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TRAIN TRAVEL

‘Something always goes wrong’: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Travelling from Sweden to the UK and back by train via stops in Denmark, Germany, Belgium and France is no easy feat. But The Local's Richard Orange and his two kids managed to do it. Here's his advice for other travellers hoping to avoid the planes.

'Something always goes wrong': What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids
Finn Orange (front) and Eira Orange (back), during the family's first father-and-children rail odyssey back in 2017. Photo: Richard Orange

When I stepped bleary-eyed off the train in southern Sweden on Tuesday morning, it marked the end of 24 hours of non-stop train travel through six countries. 

Together with my long-suffering children, Eira, aged 10, and Finn, aged 8, we’d had to deal with two train cancellations, several missed connections, and our sleeper train back to Malmö breaking down in Berlin, forcing us to quickly make other arrangements. 

This marked the third time I’ve done the return trip to the UK by rail, since deciding five years ago that avoiding flights if possible was the easiest way to make a small personal contribution to battling climate change (I still haven’t managed to go veggie). 

So what have I learnt? 

Richard Orange sets off with Eira (10) and Finn (8) on his way back to Sweden from the UK on Monday. Photo: Richard Orange

1. Something almost always goes wrong 

When you are taking four or five long intercity, and often international, train journeys, you can be pretty certain that at least one of your trains will either be delayed or cancelled, leading to a domino effect of missed connections. 

On the way out to the UK, our ICE was delayed, meaning we would miss our Thalys train from Brussels to Paris. (We got around it by taking another Thalys direct from Cologne to Paris, despite lacking a ticket for part of the journey).

And on the way back to Sweden, our ICE from Brussels to Cologne was cancelled, with the guards then sending us off on a series of regional trains, before we gave up and forked out €140 for the Thalys from Liège. 

You can reduce the risk of a domino effect by allowing a comfortable transfer time (at least 30 minutes) between trains. 

On the Deutsche Bahn (DB) website, you can set a minimum transfer time when researching your journey. One of our fellow passengers on Monday said he always allow enough time at each stop to take the next available train and still get his connection (about two hours). 

Screenshot from DB website. Image: Richard Orange

But you also need to be psychologically prepared for the possibility that you won’t make it, that you might need to spend the night somewhere like Cologne, Liège, or Osnabrück, and continue your journey the next day, and is that really so bad?

A German ICE train in Stuttgart, southern Germany. Photo: Thomas Kienzle/AFP

2. Consider getting an Interrail ticket (even for a single round-trip) 

If you order about three months in advance, it is possible to get long-distance Deutsche Bahn tickets quite cheaply, with a one-way ticket from Malmö to Brussels going for about €50. You can then (if you are lucky and booking at least three months in advance) get a Eurostar to London for around €45. This means you can do the round trip for under €200. 

However, getting tickets this cheaply means being both flexible and carefully watching Deutsche Bahn’s website. Children aged 6 to 14 travel for free in Germany if accompanying their own parents or grandparents. 

For €246, you can get an Interrail ticket allowing you to travel four days in one month, or for €335, seven days in one month. And If you order an Interrail ticket for one adult, you can get Interrail tickets for two children for free. 

The advantage of travelling on an Interrail ticket is that if something goes wrong, you can hop on the next train without needing to talk to any rail staff or visit a ticket office.

The new Railplanner app, once you’ve got the hang of it, is also very convenient, allowing you to just show a QR code at the guard on most trains, and even at the gates at stations. The only drawback is that if you want to or need to reserve seats, you still have to do that on the interrail.eu website. 

If like me, you intend to travel around quite a lot in your destination country, it almost certainly pays for itself. 

3. You need to improvise 

When the trains across Europe are a real mess, as they seem to be at the moment, I have found train guards quite tolerant of people jumping on trains without having exactly the right ticket if they need to make a connection. Particularly if you have another ticket from DB, they often let you travel. 

If you’ve got an Interrail ticket, you’ve got even more flexibility, although it can be hard to book seat reservations on the Thalys (necessary) and some ICE trains (normally not necessary) at late notice. 

The Thalys often seems to sell out of reservations that can be used with an Interrail pass, meaning you need to pay full price. Having said this, on my way out to the UK, I saw people jump on the Thalys with no reservation or ticket at all, and none were made to pay. The staff even gave them advice on making the Eurostar to the UK. 

When things go awry, you will probably find yourself linking up with other long-distance train travellers in the same situation, all trying to solve the same puzzle. It’s worth identifying who knows what they’re talking about and listening to their advice. 

The DB Navigator app kept well up to date on which trains are on time and which are delayed, meaning you can often second-guess the guards, who I’m afraid don’t always know what they’re talking about. 

4. Get help from rail staff and staff in the ticket office 

The excellent Seat61 website, managed by the former British Rail station manager Mark Smith, recommends that if your train is delayed, you should first get your ticket endorsed by staff on the delayed train or at the interchange station when you arrive, and then approach staff working for the operator of the next train you want to get. 

Under the International Convention for the transportation of Passengers (CIV), if you have a through ticket all the way to your final destination, if a delayed or cancelled train means you miss your connections, you have the right to free tickets on later trains. This, however, doesn’t always apply if your ticket is split between more than one company (for example with two DB ICE trains and one Thalys train). 

If the delay or cancellation means you can’t get to your destination that day, the rail company involved (in my case normally DB) is also supposed to arrange a hotel for you close to the last station you end up in. 

5. Don’t expect decent internet 

One of the things that makes replacing flights with trains for long journeys across Europe bearable, or even enjoyable, is the internet. When you have a good internet connection, you can get as much work done in a day’s travelling as you would in the office. 

The only problem is that on Europe’s trains, you rarely do get a good connection. I have found the on-board wifi too slow on trains to be able to work effectively. On the train at home in Sweden, so long as there’s mobile phone coverage, there’s usually no problem. In Germany, though, the mobile internet is often so ropy that you can’t use that either. 

This also means that if you are planning on keeping children entertained by hooking them up to a laptop, tablet or phone, you might run into problems. So it’s worth downloading some films or cartoons at home before you leave so that they can be played offline. 

6. Pack as lightly as possible

As you are quite likely to end up sprinting between platforms and up and down station stairs to get a connection, you really don’t want to be heaving around a heavy suitcase, so if at all possible, limit yourself either to a rucksack or backpack or to the smaller type of wheeled luggage. 

7. Consider splashing out on a proper meal in the ICE restaurant 

The restaurant cars in some of the ICE trains are extremely civilised, with starched white table cloths, proper cutlery, decent wines, and food you’d be happy to get in a mid-range German restaurant. At €15 to €20 for a main course, it’s not particularly cheap, but it’s a lot better value than the junk food you’ll be able to grab rushing through stations during your transfers.   

Eira and Finn Orange asleep on the DSB train to Copenhagen. Photo: Richard Orange

8. Children are surprisingly resilient (at least mine are) 

Before I started putting my children through a gruelling 24-hour journey at least once a year, almost invariably involving a succession of stressful mishaps, I would have expected tantrums and breakdowns.

Mine do grumble, saying things like, “Dad, we should have gone on a plane,” or, “this is so boring”, but they also appreciate the unlimited screen time.

And as we wandered around Hamburg station at close to midnight on Monday searching for somewhere open to buy food and dodging the homeless drug addicts, they almost seemed to be enjoying themselves.

It’s quite rare to spend that amount of time so close to your children, and even to find time for the occasional round of Uno. I suspect that the memories of our trips back to the UK are something we’ll all treasure. 

Member comments

  1. I guess the difference between us is that i would love to take the train, and i will when some form of competence is in place. What other form of travel would cancel passage, and then leave it completely up to you to figure out a recovery plan. NO other form of transport would survive with such poor service, yet people continue to support the trains. Fix it and then they will come

  2. All good advice based on my experience of having to travel around Europe for work. You can count on one mishap during any journey, which is sometime small and other times colossal. And the key to overcoming the obstacle is to always remain flexible. You can prevent some problems by never getting on (or off) a train by verifying with other passengers that it’s the right train or station.

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TRAIN TRAVEL

REVEALED: The best websites for cross-Europe train travel

Planning to travel by train across Europe but not sure where to start? Here are the best websites to help make it happen.

REVEALED: The best websites for cross-Europe train travel

Travelling across Europe by train is quickly becoming the preferred mode of transport for many people – mostly due to environmental concerns.

For others though, making the switch from cars or planes to trains is not so simple.

With planes, there are well-known websites like Skyscanner and Expedia, which makes it easy to find cheap flights. As well good connections across the continent from most major airports.

Then there is the convenience of travelling by car, which can be hard to beat – especially for those living in more rural areas. 

So what are the options for trains? Are there websites like Skyscanner but for train travel? And where can you find cheap tickets or the best routes?

Here are the websites you need to know when planning a trip across Europe by train.

Seat 61

The Seat 61 website provides tips on how to travel comfortably and affordably by train, while aiming to help visitors to rediscover the “pleasure, romance  and adventure of the journey”.

It includes an introduction to train travel in Europe, as well as an extensive search feature to find trains by starting location.

For example, The Local searched for trains from Salzburg to Italy and found routes to Venice, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples, including on Nightjet sleeper trains.

The guide then describes the features of the Nightjet service, such as air conditioning, showers and room service all useful information for any newbies starting out with train travel.

Seat 61 is run by Mark Smith, a train enthusiast and former manager at the UK Department of Transport.

READ MORE: Discover Austria: 19 ways to make the most of autumn this year

Trainline

The Trainline is an international platform focused on train travel. The company is based in the UK but has extensive coverage of train travel in 45 countries across Europe.

The aim of the Trainline is find to the cheapest tickets for a selected route. Most of the time, this means booking in advance.

The site also highlights some great offers, such as €7 tickets between Barcelona and Madrid, and Paris to Amsterdam from €20.

As an added bonus, the search function on the Trainline is very user-friendly and allows people to search by location, as well as add extras such as railcards or return tickets.

The Trainline can be accessed via the website or app.

Rail Europe

Rail Europe is a leading distributor of European train tickets. The website covers 25,000 destinations and 11,000 routes across the continent.

The search function on Rail Europe works in a similar way to other websites and users can view tickets by destination to get the best price. It’s also possible to purchase railcards direct from Rail Europe.

Additionally, the site includes a useful overview of the latest ticket releases and sales, such as special offers on journeys between Paris and Geneva.

Users can pay for tickets in Euros, Sterling or Dollar (US, Canada and Australia) on the website or the app.

Rail Europe is headquartered in Paris but was founded in New York in 1932.

READ ALSO: Ryanair to raise flight ticket prices in Austria

Interrail

The Interrail Pass is a railcard that is available for residents in Europe. For people that live outside of Europe, they can purchase the Eurail Pass.

The passes are aimed at backpackers, or anyone spending time travelling across Europe.

The Interrail website has details about the different passes on offer under the umbrella of Interrail, like the Global Pass, One Country Pass and the German Rail Pass

For example, prices for the One Country Pass for Spain start at €182 for three days of travel within one month. Or you can pay €235 for five days of travel within one month.

Whereas the Global Pass starts at €251 for seven days of train travel in one month, but goes up to €677 for a three month unlimited travel ticket.

Interrail or Eurail Pass holders can buy tickets and make reservations via the desktop website or the Rail Planner app.

Omio

Omio is a travel platform where you can book train, bus and flight tickets. It has a free app to download or users can search and book on the website.

The Omio site has a dedicated section just for train travel. It even highlights 28 routes in Europe that are faster by train than plane – as well as the amount of carbon dioxide saved on the trip.

Examples are London to Brussels, which takes just two hours, or Frankfurt to Cologne in one hour.

There is also a handy FAQ section with information about booking train tickets in Europe, baggage conditions and travelling with pets.

At the time of writing, The Local found a ticket from Zurich to Vienna on Omio for €60 (when searching for dates two months in advance).

Do you have other suggestions for websites we should add to this list? Let us know in the comments section below or email [email protected]

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