Traveling with kids by itself can already be a little overwhelming. Keeping track of yourself, your belongings, and your littles in a foreign country (or in your native country) is a lot. What happens when you decide to throw upended sleep routines into the mix as well? Well, turns out the results might not be quite as disastrous as you think. We’ve had the opportunity to take overnight trains with our kids on a few occasions, and frankly, we hope to do so a lot more in the future. Every time, the experience turns into one that becomes a highlight of the trip.
Miles has always been a bit of a train fanatic, but even if you (or your littles) are not, train travel certainly has a lot of upsides when trying to cover a lot of ground as comfortable as possible. So far, every time we’ve hopped on an overnight train it has been in Asia, but soon we hope to do so again Europe (and everywhere else!) as well.
On our first trip we took the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani in Thailand (Departing Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station and arriving at Surat Thani Station about 11 hours later). We had a “VIP” first class cabin which wasn’t very first class at all. We liked it so much we used a sleeper train again in Vietnam going from Hanoi to Sapa (Departing Phong Dom Van Ga Di Tau Station and arriving in Ga Lao Cai Station via the Sapaly Express about 8.5 hours later). If you notice, most of these tips are not kid specific, so even if you are traveling solo or as a couple, please read on!
Top 10 Reasons: Why You Should Consider Overnight Train Travel
10. Bunk Beds
Is there really anything more exciting in a child’s eyes than sleeping on a train with your whole family in bunk beds? Ummm…probably not. I wish I had recorded the kids’ reactions when we told them what our plan was for our transfer for these trips. Mind = blown.
9. Reliable (generally)
Notice we didn’t say punctual here. You can pretty much bet on being able to get from point A to point B (unlike our experience with Thai Lion Airlines), even if the timeframe isn’t exactly as advertised. Be prepared for delays; they will happen.
8. Off the Beaten Path
Seeing the countryside void of highways and traffic jams is something many times you miss with car travel. Depending on the time of your travel and the length of your journey you’ll be afforded the opportunity to witness beautiful rural sunsets or sunrises. Although you might also see these from the air, traveling the countryside gives you a different perspective. You are part of the landscape instead of seeing it from 30,000 ft. above.
7. Cost Savings (depending on what option you choose)
It just depends. On overnight train portions of our trips we try to reserve a full cabin, so that our family can be together and not have extraneous worries. We usually save a little, when you take out the money that we otherwise would have spent on a hotel for that night, rental car/driver, but it’s not a ton. By picking a different option you can save more, however, it’s all dependent on your comfort level.
6. Family Bonding
Take that hotel room and squish it down several notches. I mean how can you really avoid family time? Ha! There is no escaping! To be real though, some of our best memories on our trips to Thailand and Vietnam were made on the overnight train rides – re-hashing the day and talking about “what comes next.” Overnight trains take the adventure of the day and just keep pushing it through the night; that’s pretty rad.
5. More Room
The ability to move around during long travel experiences is huge. The room gives the kids the opportunity to change positions, play, and well, be kids! If you’ve ever had to try and keep young kids happy in a tiny airplane seat for 5+ hours, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
5. Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Yields Learning
As we have mentioned before, the more we travel the more we learn about ourselves. Our first big international trip from Tokyo was Taiwan and our last was Nepal. Two very different countries and experiences were had. It was through our experiences with the former that we were able to slowly build into the travelers that we were in Nepal. Stepping outside of our comfort zone with train travel is a perfect example of something we weren’t completely sure we could do until Thailand. Sure there’s a bit of a learning curve, but 100% worth it.
4. More Memorable
Looking back on trips a few weeks or a few years in the past, how many times do you really remember the experience of getting ready for bed (or getting up). More often than not, these “regular” tasks get swept into the memory bank and are overshadowed by things you did or places you visited during daylight hours. Speaking from experience, overnight train travel makes the end of your day one of the most memorable parts of the day.
3. Maximizing Travel Time
One of the hardest parts of traveling on a budget (both time and money) is trying to maximize #allthethings. With kids, well, that can be a challenge. We love overnight train rides mostly for the efficientcy they provide. Sleeping while still propelling forward in our itinerary…onto the next stop! At this stage our lives we still like to move fast, perhaps one day we will have more time for “slow travel” or maybe not. There’s just so much to see and experience!
2. Meet The Locals
We’ve written about it before, but the people you meet while traveling can truly be some of the most transformative parts of the whole experience. More often than not, tourists op to fly. Taking the train allows you to meet some of the locals, or at least strike up conversation with a few travel road warriors.
1. Trains Are Flippin’ Fun!
Yup. Not much to elaborate on here. We don’t care if you are 5 or 50, male or female, trains are really fun.
Convinced? We certainly hope that this may give you the confidence to give it a go with your family. Before you do so, however, we’ve jotted down some of our best recommendations on making the most of the experience below.
Top Tips: What to Know Before Taking the Kids
Expect The Unexpected
Expect things not to go completely to plan. As a self-proclaimed “planning addict” it’s certainly solid to go into the trip with a plan (especially when carting around wee ones). Heck, you’ll want to buy tickets ahead of time for sure! However, there will be delays. Things won’t go completely “right.” The more fluid your plan is the better. As a rule of thumb, expect the trains to be late arriving to your destination, so when arranging other portions of your trip make sure to allow for several hours of “graceBook tickets in advance
Book Tickets in Advance
We have found that booking drivers and arranging things sometimes can be less expensive once in country. If you’re banking on train travel, however, know that many times overnight trains can sell out. Don’t put this on the back burner. Get your tickets ahead!
Even when you opt for the full cabin rooms, they’re still pretty small. Trying to fit your whole tribe and all yo’ stuff into the space is a bit like a solid game of Tetris. Our Osprey bags fit well, but luggage that is too large could be an issue.
BYO Food and Drink
Food and drinks can be bought *usually* on board, but generally its better to BYO for convenience, better selection, higher quality, and less expense.
Prepare For A Good, But Perhaps Not The Best Nights Sleep
Be prepared for a rocking motion throughout the evening (if you sleep like an actual rock like yours truly this isn’t an issue at all). The upper berth generally is a tad less comfortable than the lower berth (this is also why when purchasing tickets the upper berths are generally less expensive). The berths themselves are outfitted with a thin mattress and bedding is *usually* supplied. Note that if you aren’t comfortable using the bedding that you can bring a sleeping bag along or perhaps the more space efficient thing to do is pack a sleeping bag liner and crawl inside that cocoon. Again, depends on your comfort level.
Additionally, if you have a little little one can we suggest the Kid Co. PeaPod? You can find our full review here, however, we basically think this light weight sleeper is the “bees knees.” During our train travel in Thailand this is what Penelope slept in next to the bunk beds and it worked out splendidly.
Budget for Delays
Expect delays. If you have connections, drivers, and/or tours planned give yourself extra time to make them. Plan for the delays.
Be an Aware Traveller
Be prepared for scams. People will try to “help” you with your bags (perhaps demand that you accept their “help”) and then demand a stiff tip after the “help” has been delivered. If you want to accept the help, that’s fine, but don’t feel pressured into these demands. Remember nothing is complimentary or free.
Bring Entertainment for the Kiddos
In Asia, we used to hit up the DAISO (aka Japanese dollar store) prior to taking off for big trips to purchase items to keep the kids occupied (reusable sticker books, decals, small “HotWheels,” slime, play-doh, etc.). As parents, we generally like to purchase quality toys, however, for bigger trips we strive to bring a few things that are new and fairly inexpensive, so if an item is misplaced it is not a horrible tragedy (heck, there is enough to juggle without keeping track of expensive toys).
Be ready for lots of knocks on your cabin door in the morning. Lots of them. Many times these wakeup are also way ahead of when you actually need to start getting ready to get off the train. Our advice? If you can, follow along via Google Maps where you are, so you know how much time you have (approximately) before you need to disembark. Don’t cave into extra anxiety.
Bring TP and Hand Sanitizer
Just in case pack ’em both. These two things may be provided, however if they aren’t don’t find yourself in a bind. We have found ourselves on transport before without working water faucets, soap, and that essential tissue.
Splurge for a Full Cabin
We would recommend this to any family traveling with little ones. Full cabins give your kids the space to move around and be themselves. Additionally, they are lockable which provides an extra level of security. Increased peace of mind will most likely equate to increased shut-eye. In our opinion, it’s worth it.