Go on a European family holiday – with just one suitcase.
T here’s a special romance in seeing Europe by train – as my family and I found out on a two-week-long urban adventure to London, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany in 2012.
Miles and miles of postcardperfect landscapes – sprawling fields, glistening forests and city skylines – were ours to enjoy. Travelling by rail also eased the strain of having my two children in tow: Keyaan was three at the time, and Jiyann was six months old. With fewer constraints and no seatbelt rules on trains, it was easier to make my restless kids comfortable and occupy them with food and games.
We visited in spring, so it was chilly by tropical standards. But it wasn’t so cold that we had to fuss with thermal wear; everyone only needed a good jacket to keep warm.
Plan the Route
When travelling with kids, your route needs to be economical. This means the stops must be relatively close – no more than four hours by train – to minimise travelling time and fatigue.
Most holidaymakers who see Europe by train purchase tickets in advance from Rail Europe. They have a local website, www.raileurope.com.sg, and an office in Singapore, which makes booking and collecting tickets a breeze.
My husband Leonard was making a business trip to London, so it made sense to start and end there. Since we’d been to France before, we decided to visit Belgium instead. While flexibility is nice, it was important for us to sort out how long to stay in each city, and have buffer time for possible emergencies, like missing a train.
We bought a one-way Eurostar ticket from London to Brussels (rates start from $116 for adults, depending on the season, with a variable reduced fare for children; a child under four years old can travel free if he sits on your lap). Then we settled for a Eurail Benelux-Germany Pass (from $559 for five days for adults, with variable discounts for family members travelling together), which allowed us unlimited travel on the national rail networks of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. Book all tickets together as early as possible for cheaper rates. Having decided the route, we took note of train times so that our journey would be smooth, since we were schlepping a toddler and a baby. I studied the schedules before the trip, determined my preferred times and always had a backup plan in case we missed the train.
We aimed to travel as early as possible each morning so we could arrive by lunchtime and check into our accommodation before exploring the area. The downside was that we had to wake up early, although it helped that we could catch up on sleep on the train.
In addition to setting our mobile phone alarms, I asked that reception give us a wake-up call and arrange for transport to the train station if it wasn’t within walking distance.
What I also found useful was dressing the kids in their travel clothes before putting them to bed. This saved us time and allowed us to make our way swiftly to the station. I also made sure that we arrived at least 30 minutes before our train was due to depart, so we had extra time to get our bearings.
One important fact to bear in mind: children can always surprise you with their need to “go potty” at the last minute or throw a tantrum just when the train arrives. So always plan ahead by predicting bathroom times, and have your hands free to pick them (and your bag) up to run for the train!
Pack Light But Don’t Forget the Toys
Getting on and off the train quickly and safely are top priorities, so it’s best to travel light and bring bags that you can lug around easily. We ditched the stroller for an all-purpose baby/toddler carrier and our older kid was on a backpack harness – a bag with a tether so we could keep him close while walking around. My husband and I had a backpack each, but most of our belongings were in one main bag – an extra-large, waterproof duffel with wheels.
I packed enough diapers for Jiyann for the first day, then visited the supermarket for more when I arrived at our destination. I did the same for snacks and food.
The view from the train on the way from Belgium to the Netherlands. The Ow family in the
Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Browse through shelves filled with accessories and racks laden with vintage
Leonard holds on to son Keyaan using a backpack harness.
A view of the canal in Amsterdam. Below: Clogs
sold as souvenirs.