Stress-free boarding, comfortable seats, generous baggage allowance… None of this ever applies when travelling by plane with kids in tow.
When it comes to travelling with children, train travel can be one of the more relaxed, civilised modes of transport, fully immersive from the moment you stop onboard. One of the main perks is that most train companies let kids under four go free (with the odd exception), whereas tots over the age of two have to be paid for when flying. What’s more, the online world of rail bookings is arguably simpler to use than ever before, with forward booking presenting excellent value.
To get you started, we’ve picked seven of the best European companies for family travel, courtesy of booking service Loco2‘s the Great Train Comparison report, looking at which services offer the best overall experience for families. From St Pancras to St-Tropez and Berlin to Brindisi, it’s time to ditch the airport and take to the Continent by train.
1 // SBB CFF FFS (Switzerland)
Where they go: SBB provides vast coverage within Switzerland, and all trains are now numbered, making planning routes easier than ever.
Why: SBB’s inter-city double-decker trains are a playground on wheels. Kids can make for the upper deck where they’ll find an entire family zone carriage or ‘Ticki Park’ adventure area. The spacious lower deck of the family coaches offers plenty of space to stow luggage and pushchairs.
Cost: Children under 6 go free, and travel for children aged 6-15 is half-price.
2 // Deutsche Bahn (Germany)
Where they go: DB’s fantastic service covers the whole of Germany. To keep journey time to a minimum, head to the magnificent alpine Lake Constance at the foot of the country — bordered by Germany, Austria and Switzerland, so you can tick off three countries in one trip.
Why: Hop on board one of Deutsche Bahn’s sleek ICE (InterCity Express) trains and your children might be in for a surprise. There’s a designated space where kids aged three years and over can gather to chat, play games or listen to stories. The on-board entertainment programme for children is free and doesn’t need to be booked in advance. It’s popular with parents too, who often take the chance to enjoy a meal in the restaurant car or have a well-deserved nap.
Cost: Children up to age 15 go free if travelling with a guardian.
3 // Italo (Italy)
Where to go: After putting an end to the train operator monopoly in 2006, Italo has been adding new routes to its extensive list of services ever since, the latest being to the northern cities of Trento, Bolzano and Rovereto, making the Dolomites an accessible option for families in the summer an winter.
Why: Italo banishes the British notion that train travel can be expensive — ‘Travel with your children and save’, the company motto proudly boasts. Italo has family-friendly fares and bends over backwards to make families feel welcome on board. With children’s cartoons and other entertainment for kids, travel is a time for family fun.
Cost: Children aged three and under travel free is sitting on a parent or guardian’s lap.
4 // SNCF (TGV Atlantique and TGV Sud-Est) (France)
Where they go: SNCF’s railways touches every corner France, making it the perfect choice for families who want to stay put, or make a base and explore what’s around them. The network is so expansive — many remote villages even have stations — so families shouldn’t need to use any other type of transport.
Why: As generations of Brits exploring have observed, they do things differently in France. Only the French offer the prospect of ‘travelling in total serenity with your children’. Serenity and kids might not seem natural partners, but on many French TGVs linking Paris with the Atlantic Coast and the Riviera, SNCF offers dedicated space for families where the accent is on having fun without raising the decibel level. Canny French families opt for the train and use the journey as a change to de-stress. And France’s special railcard for families with children (Carte Enfant+) means cheap prices for families on the move.
Price: Children aged four and under go free, and there’s half-price travel for children aged 5-12.
5 // Eurostar (France, Netherlands, Belgium)
Where they go: Eurostar’s trains zoom out of London St Pancras direct to Paris, Brussels, Lille, Disneyland Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the South of France and Calais.
Why: Crossing the Channel with Eurostar is a quick and easy way to get your holiday off to a flying start. Kids love the dedicated play area at London St Pancras station. Once on board the train, head along to the Café Métropole for child-friendly menus. The staff in the on-board bistro will gladly warm up baby food for infants and toddlers, and with a good range of games available through Eurostar’s on-board streaming service, there’s no chance of boredom setting in.
Price: Children aged four and under go free, and discounts are available for children aged 5-11.
6 // Trenitalia (Italy)
Where they go: Trenitalia is well known for connecting Italy’s famous landmark cities to the smaller villages and lesser-known hidden gems, making it the perfect choice for discovery. They also partner with Mammacult, a wonderful family-centric tour guide specialist offering options such as morning walks, full-day city tours and more.
Why: Italians love children, and children love Trenitalia’s stunning modern Frecciarossa trains. Trenitalia’s Bimbi Gratis scheme gives children aged 14 and under who are accompanied by at least one adult free travel on many trains — not just on a Frecciarossa service, but many other long-distance services too. Once on board, children will find games, quizzes and lots of entertainment in the dedicated Frecciajunior magazine.
Price: The Children Free (Bimbi Gratis) offer is reserved for family groups of two to five people and allows under-15s to travel free of charge.
7 // OBB (Austria)
Where they go: OBB covers Austria with its extensive rail network that moved 35 million people via its high-speed service last year alone. For families looking for an adventure, try the Altaussee salt mines with slides, followed by Styrassic Park where over 80 life-sized dinosaurs can be found,
Why: Families travelling on OBB’s comfortable red Railjet trains head straight for carriages 21 or 31 where there’s the children’s cinema, board games and lots of fun which all help smooth a long trip. Austrians know how to make things easy for parents too. There’s lots of space for prams and buggies in the family coaches, and you’ll find special loos for kids and nappy-changing facilities. And this rail company has a dedicated children’s mascot, Timi Taurus, who’s a big hit with Austrian kids, and young visitors to the country quickly discover that riding the rails with Timi is far from boring.
Price: Children aged five and under go for free; half price for children aged 6-15.
Kate Andrews is the Co-founder of Loco2.