Stress-free boarding, comfortable seats, generous baggage allowance and interesting views. All of these and more applies when travelling by train with children.
When it comes to travel for children, rail can be one of the most relaxed, exciting and civilised modes of transport, fully immersive from the moment you step onboard. One of the main perks is that most train companies let children under four go free, whereas children 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 advanced booking meaning that you can get very competitive fares compared with other forms of transport.
Thanks to the detailed research for our Great Train Comparison we can reveal Europe’s most family-friendly train companies, what facilities and price discounts they offer and also some of the exciting destinations you can travel to by train for memorable family holidays.
Swiss Federal Railways (Switzerland)
Where they go: the national Swiss rail operator (abbreviated to CFF, SBB and FFS in French, German and Italian respectively) serves far more than just the Alps. Its international network extends from Hamburg to Venice, Milan to Verona.
Why: SBB’s inter-city double-decker trains are a playground on wheels. Children 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 also offers plenty of space to stow luggage and pushchairs.
Cost: Children under six go free, and travel for children aged 6-15 is half-price.
Deutsche Bahn (Germany)
Where they go: DB’s fantastic service covers pretty much all of Germany. To keep journey time to a minimum, head south to the Black Forest or the Alps, or make for the sandy beaches of Germany's Baltic Coast. Hiking and biking families should also head for the Rhine Valley, with trails galore and castles at every turn too.
Why: On some of Deutsche Bahn’s sleek ICE (InterCity Express) trains, there are designated spaces for both families with toddlers and families with older children. The former, known as Kleinkindabteil has facilities for buggies , sockets for heating bottles, nappy changing facilities and so on. The latter, Familienbereich in German, has space to roam around and hang out with other like-minded family travellers. The onboard entertainment programme for children is free and doesn’t need to be booked in advance. You do need to book these. Read more in our blog about 'choosing seats on trains'
Cost: Young people up to age 15 go free if travelling with an adult. If travelling unaccompanied they get half-price tickets.
Where they go: Italo launched services in 2012 and has been adding new routes to its extensive list of services ever since, the latest being fast trains from Milan to Verona and Venice, plus a new link to Genoa (for the sunny Ligurian Riviera).
Why: Italo banishes the notion that train travel can be expensive for families — ‘Travel with your children and save’, the translated company motto proudly boasts. Italo has family-friendly fares and strives to make families feel welcome onboard. With children’s cartoons and other entertainment for young people.
Cost: Children aged three and under travel free if sitting on a parent or guardian’s lap.
Where they go: SNCF’s railways touches every corner of France, making the French operator the perfect choice for families who want to travel to a destination and stay put, or make a base and explore what’s around them. The network is very expansive, with many remote villages still having stations unlike the UK.
Why: 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 chance to de-stress. France also has a special railcard for families, (Carte Enfant+), which is worth buying in advance if you have a child under 12 years old. It gives 25% discounts on selected trains for up to four travel companions, as long as one is under 12. If you don't have one of these, children aged four and under go free, and there’s half-price travel for children aged 5-12.
Eurostar (UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium)
Why: Crossing the Channel with Eurostar is a quick and easy way to get your holiday off to a flying start. Families love the dedicated play area at London's St Pancras station and there are plenty of shops to stock up on snacks. You can get in the line to board, while someone else pops off to get snacks. It's not like airports at all where you are rushed through security. Eurostar is very welcoming to families. Once on board the train, head along to the Café Métropole for child-friendly menus. The staff in the onboard bistro will gladly warm up baby food for infants and toddlers, and with a good range of games available through Eurostar’s onboard streaming service, there’s no chance of boredom setting in. For more information see our blog on Eurostar FAQs.
Price: Children aged four and under go free, and discounts are available for children aged 5-11.
Where they go: Trenitalia, the primary train company in Italy, is well known for connecting Italy’s famous landmark cities to smaller villages and lesser-known hidden gems, making it the perfect choice for discovering the country, from head to toe. 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.
Where they go: Austria's national ÖBB's network extends way beyond Austria, from northern Germany to Rome and from Zürich to Budapest and Zagreb. Read our blog on train travel in Austria for some ideas of where to go. It is a fantastic destination for families. ÖBB' also have a great selection of sleeper trains which young people tend to love.
Why: Families travelling on OBB’s comfortable red Railjet trains head straight for carriages 21 or 31 where there’s the children’s cinema and board games. 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. This rail company also has a dedicated children’s mascot, Timi Taurus, who’s a big hit with Austrian kids. 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. They also offer some of Europe's best value tickets, known as Sparschiene fares. These are available on set routes, at set times but with little or no flexibility. Read more in our blog on train travel in Austria.
Image credits top to bottom: Two kids sitting on a bench s iStock ©Oleksii Spesyvtsev, Exploring mountains together iStock ©AleksandarNakic, Louvre Museum iStock ©Starcevic, Boy asleep on sleeper train iStock ©Leo_Kostik
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