A Little Study on the Booking of Night Trains

Sorry, no more places available!

This is the feedback you get ever more frequently when you try to book a night train in Central Europe. Yes, after years of decline, night trains are hip again. You may have heard of “comeback”, “renaissance” and all that jazz.

That the night train is still alive at all we have to thank Austrian Railways (ÖBB). When German Deutsche Bahn withdrew from the business at the end of 2016, ÖBB took over some of the rolling stock and continued operations on about half of the routes. The Nightjet was born.

After some incremental expansions, the Nightjet today serves some 20 lines in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Additional destinations in eastern Europe are linked up by partner railways.

However, Europe’s night train network is still far behind what it used to be in the 1990s and early 2000s. The reason is that there is a huge lack of sleeping and couchette cars. While the second-hand market is virtually empty, designing and producing new rail cars is an extremely lengthy and costly endeavor. This is a major challenge for relatively small operators like ÖBB. It won’t be before later in 2023 that ÖBB puts new night train sets into service for the first time in decades.

ÖBB Nightjet at a train station
The Nightjet has become a synonym for night train travel in Central Europe (Photo: ÖBB, Marek Knopp)

While the problem clearly calls for a European solution in the long run, as the Trains for Europe campaign is lobbying for, we have to live with it for the time being. The most noticeable consequence is that because the demand for night trains is high, the trains are often fully booked several weeks or even months in advance, especially the popular sleeping cars.

That is at least what my followers and the readers of my blog say. But as it is always a little tricky with anecdotal evidence, I sat down over the weekend and tried to investigate the booking of Nightjet trains systematically.

The Study

This was my methodology: On 25 June, I checked 13 connections of the ÖBB Nightjet for a period of one month (that is, from 25 June to 24 July 2022) for free places in sleeping and couchette cars using the regular booking search on nightjet.com. I limited myself to trains running daily and one direction per route. In total, this amounted to 390 train connections.

The main result? It depends!

It turns out the booking of the trains is strongly dependent on the route. While there are indeed connections that were booked virtually every day over the period I researched, there are others where you could still have booked a bed or berth for every day.

The routes with the highest demand are all north-south connections: Hamburg to Innsbruck, Amsterdam to Vienna, Hamburg to Zürich and Hamburg to Vienna. Here, there was practically no free place in the couchette or sleeping car over the entire month.

Available places in couchette and sleeping cars

On the other end of the spectrum are cross-connections through the Alps (Graz to Zürich, Vienna to Bregenz) and, to my surprise, the Nightjets from Munich and Vienna to Venice. Here, there were still free places in the couchette or sleeper almost every day, and on many days even in both categories.

The other routes I studied (Berlin to Zürich, Zürich to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Innsbruck, Berlin to Vienna, Zürich to Vienna) fall somewhere in between. On some days, beds and berths were available; on others, trains were fully booked. Frankly, a scenario to be expected during peak travel season.

On a side note, I was also able to find out which travel days are the most popular. They are, unsurprisingly, Friday and Saturday. If you’re looking for an availability without planning ahead, the best bet is Tuesday, where the demand is at its lowest.

Booking of night trains for the days of the week

If you are interested in all the numbers and details, check out this thread on Twitter where I’ve compiled the results. It’s in German, but Twitter’s machine translation does a decent job.

Some remarks:

  • If you miss certain Nightjet lines, it’s because they are either not served daily (Amsterdam and Brussels trains) or are cancelled due to a line closure in Italy this summer (Rome, Milan and Livorno trains).
  • Yes, night trains do also have seats. I didn’t investigate these, as I think that has nothing to do with a comfortable night train journey. But I can tell you that on the most popular routes, even seats were sold out.
  • I didn’t investigate ticket prices, which would have gone beyond the scope of my little study. In general, however, the higher the demand, the higher the price. For the night trains to Venice, on the other hand, there were still some good “Sparschiene” offers available.

Take Home

So what can we learn from this? Yes, some lines of the ÖBB Nightjet are extremely busy. Taking the night train spontaneously from Hamburg to the south? Forget it!

But it’s also true that things are better on other lines, for example between Austria and Switzerland. The absolute top tip for this summer, though, are the night trains to Venice. There are still plenty of free places, even though all other Nightjets to Italy are cancelled due to construction work.

It’ll be interesting to see how the new Nightjet units, which feature new sleeping concepts such as mini capsules, change the situation. Once the time comes, hopefully in 2023, there might be a new edition of the study.

Projects like this I do in my spare time and completely pro bono. If you like, you can support my work with a small donation. Thank you very much!