ONBOARD CITY NIGHT LINE 1287 -- Knock! Knock! "Guten Morgen!"
I opened my door and in came a smartly uniformed conductor carrying my morning coffee and breakfast. Having fallen asleep somewhere outside of Hamburg, I asked where we were. The conductor informed me that our night train was about an hour north of Munich. As we chug toward the capital of Bavaria, I am well rested and ready to start the day.
Overnight trains can be a practical and distinctly European way to travel -- leaving one city in the evening and delivering you to your destination by morning.
Onboard this German City Night Line train, the service is excellent, and my private cabin has a comfortable bed and a washbasin, with a clean bathroom and shower just down the hall. There's a dining car with a restaurant and a bustling bar. It's like a rolling hotel.
Traveling via overnight train can also be a trip-ruiner, leaving you tired, grouchy and swearing to fly next time. You have to do some homework before you book.
First, determine if it's practical and safe to take a night train on the route you want to travel -- not all night trains are created equal. While the German railroad operates excellent sleeper service on safe, clean trains, a colleague recently told of a horror story on an East European overnight train where none of the toilets worked and drug use was rampant.
To stay safe, stick with reliable rail operators. Europe's most popular trains include the German City Night Line, Spanish Elipsos and Italian Artesia trains. Britain also offers night trains, such as the Caledonian Sleeper connecting London and Scotland. Swedish trains are also dependable.
So, for example, if you are in Berlin and want to go to Zurich, instead of paying for a hotel in Berlin and for a flight to Switzerland, taking a train might save you time and money.
When booking, ask yourself: are you simply trying to save money? If so, you can book Spartan accommodations that may be low on comfort and privacy, but will get the job done. If you're willing to fork over some euros, it's possible to ride the rails in luxury.
For travelers unfamiliar with European rail travel, Rail Europe offers a one-stop shop for tickets and reservations for over 35 European railroads. While it is sometimes possible to get better deals by booking directly with the railways, Rail Europe services are specifically tailored to Americans and can be a helpful resource.
Pay attention to the details. It's possible to use Eurail passes for overnight trains, but certain rules apply. For many trains, you need both a ticket and a reservation.
Night trains generally offer an array of accommodations, ranging from airplane-style seats to luxury first-class cabins with private showers.
If you don't mind sleeping with strangers, couchettes can be an affordable and at least somewhat comfortable option. These cabins consist of seats that convert into bunk beds, often with about six per compartment. Most trains offer gender-specific cabins, but not always -- ask before you book.
How to book
*Rail Europe, 1-800-622-8600; www.raileurope.com. Rail Europe offers live help 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Popular night trains: City Night Line trains offer service between Germany and neighboring countries. Elipsos trains operate routes between Spain, France and Switzerland. Artesia trains connect France and Italy.
*BritRail, 1-866-274-8724; www.britrail.com. BritRail's Caledonian Sleeper operates service from London's Euston Station to Scotland and the Night Riviera train runs from Paddington Station to Cornwall.
*You can also check national railways' websites directly, such the German Railway website Deutsche Bahn (www.bahn.com).