Sleeper trains to the Alps
Travel by overnight train to the Alps means that you sleep on the way and get extra time on the slopes. So what are your options?
What are your sleeper train options?
Sleeper trains are having something of a renaissance in Europe. And for skiers, they can be brilliant. Sleep on the way to and from the slopes, and that adds two extra days' skiing on your holiday. Considering tthese benefits, there really should be more options. No doubt, in coming years, there will be. For now, these are the options for travel between the UK, the Alps and Pyrenees.
Currently, there are two overnight options for travel between London to the Alps are:
- Eurostar + NightJet (to Austrian ski resorts)
- Eurostar + Intercités de Nuit (to French resorts)
Eurostar + Intercites de Nuit
Daniel Elkan, Intercites de Nuit train
It was a brutal cull. 'Trainocide', one could call it: in 2016 the French Government Ministry of Transport, which owns SNCF, decided in its wisdom to axe many sleeper train services all over France. In one single act it meant the disappearance of many overnight train routes from Paris to the Alps, despite their enduring popularity with skiers. It means that routes that had, for many years, trains running every night, now have zero overnight sleeper trains. What a shortsighted move by the French Government, or SNCF, or whoever is to blame. It's a huge loss for France, travellers and skiers - a move no doubt decided by accountants and spreadsheets, with no real comprehension of the bigger picture about how important overnight rail travel is.
At Snowarbon we campaigned to keep these trains running - you might enjoy this two-minute film we made as part of the campaign: Save the sleepers
The ski routes that will no longer run are:
Paris - Moutiers, Aime, Landry and Bourg St Maurice
Paris - Annecy, Cluses, Sallanches and St Gervais
Resorts no longer served by these sleeper trains from Paris:
Avoriaz, Brides les Bains, Courchevel, Flaine, La Clusaz, La Plagne, La Rosiere, La Tania, Le Grand Bornand, Les Arcs, Les Carroz, Les Contamines, Les Gets, Les Menuires, Manigold, Megeve, Meribel, Morillon, Morzine, Peisey-Vallandry, Sainte Foy, Samoens, St Gervais, St Martin de Belleville, Tignes, Val d'Isere, Val Thorens and Valmorel.
The routes that remains are:
Paris - Rodez/Latour-de-Carol
Key resorts served: (in Andorra) Pas de la Casa, Soldeu
Eurostar + NightJet to Austria
You can travel overnight from London to Austria's ski resorts - and one of options, which runs every night, is a combination of:
1. Eurostar from London to Brussels
2. Thalys or ICE from Brussels to Cologne
3. NightJet sleeper train from Cologne to the Tirol region of Austria
The NightJet, which is run by Austrian national operator OBB, has couchettes with flat beds, so you can lie flat and enjoy a good night's sleep on you way to the slopes.
You can choose from sleeping in a 2-berth, 4-berth or 6-berth couchette compartment, and these can be shared or booked off as private.
Although there isn't a cafe bar, the NightJet staff can give you a wake-up call accompanied by a breakfast brought to your couchette (breakfast is included in the price of your ticket). You can also order hot and cold drinks and snacks at any time.
You can find out more about travel to Austria by train in our new section on London to Austria by Eurostar+NightJet.
What are couchettes like?
Couchettes are compartments that contain beds, known as “berths” - with six or four berths in each couchette. You get freshly-laundered sheets, a pillow, quilt, and a small bottle of water. There’s a main light and also a reading light by each bed. The couchette door is lockable from inside. Upper berths have straps that prevent you from rolling out of bed onto the floor (in case you were worried or are five years old).
In a 6-berth couchette there isn't much space to move about once you've got all the luggage in, but it's fine for banter and for sleeping. You can also get 4-berth couchettes (which sleep four people) or (on Austrian trains) a more expensive two-berth (sometimes called a compartment) - particularly good for couples that want a bit of privacy - ooh er missus.
Couchettes are normally mixed sex carriages, but you can request a single sex couchette too. On most sleeper trains you can convert the couchette beds to seating in the morning.
Are you a night-train sleeper?
Having been on a lot of overnight trains with a lot of different ski friends, we can safely say that most people sleep fine in a couchette, and the more you travel this way, the better you sleep - probably due to familiarising yourself with the surroundings.
The gentle rocking of the train can really get you off to sleep. Sometimes the trains pause during the night - to regulate their timings - and when you aren't used to this you might wake up once or twice. But once you know what it is, you sleep soundly.
Usually there is a small bottle of still mineral water supplied too, but it’s worth bringing an extra one so you don’t get thirsty. Wax earplugs, which you mould to the shape of your ear, are useful and available from most chemists.
The Orient Express it certainly isn't, but it's great knowing you'll wake up in the Alps - and people normally sleep better the more often they take the ttrain, as the surroundings become more familiar.
If you are considering the overnight Eurostar Ski Train, be aware that it has no couchette beds - only reclining seats. It's a big disadvantage. Many manage to sleep fine, but some don't. So balance this against that fact that it is direct - an obvious benefit in terms of simplicity. We also recommend reading travel blogger Stuart Jarvis' entertaining and informative account of what the overnight Eurostar Ski Train is like.
The Travelski Express has overhead racks for skis, and space for luggage in special compartments at the end of each carriage.
On the sleeper train from Paris, in a six-berth couchette the under-the-bed spaces will fit two snowboard bags or three pairs of skis each.
There is a large luggage space for bags behind the upper couchette beds, and then space on the floor in the middle of the compartment as well. However, if the couchette is full and everyone has big bags it can feel a little pushed for room, but it does work out ok.
If you are in a four-berth couchette, there is more space still.
Most overnight trains have reclining seats as well as couchettes, but in the case of the overnght Travelski Express, reclining seats are the only option. Think carefully before you choose to travel this way – it isn’t as comfortable as a couchette and getting to sleep won’t be so easy.
Unlike a couchette, which is closed off by a door, reclining seats are located either side of the train gangway, so people will be walking past to go to the toilet etc.
Also, the lighting stays on in the reclining seat areas, so an eye mask helps.
Changing in Paris
The easiest way to change stations in Paris is with a pre-booked taxi. The driver meets you at the end of the Eurostar platform holding a namecard with your name on it ("That's you, Daddy!"). This is available when you travel independently and can be requested as part of a rail-inclusive ski package too.
There’s also a taxi rank at each train station in Paris too, metres from the train platforms.
The Metro change from Paris-Nord – Paris Austerlitz (where many Corail Lunea night trains depart from) requires going up and down stairs, so a taxi is much easier.
For more info, see our guides on How to change in Paris
Extra time on the slopes
Overnight trains from Paris usually arrive between 7am and 10am in the Alps, and the direct Eurostar Ski Train arrives even earlier. If you are travelling independently, let your accommodation owner know your arrival time in advance, so that they can arrange a room where you can store your things while you go skiing that day, and arrangements to freshen up or shower on arrival. When you return in the afternoon you can check your things into your room.
On your final day, you check out in the morning, store your things, and go off to ski. If you are in a chalet there may be some overlap with the next weeks’ guests having arrived before you leave to catch the overnight train, but this should be no problem. Then have dinner in resort or at the station before you catch your overnight train.
If you fancy spending the Sunday of your return journey exploring Paris, then Gare d’Austerlitz has shower facilities and luggage storage facilities. You can then take an afternoon or evening Eurostar back to London.
Key questions for your chalet provider
Many chalets, hotels or apartments will be used to skiers who fly, normally arriving late afternoon and departing in the morning a week later.
Travelling by overnight train instead, means arrive in the morning, and want to ski. Then on your final day you'll ski again before departing in the late afternoon or evening. However, there may stil be other guests (from the previous week) there when you arrive. So here are seven key questions to check with your accommodation provider or tour operator.
1. Will our accommodation be open when we arrive in the morning?
2. Can we get into the building to store our luggage securely and get changed into our ski clothes?
3. Will other guests from the previous week still be there when we arrive?
4. Can you pick us up from the station, and is there a charge for this?
5. What time will our rooms be available from?
6. Can you recommend anywhere for breakfast before we hit the slopes? Or could you provide some breakfast?
7. Can you arrange our lift passes in advance so we can head straight onto the slopes?
Getting the answers to these questions in advance should give you a smooth arrival in resort and maximise your time on the slopes.
One-way overnight, one-way daytime.
Many resorts that are accessible by both daytime and overnight journeys, so an interesting option is to travel overnight outbound and travel daytime inbound, or vice versa.
Skiers often think of 'daytime' or 'overnight' train travel as an 'either/or'. But as each has its own advantage, it can be well worth mixing them up into the same trip. You could also make one of the journeys a Paris stopover, for example.
'Something for the weekend, Sir?' No, not really.
Sadly, the relative lack of weekday overnight rail options to French resorts, now that many of the sleeper trains from Paris have been axed, means there are poor pickings if you want to use overnight rail to make a weekend of it.
You could leave London on a Thursday evening, catch the overnight train from Paris and be on the slopes Friday morning. However the way that SNCF has run this route in the 2017-18 season has been quite unpredictable, with services going on sale late and changes to the timetable to make the journey longer - not really viable for weekenders.
So for weekend ski trips, where travel time is very limited, you might find that flying is a more viable option.
Ski holidays by train — Ask Snowcarbon
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