Traveling by train in Germany is one of the easiest ways to get around. We’ve ridden the rails numerous times, but this past April was the first time I attempted to take a child on the overnight train.
Known as the City Night Line (CNL) here in Deutschland, these trains travel slowly, stopping at various points along the route and (usually) arriving after the sun is up at the desired destination.
Although I hadn’t slept on a CNL train before this trip, I did have a smattering of sleeper train experience. I took the overnight train between Moscow and St. Petersburg when I first visited in 2001 and more often when I lived there in 2003. I had no idea how the trains in Germany would compare to those in Russia.
Lucky for me, my husband took the same night train for a work trip two weeks before I went with solo with Alpha to the Netherlands and back. Thanks to him, I had a heads up on the differences before I even left home.
To read about our mama-son adventure to Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands, click here!
Alpha is my oldest, a very brave and grown-up six year-old. He was thrilled to be the boy chosen to accompany me (er, indulge my floral fancy) on our whirlwind Dutch adventure.
On the evening of our departure, I put him to bed at home as usual, only he slept in his street clothes instead of pajamas. Our train was scheduled to depart at 11pm. I woke him around 10:15pm; we slipped on our shoes and strapped on our backpacks. We walked to the tram that took us to the train station, and then sat on the platform waiting for the CNL to roll in.
A collection of random but very important things to know about the City Night Line trains in Germany:
- Reservations are compulsory. You must select and book the kind of overnight accommodation you want – reclining seat, couchette, or proper sleeping car. And if you cancel your ticket, you do not get the money for the reservation back. In our case, the reservation cost about 60 euros.
- Though I am thrifty and all, it is well worth the money to pay for a four-berth couchette. The cabins are small, and I would not want to be sharing that tiny space with five other adults. And the reclining seat? Forget it.
- If you wish, you can reserve a space to bring your bike along for a small fee.
- Sleeping cabins are mixed, men and women. Each train has one women-only compartment, but this must be booked at the train station. I was able to reserve beds in this cabin with my son since he was young enough, but it took several employees and a manager before I received approval.
- You cannot select whether you want an upper or lower berth online. If this is important to you, you’ll need to book this with Deutsche Bahn in person or over the phone.
- An announcement that serves as a train-wide wake-up call is made on the train at 7am. If your station is scheduled to be before 7am, you can request that the steward wake you up.
- Some trains have electrical outlets in the cabins, some don’t. The only other outlets I found were in the sink washrooms.
- For couchette and reclining seat train cars, there are two sink rooms and a toilet located at the end of the car. For proper sleeping cars, toilets and sinks are located inside the cabins.
- Doors have several locks that can be fastened from the inside. Leave them locked, but be aware you might have to wake up if your cabin is not full and more passengers are coming later in the night.
- The train stops often and the lights at each station can shine brightly into the cabin window. Expert tip: bring an eye mask to wear while sleeping.
- More expensive sleeper cabins come with a complimentary breakfast. Couchette and reclining seat passengers can purchase breakfast from the dining car or bring their own.
- If your train crosses an international border, be sure to pack your passport as it could be inspected. A check was performed when Doc Sci took the CNL, but not when I did.
- For loads of more great tips, see Seat 61.
When the white and red CNL cars arrived, we located our assigned wagon and climbed aboard. Once inside the cabin, I helped Alpha make the beds. Each passenger in the couchette is given a small pillow, a blanket, and a rectangular sheet that’s open on two sides and sewn shut on the other two. We arranged the sheets so that the opening was toward the middle of the cabin, fluffed the pillows, and placed the blanket on top.
A trip to the potty was followed by goodnight hugs and kisses. We donned our fancy shmancy eye masks and allowed ourselves to be lulled to sleep by the motion of the train.
Alpha woke me up a few minutes before the blaring 7am we’re-now-leaving-Germany-so-sleep-time-is-over announcement. We feasted on German rolls, yogurt, and juice that we’d brought along in our packs. The train ambled in to Utrecht around 8:30am where we changed to a commuter train headed for Schipol where we could catch a bus to Keukenhof.
Only twelve hours but thousands of tulips later, we were at it again, boarding another CNL train in Amsterdam headed back home.
We felt like pros, setting up our sheets, stowing our packs, and pulling out our eye masks. However, one thing was different – on this train, we were assigned one upper and one lower berth.
On the previous night’s train, we both slept below. Alpha sleeps on the top bunk every night at home, so he wanted to try the same thing on the train. I worried he might fall, but I shouldn’t have. The upper berths are slightly concave and feature decent guardrails. However, if you are also concerned about your child rolling out of bed, see below for a few tips on how to reduce the risk.
Since our arrival into our city’s main train station was scheduled for 5:55am, I requested a wake-up call from the steward. Just to be safe, I also set an alarm on my phone for 5:35am. The attendant rapped on the glass precisely 15 minutes before our station and waited until I opened the door and confirmed I was, indeed, awake.
Safety note: Don’t open the door unless you are expecting someone. Random “passport checks” in the middle of the night are usually a scam.
The boy and I slipped on our shoes and our backpacks and quietly left the other two ladies to slumber all the way to Zurich while we greeted the morning in our home city.
Would I take the overnight train with kids again? Absolutely!
But, how would that work with our little Charlie, who still sleeps in a crib?
I asked a good friend who often travels with her four kids (ages 0, 2, 4, and 6!) on the CNL to Hamburg for a few tips on taking the night train with infants and toddlers.
- First and foremost, the attitude of the parents almost always determines the success of the venture. (This holds true for nearly every family travel situation.)
- Prepare the kids ahead of time; talk through what will happen. Explain that they will sleep at home before they get on the train, then they will wake up in order to get to the train, and then they will go to sleep again on the train. Keep your expectations low – this is a new experience, after all – but don’t offer another option (playing on the iPad instead of snoozing).
- If your budget allows, try to book out an entire cabin. Couchette cabins are either 4 or 6 beds, so pick the one that is closest to the number of people in your family. Children under 6 travel free, but you still have to pay to reserve their sleeping place (see top block of tips).
- For small infants that don’t yet push themselves up, bring along a carrycot or small travel bassinet (I have the Phil & Teds cocoon and peanut) that you can place on the floor.
- For older infants and toddlers, request child safety bars when you book the tickets. If it’s not possible to pre-book this feature, ask as soon as you board. Each train only has a limited number, so keep this in mind if you’re traveling during a busy holiday season.
- If you’re worried about a child falling out of bed, have her sleep on the bottom berth and arrange your luggage in such a way that if she did fall out, she’d only fall a few inches to the luggage, not all the way to the floor.
If you haven’t had your fill of overnight train travel with kid tips today, here are a few more bloggers crazy enough to take their kids on an overnight train:
- Journeys of the Fabulist: Singapore to Kuala Lampur by Train
- The Guardian: Come on Kids, We’re Going to Sicily – On the Train (from London)
- Jack & Jill See the World: Sleeper Trains
- Snow Carbon: What is the Train Journey Like For Families?
Would you take your family on an overnight train? Have you already? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.
I’m happy to be linking up with Sunday Traveler once again! Please check out all of this week’s excellent travel-related posts here at Chasing the Donkey.