Nine solid reasons why train travel is an ideal way to get around Europe for some family travelers. Are you counting yourself in that some? Read on.
Does Europe's excellent railroad service really work for adults touring the continent with kids? I am often asked this and always answer, "Yes," in very specific circumstances. Here are eight good reasons why train travel in Europe makes sense for families.
1. Forget Lugging Luggage Around
Every travel expert seems to put this at their No. 1 cliché: pack light, please. But do any of us do it? Of course not. So one of the best things about train travel in Europe is that you and your family will do just that.
The reason is that porters are scarce, and storage space is limited, so (like it or not) you will be carrying everything you need.
I was reminded of this recently while crossing Italy by train and watching a young family struggle with strollers and big, heavy bags. If your child or children are in diapers, you might to think twice about European train travel.
But even for the youngest children who can carry their own bags, train travel has many attractions that Americans perhaps overlook. No surprise when you consider the sorry impressions from our own sadly neglected Amtrak.
2. It's Efficient
Travel experts say for most trips within one country, trains are comparable and often faster than planes, considering wait time and other factors.
Boarding a train eliminates those lengthy airline check-ins and security lines. High-speed trains in Europe often cover ground faster than flying to a destination, and there's a lot more scenery to see in a train.
Train stations are almost invariably located in downtown areas as well.
3. It's Environmentally Correct
"With planes you get to check your luggage. That's probably a downside, but everything else is very positive on trains," says Chris Lazarus, who may have a vested interest since she used to handle public relations for Rail Europe .
Yes, that biases her, and she admits it. "Automobiles are ecologically disastrous and I think car travel is the worst thing possible for families," she says.
That may be somewhat extreme for most of us, but she can string together a long list of why train travel might be best for your family. And others will tell you the same, including me.
4. Trains Are Top Value
Have you considered, for example, that it is probably cheaper boarding a train than renting a car in Europe?
Have you thought about the various discounts, multi-country rail passes, and kids travel-for-free offers? There are many. The French Thalys trains, for example, at times have offers to bring up to four children along for free.
Cost factors to consider include the duration of the trip, miles covered and countries visited. Rick Steeves, a travel writer well known for his European advice, found a first class Eurail Railpass was seldom more — and usually less — than the cost of a rental car for trips of different durations ranging from thee to five weeks.
Not to mention bad driving conditions (on both sides of the road), small cars, narrow streets and high gasoline prices.
5. It's More Fun & Social
What about the simple interaction you get with your own family and those of others on trains?
Trains foster social connections. Children and adults talking to others on a European train often find suggestions and places to visit that no one ever thought about. Trust me. I've seen it happen.
"The kids can walk around on their own. They're a lot less confined. And families in general have the chance to all sit around together and talk. Try doing that in an airplane or a car," says Lazarus.
6. You Can Sample Local Cuisine & Culture
Those of us who have actually tried to get a decent meal on an Amtrak train might raise the issue of food. Can you dine well on European trains?
Maybe. But not to worry. It should not be forgotten that most European trains have, at the very least, a snack bar. And most large train stations have a variety of good places to eat that go far beyond vending machines with stale cheese sandwiches and microwaveable hamburgers.
That's not even to mention another custom that helps make trains more attractive. Many families traveling in Europe bring along a picnic lunch that is routinely shared by other families, American or otherwise.
7. Train Travel Is Comfortable
If you read much about trains, you hear about those air-conditioned, high-speed European trains that go more than 150 mph. They exist of course, like the Eurostar between London and Paris and Brussels, but European train travelers should know that not all trains are high-speed and not all are going to be air-conditioned.
Train travel improves every year. France's Thalys system actually promises refunds if their trains are 30 minutes late. The brand new Italian NTV Italo service offers Smart and Prima classes, providing passengers with free Wi-Fi, a separte Cinema Car where movies are shown, and the posh private Club Class cars.
8. Sightseeing Is Not Hard
Admittedly, trains, unlike cars, don't let you simply drive away as Americans are accustomed to do. You have to do some planning, and you have to make some choices among the various train options available. But trains are also a safe way to travel, far safer in fact, than autos.
If you really think you can't get around without your car, there are also auto-train combinations.
9. Train Travel Improves Every Year
Why has Europe gotten so far ahead of the US in its train system? Experts cite several reasons including the fact Americans built a great highway system in the US and ignored its railroads. Gas has also been kept cheap in the States, but not in Europe, where travelers are encouraged to take the train because of the low cost. Many European countries even subsidize train systems. In Germany, for example, you might expect to see cell phones and computer terminals in first class.
Unlike America's Amtrak system, European trains are not getting worse. They are getting better.
BritRail replaced a commuter line with 186 mile-per-hour links out of London's St. Pancras International station. In France, the TGV Est line serves Strasbourg from Paris and has cut travel time by half between the two cities. Countries like Switzerland are perennially improving their trains with faster speeds and better connections; a US$3.5 billion tunnel, allowing trains to race at 124mph for 22 miles under the Alps, will cut travel time between Swiss cities and neighboring Italy by 45-75 minutes per route. High-speed routes now run between Brussels and Germany and Holland.
Look at Spain: The Spanish government has made more than 4,350 miles (7000 kilometers) of AVE high-speed track operational so trains can travel at speeds up 219 mph. They're different in Europe.
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