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3 May, 2024

Slower Train Travel To Austria - The Sleeper Train Resurgence

This article was orignally posted by Georgie Duckworth on iNews, but it was such a good article we thought we'd repost here. Both photos credited to Georgie Duckworth.


"Mummy, I really want to go bed" is a sentence that I’d never heard uttered by my nine-year-old son, until this journey. He had been gripped by wild excitement ever since boarding the OBB NightJet sleeper train in Amsterdam. Admiring our cabin, and the bunk bed he would be sleeping in, it took him all of 20 seconds to decide that this would be the greatest adventure in the world.?

I could see his point; we were all a little excited about our first journey travelling overnight by train. It was early spring and our family of four were heading from the UK to St Anton in Austria to ski. In a bid to reduce our carbon footprint, and to avoid the stress and mundanity of flying, we had decided to travel by train, using Austrian Federal Railway (OBB)’s overnight sleeper service, or Nightjet, to carry us from Amsterdam to Innsbruck, where we’d change train for the final one-hour leg to St Anton.

Children ready to board the NightJet train to Austria

We weren't the only family travelling by train to ski in Austria; on our journey we met dozens of people doing the same thing. Passing through a narrow train corridor somewhere in Belgium, I (literally) bumped into Lauren from Birmingham who was travelling to Innsbruck with her teenage sons.

Asking her if the boys found it boring, she confessed, "a little. But actually, we enjoy the slower pace of rail travel. It gives us time to decompress from work and school, relax into our holiday, and shake off their teenage grump".?

Rail travel to the Alps may seem slow paced, but overall it is surprisingly speedy. Lauren’s journey would take less than 24 hours, starting with a four-hour Eurostar from London to Amsterdam, then straight onto the 13-hour Nightjet, arriving in Innsbruck the following morning. ?Unlike Lauren, we had decided to pause for a night in Amsterdam to explore the city. After enjoying clogs, cheese and tulips, we arrived back at Amsterdam Centraal station the following day ready for our night on the rails.

Nightjet is part of Europe’s sleeper train resurgence. OBB launched the brand in 2016, since which time its routes have been multiplying across the Continent, serving more than 25 cities east to Vienna and as far south as Rome. Unlike some other European sleepers, its trainsets are now mostly modern – new generation Siemens trains began rolling out from last Christmas, with capsule-like mini-cabins for solo travellers and wheelchair-accessible cabins.?Though our service was one of the older trains, OBB plan to have upgraded the sleepers on all their European routes by 2028 (except in France, for regulatory reasons).

Children checking out the views on the NightJet train

The Brook family from London was also waiting on the platform, their children buzzing about as excitedly as mine. This was their second Nightjet journey to Innsbruck this year, and they planned to return for a third time in summer, travelling to Zurich. "Sleeper trains go all over Europe," David Brook explained. Services link the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Austria, and Italy on a variety of different routes. "You travel while?you sleep; it seems really logical to us."

Logical, perhaps. But is it expensive? "It’s generally much cheaper than flying", David told me. This had also been our experience. The most expensive leg of the journey was the Eurostar to Amsterdam, costing £109 per adult, and £76 per child (aged 4–11); tickets for the NightJet were €387 for a family of four; and the final train to St Anton was €30 with an OBB family rail card. The total price of £725 was far cheaper than the flights I'd seen which would have cost us over £1,200, and that's not including the extra baggage and equipment fees; on the train, our luggage travelled for free.

Flights to popular ski regions during the winter come at a premium price, especially during the school holidays when a family might expect to pay up to 16 times more compared to term time. At present, a British Airways flight for a family of four from London Heathrow to Innsbruck in the February half-term 2025 will cost more than £2,000. At these prices, an intercontinental train journey, including an optional bonus night in a hotel in Amsterdam, is an economical choice.

Climbing aboard the train, the children rushed ahead to locate our carriage. There is a variety of options for sleeping, from mini cabins for solo travellers, to ensuite sleeper cabins for couples, and even six-person bunkrooms. For families, the most practical and economical choice is a couchette.

Settling into our private couchette, with traditional carriage seats and four padded bunks (with bedding) which are folded away for the evening and morning, I was impressed. Snug? Yes. But comfortable, clean and just enough space for the children to unleash some energy.?

As the train rolled out of the station, we all began to feel peckish. Food can be purchased onboard, but the menu is limited so we had bought a picnic meal in Amsterdam. Cracking open a bottle of wine, popping the crisps, and tucking into a cheese platter, we sat back and watched the watery dykes and windmills of the Dutch landscape pass us by.

At bedtime, the children were sent off to find the communal bathrooms down the corridor for teeth brushing, and then up the ladders to their top bunks where they drifted off within minutes, too filled with adventurous exhaustion to make a fuss.? I settled in to read my book in peace, gently swaying with the rocking of the train. I reflected on how genuinely relaxed I felt, like never before while travelling.

Overnight, we all slept well, really well; no panic about missed alarms, no busy airports to navigate or delayed flights to worry about.?

As the sun rose, it was exciting to see snowcapped mountains in the near distance. A complimentary breakfast of bread rolls and cherry jam was delivered by a friendly attendant, along with a very welcome cup of coffee and a fruit tea for the children. There was time to play a few card games before packing up, ready for our arrival in Innsbruck.

It was with a hint of sorrow that we clambered off our Nightjet but, within 10 minutes, we were back on the rails for the short, final stint to St Anton and the ski slopes.

For me, holiday travel had always been a tick-the-box exercise; necessary, but uninspiring, and often a little stressful. This was different; our train journey became part of our holiday experience and something to be enjoyed rather than endured.

Though the journey overall took a few extra hours compared with flying, we were able to relax and have fun, which feels like a worthy time investment. When my sons returned to school and shared tales of their holiday, they forgot to mention the skiing and instead talked with great enthusiasm about their epic adventures by train.