order there. They will bring it to your room and you pay in cash, they prefer Euros.
Skip breakfast!!! Our sleeping car room included breakfast, which was nothing special. Plus managing food trays and drinks in a tiny room with kids still half awake in bed was unpleasant. And they woke us up at 5:00 for breakfast even though our train wasn’t scheduled to arrive until 6:30. I would recommend skipping the train breakfast and packing some snacks to tide you over until you can get a proper breakfast at your hotel or the train station.
Arrival in Berlin
Many night trains arrive very early in the morning, earlier than many services open at the train station including food stands. When we arrived, even the tourist info desk was closed, where we were expecting to buy our city transport cards and get a local map. So be prepared.
When booking our accommodations in Berlin, we specifically looked for a place that would allow us to check in early so we weren’t stuck dragging our luggage around the city waiting for check in. At MiniLoft, we were able to check in early because they did have a guest the night before. Most hotels will let you drop off your luggage before check in, but we prefer to stay in apartments.
We were lucky to find an apartment that allowed us to check in at 8:00 since they didn’t have a guest the previous evening. We stayed in MiniLoft, an apartment hotel, a short taxi ride from the main train station. We liked the place because it was clean, comfortable, plenty of room to spread out, with easy access to good public transportation lines and close to services like grocery stores. (This post was not sponsored.)
Now what to do in Berlin with families? See my Berlin with Kids post to see what we did in Berlin >>>