Amsterdam – Zurich – Budapest – Ljubljana – Treviso.
That was the schedule for our family holidays earlier this year – as planned with our Hannah aka ‘Little Missy’, who turned 14 on the day we flew out, and the 11-year-old Maya aka ‘Small Girl’.
They wanted to visit countries that they hadn’t been to before: we needed to be able to do the whole thing by train. Our travel-loving Kiwi, Scott – he once did a trip from Ireland to New Zealand without flying – took up the challenge, delved deep into train website seat61.com and, after much debate around the dinner table, we figured out a route that everyone was happy with.
Starting from Cork airport, we would fly to Amsterdam, spend two nights there, take the overnight Amsterdam to Zurich train, have two nights in Zurich, another overnight train from Zurich to Budapest, two nights in Budapest, a day train to Ljubljana, an overnight stay in that city and an afternoon bus to Treviso airport so that we could catch our plane home to Cork. Try saying that in one breath. It took me a while to even get the details of the trip clear in my head; putting it all into action was a real challenge.
The holiday was nine days of non-stop action, exploring cities and eating as much local food as possible before we took the train to a new place. We all particularly loved the overnight trains. There’s something incredibly romantic about arriving in a bustling station when it’s dark, finding your couchette (compartment) and settling in for a journey that crosses borders, countries and timelines while you’re asleep.
We always asked that the beds be made up immediately – you need a porter for that – and then everyone had books that they could read for a while before drifting off to sleep. It can be noisy and there will be stops during the night at different stations along the route but, once you’ve locked the door, you’re tucked away in your own cosy space and no one can physically disturb you.
We all had different highlights. Since reading, The Diary of Anne Frank, the Small Girl had wanted to visit the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, so that’s where we went on our first morning.
She loved the World War II treasure hunt that we did in that city (mystery.city/operation-45) and buying different lip balms in every country we visited. She also became adept at spotting stolpersteine – stumbling stones – the brass-topped cobblestones commemorating Holocaust victims at the site of their last homes as we walked around Amsterdam, Budapest and Ljubljana.
For Little Missy, our visit to the Lindt factory in Switzerland was the high point of the trip, especially because there were lots of samples to try en route while you learned about – or, in her case, scooted through – the history of how chocolate and Lindt came to be. She was also a fan of the cat café we visited in Budapest, a cosy spot on a wet day, where cats stalked and slept while customers wrapped their hands around mugs of hot chocolate, while both girls delighted in visiting as many foreign Flying Tiger shops as they could possibly find.
The Kiwi loved the grandeur of the Swiss Alps and the majestic mountains that surrounded Ljubljana. I fell for Budapest’s Centrál Grand Café, where I took myself on a solo trip for an afternoon americano, a slice of Dobos Torte and time to read my novel in peace. We all found our happy places on the trip, something that’s not so easy now that the girls are older and have very definite ideas about what they’d like to do.
There were hiccups along the way: a serious dose of gastroenteritis for the Kiwi had me looking into what travel insurance would cover if we had to return home from Zurich; accommodation cancelled at the last minute meant that we were scrambling to find somewhere to stay in Budapest on a busy bank holiday weekend; we turned up for an early train to Ljubljana only to discover we were at a station on the wrong side of the city – in the space of five seconds, we went from sleepy morning people to a family focused on making that train by any means possible. We only had four minutes to spare, but we did it.
Despite – or maybe because of – everything, it was one of the best family adventures we’ve ever had.
Due to the way that trains are routed through the continent, we got to see parts of Europe that we’ve never thought of visiting and the girls got to tick a few new countries off their lists.
Comfortable, safe and affordable, this is slow family travel at its very best.
Caroline's top tips
1 Plan ahead
Overnight trains can fill up fast and often need to be booked well in advance in order to keep the family together in a couchette. Do your research on seat61.com and keep an eye on when tickets are released.
2 What is a couchette?
These are self-enclosed compartments with up to six bunks. We booked entire couchettes for our family of four (Amsterdam to Zurich was €199, Zurich to Budapest was €225.80) so that we didn’t have to share with strangers.
There’s a little bit more luxury in a sleeper (for one, two or three people, wash basin included) at a slightly higher price if your travel party is smaller.
3 Bunking in
You have to make the beds yourself, which involves a bit of wrestling with the supplied sheet, rug and pillow, but the bunks are comfortable and, once you lock the door, the couchette is very safe. Shared toilets are at the end of the train carriage.
4 Sleep & Food
Other passengers can be noisy, particularly – we noticed – when Swiss students are on their holidays. The train stops during the night and passengers join and leave the train, with all the fuss that entails.
Some tickets also include a light breakfast: on the Amsterdam-Zurich route we were given hard bread rolls, butter and cherry jam, Zurich-Budapest was just juice and breakfast biscuits. The coffee machine wasn’t in action for either trip, unfortunately.
There was also a menu of snacks available but you’re definitely better off having dinner beforehand. A small bottle of water was supplied on both journeys. Before you disembark, do some advance research to find a nearby spot for breakfast: you’ll arrive early in most cities, with cranky children, so it’s definitely worth discovering what’s open before you embark on a walk.
If you have enough time, it’s often cheaper to take the train around Europe than fly. Train stations are much more central than airports – no expensive taxis to catch – and you save on a night’s accommodation.
This was not an easy trip. This whole thing was carefully planned and very much depended on us not missing any of our trains.
You really don’t need to do such an extreme expedition (we practically needed another holiday to recover from that one.) but, for train travel beginners, it’s well worth looking into incorporating an overnight train journey between two holiday locations.
When the girls were eight and five, we took the Trenhotel night train service from San Sebastián to Lisbon, spending extended times at either end of the journey. For May 2020, we were booked on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Inverness, visiting friends in both cities, but that trip was, obviously, cancelled. It’s still on our list though.
7 Travel insurance
You’ll have to pay up front for your train tickets so it’s important to have insurance in case anything does go wrong.
8 Essential packing
Earplugs, eye mask (or, in desperation, use a T-shirt to cover your eyes). An e-reader is useful for nighttime reading without disturbing the rest of the family. A pack of cards and some colouring books for daytime travel. Bring some muesli bars/nuts/dried fruit in case someone gets hangry before the final stop.
The pure excitement and romance of train travel. No passport checks, no queues, no security, no luggage issues (although it can be a bit of a challenge trying to fit four small suitcases under the seats in the couchette). Train journeys always win when it comes to making memories with your family.