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On our recent trip to France, we traveled almost exclusively by train (there were a few short bus rides and a cable car thrown in for good measure). Ryan Air took us from Leeds to Montpellier, and we took public transportation to Avignon. From there it was all rail from Avignon to Arles to Aix-en-Provence and back to Montpellier. This was equal parts convenient and trying. Racing around trying to make connections with a backpack and a child strapped to each of us was, I imagine, incredibly funny to onlookers and a sweaty exercise in verbal restraint for us. (“No swearing in front of the children, dear.”) So here are some tips we learned from eight days on foot and rail through the south of France.

Baby on Board. Photo by deannanmc

1. Always assume it will take at least twenty more minutes to walk than you planned

Two kids and their stuff? That’s a heavy, heavy load. While we aren’t exactly sorry we stayed overnight in Arles, we wish we had done that leg differently: either as a day trip from Avignon or overnighting in Arles in a closer, less fun hotel. Our hotel was really cool, and the WiFi was free, but it was a really long slog from the train station–almost 40 minutes and no shade. The train ride itself was maybe 15-20 minutes, but it took us twice as long to walk to our hotel from Arles station as we had planned. Since we arrived at high noon, the mid-80s temperatures wore the kids out for the rest of the day. We did a little sightseeing and had a nice meal, but it was nearly a wasted day. We were tired and cranky. Lesson? Learned.

Walking to the hotel. Photo by deannanmc

2. Make reservations for everyone 

Some of the trains were unreserved, which was nice as we could grab a four-top table whenever one was free. The most crowded train we were on happened to be from Arles to St. Charles-Marseille on the first leg of our journey to Aix, and we only reserved seats for two with the idea we could put the kids on our laps. Why? Why did we do that? To save money, and you know what? Some pennies just aren’t worth the effort made to pinch them. Buy the extra seats. The kids were less interested in sitting on our laps than I was in watching Cars on the iPad for the zillionth time.

3. Bring hand sanitizer and lots of wipes

I’m no germophobe and I rarely use hand sanitizer, but train transit is the exception. Train bathrooms are really gross. I have rarely encountered changing tables in them. Make everyone use the bathroom before you get on the train, if you can. If nature should call…do your best. And then sterilize everyone to the best of your ability. We used a portable folding toilet for our three-year-old that kept her from coming in contact with any seats, and for that I am exceptionally grateful.

4. Give yourself a lot of time to transfer

We made our connection from the airport shuttle to the train in Montpellier by a short thirty seconds. That’s not an exaggeration. The kids were cracking up from the hard running, we were panting and out of treats for the kiddos, and forget stopping to grab a snack to ward off the pre-dinner grumpies. It wasn’t very fun, and once the novelty of the train wore off, neither were the kids. Good thing we packed well for later trips:

Travel essentials. Photo by deannamc

But we didn’t have that on the first few legs, and so it was less than enjoyable. Do yourself a favor and give yourself lots of padding.

What are your favorite trips for traveling by train?

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