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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

5 tips for stress-free train travel in Germany over Christmas

Despite laying on more trains, Germany’s national rail operator Deutsche Bahn is still expecting delays and full carriages over the holiday season. Here's what's going on and how you can save money and stress on your travels.

5 tips for stress-free train travel in Germany over Christmas

What will the train travel situation look like over Christmas?

In mid-December, Deutsche Bahn’s new timetable will start, meaning an additional 40,000 seats will be available over Christmas. About 800 new employees will also join the service team by December 24th.

Deutsche Bahn’s board member for long-distance transport told Bild am Sonntag that these measures mean that Deutsche Bahn “is well prepared for Christmas”.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany’s long-distance train services will change from December

Karl-Peter Naumann, Chairman of the passenger association Pro Bahn is also advising travellers to take the train instead of the car over the holidays: “It’s probably even more crowded on the roads,” he said.

However, December is always a very busy time on the trains and both Deutsche Bahn and Pro Bahn advise travellers to be prepared for delays and busy trains. Here are five useful tips for travellers to keep in mind.

1. Book in advance

Train travel over the holidays is popular, which means tickets sell out fast or get expensive very quickly.

Ticket prices are also about to increase, as the so-called flex fares will rise by an average of almost seven percent from December 11th.

A man enters a train carriage in Lübeck. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

However, the saver and super-saver prices will remain unchanged, so if you book early enough you might even snap up a ticket on a long route for €17.90.

2. Book a seat

If you don’t want to stand for three hours or be asked to move halfway through your journey by another passenger telling you “that’s my seat” – book your seat in advance.

On most Deutsche Bahn trains, the ticket itself doesn’t include a seat and you need to add this as an extra. Prices for seats start at €4.50 and you can usually choose which type of carriage you want to sit in and whether you have a window, aisle or table seat.

Families with young children can also book a “Familienbereich” for €9, which is a closed-off section which includes enough space for a pram, and built-in toys.

3. Avoid travel at the busiest times

If you want to book a ticket from Berlin to Cologne on the Friday afternoon before Christmas Eve you will have to fork out at least €100, even at the super saver price. Such popular times are expensive and have already been booked way in advance – so it’s worth considering travelling at a less popular time.

On the display in the DB Navigator app, a travel plan indicates the possibly high capacity for the connection between Berlin-Gesundbrunnen and Stralsund. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Georg Hilgemann

If you can, try to avoid the Friday and Saturday before the holidays and take a day’s holiday earlier, when tickets are cheaper and the trains aren’t so full.

It’s also worth considering travelling during off-peak hours. “You can also leave at five in the morning and continue sleeping on the train,” says Karl-Peter Naumann from Pro Bahn.

4. Plan for delays

Plan for longer connecting times or book direct connections if possible, as every change of train involves a risk.

READ ALSO: Rail travel chaos looms in Germany’s most populous state

When booking your train online, you can see how many connections are included in the trip and also how long you will have to change trains. If the change time is less than ten minutes, it may be worth booking an earlier connecting train, as delays could lead to you missing the next train.

5. Stay informed

Just because you now have a seat and are on the booked train doesn’t mean there can’t be any more surprises. Stay up to date, by activating “Trip notifications” in the DB Navigator app and check the local transport authority’s website the day before you travel. 

READ ALSO: ‘Deutschlandticket’: What you need to know about Germany’s new €49 travel ticket 

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