Travel by train with kids adventure on the train doesn’t need to be awful. Prepared for train travel with kids? Do the math, booking in advance, are the keys.
Trains, planes and automobiles
We love train travel. I have mentioned it several times in the past and I will miss it when we move back to Canada next summer . Recently, we took a long haul train ride to Rome, Italy with the kids and it was great, for the most part. We took the standard ICE train from here to Munich, then the EuroNight train from Munich to Rome. I will discuss more about that next week, but for now, I wanted to dispel a few myths and secrets about the ICE train with kids. Taking the kids on the train isn’t has horrifying as many make it out to be and it really is my favorite way of traveling across the continent.
Why take the train with small children?
- Don’t need to drive. We love this. It’s like having a chauffeur. I just jump on and someone takes me where I need to be.
- Sanity. I don’t need to worry about parking when I get to my destination, where to find a gas station, does my kit fit in the car properly, what about the traffic in and out of the cities… train travel is just plain easier.
- Stay asleep in the stroller/carrier. If booking in wagon 25 or 35, there is a handicapped section where the stroller can stay open for a sleeping child. The family compartment is in the same car so if you are lucky enough to snag it, the children won’t even know the difference.
- No traffic. Except for mild train congestion due to late departures, there is virtually little traffic on the lines. I have been late once, in the 3 years I have been taking the train, and this was due to mechanical failure and a new train needed to be brought in. I’m ok with that reason.
- Potty breaks and meals whenever! No need to stop every 30 minutes for potty breaks or snack breaks, or stretching your legs. The food car is just up ahead, and the toilet is next to the family compartment. Go as often as you please, little ones.
- Room to walk around. There is plenty of room to walk around the length of the train and burn some energy while on the train. Don’t run, obviously, but walking quickly is allowed. Also, the family compartment has enough floor space to let the little ones walk around from one parent to another easily
- Space to do Distractivies. There is more than enough space for the kids to bust out their colourings, puzzles, tablets or whatever they want to play with at the moment. And enough space that they aren’t knocked elbows while doing it either. Find out more about distractivities by clicking here.
- Time together. This is one my second favourite reason to take the train (chauffeur being the first). We can all spend quality time together, talking and playing without the stress of driving. We aren’t struggling to see them from the front seat, and they aren’t struggling to hold our hands from the back. We can cuddle, and play and do whatever, together.
- May save time. When my in-laws visited from Canada last year, their flight landed in Frankfurt. I wondered how to get them here. It seriously takes 3 hours by car, 1.5 hours by train and 45 minutes to fly. But…flying needs to board, fly, baggage collection and find a way out of the airport parking. There are many times when the train travel was just as fast or faster than any other mood of transportation.
- No baggage limit. Obviously, we cannot pack up the whole house for the train, but there is no formal limit on most trains. We had way too much kit when we moved here 3 years ago, and it was crazy finding space to fit it all, but we were not charged extra for it. And if you get a family compartment, it has plenty of overhead space and floor space to hold as much luggage as you can carry onto the train.
- No banned items. Again, other than the obvious items like weapons and explosives, there are no banned items. And even then, not all train stations have formal security screenings to avoid these items, should they be left in your bag by accident. Remember, a nail clipper and corkscrew are considered weapons by the TSA.
Why not to take the train with small children?
- More expensive than driving or flying. While Ryan Air could have gotten us to Pisa, round trip, for $40 per person plus seat reservation, train travel most certainly did not. The airport is not near town, departing or arriving, so there is that cost to consider as well, but still. Driving is always cheaper than train travel. Flying can be cheaper sometimes, but then again taking the family to Berlin was cheaper and just as long on the train than flying, so watch the math carefully. Make sure to add cost for time, sanity, traffic, and local transit. To see more about my Berlin travels, click here.
- May take longer, depending on the destination. Again, I could have been in Pisa 12 hours beforehand if we have decided to fly, but the EuroNight was a fun experience that I don’t regret. Sometimes it is faster to take the train, like Frankfurt, sometimes it is faster to fly, like Pisa, and other times… it doesn’t make a difference, like Berlin.
- More time stuck together and in small spaces. With longer train rides mean longer time stuck together. If someone is having a rough day, train travel is not going to make it any easier.
Oh, beautiful family compartment! I rarely travel without it. When we utilized train travel for our trip to Berlin, we were too many and for some reason, I didn’t think of splitting us up into 6 in the compartment and 2 just next to it. We all sat in regular seats and it was an interesting 5 hours (each way). We decided then that I didn’t want to do this again. Just not enough room for us, we are too loud for others, and honestly, I don’t want to hear other people’s’ noisy and disrespectful kids.
When I went to Amsterdam with the kids and my mom, we didn’t have a compartment but it was a quick 1.5 hours so it wasn’t a big deal. We sat in the handicap section and the kids were on the floor playing with a new toy the whole time. We make it work when we need to.
The Family compartment has 6 seats, overhead storage, and a large table between 4 of the seats. The other two are behind the rest, like a quiet area in the compartment. I use this to rest when they are playing with hubby, or keep the kids separated when one needs a nap or time out.
The Space between the two solo seats and the other 4 have enough room for 1-2 strollers open or a ton of baggage. This also means there is plenty of floor space for the kids to spread out or open our kit to find anything accidentally packed at the bottom, like a lovey or change of clothes.
The door closes for privacy and it is somewhat soundproof. Anyone can hear the kids’ scream and cry but at least it’s less loud than if we were in the open car. It is also next to the baby toilet so I can let Munchkin go to the toilet on his own (when the train isn’t stopped and the doors are open). He is trying to be more independent and potty breaks is where he is drawing the line.
Beware; there are only 2 compartments per train, 2nd class seating. Wagon 25 & 35, seats 82,84,85,86,71,72 ICE Train. Booking can be a little tricky when you aren’t sure of what to look for. When purchasing tickets, they won’t allow tickets for anyone under 6, this just means my two kids ride free. Perfect. However, the next section asks if I want seat reservations. This is where I select 4 seats, since I don’t want the baby on my lap the whole time, and I request Family Compartment. There is parent compartment or 2nd class compartment selection, this rarely turns into anything more than the seats with a table; not the same thing as what I am looking. Once the right seats have been requested, hit next and check the seats that are being selected. This may involve asking the system to change seats, which is fine. You want to be sure these specific seats in the wagon are being selected. If not, manually change the seats to something near the toilets or near the compartment. If someone misses the train, you can easily jump in and take it.
Seats are only reserved for up to 20 minutes after the selected departure point. Once on board, the screen will indicate that the compartment is reserved from this station to that station. If no one comes to claim the cabin within 20 minutes of leaving that station, you are free to take it – as long as you have small children. 10 years old is not small. They suggest 6 years old and under, but preference will be given to 3 and under, should two families be waiting for it to open up.
Book quickly. Since there are only 2 cabins in the whole train, they tend to fill up fast. I was lucky and booked 2 months ahead and reserved the compartment, but I have also been denied the compartment at 2 months ahead and forced to change my train time in order to secure the compartment I want. This is the choice that needs to be made; keep the time and sit in the open cabin or change the time and get the family compartment. It all depends on flexibility, and my travels are usually pretty flexible.
You need to have a small child to book, with reserved seats. This doesn’t cost more than regular reservations, but you can’t just walk in and expect a first come, first serve situation to happen.
Know the rules and your rights
So this is the part where I tell you a not so funny story about some rude passengers on the train. We always try to book the family compartment when we travel. It was imperative that we have it this time, since it was a 5-hour train ride from Munich to Dusseldorf, immediately following a full night on the EuroNight train. We needed the space, the privacy and the soundproofing.
Halfway through our journey, the train starts to fill up. People have not reserved seats and they are sitting out in the halls with their kit. This happens all the time. They either don’t know tickets don’t come with seats, don’t believe the train will be full or don’t want to fork out the extra 10 euro for reservations. Either way, there were people eye-balling the two extra chairs in our compartment. One guy, whom I will refrain from using the name we called him, decided to waltz into our compartment and make himself at home. Baby Girl was asleep, Munchkin is trying to sleep, and buddy doesn’t have a reservation.
So I ask him, “Do you have a reservation for this car?” He tells me he doesn’t need one. Umm, yes you do. I inform him that I have paid extra to be in this car, alone, so please leave. He says I didn’t pay extra (excuse me, have you checked my visa statement recently? I didn’t think so.) I remind him of my sleeping kids, tell him I know what I paid for and that he needs a reservation and small kids to be in here, so please leave. He refuses. Hubby tells him to leave. He still refuses. What kills me is why does a person insist on sitting in a small, confined space, with small children, when you are not wanted?
Either way, hubby minds the kids, I get a ticket agent and tell her a man won’t leave my cabin where my kids are trying to sleep. Lady comes over like a boss and stares down the two men in my cabin. I need to tell her that the angry-looking tank is my hubby, and the jack-a** sitting smugly is the intruder. In German, she asks him for his ticket and reservation slips. He doesn’t have a reservation, but he did pay 4k euro for an annual pass to D Bahn and therefore he feels the right to sit where he pleases, and he wishes to sit here instead of the hallway. She looks at the door with the sign and reads it aloud; “for families with small children”. She asks him, “do you have a small child with you?” He says no. “Are you a small child?” She asks. He says no. So she firmly tells him to leave the compartment immediately. He argues some but eventually leaves.
The moral is; tickets do not get you a chair like they do on a bus or plane. You need to pay extra for the right to sit while traveling. This is beneficial when you are only going one or two stops. It sucks when you are traveling 500 km. The website does ask if you want to make a seat reservation, just before you pay. And for annual pass holders, there is a selection for seat only reservations, in conjunction with your pass number. This guy could have easily secured himself a seat if he had gone online and picked one – yes, he would have been charged the 10 euro but then all of this would have been avoided.
And no, he was not bumped to first class due to the situation. This is Germany. They do not praise ignorance or arrogance here. Buddy was placed in the next available chair or forced to sit in the hall like everyone else.
First class vs Second class compartments
First class compartments seat 6, without luggage storage and no room for strollers. 1st class must pay extra for the compartment and the level is more expensive. It is a good solution for slightly older kids or if the family compartment is taken, however. This will require a first class ticket, which can be up to double the cost of a 2nd class ticket, so it really depends on how badly you want a compartment. When I train travel with my parents, they are willing to pay the difference. I haven’t been forced to make that choice yet on my own, we will see.
I also only have a Bahn 25 2nd class discount card so I would need to pay the full amount in 1st class.
Bahn card and other discounts
Speaking of discount cards, the Bahn 25 was the greatest thing I have ever purchased. Essentially, I pay 60 euro per year and receive 25% off all 2nd class tickets purchased for myself. This does not discount the whole group, just my seat. Since the kids are free, this means I pay the hubby full price and discount my own. The card has my name on it so I can’t give it to anyone, and they check the card to match the name of the purchaser on the ticket; this means I need to be present when the discounted ticket is being used. They have the right to check further ID for name verification; Drivers licence, credit card and residential ID will be asked. Passports are not among the ID available because they are not customs agents. Only customs agents are allowed to handle and request your passport.
You can purchase a second discount card for your spouse. We bought ours online when I made my first train purchase. I received an email with a temporary card and a plastic card was being sent in the mail. I can also just purchase the card online, without buying a ticket too. If I wanted to buy a second, I would take my temporary card, or plastic card, to the train station, and request a spouse card. The spouse needs to be present in order to do this, which is the main reason why we don’t have one – he either doesn’t utilize train travel enough to justify buying the card, or he doesn’t have the time off to go downtown for this. Either way, a spouse card is possible.
There is a myriad of other discount cards available on bahn.de Eurail for non-European residence and Interail for Europeans means near unlimited travel across Europe for a set annual fee. This is the ticket that rude-dude probably was talking about. German rail is up to 15 days of consecutive rail travel, discounts for youth and further discounts when travelling as a pair (twin pass). 1st class is also only slightly more expensive than 2nd class, and very rarely is 1st class full. Groups of 6-30 are also available to receive a discount, but they must be called into an agent or visit the station as they can not be booked together on the website.
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