7 tips for enjoying long train or ferry rides with your kids

Getting your family out the door for the simplest of outings can be a process: Packing snacks, double-checking the diaper bag, hunting for electronics, (and chargers), backpacks, socks, and shoes, not to mention leaving the house on time. So when your travel itinerary includes a long-haul or overnight train or ferry ride, it’s natural to feel nervous and even a little overwhelmed about attempting it with your kids. 

Often more affordable than flying, trains and ferries also offer a very compelling advantage for families with kids: More space en route. This space can appear in various forms, such as more legroom by the seats, tables between rows of facing seats, snack bars and dining areas, spacious restrooms, and, in the case of ferries, large viewing decks for watching the world go by. 

Still, taking your family on a long journey is an ambitious decision. Rest assured that with some extra planning and preparation, you and your kids can enjoy long-haul train or ferry rides as great, exciting family adventures. 

Morning arrival, Split, Croatia

Even if the journey doesn’t play out exactly how you envisioned, chances are you and your kids will be better for it, having learned just a little more about resilience, resourcefulness, patience, and optimism. After all, some of the best memories are made before you ever even arrive at your destination. 

Here are some tips for making that long-haul train or ferry ride with your kids a success.

1. Pack strategically –  Have diapers, will travel!  

How much stuff you pack for your family depends, of course, on the length of your trip. Consider packing as light as possible because it’s likely that you will be responsible for hauling your suitcases and bags on and off your train or ferry. If your kids are old enough, include them in the packing process, and have them carry their own backpacks and pull their own roller suitcases.

Here’s where the extra strategy comes in: try to pack everything you need for your travel day(s) and night in a smaller bag like a backpack so that you won’t need to access your suitcase while en route. Often the aisles and cabins on trains and ferries are narrow and not entirely conducive to opening and digging through a large suitcase. 

Furthermore, you can organize the items in your travel bag using handy packing cubes. These are great for separating items according to family members. Don’t forget to include a change of clothes, pajamas, (for overnight travel), toiletries, and a small, familiar toy from home. If you’re traveling with a baby, pack more diapers and wipes than you think you’ll need!

2. “Are we there yet?” – Plan some activities for the journey 

So your bags are packed, but how do you entertain the kids during daylight hours on the move? Taking time to select various, lightweight, age-appropriate activities to keep small hands and minds busy is essential. A quick trip to a discount store could score you several new items that you can unveil throughout your trip. 

Train from Munich to Budapest

For babies you might pack a teether, a new rattle, and a few lightweight books. For toddlers you might include a few interactive books, painter’s tape (for sticking to anything and everything!), and magnetic blocks, (all of which are great for imaginative play). For school-age kids you might provide a travel journal, puzzle book, (think word searches and sudoku), new magazines which you can discard as you go, and a fully-charged tablet with a couple of new, preloaded apps and books. 

Pro tip: No matter how old your kids are, don’t forget a small flashlight! No trip would be complete without making shadow animals on the ceiling or reading a bedtime story under a blanket, whether you’re on a train or settled at your destination. 

3. The more snacks, the better

It’s difficult to predict what the food selection will be at train stations, ferry ports, or on board. Often there might not be options for travelers with special dietary needs. Plan ahead and pack lots of healthy, familiar snacks, and even sandwiches or wraps, to keep your family fueled. 

Not only will you be thankful to have yummy snacks at your fingertips, but this approach also saves you money! And the added bonus is that as you snack, you lighten your load. 

4. Consider a cabin with beds – Your back (and sanity) will thank you

Many trains and ferries offer the option to book a cabin with beds. If your travel itinerary includes an overnight, such as the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, for example, this could be the best money you spend throughout your entire trip. Any parent will attest to the necessity of sleep in order for everyone to function and maintain happy family dynamics, so consider it! 

Cabin on the ferry to Split, Croatia

5. Plot your sleep to increase your chances of actually getting it

Any long journey is bound to cut your family’s restorative sleep short. So plan ahead, and make sure everyone gets to bed on time in the days leading up to your trip. During your journey, try to maintain sleep schedules as much as possible. Bring a soft baby carrier to bounce and lull your little one to sleep at nap time. Have the kids brush their teeth and change into their pajamas at bedtime. Keeping these routines will help give everyone a shot at some rest. 

When you arrive at your destination, give your family a day or two to make up for lost sleep and adjust to time zone changes. If possible, delay your big, ambitious excursions for day two or three of your trip. 

6. Arrive early – The early bird gets the seats

Remember when you could arrive at a station just as your train was pulling up to the platform? You would effortlessly hop onto your train, and away you went. Well, travel doesn’t exactly play out like that when your kids are along for the ride. But if you plan to arrive early at your station or port, you will reduce the chances that you’ll end up stressed and rushing. 

Munich train station

Map out exactly how to get there, and arrive with enough time for everyone to use the restroom and navigate to your platform or dock. Since seats on trains and ferries aren’t usually assigned, you want to be one of the first to board so you can snag choice seats together for your family. 

7. Involve the kids!

The excitement of breaking out of your regular routine and exploring a new place is contagious. Involving your kids in the planning process is an excellent way to prepare them for the journey ahead and bond over the precious gift of anticipation.

Once it comes time to board your train or ferry with your kids, hopefully you’ll all be excited, open-minded, and present. And that’s exactly why we travel. 

Marko Polo to Split, Croatia

When embarking on a journey with your family, remember to think strategically about what and how much you pack. You want to travel light, but having some simple entertainment options and a variety of snacks for everyone is essential. 

Get rest ahead of your travel day. Well-rested travelers make for happier travelers. As you plan your trip, be sure to consider various travel itineraries and ticket/cabin options, and allow plenty of time to navigate unfamiliar stations and ports.

Hopefully these travel tips will help your family get confidently out the door and on to amazing adventures together. Experiencing new places, cultures, flavors, and scenery with your kids is an exciting way to foster curiosity, seek wonder, and create lasting collective family memories. Congratulations on planning a trip with your kids! Bon voyage! 

Christi Sparrow

Christi Sparrow

Once a ballerina, then a business consultant, and now a mother and full-time traveler, Christi enjoys running in new cities, cooking healthy meals, and writing anything. She is happiest on a beach with her ambitious husband, two hilarious kids, a hot latte, and an almond croissant. You can read more about her family's travels at Puddles and Passports.
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