When we lived in the US in Chicago, we’d regularly go visit my family in Michigan. Most of the time we’d take the car but sometimes the train. Now that we live in London, we regularly visit my in-laws in Belgium and take the train too. While we live in London and they in Antwerp, it’s faster for us to go visit them by train than the similar trip back in the US.
We take the Eurostar from London to Brussels and then from Brussels either we take an intercity train to Antwerp or we get picked up by car. I prefer taking the Eurostar to flying as it’s less hassle than flying, we can move about, there are no seatbelts and the kids have a view of the countryside, towns and other activity out the window. Having now travelled regularly with the kids via Eurostar I have learned a few things I thought I’d share.
Booking your tickets
If you think you’ll be going on more than 1 Eurostar trip in a year, sign up for their free Loyalty Programs like their Eurostar Plus Points. With Eurostar Plus Points, when you book your travel online through their website you earn 1 point for every £1 you spend and when you’ve earned 300 points you’ll get a £20 e-voucher. You can sign up the whole family into 1 joint account and the points will accrue quickly. With 4 of us traveling it only takes 1-2 trips before we get a voucher, which we then use towards our next trip.
We usually book online at Eurostar.com however, if you need to book only one leg of your journey with children, you won’t be able to book that online and you will need to give them a call. For the most part, ticket prices online are similar to what they offer you on the phone, we have found a few times it’s actually been about £10 cheaper over the phone, but then we can’t use the voucher.
When booking your tickets, remember that children 4 and under can travel for free, however, this does mean they won’t be allocated a seat. In the past we’ve booked 3 seats facing each other around a table, leaving the blocked in window seat free for booking and keeping our fingers crossed that no-one would book it so we could use it for our “free” child. This strategy has only worked out for us about 50% of the time.
When booking your seats – you have several options. Your first choice is class of service, Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier. We’ll be focusing on Standard.
Within Standard class, when selecting your seats, if you speak to the customer service reps on the phone – they will recommend the “Family Section” to you. Don’t take those seats!!! Trust me you don’t want them, and here’s why… The “Family Section” is a closed off section of the carriage. Sure that’s great for containing kids, except it also traps in the food and other smells of your traveling companion. It’s a small boxed in area. Even then, just like other areas of the train there are people constantly walking through to get to the loo or bar buffet car, so the advantage of containment is lost. Finally – there is only a short stumpy side table. So if you have more than 1 child get ready for a fight for who gets it and don’t count on being able to fit coloring books or other activities on it because it’s too small. Also – this area is generally packed with other families, many of whom are also taking advantage of the 4 and under free – so be prepared for a generally packed and crazy area full of kids. For the same price – sit elsewhere. We made the mistake of sitting here once on the advice of Customer Service reps – never again!
Compare this “Family Section” seat with it’s dinky side table to a regular 4 seat configuration with table.
If you or your children get car-sick or motion-sickness take note of which way your seats are facing when making your booking. You’ll be able to see which direction the seats face when you select your seats online. Seats facing forward on a journey to Paris/Brussels will be facing backwards on the return journey.
However, on rare occasions this may change.
If you’re planning to rely on videos to keep the kids occupied or need to bring your laptop with you, UK and European power points are available in coaches 5 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 -11 – 12 – 14.
Once you’ve selected your seats you can choose to print your tickets at home, or have them mailed to you (for a fee). We choose to print our own.
Packing for your trip
Pack lightly! Remember you’ll be dragging your suitcases and children through the terminals, security etc and then have limited space once on the train. We generally give each child a backpack to carry in which are their snacks and activities for the train. We each then take a suitcase (2 people sharing per suitcase). While there is a bar buffet on the train, it’s generally pricey and has not the healthiest selection of snacks (Pringles, candy bars, fizzy drinks, wine & beer etc ). So, think ahead, pack some water, juice boxes, crackers and fruit, or whatever snacks you and the kids prefer. Each seat has it’s own small litter bin so you’ll be able to get rid of wrappers etc. Again don’t go overboard, most of the trips aren’t that long, you will have to carry it and you can always get more on the train or in the station if necessary.
For keeping the kids busy on the trip, we generally have 1 handheld gaming system, then some other coloring or sticker book activities. (Cheap ones we can toss when we get to our destination). Try and get something that’s all in one like a sticker book.
The Eurostar Terminal
Generally you’ll want to arrive at the Terminal about an hour early. When you first arrive you can go through the automated turnstiles or if you’re a family group or have lots of bags, you can go to the manned desks. There they will check your ticket and send you through to security.
At security – it’s the x-ray machine for your bags and metal detectors you walk through which is standard at most airports now. Be prepared to remove your coat or sweater and make sure you and the children have nothing metal in their pockets. I do the shakedown on my kids and am surprised by the coins, cars and other things they seem to have collected in their pockets.
Once through security you need to pass through passport control before you arrive in the waiting area of the terminal. Here there are limited selections for food or drink or magazines etc. (generally 1-2 shops vs the many found in the main train terminal). About 10-15 minutes before your departure time, they announce the boarding of your train and allow you to board.
On the Train
Once on the train at the end of each carriage are large racks for suitcases (make sure yours is labelled) and over your seat are smaller shelves for coats, purses and smaller bags. Quickly get the kids out of the aisle and into their seats as many people are still trying to get to their seats and through the aisle.
Beware if you are traveling with a child with an ear infection. When you go through tunnels, or even the Chunnel (Chanel Tunnel) there is pressurization of the ears much like you’d find when flying. You can try relieving the pressure by popping your ears, chewing gum, swallowing or yawning. If you know in advance it’s a problem for you and or your kids, there are ear plug valves that can help regulate pressure. (The brand we’ve used was called Earplanes and they come in kid and adult sizes).
At the end of each carriage is a WC or loo. Although it’s a tight squeeze we do accompany the children to the loo. In the loo there is a toilet and sink, the controls for both are found by pressing buttons on the floor. (You’ll need to step on them, my 4 and 6 year old aren’t heavy enough or don’t have enough leg strength to do it) While there doesn’t seem to be room to change a baby’s diaper in the WC there is a baby changing station in carriage 18 or you could just do it on your seat.
So these are some of the things we’ve learned – but I’d love to hear if you have any tips for Eurostar Travel. Please leave them in the comments below.