Train travel in Europe is almost always affordable, comfortable, and safe, making it the ideal way to get around Europe with kids. Given the choice, I’ll opt to sit back and relax instead of attempting to navigate by car in a foreign country any day, and my kids would thank me for it. On trains, kids are not confined full time to seats like in cars or on planes and the scenery is much easier to see out the window. All this said, traveling by rail in Europe can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know when planning to travel in Europe by rail with kids.
1. You can travel by train in Europe with rail passes or specific destination tickets. Which to buy? It can depend. In rural areas and small towns, often non-reservable, or ‘open’ destination tickets are the only option. If nothing else, plan for these accordingly. For some high speed trains, even families with applicable rail passes must purchase reservable tickets. Generally speak, however, if you’re traveling from city to city or country to country, you’re almost always better off with a rail pass. Note: France is an exception. Learn more about rail travel in France.
2. Plan your itinerary before purchasing tickets. This seems like a no-brainer, but with rail passes, it’s possible to purchase Global or Select country passes, then decide where to go later. While spontaneity still has a place in travel with kids, you can’t compare ticket pricing options effectively if you don’t know where you’re going. Start at country rail travel sites like TrenItalia for Italy, and add up the price of your tickets a la carte. Then head to Eurail and see if a Global, Select , or Country pass will save you money (and allow for some spontaneity). Or, you can let Rail Europe do the work for you: you put in your itinerary, and they decide which rail options suit you best. Rail Europe is generally trusted among travelers to provide competitive pricing, so this is a viable option. When mapping out your itinerary and selecting your rail pass, keep in mind that you’ll need to pay even for countries you’re only passing through, not stopping in.
3. Decide whether to travel first class or second class. Second class is fine (think airline coach), but first class is not much extra per ticket and includes various perks such as wifi or light meals, depending on the train. Often, only first class tickets are reservable, worth the extra price for the peace of mind alone. However: if you have teens, you may be forced to travel second class or pay extra for adult passes. Why? Youth ages 13-25 are eligible for discounted pass prices with Eurail (approximately 35% less than adult), but only on second class tickets. If your family will be traveling first class, teens will need adult tickets (or you could make them sit alone in second class, I suppose, which might be warranted… kidding, of course). The good news: children ages 4-12 are always 50% discounted, no matter the class, and children under age 4 are always free.
4. Decide on your number of travel days. When selecting which Eurail pass is right for you, you’ll need to select between a number of travel days. Bear in mind: these days do not refer to the number of days you’re on vacation, but the number of actual rail travel days. You can save considerably by traveling by rail only once every 3-4 days instead of every day, and your kids will feel more rested as well.
5. Bring snacks, toys, and games for train travel. A ‘train day’ can be a day to rest and recoup after busy travel and sightseeing days. Let kids spread out with games and books, or use the electronic plug-ins you’ll have at your disposal in first class. Bringing food on the train is always cheaper than purchasing on-board, and the luggage and carry-on allowances are much less strict than during air travel, making packing a meal easy.
6. Know the difference between sleep compartments. Overnight trains are a great way to save daylight for sightseeing, and are a great adventure for kids. However, it’s helpful to know what to expect. In second class, you usually have the choice between sleeping compartments (small compartments of bunks that are gender specific) or couchettes, which are cabins with 4-6 beds that are non-gender specific (perfect for families). In first class, you’ll almost always encounter single or double sleeping compartments, which means more room, but the necessity for families to split up for children to be accompanied by adults.
Have you traveled by train in Europe with kids? What tips do you have?