Want to cover 7 countries in 3 weeks of winter travel in Europe?
In our backpacking days, that would have been an easy ask; but with three kids now in tow, and being desert-dwellers, our travel style has certainly changed.
However, we were determined to squeeze as much as we could into our kid’s first true European travel experience. Sure, they’ve seen plenty of Europe in my belly – and two of the Globetrotters were actually born in the UK – but this was their dream “White Christmas” trip (deferred twice, thanks C-word), with high expectations!
Our December European itinerary took us from the Alps, through Bavaria and the Christmas market madness of central Europe, and ended in our old stomping grounds of London.
We’ve had many questions about exactly how we did things and how Eurail actually works, so sharing with you here all our top tips on using trains to cover a lot of ground quickly, what to see and do in winter, along with suggested places to stay.
Globetrotter joy at the first few flakes of snow, despite sub-zero temperatures!
For each destination, we’ll point out the activities we undertook, plus some extras you could add if you had more time.
Note this was not a ski trip through Europe but a winter markets trip with kids. In your looking for the best European ski destinations, head over here (plus, it would be better conditions for skiing in February half term break).
We’d also direct you to read our winter travel tips for Europe too before diving into our actual rail itinerary – we include lots of points from what to pack to how NOT to lose your child in the crowd!
Booking Your Europe Rail Tickets
We undertook our entire Europe trip using Eurail. With Eurail you only need one rail ticket for 33 countries, delivered straight to your phone.
Eurrail vs Interrail
If you are confused between the two and wondering which is the right rail ticket for you – simply put Eurail is for those residing OUTSIDE of Europe; if you live in Europe, you want the Interrail. Same, same, but different.
What Sort of Eurail Pass Do You Need?
There are a few different types of Eurail pass that work well for families on an extended European adventure:
We went with a two months ticket with 10 trips, just to give that little extra flexibility for day trips though we were there for less than 2 months.
If you are making fewer stops, try the 1-month 7-day ticket or the 1-month 4-day ticket. The best value is the 2-month-15-day ticket for longer European vacations – ideal if you have the whole summer in Europe.
You can choose between 1st or 2nd class. First gives you more space and a few more perks, slightly variable depending on the train service. If you can afford it, spend that little bit extra for a more comfortable journey.
It’s important to note once you buy the ticket online, you have 11 months to activate it. If you need to cancel, you can get 85% of the value back or transfer it for a new pass for €15. If you’re still deciding and see a Eurail/Interrail sale, buy it!!
There really are wonderful cost savings for families travelling by rail in Europe (vs flying or driving). The big perk, every adult can travel with up to 2 children for free. Yup, you can travel with up to 6 of you – 2 adults 4 kids (under 12) – for the price of 2 adult tickets.
We had a little surprise since we’d already twice deferred this trip; suddenly, we had to pay for three Eurail tickets as our oldest clicked over 12, ouch! The moral of the story, is it’s well worth trying to do a Europe rail trip before your kids turn 12 – Youth passes are discounted to adults (28+) at least, but not free!
Reserving Seats With Eurail
Once you know your exact travel dates, if you want to guarantee seats, you can go back through the Eurail website and reserve seats for each leg in advance.
Note that you DO need to pay for children to reserve a seat, even if their ticket was free.
Booking seats incurs an additional fee for each leg. Sometimes this only cost us €3-5 per person. On others, upwards of a staggering €50 depending on the train operator (looking at you, Eurostar!). Be prepared for this additional cost on top of your Eurail/Interrail ticket.
You can reserve with MOST operators through the Eurail site, but sometimes we had to go into the individual train operators’ site to reserve, as indicated by Eurail. When this happens, you tick a box that you already have the train ticket, so you’re only charged the seat reservations fee, not the ticket again.
If you’re trying to save money, you don’t have to reserve and can risk you may be standing in the economy.
Being so close to Christmas, it was a risk we didn’t want to take, and some services were advertised as reservation only. So it’s important not just to assume you can turn up at the station any day you please.
NB – You can also book “Eurail Packages“, which follow a set itinerary and the reservations are done for you. This is great if you’re someone who hates spending hours researching and know which major cities you want to visit and have all the planning done for you.
Finding Your Seats and Boarding Trains in Europe
We’d always recommend turning up at your station at least 30 minutes early when travelling with kids. There’s no customs or border police checks travelling within the EU, but there are always inevitable snack and toilet stops. And some of those platforms are LONG!
And take particular note you have booked your train from the right station; some have very similar names!
Once on the platform, look for a seating chart like this one pictured, you’ll see exactly which part of the platform you should wait on.
1st tends to be at the front or back of the train, with 2nd class carriages in the middle. (Only once did we have a train configuration change last minute and had to run the full length of a 12-coach train with 3 kids and suitcases!)
Using your Eurail tickets
When you commence your first journey using Eurail, you will need to activate the Eurail ticket through an app on your phone, and show your seat reservation, if applicable.
Every long-distance train in Europe is fitted with wifi, but on occasions, it wasn’t working. It’s a good idea to either have data when in Europe on at least one device AND bring a printed copy of your seat reservation with QR code as a back-up.
Best Luggage for Family Train Travel in Europe
Before we dive into the itinerary, let’s quickly discuss luggage. An area we were nervous about was getting on and off trains with kids and luggage quickly and efficiently.
Whilst we were no longer with strollers and car seats – what a relief! – we still wanted to minimise how much we were carrying, which is hard to do with winter wear and infrequent washing machine stops!
We made sure for this trip that we each had our own suitcase, rather than our normal long-haul flying tactic of just a couple of large suitcases between us.
A note on washing! It’s always our aim never to go more than 5-7 days without a stop with a washing machine; if you are able to have wash facilities more frequently or are happy with sink washing underlayers, you could still get away with packing relatively little!
And be careful of the washer/dryer ccyles on many European machines, they can take in excess of 3 hours to do one cycle!! Do a quick wash only and air off clothing near radiators.
Our collection of AWAY suitcase were compact enough everyone could lift their own up train stairs and even the medium size could be lifted and stowed in overhead racks on trains
For carry-ons, we’re team backpack all the way. For their main luggage, each child had a carry-on size (39.8L) AWAY suitcase, whilst the adults (lugging our mini-Christmas with us and all the electronics!) took the Medium (68.8L) AWAY cases.
You may also want to try with younger kids ride-on suitcases; they are surprisingly practical, but just be mindful if they are capable of picking these up – or can you carry yours and there’s when required? Older children may find their legs getting too long to sensibly use a ride-on, but if there really want something fun, try a scooter suitcase.
We did additionally find ourselves lugging around an extra bag with all our lunches and train snacks, etc. Had we thought ahead a bit, we would have bought a nicer cooler bag like a Yeti Hopper that can easily hook over a suitcase.
And do remember a few small fold-out shopping bags for any grocery shopping, remembering pretty much everywhere in Europe is now plastic bag-free.
Luggage racks on trains in Europe
Train luggage racks varied a lot; some were right near the door, others in the middle of the carriage, but we always preferred keeping them near us in the overhead rack after hearing horror stories – if you’re concerned, get yourself Airtags or similar!
We’re going to cover more on what to wear in the next article in this Europe family vacation series – stay tuned!
Our Europe Eurorail Itinerary – Venice to London in 3 weeks
The itinerary here follows exactly the stops we made, and all up, we were pretty happy with the towns we chose. Some of the accommodation, not so much!
We’ll list for you here the top festive things to do in each of these locations visiting in winter and suggested areas to stay close the major train stations.
Note all our accommodation choices were slightly slanted to apartments/larger rooms as we need to find accommodation for 5 – no mean feet in Europe, large family friendly they are not! We’ve included a couple of alternative suggestions, too, that we feel were close to train stations and would fit a family of 4+ comfortably.
(Blue pins are where we went, green pins are optional extras to fit on a longer itinerary)
Venice in Winter with Kids
The perfect way to start a European adventure – taking a water taxi from Macro Polo Airport to Carnnaregio, Venice!
We thought maybe we’d made a mistake starting our winter journey by train in an airport that was nowhere near the city centre or the train station, but the taxi service was definitely the perfect dramatic way to entice the kids, even in the pouring rain we got to experience for two full days!
Fair to say we got drenched and got to experience much of the city flooded. When this happens, a series of raised platforms are used to walk around the worst-affected parts of the city.
It did dampen our plans to hop on the traghetto to Lanririnto Borges or Murano, but gave us plenty of excuses for seeking out quaint little restaurants and shopping for Murano Glass jewellery and trinkets all over the city.
20+ years ago, I had a tour guide tell me, “simply get lost in Venice!” Cross bridges, and discover piazzas. I think in fear, I never got more than three blocks from Piazza San Marco. But honestly, it’s a city just to walk and explore. Your phone has GPS now, so there is no fear of actually getting lost in Venice!!
(PS, watch out for the killer seagulls, though, they will happily steal food from your children’s hands!)
Where to stay in Venice (Venezia)
We found staying anywhere in Cannaregio, along Strada Nova, is a superb choice for train travellers. This will put you roughly halfway from Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia to continue your rail journey and station to Piazza San Marco.
Special mention should go here to Marta from Mama Loves Italy for all her superb Venice suggestions to fill some very wet and wintry days! Join her Italy Facebook group here if you will include any Italian stops on your Eurail itinerary.
Transit from Venice to Vienna is a 7-hour+ train, but one of the prettiest European train journeys through the Alps and gorgeous northern Slovenian lakes. We had to reserve this leg through the OBB website for the only direct daily service.
Vienna in Winter with Kids
Vienna is a classically beautiful European city, and to see it lit up in all its glory for Christmas is a truly magical experience. There are literally dozens of Christmas markets across the city to enjoy.
If your kids are into ice skating or want to give it a try, it’s a superb spot with several ice rinks. The largest and most famous being in front of City Hall, (Viennese Dream Christmas Market).
Some other fun spots to try, all with some form of Christmas market happening from later November to Christmas eve (a few will run into Jan), include Wintermarket at Riesenradplatz (Prater Amusement Park), the Christmas Village Belvedere Palace, the Christmas Village on Maria Theresien Square, Art Advent at Karlsplatz (exclusively for artisans) and the Christmas Market on Stephansplatz.
If you’re up for something a little interesting, try a catacombs tour at St Stephen’s Cathedral!
We struggled a bit with the temperature in Vienna as it didn’t really get above zero celsius throughout our time, the kind of temperature even copious quantities of Glühwein can’t conquer!
Where to Stay in Vienna (Wien)
We stayed with Sky9 Penthouse Apartments – very nice inside, but we can tell you after trudging through the ice and snow for A MILE, not all of their apartments, as advertised, are “close to central station”. You’ve been warned!
Instead, we recommend you take a short taxi after arriving in Vienna Centrale to Innere Stradt area of the city, and search around Stephansplatz. It will be a little pricier, but you will have several markets and dining options within easy walking distance.
That said, it was very easy to get around Vienna using the U-Bahn and trams (under 6’s free).
We’d recommend if you have a couple of days, you do get out and explore further than the city centre.
For a short winter markets trip, we didn’t think we’d get full value from the CityPASS, which combines serval attractions and transport. These multi-attraction passes could be worth checking out, though, if you’re planning to visit several of the museum and head to Schönbrunn Palace, as transport is included.
Transit from Vienna to Munich is around a 4-hour train with OBB. You pass by Salzbourg if you want to add an extra stop in the mountains, the train splits in half here.
Munich in Winter with Kids
Munich has long been a favourite destination of ours. In fact, I’d say our most visited city in Europe pre-kids with many an Oktoberfest under our belts, but with kids in winter? Yup, we still had a great time!
The highlight was the heaviest snow of our trip. The boys were desperate to make snow angels and have a snowball fight. After much discouragement that you don’t want to use the icky yellow snow in the city streets, we took the metro out to the expansive Englischer Garten.
For those familiar with the city, the outdoor beer garden may have been shut, but there were several quaint Glühwein and brathwurst stores – and beer! – still being served in the park.
Again, ice skating was a highlight at the markets for our kids. The rink here wasn’t huge but it did provide a bar overlooking the action, so we could warm up while watching the kids test out all their new skills.
The market stalls here are brilliant for handy crafts, and if you’ve not experienced beer halls before, then do seek them out. There are several in the city centre, even outside of Oktoberfest. if you come at lunch or early dinner you shouldn’t have to queue long for service and its not too rowdy!
Where to Stay In Munich (München)
There’s quite a range of hotels in Munich convenient for train travellers. None are what you’d call ultra-luxury, but many with flexible layouts, including bunks and triples to suit families.
We stayed at Brunnenhof City Center, which offered us triple-double beds in a very basic room. Still, there are literally dozens of hotels you could choose from between München Hauptbahnhof and Karlsplatz that will have you well placed between the station and market action for Christmas.
The trains between Munich and Nurnberg are frequent, and the journey is only a little over an hour. We’d still recommend reserving seats if travelling at peak times. You can reserve through Eurail.
Nuremberg in Winter with Kids
The magical call of the biggest market in Bavaria enticed us to make this small extra hop to stop at Nurenberg. One stop where we totally underestimated everything!
In our planning, we hadn’t factored in that it was the middle of the weekend, the last weekend before Christmas, in fact. To say it was crowded was an understatement, uncomfortably so. And the mercury by about 6pm had dropped to -15 celsius.
We did stroll to the Imperial Castle of Nurnberg, with its imposing view over the city, to get the blood pumping, but we couldn’t even get close to the food and drink lines in the market.
The fear of losing our children in the endless sea of people, all sans masks in Europe now, was at points slightly terrifying – even the much-famed Children’s Market was more than shoulder-to-shoulder.
Where to Stay In Nuremberg (Nurnberg)
The train station in Nurnberg conveniently drops you right at the start of the Old City walls where you’ll start your market stroll. Here you’ll find quite a collection of hotels to suit different budgets – try mid-range the Novotel Nuernberg Centre Ville or splurge on Park Plaza Nuremberg.
Given the ludicrously high December prices, we went with a family hostel room at a&o Nürnberg Hauptbahnhof. Any other time of year, I think I would say it’s fair value, neat and comfortable, with a few fun games to play in the common areas and room for 6 with a private bathroom.
But did I mention how cold it was that night? The radiators could not keep up, and we truly FROZE!! We were very thankful this was only a one-night stop in Nurnberg.
We wish we had a more magical report back from this famous Christmas market, but we gave it all the thumbs down and wish we had chosen a more remote village in Bavaria for a different type of white Christmas experience, or at the very least come mid-week.
The journey from Nurnberg to Koln is a little over 3 hours. Note the train loriginates from München so you may need to evict people from your seats!
Cologne in Winter with Kids
Köln is a bit of a curious place. The dark and imposing Cologne Catherdal the city’s most imposing landmark, and the busy waterways of the Rhine – but it’s the sheer magic and joy of Heinzels Wintermarchen that brings the city to light in winter.
Probably our favourite market we visited for picking up handcrafts and souvenirs, as well as the long ice rink and plentiful food. It was a real winner with the kids, too with some fun small rides, and a super long ice rink that ran alongside the market, as well as curling (for the 18+ only in the bar area).
Outside of the markets, you can also explore the Cologne Chocolate Museum as a good rainy day activity.
Where to stay in Cologne (Köln)
The lovely clean, and warm Maritim Hotel was our savior! It is a little bit of a traipse across town from the station with suitcases, so as we did on a few occasions, we opted for one adult in a taxi with all the luggage, then the rest of us can pleasantly stroll the cobbled streets.
The hotel is superbly placed though at the entrance to the market and ice skating, making it an excellent choice for Köln markets.
NB 2 nights midweek in Koln in a nice hotel with two rooms was cheaper than our one frosty weekend night in a hostel in Nurnberg!! Timing can be everything
The train from Koln to Amsterdam is under 3 hours, reserve seats on Eurail.
Amsterdam in Winter with Kids
Another one of our favourite cities per kids, would it translate to fun winter activities for kids?
We’d say in winter, compared to our previous stops a little less to keep the troops entertained. We started to defrost, and the boys of the family at least were enjoying a break from Christmas Markets (there are some, just not as prominent and a big deal as in Germany & Austria).
The highlight in December is the Amsterdam Light Festival, which we found frankly rather underwhelming (Dubai has spolit us for life for these sorts of things). We gave up less than a third of the way through; perhaps if it hadn’t been heavy drizzle, we could have tried harder!
There are night cruise options, too which include the festival lights which you may want to consider booking in advance.
A couple of weeks in, the kids really weren’t in the mood for museums, but that is one of the obvious indoor highlights you could focus on a winter trip to Amsterdam. Pancakes and the Lego store were their lasting memory! We’d suggest doing some sort of canal crusie too, their plentiful.
Miss Z and I enjoyed time on our own here exploring the canals on foot and on the hunt for these colourful bike creations, courtesy of @flowerbikeman.
Where to stay in Amsterdam
There are a few hotels and apartments immediately adjacent to Centraal Station. We went with a short-stay apartment here for the need of a washing machine and extra space, such as it is in Europe!
It’s not the cheapest place to stay overall, but if you’re happy to split your family into two (very small) rooms, you can still seek out some value accommodation close to the station. Or, if you are prepared to jump on a tram and head further out of the city, you’ll find better value and more space.
Transit from Amsterdam to Brussels is under 2 hours
Brussels in Winter with Kids
Brussels has the potential to be utterly charming when it’s not utterly peeing with rain! Certainly, dampened our shortstop, but there’s still plenty of festive fun to enjoy, particularly in the evening at the Grand-Place light show.
We found the market layout here a little more confusing. It’s more of a trail of smaller market stalls around the city centre. The largest of the market areas, punctuated by a giant Ferris wheel is found in Place Sainte-Catherine.
A pleasant enough place, and there’s always Belgium chocolate and frites to sweeten the deal of a stop in brussels. But when you consider Manneken Pis is the city’s main attraction… worth of a night’s stop for the light show, but definitely, there are more inspiring market stalls, ice skating, and winter activities elsewhere in Europe.
One of our soggiest days city exploring and this is the highlight … you can only laugh on these sorts of days!
Where to Stay in Brussels with Kids
We stayed immediately adjacent to Midi Station, where most of the inter-country trains stop. Not going to lie; it’s not Brussels’ prettiest side, but convenient.
If you’re only making a short stop, though, its the best area to stay where you can easily bag drop and then explore
Transit from Brussels to Paris is only around 80 minutes, the quickest of all our train legs. If it weren’t for luggage, you could even easily see Brussels in a day transit direct between Amsterdam and Paris.
Paris in Winter with Kids
This was the city I think the kids had the highest expectations for. And despite the queuing, even with pre-booked tour tickets, Eiffel Tower was undoubtedly a European highlight with kids.
The list of things to do in Paris with kids is quite honestly endless. If you’re not afraid of being a little adventurous, walking a lot, and familiarising yourself with the Metro (watch for those killer barrier gates!), you could choose a different arrondissement to explore every day for a week!
Some of the highlights our kids love are Arc De Triomphe, underground tour of the Catacombs, and Jardin des Tuileries Christmas Market. If kids need a run-around, there’s a large play park in Jardin du Luxembourg open in winter, with a small entry fee (just wich the coffee shop there was open in the morning!).
NB Catacombs are suitable only for older children who won’t freak at the idea of being surrounded by dead bodies! Also, tickets are hard to get in advance. We could only book a week out on the official site, and even then time slots are hard to come by.
A side trip from Paris we chose not to take (largely because it was exceedingly expensive for day tickets for a family of 5) was Disneyland Paris. For those with younger kids though, it’s definitely worth considering setting aside a whole day and extra budget for that special experience.
Where to Stay in Paris
It’s fair to say as you travel further through Europe, the rooms get smaller and the prices go up!
The tiniest of little apartments in the best of locations, we can recommend this apartment near to Odeon. Literally no room to swing a cat, or anything, but it can sleep up to 6 – and not much else! But location, location!
The Sainte Germain area of the city is perfect for families if you want to be well connected to dining and nightlife on foot and well connected with Metro lines.
NB we were in Paris for Christmas Day itself. We understood many places would still be open, and they were indeed! Boy, it was BUSY at the major tourist attractions. The only thing that was closed was quite a lot of restaurants from Christmas Eve afternoon and all day on the 25th, so you’ll need to think a few steps ahead for meals if you’re travelling on those dates. Places that are open still will be exceptionally busy.
Transit from Paris to London is a little over 2 hours by Eurotunnel. Note you pass customs from the EU into the UK at Gare Du Nord, so allow plenty of time to board in Paris – 60 to 90 minutes. You walk straight out in St Pancras, London [Note you also go back in time one hour]
Put away your Euros now as you’re entering the land of the pund and back to speaking English!
London in Winter with Kids
Another bucket list destination for our kids – especially as two of them were actually born in London! (I know my London play parks and navigating the tube with strollers well!!)
It really is a city with countless opportunities for exploring with kids, even in mid-winter. Some highlights for our pre-teen-age kids included cruising the Thames and seeing the point of GMT in Greenwich. (The Horrible Histories tour, which we were hoping for, doesn’t run in winter).
We went to see the King at Buckingham palace (though he sadly wasn’t there), we saw the smaller changing of the guard ceremony at Horse Guards Palace, much less crowded than the “main event,” which happens in the late morning Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
Having friends to see in London, we didn’t do as many touristy things as you might as a first-timer.
A word of warning, if you don’t need to be in the very centre of town, ie around Leicester Square and the Westend in the evening, don’t go. It’s super, super busy especially between Christmas and New Year, every night.
I would, however, recommend first-timers try and catch a Westend show or even better a pantomine. A matinee is perfect with kids but get out of the very centre of the city before it gets crazy busy. We’d also recommend taking some sort of river cruise, and if you’re prepared to battle the crowds, the museums in Kensington are great.
Where to Stay in London
This depends a little on where your onward travel is. There are a few hotels immediately adjacent to St Pancras, such as the Megaro Hotel.
We found staying anywhere that puts you quite central in town to the Elizabeth Line (it’s the new underground/overground that goes all the way to heathrow, but much quicker than the Piccadilly Line) worked well for the final transit we had back to Heathrow.
We left booking a little late, so ended up with a quite pricey but extremely nice, spacious 2-bed apartment in Fitzroriva (again , you can guess it, a washing machine was well needed!).
The lovely attentive staff let us check our bags early, and it’s a great quiet spot still close to the action of Oxford Street/Tottenham Court Road and Covent Garden so we’d highly recommend it – its a short bus ride from St Pancras station.
London is a tricky place for good family accommodation too, simply for price. The Premier Inn chain tends to be quite a good value choice. Even staying a little out of town in areas like Clapham, it’s a straightforward train back to the centre of the action via Waterloo station.
There’s a good guide over here to the best London accommodation for families suiting different budgets.
Alternative Europe Itineraries By Rail
Are there more cities you could add? Absolutely!
With only three weeks, and wanting to pick some of the most festive and famous stops for our kids’ first European experience. We stuck to a fairly central and common route through Europe, mostly in large cities and covering seven countries.
You could re-route your journey through Europe in countless ways using rail as your only form of transportation. The only thing you want to be conscious of is not spending so long sitting on transport you’re not actually getting enough time to get out and explore! For this reason, we discounted some more eastern European countries we would have liked to included.
The excitement from desert kids first spotting mountains and snow!
For a winter itinerary such as this – allowing say one full month to explore – some easy stops to add to this Europe itinerary could have included:
Starting from Rome or Florence first before heading north to Venice
Extending the journey from Vienna to Prague before touring Germany
Heading further into the mountains and including Salzburg, or heading into Switzerland
Take a day trip from Prague to Bratislava, Slovakia, only an hour away!
Include a longer loop to Paris via Luxembourg – tick off another country!
We also asked our travel blogging community to suggest their favourite December destination in Europe – you’ll find plenty more ideas in this post, from Lapland to Iceland and some warmer Europe destinations, all shining at their best in winter.
Future Family Rail Travel
So are we train travel converts yet? For Europe, absolutely, it makes sense.
In most countries we visit in North America, Australia, and Asia, the infrastructure is simply not there as yet to the same extent. We will certainly be looking for further opportunities to take incredible journeys on the rails, though.
Further European Inspiration
If you’re still planning your trip to Europe, you may also want to dig into some of our archives, including:
Have you got any further questions about European rail travel or using Eurail to book your tickets? We’d love to help, drop us a message in the comments below!
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