As access to other countries began to open up in September 2021 and Covid travel restrictions eased, we started to dream about long distance train travel. We wanted to spend long overdue time with friends in Catalonia, northern Spain, so we decided to plan a family holiday by train to Spain. Having briefly considered and discarded the flying option, we looked at the most worthwhile way of making use of increasing our travel costs, and enjoying a slower type of travel. This time, though, we left the bikes at home.
We bought interrail passes and booked an early train from Sheffield to London St Pancras, followed by a Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord. From there we reserved couchettes on the sleeper train from Paris Austerlitz to Portbou at the French-Spanish border. It’s another hour from there by local train to Girona.
The length of the journey compared to flying can be off-putting to some, as can the additional cost. Nonetheless, we still confidently and unflinchingly chose the train and figured out ways to make the very most of the greater sense of comfort, freedom and adventure. So why is it that we believe long distance train travel is well worth the extra time and money?
1) Reduced carbon footprint
Lowering the amount of carbon used for our journey was the primary deciding factor. According to, Good Planet Foundation’s carbon calculator, (one carbon calculator among many) travelling by train uses approximately a fifth of the carbon that flying does for this particular journey. We were happier about making the journey by train, knowing our impact on the planet would be lessened.
2) We got a ‘free’ trip to Paris
Flying has the advantage of taking you directly to your destination. However, we were very excited to break our journey in Paris. Our Eurostar arrived at 2pm and our sleeper train left just after 10pm. It’s a cheap way to get a flavour of Paris without having to pay for any accommodation.
We wandered along the Seine, marvelled at the architecture and explored the Pompidou art museum on the outward journey. Paris by night at the top of the Pompidou is stunning with the illuminated Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur on the horizon.
On the return journey, we disembarked in Paris at 7am and had until 2pm when we had to check in for our Eurostar. We visited Sacré–Cœur and enjoyed a misty view of the Eiffel Tower. The children gazed at the rooftops, previously only familiar as the setting to one of their favourite books, ‘Rooftoppers’ by Katherine Rundell. The City of Science and Industry was fascinating. Exhibits on climate change, space and robotics kept everyone absorbed. We would have been glad to spend longer, although our ‘museum feet’ were happy to leave. We stretched our legs along the Canal Saint-Martin wondering what it would be like to live aboard one of the houseboats.
Both visits were fuelled by crepes and croissants.
Left luggage lockers at both Gare du Nord and Paris Austerlitz made it easy to dump our bags and go and explore. A huge locker that easily held all of our rucksacks cost €9.50 for 24 hours. These are staffed locations. We found the experience friendly and efficient and the lockers work in four languages too.
3) Sleeping on a train is fun
It is exciting to bed down for the night on a train. It oozes adventure. The couchettes from Paris to the French-Spanish border are comfortable, though we did have to wrestle with the shutter blinds to get them to close. The children slept extremely well. It is very difficult to get comfy on a plane and there is certainly little chance to move around. The adults did sleep less well and woke often as a result of the unfamiliarity. However, we were lying down long enough to get enough rest and be ready for the next day’s activities.
SNCF provide pillows and a sleeping bag for everyone, plus a bottle of water, earplugs and an eye mask. On the way back, we boarded at 7pm and converted the beds into seats in order to have a picnic. This conversion involved a fair bit of yanking but we got there in the end. One of the beds was firmly locked in position and required a member of staff with a key to set it free. The same helpful crew member tracked down our missing pillows. Our compartment contained six beds (three bunks on each side) but SNCF were only allowing four to a cabin as a result of Covid. This suited us well. At other times, you can pay extra to ensure you have the space to yourselves.
4) You get a sense of where you are in the world
On a train, you get a much greater understanding of where exactly you are travelling. It helps develop a better sense of the geography of the countries and terrain you pass through in order to get to your final stop. Even the absence of a view in the dark of the channel tunnel helped the children understand the distance under the sea between the UK and France. The section along the south coast of France, into Spain, with the Pyrenees reaching down to the sea was particularly stunning.
5) Quality time
Flights with (and without) children can be stressful. Once you enter the ‘airport world’ it is the same for every flight until you are spat out the other end. Often the journey to and from the airport is tricky, you have to arrive early and there’s lots of hanging around with little to do. On the flight, you’re crammed into a small space and on short haul flights, there’s little in the way of entertainment. It can be tricky to set your children up with things to do.
Travelling by train with a family can be a really valuable experience. On a train, you can usually pre-book a table so it’s easy to play card games or get out the colouring or sticker books. You can read aloud or have conversations about what you can see out of the window. You can charge your devices and access mobile data. Our current most-played card games for a long train journey are Monopoly Deal, Uno and Exploding Kittens. Long distance train travel can be stressful too, we just do find trains more relaxing than planes.
Booking tickets for long distance train travel
We booked interrail passes from https://www.interrail.eu/en. Under twelves get a free interrail pass. You can receive up to two free child interrail passes with one paying adult. There is also a 25% discount on youth passes for those age 12 -27. We bought a pass that entitled us to train travel on any four days in a one month period. The ticket goes onto an app on your phone. I was concerned about losing the phone or having enough battery to show it but, like with all travel documents, you do what you can to guard against this. Using a sleeper is a good way to maximise the travel days on your pass as you only use the day the train departs; the next day doesn’t count as a travel day. The Man in Seat 61 is our go to website for planning long distance train travel.
Our interail passes cost €677. That is €246 each for two adults and €185 for one youth ticket. Our ten year old was free. The pass is valid for one outbound and one return journey in the country you live in. So we were able to travel from Sheffield to London on the pass. You can reserve seats for free in the UK by contacting the rail provider for the journey you wish to make. In our case, this was East Midlands Rail.
Like the UK, many European countries offer free reservations. Those in France, however, aren’t quite so cheap. Night trains, high-speed TGV trains and the Eurostar all require paid reservations. We were glad to discover that a reservation for a couchette on the sleeper was actually less than a reservation for a seat on a high-speed train in the daytime. The couchette cost €23 per person each way and we had to pay for all four of us. No concessions are available. The Eurostar reservations were the most expensive at €30 each per trip.
Overall costs: long distance train travel vs flying
So that meant €677 (passes) + €184 (sleeper reservations) + €240 (Eurostar reservations) came to a grand total of €1101 which is roughly £1000. We worked out the cost of flying Manchester to Barcelona with luggage and this came to £650. We would then have had to pay to get to and from each airport, which would have cost about £150. There is no denying flying is cheaper but I certainly think the extra for the train travel is worth it.
As long as flights are subsidised, we recognise we were in a privileged position to even make such a choice. The pricing systems could and would do well to reflect the true costs of air travel, accounting for the environmental impact. We believe it is about time in the current climate crisis that governments subsidise train travel above plane travel and make it more affordable and appealing to travellers. The high speed rail link to London St Pancras could be much better utilised to enable faster connections with a wider range of European cities.