The first solo trip I took was unfortunately also the hardest. I made the rookie mistake of taking a Virgin train on a Bank Holiday weekend. You should never, NEVER, NEVER take the Virgin train on Bank Holiday weekends, whether or not you have help with the kids. I’ve never seen so many bodies packed into a train car (and I’ve been to India); seat reservations weren’t being honoured because no one could get through the train cars to check tickets; and we couldn’t get to the toilet, let alone the dining car. Six hours with a potty trained two year old and a baby in nappies, with no food, water or toilet, is to be avoided at all costs.
That being said, every other time I’ve taken the train alone with my kids has been completely fine. With these tips, you should be able to enjoy a relatively easy journey, free from airport security lines and limits on liquids.
- Do your homework: make sure you aren’t travelling on a route without a passenger limit on a high-traffic weekend.
- Get to the station early, especially if you aren’t familiar with how many tracks there are and how many carriages your train will have. Even though you don’t have to get there as early as an airport, you still need to get to the correct end of the station and preferably position yourself on the correct end of the track. You don’t want to end up sprinting down the platform with your kids and bags.
- Bring books and activities, and if you’re so inclined, an iPad. Do not expect the windows to provide ample distraction. I always check the second-hand shop for fun new books before a trip, because my kids will spend hours re-reading new books.
- Bring snacks and water. Seriously, do not rely on the cafe car, which may have a broken card reader, or run out of the items your kids like, or be closed for the hour you need it, etc.
- Plan ahead for trips to the cafe car or toilet so that you aren’t away from your seat when the train reaches a station. One huge disadvantage of train travel is that your property can easily be removed from the train at any station.
- I feel that my children are too young to leave unattended at their seats, as they could wander off (or be taken) in either direction along the train. Then there are station stops… I shudder to think of where they could end up. This is one reason that I find air travel less stressful… at least they’re contained!
- Keep your carrier accessible (not shoved in the back of the overhead bin) so you can quickly mobilise when your toddler declares an urgent need for the bathroom. The handicapped toilet on the train is large enough to fit you and your children.
- For nappy changes, I enlist my daughter to “help” with the doors and the wipes. And if I need to use the bathroom, the baby goes on my back and the toddler has to come along.
- Start preparing for your stop with plenty of time to spare. Make sure you know which stop is before yours and how much time there is between stations. Give yourself time to find whatever has been dropped, assemble your belongings and child carrying systems, and get to the doors without having to scramble or panic.
- Prepare your kids the same way you would when leaving a playground, so that there aren’t any arguments about finishing up activities or just not wanting to leave the train in spite of hours of restlessness. If you know there will be 30 minutes between stations, make sure a new Daniel Tiger doesn’t start in between. Just a random example… ha.
- Keep easily accessible changes of clothes for both kids. Even if there haven’t been diaper or potty accidents in ages, they could spill a drink or defy gravity at any moment. But you already know this.
- Specific activities I recommend for toddlers because they are lightweight and keep my kids engaged for a long time:
- Lacing cards (we have Dr. Seuss Lacing Cards – The Cat in the Hat from a second-hand shop)
- New (to them) books
- Water Magic books – these ingenious books can be used over and over again. I have letters and numbers. They also make farm animals, delivery vehicles, dinosaurs and more.
- Reusable sticker pad sets, like Melissa and Doug My Town