10 reasons why travelling across Europe by train is a must at least once in your life.
Sure there are faster, maybe even cheaper or less chaotic ways to travel across Europe, especially as a family of five but lets face it…there is a certain “je ne sais quoi” about train travel.
Putting aside my totally romantic ideas and subjective point of view that train travel is magical, there were and are other more practical reasons why we chose to spend our 3 week family summer vacation gallivanting across Europe by train v.s. by plane or by car for that matter.
We weighed all the pros and cons, we took into consideration not only what my husband and I wanted to get out of this trip but also the varied tastes and interests of our 3 children who ranged in age from 8 all the way to 19. We also had a budget to contend with.
In the end, we somehow figured it all out. Here are the 10 things that were important enough for us.
1- NO REGRETS: I didn’t want to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity to slow travel across Europe as a family
Given the fact that train travel was something I always wanted to do and the fact that everyone in the family, including our 8 year daughter and our moody 19 year old son were all keen on the idea of train travel, I knew we had to seize this opportunity. It is after all a rare occasion when the stars and the moon align and all five members of our family agree on an activity to do together.
But it wasn’t just the fact that we all wanted to do a vacation across Europe by train, it was the thought of one day leaving France having never slow travelled across Europe. Why would this leave me full of regret? Well, once we go back to North America, it becomes much more difficult and expensive to fly to Europe and coordinate a family vacation with work and school schedules. I felt, no- I knew if I let this opportunity slip by, there might not be another one like it for a very long time or maybe not ever again.
Lastly, given how easy it is to travel from country to country and city to city by train in Europe, how could I not take advantage of train travel which brings me to the second reason we chose train travel.
2 LOW HANGING FRUIT: It’s easy to visit multiple countries in a single day by train in Europe
The proximity of neighbouring countries, the relatively small size of Europe and the fact that trains across Europe are all inter-connected means travelling from country to country is not only easy but also relatively fast.
To give you some perspective, France is about the same size as Texas and all of Europe can fit into the US about 2,5 times. So travelling from country to country is a bit like travelling from one state to the next state only easier because the trains take you anywhere and everywhere worth while in Europe.
If Cannes in the South of France (which is 1 hour from our residence ) is your starting point, here are some sample itineraries you could take.
- Cannes to Zürich Switzerland roughly 800km ( 497 miles) and 10 hours by train.
- Cannes to Milan, Italy is about 5 hours from our house.
- Cannes to Barcelona Spain is about 6 hours,
- And Cannes to Berlin Germany is about 15 hours.
Why wouldn’t you take a multi-city trip via Rail Europe ?
3- Train travel means you get to skip the hellish airport routine
Think about the process you have to go through when you travel by airplane. Do you look forward to it? Do you love it?
You not only have to drive to the airport which is most likely an hour or more, you have to also wait in multiple lines, go through customs and check your bags . Not to mention the fact that you normally have to arrive at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight departs.
Train travel eliminates a lot of this wasted time. You can even arrive to the train station minutes before the train is about to pull away from the station.
With train travel, you don’t have to worry about bringing water or liquids on the train. Hell, if you wanted to bring a Swiss army knife on the train, that’s ok too. (Blake my husband likes to travel with his).
4- Trains stop where all the action is and not some far away airport
There is nothing worse than booking your cheap(ish) or maybe expensive airfare online, only to discover once you arrive at your vacation destination that you have an hour’s taxi ride to get into the city. Not only does this put a dent in your holiday funds but it’s a huge time suck.
Which brings me to another things I love about train travel- most train stations in Europe are located smack dab in the middle of a city or town, not 67 miles away like the Munich Airport or 68 miles from Barcelona like Girona airport.
This proximity makes it much easier to hit the ground running once you arrive at your holiday destination.
- When we arrived at the Central station in Amsterdam, we were on a tram 5 minutes later heading towards our first destination.
- Same deal in Prague, we arrived at the main train station and jumped on the tram and were at our flat that we rented from (((Airbnb))).
- In Bremen Germany, we got off the train and found restaurants to eat at within minutes then jumped on a tram directly to the flat we rented, again from Airbnb
If we really wanted, we could have stopped in a city like Amsterdam to have lunch then catch a train to Antwerp Belgium and arrive before dinner time. We thought about but decided against it because everyone loved Amsterdam.
This stuff just isn’t possible with travel by Air.
5- More bang for your buck
Thanks to the internet and the growing number of companies that are willing to hire remote workers, virtual assistants and freelancers, my husband and I have been able to cobble together a modest living which allows us to work from home. The advantage is more time to work on personal endeavours and to be home for the kids but the downside is less money which is why I like to… no I have to make sure we get the most bang for our buck when we travel.
Our Euro rail pass let us get on and off trains all throughout Europe for a fixed price during a fixed period of time much like a monthly bus pass. This meant that we could visit multiple cities starting in the South of France all the way up north to Holland and beyond if we wanted.
Some of the countries we visited on our train pass were Austria, Germany, Holland, The Czech Republic and a quick Jaunt back over the border of Germany into France to visit Strasburg. All within a 3 week period. The same multi trip itinerary by plane would have cost us a lot more and probably would have taken us much longer if you count all the time needed to get back and forth to the airports.
I like to think we got our money’s worth.
6- Train travel is unique and becomes part of the enjoyment of your trip
If you’re like us, the bulk of your travel has most likely been by plane (or by car), so taking another vacation by plane is really nothing new. In fact, after a few trips, the whole process of boarding the plane, finding your seat, checking your bags and waiting in the security line can get rather irritating and uneventful.
With train travel, the journey and what you do on the train is actually what sets train travel apart and makes the voyage so special.
You’re not just sitting in your seat there crammed in your seat with your tray table up waiting to get to your destination. It’s hard to explain but to me it almost felt as if I was sitting in my living room relaxing and socializing only the living room was moving really fast and in a few hours I could leave and be in a new country surrounded by people speaking a different language.
But there’s more to it than that, i’m just not able to put it into words. Perhaps it’s just the idea of train travel but being able to move about the train, look out the window and see the world go by makes all the difference in the world and separates train travel from airplane travel.
To be honest, there really was no one thing that made the experience so enjoyable, it’s the experience as a whole.
7- Train travel (with a Euro Rail pass) gives you more flexibility to make and change plans on the fly
When we set out to travel across Europe by train, we knew we wanted to visit certain cities like Prague and Amsterdam but we also knew we might like to stop in unexpected cities if we had the choice. luckily there is a train pass which lets you do this and you can buy it from the Euro Rail site. This pass let us jump on and off trains. (I’ll write about it in another post soon).
In short, thanks to our Interail family pass for EU citizens and non EU citizens who are legal residents like us, we were able to travel by the seat of our pants, take unexpected detours to other cities along the way, extend our stay in certain cities and cut other cities short. For non Eu Residents, you need to get the Eurail pass. There is no official family pass however if you travel together as a group or a family, each adult and youth get 15% off the ticket price and children up to 11 travel for free.
8- The view on trains is way better than on planes
Travelling by train brings new meaning to the saying “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. When your flying 10,000 feet in the air, you get an amazing aerial view of the clouds going by but when you’re travelling by train you see the world, people and how they live go by.
We saw the countryside of Amsterdam, we saw into people’s backyards in Italy and we saw families jumping in a lake in Germany as we crossed over a bridge. You just can’t see any of that on a plane and it really made the trip amazing.
Pictured above, Blake and I are in the food cart staring out the window as we pass somewhere through Germany.
9- No one cares if your seat is back or tray table is up on a train
One of the things I really hate about car and plane travel is that you’re pretty much restricted to your seat. On a plane you have to put your seat upright for take off and landing. You have to put your tray table up and turn off your electronics too.
On a train, you don’t have to do any of this and you can actually get up and walk around or hang out in the area that connect two train cars together.
The seat configuration on trains are more varied and comfortable. There are seat arrangements that allow you to face each other and others where you share a small cabin. There usually is a dining car where you can grab a bite to eat and drink which is actually really nice.
10- You get to bond as a couple and as a family
Like most people, I wanted our family to take a vacation together to bond and to getaway from the stresses and rituals of daily routine and to see one another in a different light. One where I’m not stressing out over homework, dishes and life in general. One where the kids didn’t have us parents nagging them to clean their rooms and take care of chores. One where my husband Blake and I could just be ourselves and enjoy each others company and talk about frivolous things like books and life.
According to a survey conducted by Kelton Global, which asked 1,000 parents with kids age 5-17, 97 percent of parents say that their children have gotten to know new things about them while taking family trips. Families tend to be more excited, silly and affectionate while on vacation.
Unlike plane travel, travelling by train is almost made for bonding in my opinion.
On a train, you are not bound or crammed in your seat like a sardine for hours. You can actually move around if you like. Seating is usually pretty comfortable and roomy or configured in such a way that makes socializing and chatting easy.
Thanks to the seating configuration on trains, we were able to find some semblance of privacy on most of the trains we travelled on.
On several trains we found cars with empty seats. On other trains we found 4 seats that faced each other and still other trains we had small cabins big enough for 6 people with a door that closed like the photo pictured above.
Knowing we had nothing but time and being more comfortable made the voyage rather relaxing which as it turns out is extremely conducive to bonding. It was the push we needed because if given a choice, many of us are just so busy with our daily lives that we never take the time to bond and be present for those closest to us.
We read, talked, argues, played games, slept, got on each others nerves and just worried about the minutia of boarding our next train and what to see next. I can’t tell you how nice it was to just get away from our everyday life and have those moments on the train.
I’m not going to lie and tell you that spending 3 weeks travelling together in close quarters was a dream full of rainbows and unicorns because it wasn’t. There were still times where we got on each others nerves, or the kids annoyed us or vice versa. But I knew- just as women are able to endure a painful child-birth and go on to remember childbirth as an endearing memory- I knew our train travel would leave us with meaningful, beautiful and unforgettable memories spent together across Europe.
And I was right.
Do I recommend train travel and would I do it again?
Now that I’ve actually travelled on a train across Europe for three weeks with 3 kids and a husband, I can honestly say “yes I recommend train travel and I would definitely do it again”. But…and you knew there was a but, not all aspects of train travel were pleasant and I definitely would have done some things differently had I known about certain things.
But that’s why I’m writing this for you. So you can get some insight and advice, know what to expect and make up your own mind about whether to travel by train, plane or automobile.