When one is young is when travel presents its finest, freshest and fullest opportunities to live and learn, to expand and be expansive, to party, get drunk and, with a little finesse, have sex with strangers you’ll never see again.
You’ve probably got your own ideas about how to achieve the above lofty goals but if you haven’t considered doing at least part of your voyage by night train then you must. You really really must.
And it doesn’t even matter all that much which bit of your journey the night train fills. The more the better because not only are the night trains cheaper than regular trains (and if you’re travelling on a Eurail pass they’re as near free as makes no difference) but of course a night on a train is a night you don’t have to pay for a hotel. You’ll need to sort out a shower in the morning (oh, yes you will) but these days that can be done for a euro or two at most train stations.
The Allegro Hotel Trains do the route between northern Italy and Vienna so, for example, Venice to Salzburg. Scenic as all hell but of course, it’s night time. If you want to see the mountains (you want to see the mountains) go from Venice to Vienna and you’ll see the sun rising over them in the morning. If you oversleep and miss that then come here so I can slap you. They’re called Allegro Hotel Trains because they’re trains, not because they’re fast or provide anything like hotel accommodation unless you stump up for a cabin with a toilet and shower (which is, in fact, pretty cool).
In the summer the Paris/Nice night trains are a 12-hour party so make sure you’re heading south where you can sleep on the beach when you get there. In fact the beach at Nice is all good sized rocks and it’s summer so you’re going to have to be really, really sleepy to not be kept awake by some of the most svelt and simmering eye-candy that Europe offers.
Ellipsos goes between Paris and Madrid or Barcelona. Choose Barcelona. Unless it’s summer time, then really, really choose Barcelona. As a general rule, if your main objective in choosing the night train is to party with strangers then the north to south route is preferable. It’s mostly the same crowd going from Barcelona to Paris but they’re just a little more tired and a lot more hungover than the southbound traveller.
An excellent place to leave in winter is Malmo in Sweden and a cool way to leave it is the night train to the ski resorts in Åre and Storlien. Note that unless you’re an avid skier the night train is the most fun you’re going to have — none of these destinations are Barcelona. On the other hand the atmosphere in either direction is very après-ski and if you go alone you won’t arrive alone. All year-round there are night trains between Göteborg and Malmo and Stockholm and realistically this route is probably your best chance of joining the 120km/hour club with a stranger.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There’s a great Iberian route and one across Tuscany. There’s Malmo/Berlin and British routes between London and Cornwall and London and Scottish destinations. Apart from the British trains they’re all a bargain, particularly if you don’t need to sleep so that you can just book a regular seat as opposed to a couchette. Regular seats are absolutely not for sleeping so bring plenty to do and drink. Couchettes are calmer, as a rule, and if money’s no object you can have a private cabin and, in some cases, washroom facilities (don’t count on hot water).
These journeys are usually about 12 hours, so be prepared. Bring plenty of water and food and wine. There may be a restaurant car but do you really want to count on that? Even if it’s attached to the train and open it’s going to be overpriced or revolting and in all likelihood both. Anyway what’s more convivial than a shared picnic rumbling through the Alps at four in the morning?
The rest is up to you. Be friendly and nice and remember that almost everybody on the night train is there for the same reason you are. Good night.