Eco family life Sustainable Transport

Eight ways to enjoy UK family train travel

Train travel can sometimes feel daunting, especially with a family. It’s often easier just to pile in the car. However, there are many benefits, beside the obvious environmental pluses, to family train travel. Here are some tips to make your trip run more smoothly.

1) Book in advance

For some journeys, especially long-distance ones, you get the best prices if you book tickets in advance. The lowest priced tickets are available twelve weeks before travel. Another money saving option is to investigate split ticketing. This means that, although you may get one train between Doncaster and Alnmouth, you actually buy two tickets: one from Doncaster to Darlington and another from Darlington to Alnmouth. We usually complete this process by trial and error. We get a list of the stations that our train stops at from National Rail Enquiries and patiently put different options into a search engine, adding up the different ticket prices as we go. However, there are numerous ticket-splitting sites, including SplitMyFare, Raileasy and SplitYourTicket. Typically if you buy your ticket through them, they take a small fee.  

2) Buy a family railcard



A Family & Friends Railcard gives you a third off adult fares and sixty percent off child fares. Up to four adults and four children travelling together can use the card at any one time. Digital railcards can be downloaded onto two different devices. We each having a copy on our phones. This works for us as we don’t lose track of who has the railcard in their wallet.

We bought our first railcard when our eldest was just six weeks old. Even though she didn’t actually need a ticket until she was five, it was worth it to buy her a ticket so we could use the railcard and save on the adult fares

Once our youngest was two, we also bought him a ticket as we were glad of the extra seat it entitled us to.

Reading helps family train travel fly by.
Time to read

3) Look for the wheelchair and bicycle symbols

If you have a pram or a lot of luggage it’s worth boarding the train where you see a bicycle or wheelchair symbol. Of course, bicycles and wheelchairs have priority but often these areas are empty and provide a decent space for storing a buggy. It’s a lot easier if you don’t have to collapse the pram – especially if it contains a sleeping baby. There is usually someone around to offer a friendly hand up or down with a buggy.

4) Sit together

Some train operators allow you to choose your seats when booking online. We always select a table where available which makes games, picnics and other activities easier to manage. If you can reserve a seat, do so. Family train travel is hard work on an overcrowded train with kids if you can’t sit down.

Train games at a table with cuddly toys
Train games at a table with cuddly toys

Of course, some trains are not reservable or we have not been organised in advance. Our seven year old is now our expert seat finder. Without any encouragement, he is able to weave his way to the front of the queue and bag the seats he wants. He is utterly certain he needs to face forwards, be by a window and sit next to Mummy. My daughter has the same requirements. You can guess the rest.

5) Interact with others

Our children will chat to anyone and we think travelling by public transport helps their awareness of others. We have had lovely conversations with all sorts of people. There are times, though, where learning to be considerate of other travellers is more difficult. On one journey we encouraged our then four year old to turn down his volume button. He responded by miming turning a volume button, followed by shouting as loud as he possibly could. When reprimanded, he replied, “Sorry Mummy, I turned the volume button the wrong way.” Fortunately our neighbours found it more amusing than we did.

6) Meet basic needs while you travel

Picnic on the train makes family train travel easier.
Picnic on the train

When travelling by train you can eat a picnic, do a nappy change, visit the toilet, stretch your legs and still make progress on your journey.

7) Play games

There are so many lightweight games that are fun to play as a family. Our favourites that require no luggage space are twenty questions, eye spy and the alphabet game where you think of a sentence like,”I went to the beach and I took… . Each person adds an item in alphabetical order such as … an apple… a ball … etc remembering all the items until the last person has 26 items to remember. We usually make it a team effort rather than having winners and losers. Twenty questions keeps our children absorbed for surprisingly long spells. They love to flummox us with choices like an egg salad sandwich which is apparently animal, vegetable and mineral or a unicorn which, of course, is a real animal.

We also love Uno, Dobble and playing cards for all sorts of games. Reading stories is another winner. Screens are entirely absorbing too, but we limit screen time on long journeys and enjoy many different types of family interaction.

Foil rubbing on the train makes family train travel fun.
Foil rubbing on the train

8) Stay calm in times of delay!

It’s true: trains are delayed and occasionally cancelled. Family train travel is not always smooth. It can be helpful to have on-the-go apps on your phone to keep track of how your train is doing and when its expected to get there. However, we always feel relieved that any breakdown isn’t our problem to solve. It can be tricky sometimes, because we are not in control of the outcome, but we’re glad professional people are working hard to get everyone where they need to be. It’s better to be sitting on a train with access to a toilet and space to play games and read stories than hanging out on the hard shoulder of a motorway waiting for a recovery vehicle. Stay calm and know that it is the job of the railway staff to make sure you reach your destination.

So why not give it a go? Enjoy travelling in a more sustainable way while spending some quality time with your family. You could even try some no-car family camping. Or how about you take your bikes on the train next time?

Jem and Louise

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