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New to riding a sleeper train? Here’s the best way to book tickets

As more people reconsider how they travel on a warming planet, a small but growing contingent in Europe wants to switch from high-emission, short-haul planes to more climate-friendly sleeper trains.

But for all the climate benefits — plus the enduring romance of overnight train journeys — it's not always simple building a vacation around them.

Several national railways and private operators have moved in to meet the rising demand, and the result is a patchwork of overnight routes sold at over 30 different websites. Many routes may not run every day, and online ticket aggregators don’t include all countries that have night trains.

“I’ve always gone around on trains and boats and buses, so it was normal for me,” said Cat Jones, founder of the flight-free travel agency Byway. “But friends would say, ‘Oh, that sounds amazing, but no way am I going to plan all that.’”

Sleeper train advocates, however, say the experience and convenience of riding the rails makes them worth any booking difficulty. With patience and a few tips, you’ll never have to deal with airport security lines in the middle of your European holiday.

START WITH A LITTLE RESEARCH

First, make sure routes exist between your desired cities. Back on Track, a European rail advocacy group, maintains a night train database with all current and soon-to-launch routes on the continent. Just be aware that city names are listed with local spellings, such as Praha for Prague.

Then head to the sleeper train section of Man in Seat 61, a website run by former rail industry worker Mark Smith that exhaustively explains what to expect. The site has details on dozens of international routes, down to seat and berth numbers on specific trains — even photos of the food and where to find electrical outlets.

Many operators provide perks like breakfast and free water, and some allow female travelers to book shared spaces only with other women.

Once you’ve found the right route, check Trainline and RailEurope, which sell tickets on most railways. Or go directly to the operator’s website; all will have an option to switch the language to English.

DECIDE HOW MUCH PRIVACY YOU NEED

Night trains' configuration varies by operator, line and carriage. Many trains have a car or two with traditional upright seats selling for as little as 19 euros, but they recline and are much more spacious than an airplane seat.

Other carriages have sleeper cabins with anywhere from one to six beds, which likely fold up when not in use. It’s possible to book an entire cabin for a family or group of friends, but you’ll pay extra.

Sarah Marks, a frequent sleeper train traveler from London, said she was nervous the first time sharing a cabin, but ultimately found it was a great way to meet like-minded travelers. “It’s quite an intimate experience,” she said. “But hand over heart, every single one has been really nice and actually enhanced my experience.”

PLAN TO BOOK IN ADVANCE — BUT NOT TOO FAR IN ADVANCE

Because most rail companies use dynamic pricing, as airlines do, the price of a ticket likely will rise as the date approaches.

But if you search for tickets now for summer travel, chances are you won’t see the routes available. Many railways do not open ticket sales until two or three months in advance. Several factors influence the timing, but it’s mostly because track maintenance usually is scheduled overnight to minimize commuter disruption.

“With sleeper trains that’s tricky to plan around,” Smith said, noting that he often hears concerns from Americans who like to plan their trips several months in advance.

BE FLEXIBLE

The most popular routes, such as Paris to Berlin, can sell out or become prohibitively expensive for some travelers during peak times.

Rather than be deterred, travelers should think of rail travel as breaking the mold of point-to-point round trips, said Jones.

“If what people want is not available on that day, do a daytime train and we’ll put you on another sleeper somewhere else,” she said. Because Europe’s rail network is so extensive, there are many ways to get from point A to point B and back again, maybe returning through a city you might not have considered visiting.

“By relying on that network effect,” she said, “there’s always an amazing option as long as you’re flexible.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Albert Stumm lives in Barcelona and writes about food, travel and wellness. Find his work at https://www.albertstumm.com