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I am lucky enough to live in the Southern French Alps where we organize our Undiscovered Mountains holidays and often travel back and forth to the UK
Over the last five years I’ve done the journey many times with various combinations of family and have tried pretty much all options - plane, train and car!
Overall, I have to say I prefer the train. Although the traveling time is longer than a plane, there are no baggage restrictions, no queuing, or waiting (worst plane experience was 3 hours standing in a queue at Stanstead airport to go through security with tired and restless 3 year old needing a wee) and generally very few delays.
To get to the Southern French Alps there is now a direct service with Eurostar from London to Lyon (41/2 hrs) or Marseille (61/2 hrs). The Southern Alps are in between these two TGV stations. Alternatively you can use any of these TGV stations: Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Valence or Grenoble which link to the classic Eurostar service to Paris. From any of these you can either hire a car (closest by car is Grenoble) or get the train which goes from Marseille, (easy links) Grenoble (fastest) or Valence to get to Gap, the centre of the Southern French Alps..
Alternatively you can get directly here (to Gap) from Paris there on an overnight sleeper.
Some of the best advice anyone ever gave me for traveling with children on long journeys was to treat the journey as an adventure and prepare for it as part of the holiday. A tip I have stuck to with various lessons learnt on the planning for it part!!
It is true that a well planned train journey can be a great opportunity for quality time en famille playing games, chatting and enjoying each other’s company.
I recently took my 2 and 5 year old back to England for Easter and one of the best parts of the holiday was the train journey. Nappy changing facilities, a buffet bar to visit and long train to walk up and down and explore - it was fantastic ! We made friendship bracelets, drew pictures, explored the length of the train, played I spy and watched a DVD! It was a really lovely intimate time together!! We arrived on time, relaxed and in good humour!
Here are some top tips I have learned from my train traveling experiences with children!!
1. Book early for cheap tickets.
All trains have a variety of ticket prices for the same journey and they are sold on a first come first served basis so the cheaper options always get booked up first.
Eurostar tickets are available 4 months in advance and SNCF and TGV from 3 – 4 months. You can book your tickets all in one reservation with Rail Europe. However, if the SNCF or TGV part of your journey isn’t available as early as the Eurostar you won’t be able to book until they are released and may miss out on cheaper Eurostar tickets. It is worth booking Eurostar tickets separately and completing the rest of your journey as soon as the SNCF or TGV tickets are available to have the best chance of getting cheap tickets.
Children under 4 are free when sharing a seat or bed with an adult.
2. Ask to have a table seat on day trains.
This doesn’t cost any extra and if available, well worth having!
3. Book bottom bunks on sleeper.
For the sleeper, see if you can get a carriage of four or 6 just for your family (you may have to pay extra for the other beds if not using them). Always reserve a bottom bunk for children under 6.
4. Choose your suitcases carefully!
There are no baggage restrictions on the trains but you do need to be able to carry everything so think about this when you are packing. If you have to change trains, you may well have to walk a fair distance to get to the right part of the station for your next train.
I prefer to carry a baby or toddler in a baby / back carrier and have hands free for pulling wheely suitcases. If you need to bring a car seat with you practice balancing it on your wheely suitcase or work out a way of carrying it! Pushchairs are another alternative but practice pushing a pushchair whilst pulling a heavy wheely suitcase before doing it for real!
5. Budget in a taxi for Paris station changes.
The actual distance between Gare de Nord where the Eurostar arrives and Gare de Lyon or Austerlitz where the TGV or sleeper go from, is only a couple of metro stops. However, it is a long walk to get the metro from the main line platforms and quite confusing unless you are a good French speaker. It is worth getting a taxi and you can usually jump the taxi queue if you are a family with young children!
6. Pack a travel bag.
Organise your packing so you have a compact ‘travel bag’ with activities and food, spare clothes etc all in one place. Give the children their own appropriately sized rucksacks with their games, boos and toys to carry. You can keep all these bags in the luggage holds above your seats so have easy access. It saves having to dig your heavy suitcase out from under everyone else’s luggage to find a wet wipe!
7. Bring healthy snacks and water to drink
You don’t want children high on sugar on a long journey and the prices on the train are extortionate.
8. Become computer game friendly.
This is one occasion where you may be pleased that your children love spending too much time on the computer / in front of the TV! No mess, no dropping things on the floor and no need to entertain! Bring a variety of computer games, DVD on computer, ipad etc. For all beeping games, music or DVDs make sure you have headphones. If your children are sharing the same device, buy an earphone splitter so they can both be plugged in at the same time.
9. Bring other activities.
Colouring, drawing, quiz books, reading books, card or jewelry making kits to give your children a break from the computer screen! These sort of activities are great for doing things together as a family and teaching your children to be organized and tidy so they don’t lose half their equipment under the seats.
10. Be armed with a variety of oral games
I spy, the yes and no game and other word association games are great distractions for a long journey with bored children. Offer incentives such as the first person to spot 10 red cars gets a sticker / treat.
11. Bring wet wipes
Wet wipes, tissues and spare tops are very useful especially for younger children!
12. Be relaxed
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