More environmentally friendly than driving and flying, rail can be a great – and yes, sometimes even relaxing! – way of getting to your family holiday destination, whether in the UK or abroad. But advance planning is essential to make it work for you, especially if you’re travelling with an active toddler who likes to move around a lot – in which case, try to time the journey with his/her nap as much as possible (it's easier to walk a fidgetty child up and down a train carriage or corridor than to constantly restrain them in an aircraft).
Unless you book well in advance and go off-peak, train travel can be fiendishly expensive both within the UK and for getting to destinations in Europe – the two places you’re most likely to consider no-fly holidays with kids. With rail fares frequently far outstripping low-cost airline fares on the same routes, it can be difficult to put concerns about the planet before your personal finances. One way of approaching the dilemma is to view the journey as part of the overall holiday – taking a long-distance train, especially overnight, can be an adventure your kids will remember for ever.
If you do travel to Europe, think about breaking the journey in Paris if you travel there with Eurostar – the French capital is brilliant for a family city break, and you get to stretch your legs and have a good meal. The Man in Seat 61 is a good source of information on timetables, sleeping arrangements, restaurant cars and other practical matters.
If you need to travel a long distance but want to take your own car, there are various ‘auto-train’ options within Europe, although again, these are not cheap and most only run in summer. At the time of writing, you can still put your car on an AutoTrain in Paris then travel on a separate day or night train and catch up with it in Bordeaux, Toulon, Avignon, Marseille, Nice and other destinations handy for Italy or Spain.
Alternatively, you can put your car on a train from Düsseldorf in Germany (the ‘Autozug’) to Italy (Verona) or Austria (Villach in Carinthia). In Italy (Venice), you can then put your car on a ferry to Greece, while in Austria you could link to further Motorail services to Turkey. Again, The Man in Seat 61 is the best source of information on Motorail options.
Top Tips for Train Travel with Kids
• Invest in a Family & Friends Railcard, which for a reasonable fee saves you one-third on most adult rail fares and 60% on child fares for up to four adults and four kids travelling (there has to be a least one child travelling in the party). It should pay for itself after just a couple of journeys, and with it comes benefits with selected partners.
• Remember that on British trains, children under five travel free. That said, if you can afford it, especially on longer journeys, it may be worth splashing out on a seat for them (at a child’s fare) for the extra room. Note that on Eurostar and European trains, children four and up pay for seats (again, it may be a good idea to book one if you can afford it).
• Reserve seats in advance wherever possible and, if given a choice, sit close to both the buffet car and the toilets. The latter is particularly useful if there’s one parent or carer travelling with more than one child – it can be tricky taking multiple kids to the loo and leaving your luggage unattended too, but if you’re close to the loo you may be able to leave one child in the seat and keep an eye on them from the toilet doorway. Some trains, including Eurostar, have dedicated family carriages near baby-changing facilities. In some cases, you may have to book by phone to get such seats, since online booking may not give you the choice.
• Take toys and gadgets to entertain your kids: tablets, colouring materials, story books and comics, small toys and portable crafts materials such as packs of Plasticine. For longer journeys consider bringing a tablet or laptop.
• Bring along enough drinks and non-messy packed meals/snacks to keep you going not only for the journey but in case of any delays that involve remaining aboard the train.
• Travel with a fully charged mobile, in case delays mean you need to speak to waiting relatives, booked hotels or onward travel providers.
Read about our favourite UK family breaks and check out our features on 10 reasons to take the train with your family, the best family rail trips around the world, and taking the overnight train to Florence with kids.