Overnight sleeper train accommodation: couchettes vs. sleepers

Couchette or sleeper? Booking overnight sleeper trains in Europe can be confusing, so we've created this guide to explain the differences in types of accommodation, the way that berths are numbered, and how to book a private or a single-sex compartment.


What is the difference between a sleeper and a couchette on a night train?

There are two main types of sleeping accommodation on European night trains: sleepers and couchettes. There is some variation between trains, so for information about a specific service see our Train Guides

In most cases, the differences can be summarised as follows:

1, 2, or 3-person compartment 4 or 6-person compartment
Bed with linen. Bed is normally made by attendants. Bed with linen. You make your bed.
Private washbasin Shared toilet and washbasin facilities
Shared or private toilet facilities

Sleepers include a bed and usually a private washbasin, towels, and bed linen and can accommodate up to four passengers in single, double, or 3-person compartments. 

Couchettes offer simple overnight accommodation that sleeps up to six people on bunks, with a pillow and blanket provided. Note that since there is generally no sex distinction, you should pack appropriate clothing or sleep in your day clothes.

In most cases, you will use shared toilet facilities at the end of the carriage. However, some modern sleeper trains (not couchettes) include a private toilet, which will be stated in the description.

The bunks fold down to create seating during the day. 

Are we in the same compartment?

Travellers who book together are placed in the same compartment by default where available, although the numbering convention for night trains can be confusing to new travellers.

On most European night trains berth numbers aren't consecutive for reservations in 2, 3, or 4 berth sleepers; for  example , 12 and 16 are an upper and lower berth in the same 2-bed sleeper.

The numbering convention is designed on the basis that six berths are counted in every compartment, even if only two or four of the berths are in use. In 6-berth this makes sense since every bunk is accounted for. For example, all berths from 11 to 16 are in the same compartment. See the seating plans for a typical night train below:

6-berth couchette

Things get confusing for couchettes or sleepers when fewer than six berths are in use as the numbers aren't altered to reflect the change.

4-berth couchette

When used as a 4-berth couchette, only four of a possible six berths are used, so the number convention skips the middle bunks, for 11,12 & 15,16 are in the same 4-berth couchette.

Sleepers (1-, 2- & 3-bed compartments)

When used as a 2-berth, only the top and bottom berths are used, for example, 11 & 15, or for 3-berths just the odd numbers 11, 13 & 15 with the other 6 from the sequence in the next door compartment.

Private occupancy of a compartment

Depending on availability, travellers who book together are placed in the same compartment by default. So, if there are enough of you to fill the compartment you can be assured of sole occupancy. If you want the whole compartment to yourself, we recommend selecting an appropriate compartment size for your group (e.g. if there are two passengers, you can book a double sleeper).

If this isn't possible, or if you have a group slightly smaller than your preferred accommodation (e.g. a family of five in a 6-berth couchette) you can ensure sole occupancy by adding an additional passenger to your booking.

The cheapest way to book a private compartment is to add an extra child passenger, using any sensible name. We call this the "phantom child" technique.

Night trains in Spain

Renfe's website states that a discount may be available for customers booking entire compartments, but we have not found evidence that this is possible to book successfully online, nor whether it is cheaper than using the "phantom child" technique. We recommend booking an additional child ticket to secure the whole compartment.

Renfe segregates passengers into single-sex compartments. So, unless you book private occupancy of a compartment, men and women will be assigned berths in different compartments.

Single-sex compartments

Some night trains offer single-sex compartments, most commonly booked by women travelling alone who prefer not to sleep in a mixed compartment. However, compartments are available as men- or women-only, or you can reserve an entire compartment for your group or family. If this option is available it can be selected at the same time as you choose your fare type.