The advantages of train travel over flying are clear – your carbon footstep is tiny, your journey is usually more pleasurable, and you see much more of the places you’re travelling through. And the difference in expense can be marginal.
For a family, the train trip can often work out the most enjoyable part of the holiday – kids enjoy trains much more than they do sitting in the back seat of a car or waiting at airports, it’s generally more relaxing for parents and the sense of adventure is greater. If you need more persuading, see also our feature 10 Reasons to Take the Train With Your Family.
What follows is a guide to some truly magical train journeys that will stay in the minds of your children like no plane journey could, some rating among the world's most exciting no-fly holidays. They are all rather special (and often expensive) trips, but bear in mind that you can take the train to a great many holiday destinations.
The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com) is an invaluable guide to train travel around the world, with in-depth information on everything from prices and timetables to on-board sleeping and eating arrangements. Other great resources are Voyages SNCF (voyages-sncf.com), European Rail Guide (europeanrailguide.com), National Rail (nationalrail.co.uk), International Rail (internationalrail.com) and – a marvellous site for those wishing to travel by steam – The Railway Touring Co (railwaytouring.co.uk).
A great way to various Scottish cities, the Caledonian Sleeper can whisk you and your family away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and transport you through the night to awaken to gorgeous views of the Highlands. Under-fives travel free but don’t get their own berth – The Man in Seat 61 has some great tips on suitable travel cots and other sleep solutions. Modern sleep cars include flat-bed pods and a brasserie.
Did you know you can get all the way to the Italian island of Sicily from the country’s capital Rome without leaving your train? – the whole train is shunted on to the boat to cross the Straits of Messina. It’s best to break the journey from the UK and spend a night in Rome anyway, as the train there from Paris often arrives late, meaning you’ll miss your connection.
Choose a trip by Eurostar, overnight sleeper to Italy then overnight cruise ferry to Greece, taking 48 hours in total, with the latter sailing past the islands of Ithaca and Kefalonia. Or travel by train all the way, taking three days via Paris, Munich, Budapest and Bucharest. The first option is the most enjoyable; if you travel with older kids, they’ll love sleeping on deck on the overnight ferry (bring your own sleeping bag; reclining seats or various cabins are also available).
Accessible until the 1960s by taking the now-defunct Orient Express (as distinct from the current Venice Simplon Orient Express), the largest city in Turkey is now the end-point of a cross-Europe epic train journey that takes in Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. Railbookers (railbookers.com) will tailor-make the journey for you; the starting point is a seven-day holiday (you return by air).
AFRICA & ASIA
Unbelievably, you can reach North Africa in just 48 hours from London, via Paris, Madrid, an express train through Andalucia and then ferry to Tangier, where you can pick up fast trains to various wonderful Moroccan destinations. (Note that there are no more Paris-Madrid sleeper trains, however).
Darjeeling–New Japaiguri, India
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Darjeeling Toy Train is fantastic for both little children and steam-loving parents. This train has dragged delighted passengers through beautiful scenery between Darjeeling and New Japaiguri since 1881. Taking just 9hrs from start to finish, it’s slow-moving, so passengers can jump on and off – break the journey in Ghoom (Ghum), which has the highest railway station in the world and is full of fascinating Buddhist temples and places to run around in.
This passenger train cuts up from Adelaide on Australia’s south coast to Darwin in the Northern Territory (or just between Alice and Darwin if you prefer), allowing you to experience the vastness of the land from the romantic comfort of an epic train journey. Taking in 2,979km but only 14 stations (the journey lasts nearly 2.5 days), the route includes plenty of off-train tours and activities available during stop-offs, including Aboriginal sacred sites, a desert park, a reptile centre, a transport museum, a helicopter flight, quad biking, canoeing, and a nature cruise. Kids love running up and down the aisles and fiddling with the gadgets in the cosy cabins. Cars and sometimes campervans may be taken on board, so you can make the return journey independently.
Coastal Pacific (formerly the TranzCoastal
New Zealand’s Coastal Pacific travels between the port of Picton, which connects to ferry services from North Island, and Christchurch, the largest and most charming of South Island’s cities, creating a marvellous journey between the Kaikoura mountains and the Pacific Coast. Visitors see South Island at its spectacular best – stop at Kaikoura to go whale- and dolphin-watching and book tickets for the open-air carriage so you can try to spot marine life from the comfort of your seat. Children are most welcome, with seating arranged to encourage mingling.
NORTH & CENTRAL AMERICA
This transcontinental epic between Toronto and Vancouver lasts four days and three nights but you can break your journey at various scheduled and unscheduled stops, or even request a stop in the middle of nowhere should you want to head off into the wilderness! The dome car allows you panoramic views of scenic lakelands, forests, prairies and the Rockies. There are children’s rates and a kids’ menu in the restaurant car.
Exploring America’s vast landscapes by train is child’s play with Amtrak; the 4,800km journey from New York City to Los Angeles or San Francisco is both stunning and surprisingly affordable, and you have five routes to choose from. The journey takes three or four nights, depending on whether you go via Chicago or New Orleans. The Man in Seat 61 can help you work through the options; if you want to make stop-offs en route, you’ll need to buy separate tickets for each leg, which works out more expensive (although a ‘Multi-City Pass’ allows you a trip with up to four segments).
Mexico's Copper Canyon (Chihuahua al Pacifico)
The spectacular 'Copper Canyon' is four times the size of the Grand Canyon and the train is the perfect way to view it. Starting at 800m altitude in Chihuahua, you rise to 2,500m before descending to sea level at Los Mochis, on the way passing through numerous tunnels and bridges. First-class is the best bet with kids, with a very nice restaurant-car. You can break the 15-hour journey and several interesting places en route.
If you have older kids who relish a challenge, consider the Tran-Siberian, an epic adventure connecting Moscow with the Far East, that will introduce the whole family to extraordinary new places and people from all over the world. On the Go Tours (onthegotours.com) offers a range of experiences that might include camping out in a Mongolian ger, exploring the Gobi Desert and climbing the Great Wall of China.
A wonderful and pain-free if rather touristy way to take the family to Peru’s Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the world, the Hiram Bingham is a luxury train with viewing cars and a restaurant.
Kids love Japan’s shinkansen ‘bullet trains’ – high-speed marvels connecting Tokyo with most of the other major cities on the island of Honshu and even taking you as far south as Fukuoka.
Check out our Tips for Taking the Train with Kids.