Europe by Rail with Four Kids

I must be insane.

At least that’s what everyone tells me. But it was either flying through creation just to see the grandparents, or flying through creation to see the grandparents and a bunch of really cool cities.

Who doesn’t want to see some cool European cities?

Our family, that’s who.

Or I should say we’re split on this. Two are actually totally gung-ho about it, especially since the word Paris was mentioned (and the word Shopping mentally added to it). One is sort of in the middle (having a preference for staying  home but appreciating the virtue of what’s probably a lifetime of new blogging material – remember my motto: the crappier the experience, the better the story). And two are absolutely pissed off that they are taken away from their xBox even for one single day this summer.

The one who isn’t even going is also gung-ho about it, precisely because of the xBox factor (and because it won’t be him who has to shepherd 4 kids and 5 suitcases through narrow train corridors lined with hostile French travelers giving you the evil eye and worse).

I can’t even imagine how exhausting it will be. The mere booking of it is already exhausting. I needed three glasses of wine just to understand the differences between Eurail and Interrail and all the exceptions and price options, and another two to console myself for the fact that these weren’t even options. This is what I’ve learned about rail travel in Europe:

  • Americans should always travel incognito. Because the world views us as idiots who are too easily parted with our money. We might as well walk around with a sign pasted to our foreheads saying “Am American. Have dollars. Please rob me.” How else do you explain that a Eurail Global Pass would cost me $3,800 for the five of us traveling 10 out of 22 days? Even if you sat on a train for 24 hours on each of those ten days and paid full fare for a first class ticket each time you wouldn’t spend that much money.
  • InterRail (the Eurail equivalent for European passport holders) sounds a lot better, at around 1,400 Euros, until you happen to read somewhere in the fine print, rather by accident, that it excludes your home country. Which of course is the country you want to do most of your traveling in. And it excludes the Eurostar to and from London, which is exorbitantly expensive.
  • Flying to and from London is much much cheaper than taking the Eurostar. You can get five people from London to Amsterdam for $150 total with EasyJet. But I kinda would have liked to take a train under an entire ocean. Or sea. Whatever.
  • In all of Europe, the German railroad (Deutsche Bahn) has by far the best booking system, with the best fares. And trust me, I tried almost all of the other ones. Even if you travel between two third countries, you should probably book your ticket via Deutsche Bahn. Except you will have to explore a bazillion options and price them all out, i.e. Bahncard 25 or Bahncard 50 or combination thereof, and this will necessitate another 2 glasses of wine and a posterboard-size paper to create the mother of all matrices. Still, with discount cards and family fares, I was able to cobble together all my nine travel days for less than 1,400 Euros, covering all countries.
  • I should write a book about these things. Then I could spout helpful advice like “remember that both first- and second-class cars travel at precisely the same speed” and “never assume the whole train is going where you are” as one of the websites I consulted was eager to point out.
eurostar train
Expensive, but very cool: Eurostar in London…
Thalys train
…and Thalys in Brussels

My head is swimming, and I am only just starting on accommodations. At the moment I am sidetracked by checking out houseboats in Amsterdam nowhere near where I really ought to stay from a practical standpoint, wondering what kind of character the guy on VRBO is who tells me that “children, pets and country music are not allowed with the exception of Johnny Cash.” 

Really? Johnny Cash? Although I do agree with him on country music. But I’m not sure that will be enough common ground to want to share a bathroom and kitchen with him.
See how hard this is? I suffer from complete information overload. I kind of feel like totally winging it and hoisting a backpack and just going with the flow when we get there. That’s how you’re supposed to do Europe by rail, isn’t it?
But then of course I’ll have four people constantly peppering me with “where are we going” and “how much longer will it take” and “what if we can’t find a place for tonight” and “there is no way I’ll share that toilet down the hall with other people we don’t know” and “why couldn’t I just stay home.”
I will be asking myself that same question. It’ll all be wonderful a few months and even years down the road, looking back to having been in Europe. If I can just get through the being there part.
My consolation is that Amsterdam is at the tail end of my trip.
I’m told they have some interesting coffee shops there. Where I will totally relax and find everything hilariously funny that will have happened to me.
Stay tuned!

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