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Let the train take the strain out of family holidays

Nearly there: Ceinwen stretches out on the TGV. © Rhodri Clark

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THE car has its advantages for holiday travel, but they don’t include travel sickness, screaming fits on motorways and arguments over music. Kirstin and I endured these while our children were tots, confining ourselves to UK holidays. But the day an infant abandons their buggy is a joyous occasion for parents with itchy feet.

The children grew increasingly excited as the holiday approached, while mum and dad grew increasingly apprehensive about the long journey. Gwion, our five-year-old son, loves trains. He takes after his dad, a freelance writer specialising in transport journalism. He also loves drawing and will concentrate on one picture for half an hour.

Ceinwen, aged three, however, is a livewire. Her attention span is more typical for children her age. She loves physical activities and won’t sit still for long. When she’s in a naughty mood, she incites rebellion in her brother or provokes him into squabbles. How would she behave on a long train journey?

We expected train travel to cost more than flying to San Sebastian, our chosen holiday destination. The tickets we bought would cost at least £789 today, somewhat inflated by sterling’s current weakness against the euro. However, tickets for the 500 miles from Paris to the Spanish border start at only £34 per adult.

We kept the holiday within our budget by choosing a self-catering apartment in a residential area of San Sebastian. My holiday objective was to explore a region I’d never visited before, take photographs and rub some of the rust off my rudimentary Spanish. Kirstin was looking forward to relaxing on the beach, five minutes’ walk from our apartment. Gwion was excited about the long train journeys and we knew there were attractions in the area to occupy the children if the weather was poor.

That was the last year we felt we could take Gwion out of school for a fortnight’s holiday. We chose June, for the combination of summer weather and discounted early-season apartment prices.


The first step in planning our travel was exploring timetables, using German Rail’s pan-European facility (www.bahn.com). There are two ways to travel long distances by rail in most large countries: overnight or during the day. I prefer the former, because sleeping on the train feels like shrinking the journey time. It saves on a night’s hotel bill and you arrive ready for a day’s activities. The novelty of sleeping on the train is fun for children, as we found in China (see below).

Typically, the sleeper train from Paris to San Sebastian was impractical on this front as the distance is too short: we’d leave long after the children’s bedtime or arrive long before they were ready to wake. We chose the daytime TGV (high-speed train) alternative at almost five-and-a-half hours, and then we’d need a local train for the last few miles over the frontier to San Sebastian.

We decided our journey should include: a break in Paris on the way out, to show the kids the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks; a break in the historic city of Poitiers on our return journey; and a final TGV from Poitiers to Lille, where Eurostar and TGV share the same station (avoiding a trek between stations in Paris). As with most travel, train tickets are cheaper the earlier you book.

However, you can’t book until the companies release ticket allocations: four months ahead for Eurostar (London to Paris, Lille or Brussels), but three months ahead for TGVs. We booked through Rail Canterbury, whose agents will hold Eurostar reservations for a month until they can marry them up with TGV tickets.

Specialist travel agencies can advise on routes if you’re unfamiliar with timetables or geography. There’s also independent advice at www.seat61.com on overseas rail travel — worth checking out.

When booking, we stressed we wanted seats around a table beside a window. Seeing the scenery outside would make outbreaks of cabin fever less likely. Many seats in TGVs are in pairs facing the same direction, as on aircraft, and not aligned with windows.


A week before departure, Kirstin bought each of our kids a folder containing activity books, stickers and felt pens or crayons. Each pack contained enough variety to keep them occupied over the two-day outward journey. A new Guess Who? travel game was another inspired choice.

The children had little backpacks to carry. I had weightier issues on my mind; having previously struggled with holiday luggage on train journeys, I already knew station platforms in France, Spain and many other countries are little higher than the tracks. Plus there are steps inside the train doors.

Note to parents: your packing should be determined by the weight and number of items you can lift at a crowded station where other passengers aren’t necessarily concerned about making way for you. In those situations, Kirstin ensured the kids boarded safely while I took care of the luggage.

As our TGV from Paris raced over the plains, I wondered when the children’s behaviour would deteriorate enough to earn us dirty looks from the Spanish adults in the seats just across the aisle. Children’s noise is contained in a car, but in a train or plane even a toddler can generate enough decibels to disturb dozens of fellow passengers.

We weren’t the pariahs I’d imagined by the time we left the train. Sitting round a table as a family, constantly interacting, worked wonders. Grown-ups turn their backs on children in cars, where sustained conversation is difficult and colouring or board games could induce car sickness. Planes aren’t much better, spreading the family laterally or across separate pairs of seats.

The train’s other big advantage was freedom of movement. TGVs are more spacious all round than their British counterparts. The reclining seats (and no, we weren’t in first class) amused the children. I spent some of the journey with one or both children in the roomy vestibule, where we noted our progress across a map of France.
I thought this would be a useful ‘time out’ space to separate the children if they began to squabble. In the event, the only arguing was over the possession and use of crayons and pens.

Go, go, go

The local train into San Sebastian was a short, level walk from the TGV and, like all the local public transport, cheap as chips. Our apartment, which we’d found by trawling the internet, was spacious and clean, with a playground in the courtyard behind the building. There was a ground-floor bakery for fresh bread at breakfast, with a neighbourhood supermarket nearby and delicious fresh fruit in local greengroceries. The weather was too cold for the beach most days (a risk in northern Spain), but the children found plenty to enjoy in San Sebastian and on day trips.

After a pleasant 24 hours in Poitiers on our return journey, we found two Frenchmen wrongly occupying half of our reserved seats on the TGV. Sorting that out with the elusive guard, who didn’t want to know what his passengers were up to, caused some unnecessary stress. Once in our seats, Gwion discovered Kirstin’s iPod, which they shared — one earphone each.

Lille to London was the only segment of our odyssey where we hadn’t paid for a seat for Ceinwen (optional for under-fours on Eurostar). This journey was only 90 minutes and previously we’d always been surrounded by empty seats on Eurostar. This time, our carriage was full. We shared our table, rather intimately, with an American tourist. Kirstin and I were glad to alight at St Pancras after having a wriggling child on our laps for over an hour.

Travelling like this isn’t advisable if you want to minimise travel time and maximise time at your destination. But we treated the travel as part of that holiday, and saw some of France as well as Spain.

We plan to travel by sleeper train to Barcelona next year. It will cost more than air tickets would, but we’ll cut out two hotel nights and travel from our local station, instead of paying for airport parking.

And on to China…

Flying is bad for the environment, we are told, but our family had no alternative for getting to China. I’d roughed it by train from Britain to China in my youth — enjoyable but unsuitable for children.

Overnight trains in China would help rebalance our carbon account, cost less than internal flights, avoid long airport transfers — and make us feel better about it all, too! We booked our travel, hotels and local guides through an agency. Since southern China is too hot for us in August, we took our trip over the Easter school holidays and the first week of the summer term. The weather was cloudy and sometimes wet, but thankfully, rather pleasantly warm.

We were relaxing and overcoming jetlag in Hong Kong when the agency told us it couldn’t book us on to our first train, to the city of Nanchang. Millions of workers from big southern cities were returning to family homes, around Nanchang and in other rural areas, for the annual Tomb Sweeping Day. The agency booked us on to an earlier sleeper train, arriving at 5am!

We had an active morning in Hong Kong before departure and were rewarded when the tired children fell asleep at about 9pm. I slept fitfully, checking my watch frequently out of fear of staying on the train beyond Nanchang. I needn’t have worried: everyone is checked by their carriage attendant before their required station. Our train from Nanchang to Guilin arrived at a civilised hour. We’d all slept well after a busy day and were ready for a day’s sightseeing around Guilin’s beautiful lakes.

After leaving our last overnight train, from Guilin to Shenzhen, we queued for more than half an hour to catch the metro train from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. The long immigration queues didn’t control international movement, only the passage from mainland China to the Hong Kong special administrative region of China.

All our sleeper cabins were clean, comfortable and air-conditioned. Toilets and washing facilities were basic, but cleaner than many on UK trains. There were no significant queues for those facilities, perhaps because we travelled in ‘soft sleeper’ class, an unimaginable luxury for most Chinese people.
Would we do it again? Absolutely. China presented cultural as well as practical challenges but as we were now seasoned rail travellers, we were well prepared for the challenges it was bound to throw our way. We were also rather looking forward to it too.

Published in Jan/Feb issue 2011 © National Geographic Traveller (UK)