Sleeper trains generally leave after 7pm and arrive in the final destination the next morning, giving you the chance to sleep for most if not all of the long journey.
There are basically three accommodation options on a night train:
1. A Seat
Whilst some night services have reclining seats which are reasonably comfortable we'd not recommend this option as you won't sleep as well as in a bed and will most likely arrive in the morning feeling tired and unhappy. In addition to this your belongings are considerably less secure if you're alseep and they're in the standard luggage hold areas. Having said that some people are quite happy to sleep in their seats and save the supplement fees associated with a couchette / cabin.
How do I book a seat on a night train?
If you have a rail pass just reserve your seat on the train as you would if it was a day time service. Supplements for seats on night trains will be considerably less than paying for a bed in a cabin or couchette.
2. A Sleeper Car
Sleeper cars are passenger cars with separate cabins. The cabins generally contain up to 4 seats/beds. The seats in the cabin fold away to create 4 beds in a bunk bed style. These are the types of sleepers that you can expect across Europe:
Four berth sleepers - two bunk beds either side of the compartment.
Triple sleepers - as you've probably guessed these have three beds, usually a sink can be found in these compartments.
Double sleepers - again it's not rocket science, two beds on one side of the compartment again often with a sink.
Single sleepers - about as private as you'll get on a night train, your own sink and private space, highly recommended!
Luxury sleepers - for those people with more money than sense these provide a bed, sink, room service and sometimes even your own shower!
Note: Sleeper compartments are gender specific unless you've booked the entire compartment.
3. A Couchette
Couchettes are basic cabins that can seat and sleep six people. They are very popular with student and budget travellers and make great sense if you're travelling in a group. There are two types of couchettes, both will not always be available depending on the train.
First class couchettes
These couchettes contain 4 seats/beds.
Second class (standard) couchettes
Seat and sleep 6 passengers.
Note: Couchettes are not always gender specific, so make sure you're aware of this and upgrade to a sleeper if you're wary of the idea.
Security: Theft isn't common but it does happen in couchettes so you need to think about how to protect your valuables if you're in a couchette with strangers, try and find a way of locking your most valuable possesions in cases which are then secured to your bed. Better still, try to always book the entire couchette between you and your friends or consider upgrading to a sleeper. Some services offer a security service or have designated luggage lockers for your use.
General information for sleepers and couchettes
If your train leaves before 10pm then the chances are the beds won't have been setup. An attendent will usually come through the carriage and set all of the beds up ready for you to use. If you're travelling over a border(s) then you'll be asked to hand your passport to the attendant, this is standard practice and means they don't have to wake you at the crossing.
There is no such thing as a lazy morning in a sleeper or couchette. The attendents will come through the train returning beds to the seating positions, this can quite often be earlier than you might like!
Finding night trains
To check if a night train runs between the cities you're travelling between have a look at the timetables section and fill in your travel details. Night trains are listed as NZ in the results.