We’ve done it – our first long distance train journey with our toddler. I’ll be honest we were feeling nervous about how it would go but we managed to reach our destination without losing our toddler or any luggage, sustaining personal injuries, incurring fines or ending up on Youtube or the local news.
Our journey was five hours door to door from our home in South London to my parent’s home (my childhood home) in Newcastle On Tyne. That’s an hour and a bit getting to Kings Cross, forty minutes waiting and buying provisions, three hours on a train and twenty minutes at the other end getting to our accommodation.
This is a trip I’ve made many times since leaving home as a bright-eyed student in the 90s. I began on my own with only a rucksack, graduated (literally) to doing it with a suitcase and not dodging ticket inspectors when I got my first job, and then two suitcases and a girlfriend who later became Mrs B.
I think I’ve been up and down the East Coast mainline more than fifty times but we’ve only done the journey once with a baby and this was the first time with a toddler.
Babies are quite easy to travel with in comparison to their larger more boisterous incarnations. They sleep a lot more, you can pop them in their buggy somewhere safe and have nice sit down with a magazine; maybe even have a leisurely picnic in your seat. And when they are awake they can’t run away.
Babies will sit there on your lap and gurgle and play with a simple toy. The downside is of course the crying, which is unpredictable and could drive your fellow passengers demented. And there might be a lot of nappies to change in a cramped toilet prone to sudden sideways lurches!
Little B was a star to be honest. We had visions of him tearing up and down the carriages pulling emergency alarms and eating up the buffet car. In fact, it was mostly stress-free.
We didn’t get everything right. And IF we do it again anytime soon there are certainly some things we’d do differently, so in the spirit of parental harmony I’m going to share our top tips on train travel with a toddler.
Ten Toddler Train Travel Tips:
Unlike a car journey there is no getting away from the fact that you’re going to have to carry all your luggage and your buggy so take the minimum you need for your trip. We took one large suitcase on wheels for three nights and that had to hold mine, Mrs B’s and Little B’s clothes, plus a very exact stock of nappies, wipes, and baby bum cream. We stored as much as we could under the buggy and then each took a backpack with toys, snacks and everything we might need en-route. And make sure you take a change of clothes that isn’t in the suitcase – you never know when a poonami or upset tummy may strike.
Plan your route to the station
A taxi is probably the easiest way to begin your journey. Contrary to what I thought you don’t need to worry about car seats as the law and their insurance policy is different to a private vehicle when it comes to carrying small children. However, it’s going to be more expensive and if the station is a long way, then like us you’ll probably opt for public transport. Leave extra time in case of delays, including those caused by tantrums or suddenly remembering your toddler’s favourite toy is still sitting in their cot. And make sure you choose a step free route. We ended up carting everything up and down several flights of stairs at one point. And when your toddler weighs two stone it’s not easy lifting that buggy!
Every toddler is different but there is hopefully a time when they are sleepy. So I recommend timing your journey to tie in with one of their naps. We got an 11am train and gave Little B his lunch at mid-day. Then at 1230pm he was ready for a nap, giving us and everyone else in the carriage a forty five minute break from him shouting ‘TRAAAIIINN!’ every time he saw one. There are a lot of trains on the East Coast mainline. It also meant that when he woke we only had half an hour to go and we all arrived refreshed in Newcastle, ready to meet the doting grandparents! Finally, if you can travel when it’s less busy – midweek or on a Friday morning rather than evening – that is going to lower the stress levels throughout the journey.
Run off some energy
We set off early from home and factored in some time at Kings Cross so Little B could run around – attached to one of our hands of course! He went four times round the whole concourse but it meant that he was then much happier – well, a bit happier – to go back into the buggy to board the train. I’m assuming most toddlers basically need walking twice a day like a labrador, so get that morning walk out of the way and it will make them a lot less keen to run around on the train.
Book a table seat
Or any seat – but DO book a seat. Can you imagine the stress of having to stand in a vestibule with your toddler strapped in the buggy wailing!? We chose our carriage too. You should be able to change the seats you’re assigned online or on the phone. DON’T book the quiet coach. DO book the disabled coach if you can. Obviously you will have to give priority to anyone who needs the wheelchair space but if it’s free it is the perfect place to park the buggy and somewhere your toddler can nap. The table is much needed for playing with cars, action figures, drawing, or playing on an ipad, as well as eating without most of the food ending up on the floor.
Food and drink
Speaking of which, go for easy finger food. Nothing that needs a bib, is mushy, liable to stick to windows, the seats, the carpet, other passengers. Macaroni cheese would be bad. A cheese sandwich is good. And plenty of healthy snacks in case of emergencies. For example, our boy loves grapes and popping one in his mouth distracts him from meltdowns about the cars rolling off the table, and he can have lots without worrying about his diet. Drinks need to be in non-spill cups or cartons with straws. This is no time to persevere with a lidless sippy cup however well they’ve been doing at home.
Toys and games
Think small and portable, and go for the ones your toddler can play with for as long as possible without getting bored. Little B can happily spend half an hour now simply arranging his toy cars in rows and moving them back and forth. He loves his big dumper truck but obviously that didn’t come with us! If you don’t mind doing the voices in public some favourite story books are great; go for a selection of slim paperbacks to minimise weight and bulk. And no trip would be complete these days without some apps and games on a tablet. We chose the CBeebies app, Peppa Pig’s Paintbox and some downloads of favourite TV shows like Chuggington (how appropriate) and Topsy and Tim. Just make sure you bring a charger and check the apps don’t need internet access or you could end up forking out for wi-fi access.
If there are two of you travelling with your children give each other a break. Everyone gets fractious now and then and having some time in another seat can be all you need to recharge. You could book separate seats or if you want to be together, travelling at a quieter time of day may mean there is a spare seat not too far away. If you can’t move seats just take turns looking after your toddler/s and the other person can stick their headphones in and try to switch off!
Consider breaking the journey
This depends on how far you need to go of course, but I don’t think we would have gone further on one go. So if for example we’d been going on into Scotland or on a long journey across Europe we would definitely have stopped off somewhere on the way. Admittedly that isn’t always going to be possible, depending on costs and how long you have in total for your trip.
At your destination
You’ll be tired and desperate to get to your hotel or apartment. If possible book your accommodation within a short walk from the station. If not, then a short taxi ride. If someone can meet you that’s great, but make sure they remember a car seat and to check they actually have enough room for a buggy in the boot with all your luggage. Otherwise you may find yourselves with it on the back seat squashed between your legs. Not very comfy or safe! And make sure you’ve ordered a grocery delivery if you’re self catering – the last thing you’ll want to do is go to a supermarket!
I hope those tips are of some help. I think we will be investing in a car at some point but trains are greener and faster over long distances. We drove to Cornwall last year and a train was a lot easier than six hours in a car!
Do share your advice and experiences of travelling on trains with children. 🙂