The picturesque countryside flashes past while I enjoy a glass of local wine and share an assortment of Swiss cheeses with my family. Although we could fly or drive from Zurich to Milan, we chose to travel by train. After almost a decade of riding the rails, we enjoy family train travel in Europe, but it hasn’t always been easy. Experience is an excellent teacher, and I hope that these tips for family train travel in Europe help you climb onboard with a smile on your face.
1. Arrive Early
Trains are typically punctual, and they don’t spend long at the station unless you happen to board a train in the city from which it originates. Based on my experience, the trains whoosh in and out in a matter of minutes and won’t wait for anyone. My best advice is to arrive early.
2. Prepare to Board the Train
It often seems like survival of the fittest dictates who gets on the train first, so be ready to board your train coach with your children, if applicable, and your luggage well in advance of the scheduled departure time.
Your train ticket will help you determine where to stand on the platform so that you are close to your coach or carriage when the train arrives. The following information from a recent ticket shows the class of service (1st), the carriage (2) and the seats.
• 17:23 Barcelona Sants
• 21:16 Avignon TGV
• TGV 9724
• 1st, carriage 2, seats 32, 33, 34, 35
The train platform should have lettered sections, and there will be an electronic layout of your train posted at the station. Review the information on your ticket to determine the class of service and carriage number, then look at the electronic layout of the train to find out the letter you need to stand near on the platform. If you end up boarding the wrong carriage, you will have to weave your way through a moving train to find your seat. Lurching through the train with kids and luggage isn’t fun, but it beats missing the train.
3. You are Responsible for the Luggage
I have heard that porters are available at certain train stations, but I have never found one to assist with boarding. If you travel by train in Europe, plan to carry all of your luggage onto the train. Most carriages include a luggage storage area, but it fills up quickly. If you are traveling with children, a light-weight stroller is an excellent option.
4. Eat and Drink When you Want
Train travel is wonderful because you can eat and drink at your discretion – walk to the dining car, order food from your seat if you are seated in First Class, or bring your own food and drinks onboard.
5. Family Train Trave in Europe – First Class or Second Class?
First Class (1), with comfy reservable seats and enhanced service, and Second Class (2) are the most frequent train travel options. Austrian trains also offer Busines Class, which is superior to their First Class product. Select the preferred class of service when you purchase your ticket.
6. Choose the Main Level
In the bi-level coaches, reserve a seat on the main level because the stairs to the upper level can be difficult to navigate if you are traveling with heavy baggage, children, or have mobility issues.
7. The Washroom Can Be Wild
The trains often travel at high speeds and don’t always move in a straight line – pack hand sanitizer, tissues, and toilet seat covers if you are traveling with children.
8. Use Scotty OBB to Plan Train Travel
The Scotty OBB website is a useful tool to determine the best train travel option based departure or arrival time, as well as stops and connections along the way.
9. Don’t Miss out on the Discount
Many train networks in Europe offer free or discounted train travel for certain age groups or families. For example, the SNCF train network in France sells the Enfant+ Card providing discounted train travel for children under 12. The discount cards are available at SNCF boutiques and are typically valid for one year. Once you have the card, you should be eligible for the benefits regardless of how you book train travel i.e. online through Trainline Europe, SNCF or in-person at the station.
The Swiss network, SBB, offers a Swiss Family Card allowing children under 16 to travel for free when accompanied by at least one parent holding a Swiss Travel System ticket.
10. Purchase Tickets in Advance
The best seats and prices are often available in advance. Trainline (formerly Captain Train) is an excellent online booking tool and provides information on seat sales via email. Also, many train companies such as SNCF advertise upcoming sales.
Do you have tips for family train travel in Europe that you would be willing to share? I would love to hear about your experiences.