In the seven years since our son was born we have had six family holidays by train. We have only ever flown once with our son, and hands down we prefer train travel over flying.
Here are just some of the reasons why we recommend train travel with children:
Kids go free for longer
The majority of trains in Europe have free travel for children up to four years old (on aeroplanes it's typically up to two years old), and on the Deutsche Bahn in Germany children under the age of six can travel for free without a ticket. Even up to the age of 14, kids are free on the DB if accompanied by a parent or grandparent, if their names are added to the adult’s ticket. On the Eurostar, kids under the age of four must sit on a parent’s lap unless there is a spare seat available, but children of all ages can have their own seat in Germany.
This means that rail travel can work out cheaper overall, especially in Germany. When we were booking a trip to Berlin, and on another occasion when we went to Nuremberg, I looked up the plane tickets to see what the price difference would be. I was pleasantly surprised to find that on both occasions, it was cheaper to travel by train.
Interrail is also an option. Children go free on an Interrail pass up to the age of 12, so this can work out much cheaper for families than buying tickets direct, and can give more flexibility.
Take as much luggage as you need
We all know how much luggage you need as a family, and one of the great advantages to travelling by train is that there are no extra costs for taking luggage. There aren’t the same limits on baby milk or food which makes the journey so much easier.
Space and comfort
Trains generally have more space and are much more comfortable than planes. You can easily move around if you need to as well: on one particular journey our toddler son had a massive tantrum, and we were so relieved to be able to go somewhere away from other passengers. Afterwards he was so tired he slept for hours in his buggy by the doors – now you can't do that on a plane.
Table seats are fantastic to be able to play board games as a family. Often our son does puzzles, crosswords or colouring, or plugs in the tablet and watches a movie, while I enjoy watching Europe zip by out the window.
And of course there's also the opportunity to walk about and go and visit the cafe/bar to choose some drinks and snacks.
Time passes differently on the train
It's easier to keep a child occupied on a long train journey versus a plane. When our son was five we travelled back from Berlin to London in one day, which is one of the longest journeys we have ever done. In total we were travelling for about 12 hours as we’d allowed extra time to make sure we made our connections, but our son was happy and occupied throughout the day. Having to change trains at Cologne and Brussels broke up the journey in a positive way, and we found changing trains relatively easy.
We actually thought that journey would be really hard, but allowing extra time was a good decision as it made the journey smoother. While we usually break our journey with an overnight stay somewhere en route so we can spend some time in another city, going from Berlin to London in a day showed us that it’s possible.
Make the journey part of the holiday
We now like to make the journey part of the holiday and the slow travel aspect becomes enjoyable, so you can stop off overnight in Brussels, Paris or Cologne or other intermediate stations for no extra cost in your ticket. It's also a good idea to break the journey for lunch and a walk around. Main stations are usually in the centre of town, so if you want to see a new city you can always drop off your bags at Left Luggage and go and explore outside the station.
Start short and work up the distance
Our first train holiday as a family was a short hop from London to Brussels when our son was a baby. Since then we have become more confident to travel further and longer distances.
We have been to France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, and last year we took the Caledonian Sleeper to the Highlands in Scotland. The sleeper train was a real hit with our son – he loved the fact he was in a bed on a train, and it had cool hidden compartments such as foldable bedside tables and a hidden sink. He also loved the interconnecting doors between our two rooms. The most exciting thing was going to sleep in busy, built up London and waking up surrounded by mountains and mist in Scotland.
This year we might take the new sleeper train from Brussels to Vienna, or the Eurostar to the south of France, or the fast train from Paris to Barcelona. All of these journeys are possible in a day, but we might stop over on the way, of course.
Tips for planning your journey
The Man in Seat Sixty-One website is invaluable, and the Deutsche Bahn website and Rail Europe (formerly loco2) are also really useful. To get the best prices, it's best to book early – you can set up ticket alerts on Rail Europe which will let you know in advance when tickets go on sale. I try and make sure we have a table seat, and some train companies have special family areas on their trains, so we look out for those seats where they have them.
We have found Deutsche Bahn to be the most child friendly so far on our travels. Not only can children travel for free with their own seat, they get free toys and magazines from the cafe.
~ Take plenty of food and drinks, although prioritise meals and water, as it’s easy to buy a hot drink (even in your own cup!) or snacks, but it can be difficult to get your water bottle refilled.
~ Take plenty of activities to entertain the kids, including card games or colouring books. It's also a good idea to download some games or videos for your electronic devices: while plugs are available for recharging, the WiFi/phone signal can be intermittent.
~ Take a wheelie suitcase and rucksack each, so you can manage your luggage walking between trains. Our son managed his own rucksack and suitcase from the age of four.
I don't miss flying and am always excited to plan our next rail adventure as a family. When talking to other parents about our holidays, it surprises me how many people don’t even consider the train as an option. I hope that by sharing our experiences, a few more families will give it a go.