Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Are we there yet? Traveling by Train with a Family of Nine

In my last post I shared about the preparations for our family holiday in New Zealand which involved our family of nine using trains, planes and automobiles to reach our destination. In this post I cover train travel and I have included some specifics for those of you living in or visiting Australia who may be considering using the XPT Brisbane to Sydney service and are traveling with a family - learn from our experience!

Not the view from the train window! This is another shot from our NZ album. However, there were a few scenic interludes as we came into the Sydney region - sandstone cliffs bathed in morning light and boats bobbing in the bays.

We needed to get to the airport and traveling by train was the cheapest option by far for our family of nine. A little apprehensive about undertaking a journey through the night of over 8 hour's duration but we thought it would lessen the likelihood of delays - no traffic jams as you might experience on the freeway. It would ensure that we were in Sydney with sufficient time to check in at the airport for our mid- morning flight - what could go wrong? We booked online and printed off the tickets, the booking process was totally hassle free and I was impressed that all my children under 15 could travel for just one dollar each. We had chosen to travel economy which proved to be a mistake - never again, not if traveling through the night! The seats were uncomfortable with very little leg room. The train was crowded and on boarding we found people sitting in our reserved seats - thankfully they moved to their allocated seats when asked to do so but other passengers embarking down the line had to get staff to assist them to move on those who had taken occupancy of their seats. As the train left the station I was already starting to regret our 'economizing'. The swearing and offensive language littering the conversations of passengers around us was going to make this journey memorable for all the wrong reasons. The older teenagers had brought their laptops and with headphones they were able to 'escape' from the immediate environment. Why hadn't I thought of that? Which leads me to my first tip for any long train or bus journey.

1. Take a laptop if you own one, an ipod or MP3 player in case you need to 'switch off' from the atmosphere around you. I was rather envious of my daughter watching a movie and my son listening to his Christian music! Next time I would buy myself a cheap MP3 player and take along my favourite worship music and teaching. No matter what, for any lengthy journey you will need some form of distraction to alleviate boredom. For my younger children I had new pads and coloured pencils, the thirteen and eleven year old had mini crossword and word-find search books. I avoided small toys and puzzles with lots of loose pieces - I had no intention of crawling under seats to retrieve inevitable dropped items!

2.Sit older children next to younger children - not only can they whisper instructions and reprimands but can assist them with drink bottles, take them to the toilet if necessary and in our situation, provide distractions and later on a shoulder or knee to sleep on! This lessens the decibel level of excited chatter of young children sitting together which might annoy other passengers but in reality it didn't matter - it was drowned out by the noise of the adults around us. My children were the ones setting the example of how one behaves on a train.

I was starting to become very concerned about a group of young men who were intoxicated and starting to behave aggressively with no respect for other passengers or adherence to the no smoking rules. They were standing outside the toilets and blatantly lighting up cigarettes. My protective mother hormones were going into overdrive as I observed their interactions and wondered how long it would be before a fight broke out. I did not want my children to witness this! The smoke alarms were going off and the soon familiar announcements and warnings of the consequences (being removed from the train at the next station if caught) were coming across the PA system.

To ensure the safety of my children I had to send them to other toilets further back in the train and reminded my teenage daughters under no circumstances to go to this toilet when this group of men were standing outside - this was for a good portion of the journey. Eventually rail staff intervened and it soon became apparent that at the next stop some of them would be removed from the train. This caused an extensive delay as our train waited in the station for the police to arrive to deal with the unruly passengers - one would be placed under arrest. The train was locked down with the offenders on board and the staff on the platform waiting to give statements to the police - I'm serious! Okay, this is why it tells me in the information card in my seat pocket that transit police may be on board for certain journeys but not on the night that we traveled!

He slept through all the dramas on our XPT journey to Sydney and even went to sleep on the scenic railway trip in NZ!

With the incident resolved and the main trouble makers removed, our journey by rail continued without further incident. The children fell asleep and I became absorbed in my book. We were now aware though that the lengthy delay was going to impact us - we were arriving at the train station at the time when we supposed to be checking in at the airport. I had already rung the airline to say we were running late. On our arrival at Central station I was sent on ahead to buy the tickets for our short transfer by train to the airport and my husband and children followed. With only one 'where are you?' call needed between our mobiles ( I advise do carry them and have them ready to answer) they did manage to find me with tickets all ready to feed into auto gates and we made it to the airport - once again I was designated the runner and sent on ahead to find the check-in desks for our airline. They were of course at the other end of the terminal. I arrived puffing and panting to find the longest queue I have ever seen since I went up to see Star Wars at the movies in 1977! Yeah, the plane was late and our mad dash had been for nothing!

On the scenic railway trip at Coromandel - a much more relaxing train journey even with wooden seats!

Enough of our rail travel dramas - here are more of my tips for taking a family on a long train trip.

3. Check out the reputation of the train service - is it safe to travel at night?

If you can afford it go first class. For our return trip on the XPT service we paid the extra hundred dollars for all the family to be in the first class compartments - and it was worth it! More comfortable seats, a lot more leg room and no intoxicated passengers. No one playing rap music without headphones, no swearing - we were able to have a few pleasant conversations with passengers around us. A totally different experience to our first trip. Remember each country will have its own unique rail travel experience - both good and bad. Don't be surprised if people don't give up their seats to pregnant women or elderly people - I was prepared for this when visiting the UK when obviously pregnant and using public transport but I was left standing so many times it became quite apparent that manners and regards for others are in serious decline in my country of birth. Thank those who do give up their seat for you and teach your children to immediately offer their seat up for an adult on a crowded bus or train. Smile at people and be courteous even if you are in a rush. Stressing out and speaking in an agitated tone about your experience will not get you there any faster. Calmly discuss your next move and keep each member of the family informed with clear instructions and keep visually checking that they have hold of their bags and that younger members are not being left behind if you do have to run for a train! Try to stick together, even if this means some members of the family are standing during the shorter bus or train trips - don't send your children down the far end of a carriage for an empty seat - the risk of losing sight of them as the train fills up and possibly missing the stop is just not worth it!

4. Take a change mat for babies and be prepared to learn new contortion skills as you attempt to change a wriggly baby in the confines of the toilet of a train which like the plane has a fold down change table. I can tell you it is a lot harder to change a baby in the train toilet, especially one that is thundering and jolting along.

5. Take a small pillow - this is something I did not do and I regretted it. You could soon spot the seasoned economy train passengers - they arrived with pillows and earplugs!

6. Food - you can bring your own food onto the train but as we were traveling through the night decided that we would not need to carry food or drink apart from water. I personally would avoid juice, soft drinks/sodas - not only may they have adverse affects on your child's behaviour and hype them up further for the journey but if they are spilled you now have a sticky mess to clean up and drinks can be easily knocked over on a jolting train. It is entirely up to you - weigh up what is going to work out best for your own family and budget - to carry food or chance the buffet on board. We chanced the buffet on the return trip - meals were reasonably priced but typical foil packaged jobs - pleasant surprise to find no artificial ingredients in my pasta dish but my husband's chicken breast was fairly dry. Kids meals came with water bottles and Thomas the Tank Engine colouring books and pencils. I ordered macaroni and cheese for them - their favourite dish. No wait, my macaroni and cheese is their favourite, not the Country Link version as one of my twin girls announced for the whole carriage to hear -' This is not like yours mum - yours is the best, this is terrible!' I tasted it and on this occasion I didn't mind that they didn't finish all the food on their plate!

6. In summertime do bring a jacket, sweatshirt or cardigan - the carriages are air-conditioned and it was working well on the night we traveled as my husband found out! No blankets on the train unless you have chosen a sleeper carriage!

7. At the station - look up, most of the signs directing you are overhead! If you are not sure if you are heading in the right direction or about to board the right train ask someone, it wasn't totally automated, there were rail employees at the station but I didn't see the fat controller (couldn't resist slipping that in!) Once on the train try to remember the names of the stations you will pass through before you have to disembark - it is easy to miss your station if you are not paying attention!

8. Comfortable shoes are a must, especially if you have to make a mad dash - wear heels at your own peril!

9. Have your younger children dressed in bright or distinctive clothing. If by chance they do fall behind or become separated from you they will be much easier to spot. Have their name and your travel and contact details written on a label inside their jacket and on a luggage tag attached to a backpack. Pumpkin Patch used to have big labels for this very purpose stitched into in all of their under fives jackets. I wish more manufacturers would think of this for outerwear. Have your children memorize their father's mobile number - they might know their home telephone number but this will be of little use to them if they do become separated from you and you are all in the big city train station hundreds of miles from home! Ensure they know where to go to ask for help in a train station or have a familiar rendevous point for all the family such as outside McDonalds or under the big station clock.

A typical beach town corner store or dairy as they are called in New Zealand. This store is famous for its ice creams. No chance of losing any family members in this metropolis!

10. Safety on the platform - ensure your young children keep well back from that yellow line painted on the platform.

Hold their hand firmly when boarding and disembarking and watch for the gap. Have them wear secure footwear - flip flops or jandals can easily slip off feet and disappear into the gap under the train. (A lesson I learned as a teenager - a long walk home on cold, hard pavements was the result!) It's also easy to lose grip of bags and jackets being carried so encourage children to keep their jackets on and have their back packs firmly strapped onto their backs. ( Many years ago, as I was boarding a train I dropped my student file under the train - I had rail staff retrieve it for me later and discovered that the essay I was handing in the next day had wheel imprints across it. The lecturer did not believe me when I told him the train had run over my homework!)

We used a baby back pack to carry our one year old son in - it is not always convenient or safe to use prams and strollers at train stations - not only are there stairs and escalators to negotiate but the ankles of other passengers to look out for. In recent years there have been some harrowing scenes on the news of runaway strollers with babies strapped in, falling into the path of oncoming trains, so check the brakes on your pram if you are using one and always keep them on when waiting on the platform.

Consider using a harness for a toddler (Target sell cute animal ones for about $30) or an adjustable travel wrist strap that connects you to your child - I used one of these when visiting England with a two year old. We did most of our traveling around London on the 'tube' - the underground trains - I was so glad that my boy was connected to me when moving through crowded platforms and especially when those trains came thundering into the station. It gave me peace of mind as we visited busy shopping malls. I can't imagine anything more stressful than losing your child in an unfamiliar city or town, so ignored the jokey comments from strangers about having to keep my boy on a leash!

Just informed her that we were going back home on the train the next day!

So there you have it - my top ten tips for families traveling by train. I discovered that night travel is different and that traveling economy comes with its own set of problems! I forgot that we would not have scenery to survey as we passed through different places and was looking forward to our return trip which was going to be by day until airport delays meant that once again, we would be traveling through the night. But we arrived home safely - our van waiting for us at the station that had been dropped off by a friend was a welcome sight until we discovered that a cat had peed on the vents on the bonnet! Cries of 'ughh - what's that smell?' rang through the night air! Even leaving your car in the station car park has unexpected hazards! We laughed and announced - anyone who leaves anything in the van gets to wash it tomorrow - one way of ensuring the car is cleaned out on your arrival home. So a big thank you to that station cat!

Going home!

That's enough of our travel adventures for now. Be prepared for any eventuality when traveling long distance. Circumstances may arise over which you have no control - all you can do is pray! Don't forget God goes with you and watches over us - ask Him for traveling mercies and protection for each family member. Pray for patience and guidance especially as you go through airports and face security checks. He will provide peace and a calm spirit for any crisis.

Happy traveling - hope this has been helpful to someone!

With Love and Joy,


Niki Jones said...

Ann, lovely & detailed.
Very informative.
I am travelling by train with the 4 kids in May to my home town 7hrs inland from Perth.
So I read with great interest.
I am going to go buy a cheap portable DVD player for the little ones. The older ones have Ipods.
I have my books & Mags. And fortunately the train we are travelling on has seat that can be turned to face each other with a table in between. Perfect for packed lunches and games.
Great post, Love Niki

Jen's Busy Days said...

Thanks for the tips Ann. I have always wondered if it would be easier to fly such a short distance even if it meant making connecting flights. Was that out of the question for you? And why, if you don't mind me asking such a personal question?

I want to go to the Gold Coast later this year from the Hunter area and I wonder if flying would be easier, although my dh loves to drive so I think that will be our way of getting there.

Best wishes
Jen in NSW

Homeschool on the Croft said...

What fantastic advice! When we travelled to the US a couple of years ago, we dressed all the kids (only 4 of them, but still, you want to find them easily!) in stripey tops. It was definitely a winner!
The ipods are a must too. We had our own, or mp3s, and were able to listen - like you were saying - to sermons, music etc. Definitely another winner.
I had a couple of books the last time we went, and I'm glad we did. We had a 9hr delay in the airport as well as a 6-7 hour flight. I had a great time - no kidding. A good book, no ironing, washing, food to make, dishes to wash.... a cuppa by my side. Fabulous! But having older kids makes such a difference in terms of looking after younger ones. They really take pressure off in many ways.
Oh well, lots to learn, but many memories too. Great stuff!

Homeschool on the Croft said...

Oh, I was going to say - how sad that the basic etiquette of our British society has gone down the tubes (pardon the expression!).
How very, very sad, but true.

Ann at eightacresofeden said...

Hi Jen,
Yes we did consider flying - but the cost was too high, no $1 seats for the children I'm afraid! The cheaper seats have limited availability too. And we would have to have flown down the day before as the first flight of the day from here did not give us enough time to connect with our flight to NZ. Add on the cost of overnight accommodation in Sydney for all of our family and the cost climbed even more. The Greyhound bus was almost as dear as flying - over $800 one way for our family in total. Compare this to just over $360 for first class on the train. Quite a difference. We would go by train again but not economy!
Which route will you take to the Gold Coast? I understand the Ballina bypass is now open should you use the Pacific Highway.

Pam said...

What fun to find your blog (through Homeschool on the Croft). I am looking forward to an enjoyable browse.... your blog is lovely, and full of many delights. Also, loved the tips on travel. Most of mine are grown now, but several are home during vacation time, and it certainly always chaotic to go anywhere together.
Many Blessings,

Pam said...

Just wanted to add that I noticed your double blessings... we have a double blessing as well. They are 26 now, and still best friends. Couldn't help adding.
Many Blessings,

Renata said...

Hi Ann
What a great post & lots of good advice! I've never traveled by train with our children, although have considered it at times - more for the train trip than the location. I'll wait until we can afford first class though - sounds much nicer - particularly with traveling at night.
Love the idea of putting the parents information on the children - something I think we should do even if we are visiting a crowded shopping centre (not that there are many around here)!
Hope you are keeping well - look forward to "hearing" more about your holiday!
Oh & did you know that "The Free Range Cook" is out on DVD? I was so surprised to find it at our library & borrowed it straight away, but haven't had time to watch it yet! I always think of you when I see it - you introduced me to the show!
Have a wonderful day

Jen's Busy Days said...

Ann, not sure which way we will travel. I think dh wants to go the inland route. I haven't been that way so it could be a bit more interesting but then again, 10 hours of driving won't be very interesting in the first place to me as I get carsick on longer journeys.

Can totally understand your reservations about the price of different ways of travelling. I think it would be best to have a car when we get there anyway so driving really does seem the best option in our case.

Best wishes
Jen in NSW

Thistle Cove Farm said...

Oh dear...think I got confused and told someone else, on a totally unrelated post, I enjoyed train travel. Now they'll think I'm the village idiot!
I love train travel but not the unruly types who think they are better than everyone else. Those kind aren't welcome anywhere.

Camille said...

So many great tips Ann! I appreciate your sense of humour. :) The photos are all lovely. I am sure many will benefit from your wisdom shared here.

Many blessings,


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