When it comes to traveling with children, train travel can be one of the more relaxed, civilized modes of transport, fully immersive from the moment you step aboard. One of the main perks is that most train companies let kids under four go free, whereas tots over the age of two have to be paid for when flying.
We’ve selected—with the help of Loco2’s Great Train Comparison report—seven of the best European companies for family travel. From St. Pancras to St.-Tropez and Berlin to Brindisi, it’s time to ditch the airport and take to the continent by train.
Providing vast coverage within Switzerland, The Swiss Federal Railways’, also known as SBB, intercity double-decker trains are a playground on wheels. Kids can make for the upper deck, where they’ll find an entire family zone carriage or “Ticki Park” adventure area. The spacious lower deck of the family coaches offers plenty of space to stow luggage and stollers. (This legendary railway traverses the stunning Swiss Alps.)
Once aboard Deutsche Bahn’s trains, head south to the magnificent Alpine Lake Constance—it borders Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, so you can tick off three countries in one trip. The railroad's sleek ICE (InterCity Express) trains offer a designated space where kids aged three years and over can gather to chat, play games, or listen to stories. The on-board entertainment program for children is free and doesn’t need to be booked in advance. Deutsche Bahn is popular with parents too, who often take the chance to enjoy a meal in the restaurant car or have a well-deserved nap.
Since putting an end to the train operator monopoly in 2006, Italo, a private, high-speed train company, has been adding new routes to its extensive list of services. It now offers service to the northern cities of Trento, Bolzano, and Rovereto, making the Dolomites an accessible—and affordable—option for families in the summer and winter. In addition to family-friendly fares, Italo offers children’s cartoons and other entertainment for kids, making travel a time for family fun. (Explore incredible photos of hiking Italy’s “Iron Roads.”)
Trenitalia, Italy’s state-run railway network, is well known for connecting the country’s famous landmark cities to the smaller villages and lesser-known hidden gems, making it the perfect choice for discovery. They also partner with Mammacult, a family-centric tour guide specialist offering options such as morning walks, full-day city tours and more. Children love Trenitalia’s stunning modern Frecciarossa trains. Trenitalia’s Bimbi Gratis scheme gives children aged 14 and under who are accompanied by at least one adult free travel on many trains—on both Frecciarossa trains as well as many other long-distance services. Once aboard, children will find games, quizzes, and lots of entertainment in the dedicated Frecciajunior magazine. (Travel on these 10 lesser-known train trips.)
SNCF’s railways touch every corner of France, making it the perfect choice for families who want to explore. With the promise of “traveling in total serenity with your children,” SNCF’s high-speed, intercity service (TGV) provides dedicated family spaces where the emphasis is on having fun without raising the decibel level. With the Carte Enfant+, a special rail card for families with children, you can zip from the Atlantic Coast to the Riviera for cheap. (Here are five ways to get your kids to love to travel.)
France, Netherlands, and Belgium
Eurostar’s trains zoom out of London’s St. Pancras Station direct to Paris, Brussels, Lille, Disneyland Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, southern France, and Calais. (The Walt Disney Company is the majority owner of National Geographic Partners.) After collecting the kids from St. Pancras’ dedicated play area, board the train and head to the Café Métropole for child-friendly menus before settling in with a good range of games available through Eurostar’s onboard streaming service.
When traveling on ÖBB’s comfortable, red Railjet trains, head straight for carriages 21 or 31 to find board games and the children’s cinema to keep kids entertained during a long trip. There’s plenty of space for strollers in the family coaches, and you’ll find special restrooms for kids and diaper-changing facilities. And this rail company has a dedicated children’s mascot, Timi Taurus, who’s a big hit with visiting kids.
Kate Andrews is the co-founder of Loco2.
This story was adapted from the National Geographic Traveller UK edition.