The Man in Seat 61 tells suitcases&strollers his favourite train journeys with kids. Mark Smith is a career railwayman who has travelled all over the globe including from London to Tokyo via Moscow’s Trans-Siberian Railway, to Turkey, Syria and Jordan and around Hong Kong, Mongolia and Beijing. His kids Nathanel (9) and Katelijn (6) have followed him and his wife Nicolette on train journeys from the UK to Italty, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco and right across the USA from New York to Los Angeles. Wherever he goes, he always tries to sit in Seat 61 and documents his travels plus lots of other useful information for train enthusiasts on his website. Here are his really thoughtful insights into why travel by train with kids is so much more rewarding than any other form of transport.
Why this obsession with train travel?
I love travel. It isn't just about the destination, it's about the journey too. A journey where you can see where you're going, sleep in a bed, eat in a restaurant. Be treated like a human being, not a piece of freight, strapped to a seat seeing nothing. Which pretty much draws you to trains and ships and away from motorways and airliners.
What do you get out of travel by train that you don't get from flying or driving?
You get to see where you're going. The towns, villages, farmland, lakes and mountains, what lies between the cities, what the country you're visiting is really like. You get to move around, stretch your legs, perhaps go to a restaurant or bistro car. On sleeper trains you can even go to sleep in a cosy bed in your own room.
The trains in each country tend to reflect the culture of that country too – planes are globalised and the same everywhere.
And acres of tarmac on an 8-lane motorway isn't the best introduction to any country.
A journey by train is an experience. A journey by air, well, it's mere transportation.
Kids love trains too. Why do you think trains resonate so well with children?
The noises they make, the scale of them, the way they move...They certainly seem irresistible to kids.
What is the longest train journey you've done when you’ve traveled with kids?
A year or two ago we took the kids from London to Milan in a day. That's an 8:30am Eurostar from London to Paris, then the afternoon TGV from Paris to Milan, reaching Milan at 21:45. We broke up the trip with lunch at the amazing Le Train Bleu restaurant inside the Gare de Lyon in Paris which worked really well as the kids loved it. But even I was worried that in Milan at 10pm we'd have two heavily sleeping kids to carry as well as our bags.
I had no need to worry. The kids loved the journey: wide awake and switched on all the way. We sat around a table for four on the TGV, they coloured, read, drew, talked, watched the farms, hills, stations, trains, woods and mountains. In fact, we had the exact opposite problem. We arrived in Milan spot on time and got to our hotel but the kids were wide awake, full of the excitement of the journey and generally hyper until midnight. We could hardly get them to sleep!
Do you have a regular train journey you like to take?
London to Fort William on the Caledonian Sleeper, the train they call the Deerstalker. I've done it many times over the years and the combination of private room with bunk beds on a train (it doesn't get any better than that for kids, even kids aged 50), a lounge car with real leather sofas and restaurant area serving food, wine and 14 different types of whisky, a convenient departure from rainy central London and an awakening in the lovely West Highlands with deer bounding away from the train…Well, just wow...
What was the most surprising train journey you've taken?
London to Brussels in 1994 as a Eurostar guinea pig before they started public service. The train left London, plunged into a hole at the very edge of Kent, emerged into daylight in France to cheers all around the carriage and seamlessly ran all the way to Brussels. Amazing. Of course, twenty years on I've ridden Eurostar many, many times and we all now take it for granted.
Read about the Vistadome train in the Sacred Valley in Peru here.
Are there any train journeys you haven't enjoyed?
A delayed train home from work, perhaps!
But even a long, tiring and delayed journey on an old and dirty second and third class slow train between Aswan and Luxor in Egypt turned out to be one of my most memorable experiences because of the Nile scenery and the Egyptians I met on the way. It's all about the journey. Did I mention that already?!
What is your most memorable type of train that you've taken?
The beautifully-restored 1920s vintage sleeping-cars and restaurant cars of the Venice Simplon Orient Express always stick in my mind. Perfection on rails.
And a 24 hour journey from London to Venice in 2003 sticks in my mind for another reason. With nothing pre-planned and having been going out for only 6 months, Nicolette and I got engaged on that train, somewhere in driving snow in the Brenner Pass. And here I am a decade later with a wife, two small kids, one large mortgage and a cat. Powerful magic that train...
Why should parents travel by train with kids rather than other forms of transport?
When you fly, you're strapped to a seat unable to move with nothing to see.
When you drive, you're not only strapped in, you actually turn your back on your kids.
On a train (or a ship or ferry) you can sit around a table, see where you're going, interact with your kids – indeed it can be family quality time. You can often give them more undivided attention on a train ride than at home distracted by phone calls, doorbells and the lure of the TV!
I think there's more to it even than that. So many kids get ferried everywhere in the back of a car. They become passive, switched off, being spoon-fed transportation. When you take kids by train, showing them how to buy a ticket, how to find the train, how to buy something from the buffet car, even cross the road outside the station using a pelican crossing, they lap it up and can't get enough of it. It's sort of primeval – we adults showing our young ones how to be independent and make their way in the world. Which is just what young ones want.
Your top 3 travel tips for parents considering a train journey with young kids?
1. Travel light. Half the paraphenalia the modern world tells us we need for babies and kids isn't really necessary.
2. A front-carrier is easier than manhandling a folded pushchair.
3. Infants often go free on trains, a big plus, although age limits in different countries vary. And I'm goung to add a fourth:
4. Don't under-estimate your kids. Involve them in planning. Don't under-estimate their interest in the journey or their stamina when making a trip that interests them.