The Midnight Train from Paris

An overnight train from Paris to Munich – how romantic!    Well, maybe not so much when you realize the reality that the overnight train from Paris to Munich would involve sharing your sleeping compartment with three of your children plus a random Asian man*.

Yup, that was my New Years Eve.

On the upside, how cool is that?  We spent New Years Eve on an overnight train hurtling across the middle of Europe.

My family is just back from a trip to Germany during which we travelled from Paris to Munich, and back again, using the City Night Line (CNL) service from Deutsch Bahn (the German train group.)  CNL trains also run to Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich, Prague, Rome, Copenhagen, Milan, and more.

Booking

I found the easiest way to book CNL trains was via the Bahn.de website. You can allegedly also book them via RailEurope.co.uk, which then forwards you to an English version of the French SNCF site, but I could never get it to work for me. There is also a dedicated Deutsch Bahn webpage for the City Night Line trains.

In theory, you can book your CNL train in conjunction with your other trains.  I couldn’t make it work, and I was pressed for time.  (Husband:  “Do we have train tickets yet?”  Me:  “I am doing it right now!”)  Because I booked the legs of our trip separately, I left a couple of hours for each connection.  This did not impress the children, who had no interest in seeing either Paris or Munich.  I was so worried that there would be a delay, and we’d be stuck buying new tickets.  You could also eliminate this worry by making sure that your credit card covered such cases, or purchasing travel insurance.

While booking, I had to choose between the available types of accommodation.  There are three basic options:  Sleeper, Couchette, and regular compartment.  The sleeper, which is available in Deluxe or Economy, can be booked for one, two or three people.  There is also an option to requires adjoining sleeper compartments.  Couchette cars are similar to sleeping cars, but the bunks are less luxurious and the compartments do not have wash basins (or toilets, in the Deluxe sleepers.)  Couchettes can be reserved for four or six people.  A regular seated compartment is just like you imagine, with six seats in a compartment.

We had five people travelling, and were on some sort of budget, but I did hope to sleep.  Therefore, I chose to book us a couchette compartment.  Unfortunately, there is no five person couchette option.  I booked five places, gave a brief thought to what would become of the sixth place in the compartment, and dismissed the question as it wasn’t truly pressing.

Gare de l'Est stairs
The stairs between Gare de ‘Est and Gare du Nord stations in Paris.

Boarding

Our train left out of Paris’ Gare de l’Est.  We had arrived into Gare du Nord, and it was about a 5 minute walk between the stations.  (Take the slightly longer route that seems to take you a little bit out of your way, if you don’t want to deal with huge Parisian staircases.)  We arrived at Gare de l’Est with well over an hour until our train left.  I anticipated that they would allow us to start boarding at least 1/2 hour before the train left.  Wrong.  They didn’t even show the platform until about 15 minutes before the train left.  There isn’t much in the way of entertainment in Gare de l’Est station:  no little grocery stores, not a lot of food, and some overpriced shopping.  It has me longing for London’s St. Pancras and a sandwich from Marks & Spencer!

One the platform was posted, we hustled over to the train and found our wagon (carriage) and then our compartment.  Whew – it was small.  My bathroom is bigger than this six-person compartment, and I don’t have a big bathroom.  The compartment was configured for sleep, with three bunks on each side and a narrow space between them.  Each bunk had a blanket, a nice sheet and a pillow so that you could make up your bunk.  There is space for storing luggage under the bottom bunk and also at the foot/head of the top bunks (this space is actually over the corridor.)

With the bunks configured for sleep, there was really no place to sit.  The vertical space between the bunks wasn’t enough to sit.   After some trial and error,  Steve and figured out how to drop the middle bunk to become the back of a “sofa,” with the bottom bunk acting as the seat.  This was much more useful for the time until we were ready to go to sleep.

We would have dropped the middle bunks on both sides, but there was a surprise:  The sixth bunk in our compartment was occupied by said random guy.  He was clearly shocked by the amount of estrogen in the compartment, and promptly disappeared until after sleeping time.

Half of a couchette in the four person configuration.
Half of a couchette in the four person configuration.

The Trip

The actual travel was relatively uneventful.  Because of the travelling times, there were no meals served.  We brought a bag full of snacks, sparkling cider and champagne to celebrate the New Year.  We played some cards and made up stories. We played on our Kindles. (No internet, though.) After about an hour on the train, however, I was ready for bed.  It was just boring, and I was tired after a full day of travel.  I’d say we were all asleep by 11 pm.

We were awakened several times, as the train pulled into various stations and cars were connected and disconnected.  Each CNL train has multiple final destinations, and there are cars put on and taken off to get their passengers to the right place.  It is sort of like flying one place and changing planes to get to another place, but the whole carraige was moved without bothering the occupants.

We were also awakened by someone banging on our compartment and screaming “Polizei!”  A quick flashlight in each person’s face, and they were gone.  It was the one bonding moment with our stranger compartment-mate – we looked at each other with a mixture of shock and concern, then decided to avail ourselves of the lock on the compartment door.

*Note:  I have nothing against random Asian men.  I have nothing against random men.  It was just really uncomfortable for me, having a complete stranger sleeping with my children and me in a remarkably small space.  I can’t even imagine how uncomfortable it was for him!

Arrival

We were awakened by the conductor banging on our door, informing us that there was one hour until we arrived in Munich.  We groggily got moving and used the toilet at the end of the carriage.  I tried to use on of the wash rooms to change clothes, but there just wasn’t enough room.  As we got closer, the conductor was more adamant that we needed to get prepared to leave the train, telling us “schnell! schnell!” every time she passed.  By the time we were anywhere near the station, the entire occupancy of the train was standing in the vestibule and corridor with all their luggage.  This was all really unnecessary, as the train terminated in Munich.  It was impressive, however, how fast that train was emptied!

Random Post-Trip Thoughts

This was an interesting adventure and I’m glad we did it.  It combined travel with accommodation, which I think was a money saver.  It wasn’t nearly as much fun as it could have been because the kids did not want to take advantage of the opportunties to see Paris and Munich on either end of the trip.

If we did it again, I’d probably try to book the sixth place in the compartment or splurge out on the sleeper compartments for the right number of people. This would be an awesome trip for a couple without the rest of the family!

Gare de l’Est photo by: AustinEvan
Couchette photo by: Jon Crel

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