This article is proudly presented by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Embarking on a family trip by train offers a unique experience, where sleeping on a gently rolling train, dining in the charming dining car, and waking up to a new country outside the window become part of the fun.
Opting for train travel over planes and cars also brings practical advantages. Bid farewell to the frustrations of long airport queues, the hassle of securing your kids into seat belts, and the inconvenience of arriving far from your desired destination. Europe’s extensive rail network conveniently transports you from city center to city center, providing ample space to stretch your legs, dedicated play carriages for younger children, and ever-changing picturesque views to captivate your family.
Moreover, as Europe embraces rail as a more environmentally friendly alternative to flying, the number of routes and sleeper trains has significantly increased. London connects seamlessly to Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, while other exciting destinations such as Vienna, Berlin, Zurich, Budapest, Rome, and even Zagreb in Croatia are within easy reach. Before long, Istanbul, the gateway to both Europe and Asia, becomes accessible, ensuring that all of Europe is open for exploration.
Here are four remarkable European train routes that promise unforgettable family adventures:
- The Alps: Zurich to Tirano
Switzerland’s Swiss (SBB) long-distance double-decker trains, like the Zurich to Chur route, offer a dedicated family coach with energizing games and slides to keep children entertained. Switch trains at Chur to embark on the Bernina Express, where the lack of onboard entertainment is compensated by the breathtaking views as the train ascends into the majestic Alps. This winding track follows the contours of glacial lakes, rugged gorges, and towering mountains, passing through 196 bridges and 55 tunnels, ultimately reaching Tirano, just across the Italian border.
How to plan it: SBB tickets covering both legs start at €53 (£46) per person. For prime panoramic views in the Bernina Express, make a separate seat reservation for €20 (£18) per person.
- The Mediterranean: Rome to Syracuse
Embark on a leisurely evening journey from Rome, the Eternal City, aboard the sleeper service to Sicily. Enjoy breakfast as the train glides onto the ferry, crossing the picturesque Straits of Messina. Upon arriving in Sicily, continue your rail journey along the island’s eastern coast, passing the volcanic cone of Mount Etna and catching glimpses of flamingos lazily inhabiting the lagoons near the ancient coastal city of Syracuse.
How to plan it: Book your journey directly through ItaliaRail, offering berths in a four-person compartment for €41 (£36) or seats on the day train starting from €21 (£18) per person.
- The Arctic: Helsinki to Rovaniemi
Embarking from Finland’s capital, Helsinki, this extraordinary rail journey takes you through the endless winter night, reaching the edge of the Arctic Circle and the “official” home of Santa Claus. If conditions allow, you might catch a glimpse of the mesmerizing Northern Lights while aboard the Santa Claus Express. Alternatively, admire the enchanting snow-covered fields, frozen lakes, and pine forests silhouetted against the darkened sky.
How to plan it: Book your tickets through Finnish Railways, starting from €49 (£43) per person, including a sleeper berth.
- The British Isles: London to Fort William
Indulge in a delightful breakfast in the luxurious restaurant car of the sleeper train as you revel in the awe-inspiring Scottish Highland scenery. From Fort William, embark on a hike up Ben Nevis, go on a seal-spotting boat trip on Loch Linnhe, or take the iconic Jacobite steam train, which gracefully traverses the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, known for its appearance in the Harry Potter films as part of the Hogwarts Express route.
How to plan it: Book your tickets through Caledonian Sleeper, with prices starting from £240 for a family of four. Families are advised to book connecting two-bed compartments.
Depart London in the evening and wake up to the breathtaking Scottish landscapes the next morning while traveling on the Caledonian Sleeper.
PHOTO BY PHIL METCALFE, ALAMY
Tips for Planning and Booking Family Train Trips in Europe
For multi-destination trips, an Interrail pass simplifies your travel arrangements. Various ticket options are available, depending on the number of countries you plan to visit, the duration of your trip, and your preferred frequency of travel. Once you’ve obtained the pass, download the Rail Planner app by Interrail to easily reserve tickets across the extensive rail network, allowing unlimited travel within the pass’s parameters. Interrail’s user-friendly map illustrates popular connections such as Paris to Milan and Munich to Prague.
When booking trains independently, without an Interrail pass, securing tickets early grants you access to the best rates and a wider range of dates. Many routes open bookings three months before travel, although this may vary. Stay updated by subscribing to the Rail Europe alert service, which notifies you when bookings for your desired journey become available. The Man in Seat 61, an online rail guide, proves invaluable for plotting your way around the continent. It provides detailed itineraries, connection timings, links to booking platforms, tips for obtaining the best deals, descriptions of trains and routes, and even information on nearby hotels and dining options at various stations.
Most operators offer free travel for children up to a certain age, but the age threshold varies considerably, ranging from under three to under fifteen. It’s important to note that free travel for children often means they won’t have a separate seat or berth. Rail Europe offers a summary of the age limits for discounts in popular countries like Italy, France, and Switzerland. If you desire a separate space for your young ones, especially in sleeper compartments where you may not want to share a bunk with your child or be in the same compartment as a stranger, you will need to purchase a ticket for your child to secure a bed.
The Cost of Family Train Trips
Interrail passes start at €258 (£224) for four days of travel within a one-month period for adults, and they go up to €1,202 (£1,045) for unlimited first-class train travel over three months (some sleeper and high-speed routes, like the Eurostar, may require an additional supplement). Children aged 11 and under travel for free, while “youth” tickets (ages 12-27) cost 75% of the full adult fare.
On the other hand, the price of individual train journeys depends on the destination, travel dates, journey duration, and how far in advance you book. For a family of four booking a single night train, expect to pay over £150. Most night trains accommodate groups of up to six in the same couchette compartment. Consider that a night train can replace the cost of a hotel stay and flights on the same route, making it a cost-effective option. High-speed inter-city day trains often have similar prices to sleeper trains, while slower day services can be more affordable. For instance, a family of four can expect to pay around £50 for a slower day train from Prague to Budapest, compared to £135 for the sleeper train on the same route.
Generally, traveling farther east in Europe tends to be less expensive, but exceptional deals can be found throughout the continent. Germany, for example, offers the monthly Deutschland Ticket for only €49 (£43), covering all regional trains and most local public transportation for an entire month.
Essentials to Pack for a Family Train Trip
Travelling light is essential when hopping from city to city with your family, as you’ll need to carry everything with you. Opt for backpacks that are easy to maneuver while on the move. Pack only the essentials and consider washing clothes along the way to avoid carrying unnecessary weight. Keep in mind that air conditioning on sleeper trains can be chilly, while cheaper regional routes may lack air conditioning altogether. Therefore, it’s advisable to bring base layers for night trains and consider handheld fans and misting sprays for daytime journeys, particularly in Southern Europe during the summer.
Equip your children with their own small backpacks to hold entertainment items and essentials like tablets, books, water bottles, cuddly toys, pajamas, toothbrushes, and wet wipes. Alternatively, consider bringing a Trunki suitcase that your children can pull behind them or ride on when they get tired. If you have young children and prefer not to share a bunk with them, a lightweight travel cot can be a practical addition. Sleeper compartments usually have enough space on the floor to set it up.
E-readers are convenient for travel, but if you or your children prefer physical books, the Adventures on Trains series offers excellent reading material for junior school-age kids and older, making it perfect for bedtime stories for younger children as well. Another great idea is to pack a scrapbook or diary so that kids can document their journey, providing an engaging project during train hours and a lasting memento of their travels. Games like Boggle and UNO cater to various age groups and can be easily played on small train tables. Suction toys that stick to the window are ideal for keeping babies amused.
Before boarding trains, take the opportunity to visit local stores and markets to purchase picnic supplies. Carry light, non-perishable snacks, and bring a couple of small Tupperware containers for storing leftovers. Refillable water bottles are a must-have item.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about family rail adventures
How can I plan a family rail adventure across Europe?
To plan a family rail adventure across Europe, consider the following steps:
Choose your destinations: Research the European cities and countries you wish to visit and create an itinerary.
Explore train routes: Look for scenic train routes that offer captivating views and family-friendly amenities.
Consider an Interrail pass: Determine if an Interrail pass suits your travel needs, as it provides flexibility and cost savings for multi-destination trips.