Public transportation has a bad reputation, especially in America. When people think “travel” they typically have images of tight airplanes and long, deserted asphalt road trips. But, trains or buses —nope. Travel has changed so much in the last few decades that they’re my first choice when traveling with my kids. Here’s how I navigate public transportation with kids.
Ride the Rails with Kids
The first time I was in Europe, as a young 19-year-old, I couldn’t imagine taking a train — or, God forbid, a bus — anywhere. Navigating the airport was intimidating enough. Now, as a mother dragging her three kids along, the train is my number one choice. I dread the airplane. My, how things have changed. Almost all of Europe is accessible by train — clean, affordable, consistent, comfortable trains.
Choosing the Right Tickets
When booking your train tickets, you have options, which can be overwhelming. You have economy seating — this is what I am most familiar with — but you also have first class, cabins, sleeper cabins, and club seating options. The choices are endless, but keeping comfort at the forefront of the decision making, what are the best ticket choices for traveling with kids?
When traveling with children, you do not need first class. First class people are trying to avoid noise, so don’t waste your money putting yourself in a situation where everyone is annoyed by your child’s presence. Economy seating is very comfortable. I do recommend that you when booking the economy seats that you choose to pay a smidge more to get reserved seating. If you book in advance, you can also book one of the club seating options with four seats facing each other and a table in between. This option is especially great if card games, food, or Legos are part of your entertainment plans.
Trains in Europe do not always leave right on time. Do not panic if you are just learning what platform you are on seven minutes before your train leaves. This is normal for most of Europe, but especially so in Italy. Also, most of us are always looking for ways to cut vacation costs. Trains are a fabulous way to do this because you can bring on all the food you want! Pack those sandwiches because mom’s making lunch! Children under age 6 are typically free. Take the train, you get to see so much of a country this way. A train is truly a wonderful option for public transportation with kids.
Why Walk When There’s a Bus?
I’ve been thinking about where the irrational fear of buses stems from, and I’ve decided that it must have come about around the time that the movie Speed was released. I know hundreds of people that have never ridden on a public bus.
I’m here to tell you that they are not that bad. Actually, they are rather comfortable and not usually dirty. Utilizing a bus while traveling with kids can be your best option because they come frequently. Let’s be honest everything about traveling with children is subject to change with a child’s mood and whatever chaos ensues around that. Therefore, a frequent bus schedule gives you lots of flexibility to rush a child to a restroom or find a snack, without fear of never making it to your destination.
Not All Buses Are Created Equal
I have had many excellent bus experiences. During our recent Greece trip, we rode the bus daily and had no issues other than the occasional workers strike. The kids and I have mastered long rides (an hour and a half around winding mountains), we have mastered ridiculously long rides (seven hours through rural Mexico), and many short 20-minute rides. Most buses are exactly the same. The longer routes tend to have more comfortable seating and most have an onboard restroom, but otherwise, they are all created equal. When traveling for very long journeys, it is worth the money to take a nicer bus line. Typically, your ticket will come with a snack, or drink, but it will definitely come with more comfort and less grossness.
We have had bad bus experiences — one specifically that haunts my memory. Let’s just say, when in Mexico, choose the most expensive company. I promise it is worth it. I tried to book last-minute bus tickets and got stuck catching a much nastier bus line. Seven hours in a porta-potty, being thrown all over the road would make anyone sick, which it did. Two of my three children were horribly car sick. It was awful, but we survived. What I am trying to say is, don’t avoid the bus because of fear! I have never had an issue with anyone on a public bus. If anything, they are incredibly kind and friendly because you are in such close quarters to one another.
Metro vs. Tram vs. Subway
For those of you completely new to public transportation, I am going to break down the vast differences between riding a metro, a tram, and a subway. The difference can mostly be attributed to age. Subways came first. Therefore, they are older, typically in funky 70s color palettes and tend to feel sketchier. Subways are also underground. The subway is, for the most part, safe, but I will say that it is at the bottom of my safety list. I still take the subway frequently with the kids, but I’d rather be above ground in the sunshine if it’s an option.
The metro, or in Germany the S-Bahn, is a wonderfully efficient option. Most metro systems are fairly new (built in the last 25 years). They are clean, airy, air-conditioned, affordable, and typically above ground.
The tram takes on a different persona in each country. Typically speaking, it is electrically powered by wires above the cars and runs shorter routes. If you are an individual that suffers from claustrophobia then a tram is your best option.
Irrational Fears of Public Transportation
Allow me to put some of your travel anxieties to rest. Public transportation is safe. We live in a world (especially in America) where every act of violence is put in the media. Your chances of experiencing a random act of violence have barely increased since the 1950s, but our access to that information has increased dramatically. You are not in any more danger now than if you were wandering the streets alone 60 years ago. Do not let the media fear monger you into not living. There is so much to see. If you want to do it affordably, using public transportation as much as possible is a very important part of that. We have had no issues at all of any kind on any public transportation in seven countries, but I have felt unsafe in a Walmart before, so consider that.
Public transportation is primarily clean. Yes, the occasional train car or bus needs some renovations and deep cleaning, but, to be perfectly honest, I freak out about taking my healthy children into clean hospitals because they almost always get sick. I cannot tell you how much food my children have eaten off of train floors this year. You will be OK.
I’m Not Lost, I’m Exploring
You are not going to get lost. You may pop out of subway stops, or get off the bus too soon and not have a clue where you are, but you are not lost. Another form of public transportation will arrive. You are not stranded for long. If, for some reason, you find yourself standing on a platform without a clue, ask someone for help.
There is a learning curve to navigating public transportation, even for seasoned travelers. With every new city I visit, I have to relearn the system. You can find bus schedules online and they are posted throughout the cities. You can typically find a metro map to carry around with you. Most train and metro companies now have their own smartphone apps. Therefore, there is no need to feel panicked about public transportation.
Some of the kindest, most generous people that I have ever met have come from my adventures on public transportation — the bus driver who went off his route to deliver us to the correct stop when we got on the wrong bus in Denmark, the tram driver who helped me navigate Amsterdam Central Station when I was standing there with eyes glazed over, trying to interpret a sign. Then there was the previously questionable individual, who then helped carry my son with a broken leg in a wheelchair up three flights of stairs out of the subway — I had unknowingly gotten off at a stop that wasn’t handicap accessible. Oh, and we can’t forget the train steward, who not only helped me switch our seats so that we could sit in a handicap-friendly zone, but also introduced me to the accessibility office, which would meet me at our next train stop to get my child and wheelchair off of the train. And last, but not least, hundreds of Greeks threw themselves out of their bus seats to give me a moment’s rest with a sleeping baby on my back.
The only person holding you back is you. Get out there.
Photo Credit: Unsplash | Lydia Bradbury