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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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DISCOVER NORWAY

Five stunning train trips to take in Norway this summer 

Norway is home to some of the world's most picturesque train journeys, and what better time to take them than when the sun is shining and the weather is warm. 

Five stunning train trips to take in Norway this summer 

Some of the best Norway has to offer can be seen sitting down from the comfort of train seats. Much of the country’s rail system is draped around stunning scenery, giving passengers close-up views not possible when flying or driving. 

Such is the beauty of the country’s railway lines, it’s no surprise that a number of different routes are featured on lists of the world’s most scenic train journeys. 

With summer on the horizon, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best to take a trip on this summer. 

The Bergen Line

One of the busiest and most popular of Norway’s railway lines, the Bergenbannen acts as a greatest hits of Norway’s landscape. The line which connects Oslo in the east to Bergen in the west makes its way through mountains, valleys, fields, fjords and forests. 

The first leg of the trip from Oslo to Geilo passes through mountain scenery before ascending to Finse and passing along the Hardangerjøkulen glacier. 

There is also plenty of connections to other great train journeys. A popular transfer is to Myrdal station, where you can take the iconic Flåm Line. 

Film buffs and Sci-Fi nerds alike may want to make the pilgrimage to Finsewhich was the filming location for the ice planet of Hoth in Star Wars.

 
 
 
 
 
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Vy is the rail operator which runs trains on the line. You can book tickets for the seven-hour journey here

Word to the wise, tickets for this train can cost a lot if you leave it late- so be sure to book in advance.

The Flåm Line

Famous for the green locomotives which operate on the line, the Flåm Line is the perfect trip for those who like to keep things short and sweet as it is just over an hour long. 

One of the steepest railway lines in the world, around 500,000 passengers take the hour-long train ride from Myrdal to the village of Flåm, located on the interior of the Aurlandsfjord, each year. 

For those with a keener interest in trains, the Flåm Line is also a technical marvel. For starters, there is an elevation change of 866 metres on the journey. Secondly, two locomotives are required to get passengers to their location- one at the front and one at the back. And for those who like to dive into details, each carriage has its own specialised braking system.  

If you prefer nature to the mechanics, there is plenty for you. The journey takes you along mountainsides and passes the Kjosfossen waterfall. The train stops at the waterfall so people can enjoy the views, get some fresh air, and take pictures.

 
 
 
 
 
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Compared to other trains on this less, the interior of the carriages is a lot more retro and a lot less modern, which will add to the charm for many travellers. You can book tickets here

Rauma Line

High peaks, jagged rocks and windswept plateaus are all things the Rauma Line has in abundance. The 114-kilometre-long journey is stunning all year round. The trip will see you cut through the Romsdal valley, speed past the river with which the line shares its name, and cross the impressive Kylling Bridge. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Until recently, this train was more of a hidden gem than the more famous Flåm and Bergen lines. 

This line doesn’t have as many departures as some others on this list, so it’s better to book in advance and plan the trip accordingly. 

Like the Flåmsbana, the journey is brisk at 1 hour and 40 minutes. Tickets are booked with SJ Nord.

The Norland Line

Nearly as impressive in length as it is in scenery, the Nordland Line connects central Norway with Bodø in the north. 

Even though the 11-hour trip will take you to Hell (the town), the journey should be a fantastic experience overall. 

Summer is the best time of year to make the journey as due to the long days and midnight sun, once you cross the Arctic Circle, very little of the landscape will be lost to darkness. 

However, there are only two departures per day, and one of them is a night train. However, the night train may be better in the winter due to the prospect of being able to spy the northern lights. 

The Nordland Line boasts the title of being the only train in Norway to cross in and out of the Arctic Circle.

 

Trains start in the forests and farmland of Trondelag before crossing the Saltfjellet mountain range and meandering along the Arctic coast. 

 The Røros Line

Norway’s most historical line, opening in 1877, connects Hamar in southeast Norway with Støren. The line is easily accessible from both Oslo and Trondheim.

The scenery will feel more rugged and remote than other train lines, but the train will also pass through the forests of Østerdalen, and passengers may be able to spot moose, bears and lynxes. 

History lovers can disembark at the UNESCO-listed mining town of Røros. SJ Nord operates the route. 

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