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  • Writer's pictureImogen Hall

5 Tips for Enjoying European Train Travel With Kids

Getting ready to board the railjet sleeper to Vienna from Venice, August 2020

Can you keep the romance of train travel alive when you do it with children in tow? We certainly think so. Not only is travelling by train often cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly than flying, it’s also way more fun for kids. You can move around, there’s plenty to look at and the buffet car provides a great distraction. Plus, stopping at stations or changing trains breaks up the journey and create mini-challenges. And the whole adventure will bring your family closer together.

If you fancy taking your kids on a rail adventure any time soon - and you really should - here are five tips to help the whole experience run more smoothly (no train pun intended).

Plan your route

Forget those freewheeling Interrail trips of your youth, travelling across Europe by rail with kids requires some military style planning. Start by working out where you want to go and then drill right down to the detail so you know the durations, the stations and all the changes involved.

Consider how long you think you and your kids can survive on one train without changing. Three hours is a good starting point for a family with younger children. If you have no choice but to travel with a buggy you want to minimise the number of changes you have to make and you need to know the detail of those changes. A good example here is travelling from London to the south of France which involves changing stations in Paris, involving either a taxi or navigating stations with plenty of stairs. Avoid connections that will be hard to make if you have a sudden meltdown or nappy change to deal with.

Faster services such as Eurostar and German ICE require pre-booking. in general it pays to book in advance, not just because of cost but also to ensure you can all sit together (consider paying for a seat reservation even if the children travel for free). Avoid rush hour, busy routes and big events. Naturally school holidays are crunch points. Investing in a local family discount card or a rail pass where kids under 16 go free can be very cost effective but make sure you know which services it is valid on though.

Research the family-friendly options

Within Europe there’s huge variety in terms of what family-friendly means. Travelling in Italy your children will be fussed over by your fellow travellers but you might struggle to find baby changing facilities, whereas in Finland your children can take advantage of a dedicated playroom on some inter-city trains. Eurostar have been known to do giveaways for kids such as virtual reality headsets in the school holidays and their new trains offer children’s programmes as part of their onboard entertainment (bring headphones).

Think about what really matters to your family. Does your teen make life a misery without wifi? Do you need to be near the toilet for your pre-schooler? Does being in a family-specific carriage reduce your personal stress levels?

Once again Google is your friend and most of the main European train companies have an English-language version of their site so use it to understand what you are booking.

Make it fun

Let’s face it, even the most train-obsessed toddler gets quickly bored once the train is moving and, while travelling by rail does allow you to move around more than if you are in a car or a plane, you do still have to while away the hours if you are on a long trip. Ideally your family will be seated round a table so make the most of the communal surface and bring plenty of travel games, books, colouring and of course the tablets. Don’t forget the charger and headphones. Most modern inter-city trains now have charging points next to seats.

Having more space makes things easier so, if you can stretch to it, why not use the savings made from booking well in advance to go first class? That feeling of being 'extra special' can help with behaviour too. If you really want to up the fun factor there’s pretty much nothing more exciting for kids than bunking down on a sleeper train for the night. Try London to Inverness for starters, or Munich to Budapest or Zagreb.

Lastly, what really makes the journey enjoyable is the fact you get to do it with your family and the kids will remember the adventure all their lives. Children pick up on stress so keep calm and treat any mishaps as part of the adventure. And don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Most of the time your fellow passengers will go out of their way to help you or politely ignore you - and if all else fails remind yourself those grumpy individuals were kids themselves once.

Travel light and arrive early

Having once left a suitcase (and thankfully not a child) at security in St Pancras International, we have learnt that travelling light is key to moving around the railways of Europe easily. Carry only what your family can handle, train your children to take their own hand luggage and only bring a buggy if you really can’t manage without it. Have a counting system to make sure you get everyone and everything on and off the trains safely and get to the station with plenty of time to board. Avoid splitting up: it has been known for one parent to get stuck in another coach for four hours due to a combination of late boarding and no interlinking carriages.

If you are at that stage when a buggy is a fact of life take one which folds up easily and be prepared to stow it away from you. Also be ready to sit on the carriage floor next to a sleeping babe while the rest of your family enjoys the luxury of the top deck. We’ve been there.

Delayed at Nimes train station due to fires on the line near Paris, July 2015. We eventually had to fly home.

Expect the unexpected

However much you plan, something will go wrong. Be prepared for illness (change of clothes, medicine, wipes), no trolley car or buffet service (snacks, water, more snacks), no seats together (those backpacks which double as car boosters can be impromptu seats for little bottoms) or delays or disruption to the service. It’s also worth prepping your children for busy stations and having a plan in case you become separated. Bright colourful clothing and your phone number in their pocket is a good start.

Equally, embrace the positive. The locals who go out of their way to help you, the sudden offer of an upgrade to first class, the diversion on the line which takes you on a more picturesque route and makes the kids go ‘wow’. It’s all part of the amazing adventure that rail travel creates.

Ready to have a go? Why not try…

  • London to Disneyland Paris: what better introduction to family train travel than to use this relatively short and definitely very straight-forward journey to arrive in the centre of Disneyland

  • Germany: take the train from Cologne to Mannheim for a visually stunning journey along the Rhine with a stay in a castle with the family-friendly Bacharach youth hostel and lots of sweet villages to explore en route

  • Italy: avoid the stress of Italian driving and introduce your family to the fun of the rails with three relatively short hops between Rome, Florence and Venice, with the added bonus that your kids will be embraced and will love the pizza, pasta and gelato

  • Switzerland: train travel here is not for those on a budget but you pay for superior services than run efficiently and punctually; base yourself in Interlaken so that teens in your group can throw themselves into adrenalin activities and younger members of your party can make the most of the tiny trains and amazing playgrounds you find up mountains.

The best source of really detailed practical information on travelling by train is of course the Man in Seat 61. There's also detailed advice on European train travel on Show Me The Journey, Rail Europe and the Interrail site.

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