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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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TRAIN TRAVEL

How does train travel in Spain compare to the UK?

Train travel in Spain is generally very good and foreign residents here often talk about how good the rail services are compared to their home countries, particularly those from the UK. But is it really that different? Read on to find out.

How does train travel in Spain compare to the UK?

Spain’s main and most extensive rail network is RENFE, which is a national and state-owned company. Conversely in the UK, train companies have been privatised and there are many different ones that run in different areas of the country.

This makes a big difference in how all the different rail services are run, including how much the tickets cost.

Price

Long distance

Social media is full of people complaining about the price of rail travel in the UK, but is it really that much more expensive than in Spain? The Local Spain did some research to find out.

Let’s take two journeys of around the same length – Barcelona to Córdoba which is a distance of 536 miles and London to Aberdeen which is a similar distance of 545 miles.

If we book the cheapest available ticket one month in advance for a return journey from Barcelona to Córdoba returning one week later, it comes out at €188.75 per person.

If we book a return journey on the same dates from London Aberdeen and again go for the cheapest available time, the cost is €215.30. That is a total difference of €26.55.

But what about if you want to go on a spontaneous trip and book on the day, what about the price difference then?

Surprisingly, booking on the day from Barcelona to Córdoba and returning one week later is actually cheaper than booking in advance at €161.50 per person.

Note that this isn’t always the case with RENFE trains, sometimes booking in advance can save you money.

Booking a train from London to Aberdeen on the day and again returning a week later costs a total of €237.70.

Again, as you can see travelling long distances on the day is also cheaper in Spain, with an even bigger difference of €76.20.

Short-distance travel

We’ve looked at the price of long-distance trains, but how does Spain compare to the UK when it comes to short distances?

Let’s look at Barcelona to Sitges which is approximately 24 miles vs Oxford to Reading which is 25 miles.

A single ticket on Catalonia’s Rodalies trains costs €4.60, while the general price of a single to Reading costs €13.32.

This shows that travelling short distances on trains is also cheaper in Spain.

Speed  

You may pay more for trains in the UK, but do they actually get you there any faster than the Spanish trains? Unfortunately, on long-distance trains the answer is no.

The fastest train from Barcelona to Córdoba will get you there in 4 hours 40 minutes and the fastest train from London to Aberdeen will get you there in 6 hours and 53 minutes.

However, for the prices mentioned above, the Barcelona to Córdoba took 6 hours and the London to Aberdeen train took 7 hours 10 minutes. 

This may have something to do with the fact that high-speed trains in Spain are a lot faster than those in the UK.

AVE trains can run up to 300 km/h (186 mph), while in the UK, the high-speed trains typically run at 201 Km/h (125 mph).

However, for short distances, the Barcelona to Sitges train takes around 38 to 40 mins depending on which train you take, while the Oxford to Reading train takes around 22-32 mins depending on the train you take. This time, the UK train is slightly faster.

RENFE station in Spain

Find out how to get a refund for delayed trains in Spain. Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Delays and compensation

Trains in the UK are notorious for being late and delayed, while in Spain you’ll find that they’re generally on time. However, over the last few years, the punctuality of trains in Spain does seem to be getting slightly worse.

If your train is unfortunately delayed in Spain – can you claim any compensation? The answer is yes. RENFE has a very strict punctuality policy.

The amount you can claim will depend on the type of train you travelled on, the amount of time it was delayed and the reason for the delay.

On AVE and Avant trains, a delay of over 15 minutes entitles you to a 50 percent refund of your ticket price and a delay of over 30 minutes entitles you to a 100 percent refund.

On AV City, Alvia and Euromed trains a delay of over 30 minutes entitles you to a 50 percent refund and a delay of over one hour entitles you to a 100 percent refund of your ticket price.

On Media Distancia trains a delay of over 15 minutes entitles you to a 25 percent refund, a delay of over 30 minutes entitles you to a 50 percent refund and a delay of over one hour entitles you to a full refund.

The compensation excludes cases where a delay is caused by something outside of RENFE’s control, such as the weather, but if it’s due to a technical fault, then you are able to claim.

The process to claim your money back is incredibly easy. You simply go to the website link here and put in your ticket number, origin and destination. The system will then let you know if you’re entitled to a refund or not.

If you are, it will ask you if you want the money back as points (if you’re a member) or if you want the money put back on your card. If you choose the latter and you have a Spanish bank account, they will refund you straight away. It may take slightly longer for international bank accounts.

As the UK has many different train companies, the amount of refund you’re entitled to for a delayed train can be tricky to find out, but the UK Citizens Advice Bureau says: “You’re legally entitled to compensation of 50 percent of your ticket price if you get to your destination between 30 minutes and an hour late and a full refund if you arrive more than one hour late”.

The way you claim your money back is not as simple as in Spain though. According to MoneySavingExpert “If you want a refund for a delay, you’ll need to apply for one and it’ll take up to 28 days”.

This is comparable to Spain, however, Spain offers slightly better compensation for delays to long-distance trains.

Comfort and services

Comfort obviously varies from train to train, depending on the type you’re on and the distance you’re travelling. However, on long-distance journeys on Spanish trains generally provide more leg room.

AVE trains also offer you wet towels to clean your hands and movies to watch during the journey, which is different to the type of service you’ll find on UK trains.

So overall, it seems the Spanish trains are cheaper, faster for long distances and more comfortable than in the UK. 

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