Riding the Rails: Backpack Through Europe With the Kids

Filed under: Places To Go, In The News, Extreme Childhood, Family Time

Victoria Station London

Follow some simple guidelines and take the kids across Europe by train this summer. Credit: markhillary, Flickr

You did it after college, when you were sowing your wild oats. Now, you have a family, but that shouldn't stop you from taking your brood with you to ride the rails and explore Europe with a backpack on your shoulders.

That's what Lisa Bentley and her husband, Greg, did five years ago when their daughters, Zoe and Teagan, were 8 and 4 years old. The family traveled by rail and bus all across Europe for a month, and Bentley says backpacking -- rather than staying in pre-booked hotels and flying from place to place -- made it economically feasible to do so.

"Greg and I had always wanted to go to Europe, and backpacking seemed like it would be the easiest, since we wouldn't have to haul a lot of luggage and we'd be free to get up and go if we weren't happy with where we were," the Sahuarita, Ariz. mom of two says.While it was difficult to see a large number of destinations and attractions -- Bentley says she would have seen twice the number of locations if she'd traveled solo or just with her husband -- the children did surprisingly well. What kind of considerations did they take due to the girls' ages? Plenty of downtime on the itinerary and going with the flow.

"It's important to plan time to just play at parks," Bentley says. "There were several things we didn't get to do since the kids needed just to play, rather than board another train, but that was part of the whole experience for us."

In fact, Bentley has a whole list of tips for parents who decide to tackle Europe by rail with the family:

  • Assume the youngest cannot carry a backpack: Unless they are older than 12, it's too much pressure on a child to carry a pack for a lengthy amount of time.
  • Take less than you think you'll need: You can always buy supplies, clothing and toys along the way. And be sure to leave room for souvenirs.
  • Take a backpack that folds up very small: This will make a great shopping bag or emergency bag. You also can pack wet items in here.
  • Invest in high-quality, fast-drying luggage and clothing: You don't want to get caught with wet clothes or luggage.
  • Plan to wash clothing in sinks before bed: Portable clothes lines work great for drying clothes.
  • Feel no guilt about "donating" supplies you no longer need: Leave that finished book at the hostel. The next guest will enjoy it!
  • Invest in the rail upgrade: Get a sleeping car or a reserved seat here and there along your trip.
  • Pin vital info to your kids' clothing: Put their name, your names and the place you're staying on a piece of paper and pin it inside their clothing. Don't forget to include any health issues and a phone number to someone back in the United States.
Barbara DesChamps, author of "It's In The Bag: The Complete Guide to Lightweight Travel," says she agrees that kids shouldn't shoulder the heavy lifting during trips such as the one the Bentley family took.

"Children should carry (lightweight) backpacks," she says."Their arm muscles have not yet developed through years of hard work, and you don't want to throw their their spines out of alignment, either. Their packs should not be too heavy because the adults will carry most of the miscellaneous items."

She adds that you should carry only what is "essential," especially when traveling via public transportation such as trains and buses.

Bentley says she would do it all again, and that both her girls still have strong memories of their vacation abroad. Teagan, who is now 9, remembers the Eiffel Tower and the castles in Germany, and 13-year-old Zoe often talks about the time the family spent in Europe.

"We are planning a Girl Scout trip to another country right now, and (Zoe's) experiences in Europe give her a unique perspective in the planning," Bentley says.

Related: Peaceful Family Roadtrips - Tips for a Fight-Free Vacation

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.