From the generous carry-on luggage rules to the wide range of affordable vacation packages, these are the perks of making your next family vacation a train trip, plus tips on how to book your adventure.

By Melissa Klurman
February 07, 2020
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Credit: Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Riding the Swiss Rail, I feel like I've stepped on board a real life Polar Express. As our fire engine red ride climbs through the Alps, snowy peaks extend into the sky on either side, giving us a winter wonderland view over the frosted pines and church steeples. We're in awe as we carousel up the mountain and pass through 55 tunnels and 196 bridges—a feat so spectacular our entire route on the Albula Railway from Chur to St. Moritz has been named a World Heritage site for its beauty and ecological importance. And it's a feat we could never have experienced as a family had we not been traveling by train.

Why to Family Vacation by Train

Switzerland is just one of a vast array of scenic train options that dazzle both kids and parents alike in Europe, but rail travel is a great opportunity for stretching out and relaxing with your family anywhere in the world. Kids appreciate not being locked into their seat with opportunities to walk to the snack car and walk around without worrying about the "fasten your seatbelt" sign. The scenery swooshing by out of the window is a great free show, and parents can share the sense of discovery, too, since you don't have to navigate directions or battle traffic and backseat arguments; heck, you can even sip a cup of coffee, or dare we suggest close your eyes for a minute, while someone else happily does the driving.

Plus, you skip the security line woes that plague air travel and can stress out even the most seasoned traveler. Also, when you're traveling by train travel, you can go ahead and bring a liter of water, five full baby bottles, and a package of yogurt tubes, no one will bat an eyelash.

And train stations are usually centrally located in your destination. Meaning you can ditch the car rental when you arrive and walk right out of the train and into the heart of your destination—or specifically to an experience that couldn't be replicated if you were traveling any other way. For example, it was the Preda-Bergun toboggan run in Switzerland that opened my family's eyes to the ultimate glory of train travel. We hopped on the train in St. Moritz and zipped 15 minutes to the top of the lightning fast 4-mile sled run in Preda, one of the longest sled rides in the world. We then proceeded to sled down from one town to another and at the end, instead of dragging our sled up a hill like we do at home, we hopped back on the train, sleds in hand! Swiss kids all around us were making the same trip, and the train felt like a happy school field trip. Score—another point for the train!

Train travel is also an eco-friendly green option. According to Eurail, the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions on an average train trip are nearly three times less per person than traveling the same route by car, and four times less than traveling by plane. With the increased focus on the flight shaming movement, or "flygskam" (the Swedish term for it), travelers are increasingly turning to train travel for an earth-friendly alternative. In fact, Eurail has seen a 40 percent increase in sales from Scandinavian countries since the movement began early last year. (Check out EcoPassenger to compare energy consumption and CO2 output for your trip.)

Planning a Train Trip in the U.S.

Amtrak traverses most of the United States, and its spacious cars and myriad routes make it easy for parents to plan family adventures across the country.

Booking tips: Unlike airplanes, you can't reserve specific seats on a train unless you're booking overnight sleeper cars. Amtrak does require specific time and train reservations, so booking in advance is necessary. The Amtrak app is the easiest way to book; note that the earlier you book, the better deal you'll get (like the airlines, prices rise considerably within two weeks of your desired travel dates). Riding off-peak (avoiding morning and evening work rush on weekdays and prime slots on weekends) will save you stress finding seats in addition to saving you money.

Train tickets: Children ages 2 to 12 receive a 50 percent ticket discount on most Amtrak trains with each fare-paying adult; babies and toddlers under the age of 2, not occupying a seat, ride free.

Family train packages: Here's a cool travel idea: Take the train to Orlando for a family vacation. For Disney World-bound families, the Auto Train is a lesser-known, convenient way to travel down the East Coast to sunny Florida. The Auto Train starts near Washington, D.C., and lets you bring your car along on the train; which means you can pack as much as you need with no need to worry about overhead bin space or baggage fees. You can even book a family sleeper car (with kid-pleasing bunk beds) for the overnight ride, or just stretch out in regular seats like you would on a night flight. When you arrive, you just drive off to the theme park—no baggage claim or taxi lines.

Entertainment: In addition to the great views, free WiFi and onboard outlets allow kids and parents to stay connected on all your electronic devices.

Planning a Train Trip in Europe

Europe is where train travel really excels in kid friendliness, comfort, and scenery. Every European country has their own system (we especially like the lightning fast Italian trains, with free snack carts in first class cars and complimentary WiFi).

Booking tips: For central booking and easy hopping between European countries, use Eurail. The iconic multi-destination travel pass provides access to more than 33 countries and 40,000 destinations, including the Eurostar from London to Paris. Their new app will help you figure out routes and ticket types and then organize it all in a handy day-by-day itinerary. Spend a little time on the Eurail website to figure out if you want to reserve specific trains and seats (score!) in advance, or buy a pass that allows you to be more flexible. Note that there are usually first class and second class options; first class allows you to book seats together and usually provides more space and amenities (like the snacks in Italy), but on Swiss, Austrian, and German trains, the second class options have special family cars with play areas, so you can actually spend less and get more.

Train tickets: Kids under 11 travel for free, period, across the Eurail system. Hurray! Plus, there are family discount packages as well as special pricing for anyone between the ages of 12 and 27, making train travel especially economical.

Entertainment: We love looking at Europe passing by our window—hello windmills in Holland and castles in Germany!—but the trains offer fun inside, too. Not all countries offer the same amenities, but a few of our favorites include:

  • NS (Dutch Railways) is loved by parents for its children's compartments. Made for children 3 years and younger, these compartments have tables where children can draw and play, and a "Little ICE" program provides games and activities for all kids.
  • SBB (Swiss Railways) offers a family coach onboard which is an actual playground on wheels with slides and play areas that are the perfect size for preschoolers.
  • ÖBB (Austrian Railways) puts young children first with their toddler compartment, a special car with room to play for little passengers.

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