Family travel advice

Tickets and Reservations

Do children need tickets?

Children under 5 do not require a separate ticket and travel for free.

Even better in much of London, children under 11 travel free. For more information, see here. However, be careful for some non-TfL services within London, a child between 6 and 10 will still require a zip card (see here).

Since under 5s do not require a ticket, they are not automatically entitled to a seat reservation. However, see below.

What ticket should I buy and how do I get the best value?

Rail tickets are notoriously complicated. If you’re travelling with children it is nearly always in your interest to purchase a friends and family railcard. This entitles you to 33% off Adult Fares and 60% off Child Fares (child fares are typically half of adult fares). The initial cost of £30 for a 1-year Friends and Family Railcard is normally off-set by the discount of the first ticket purchase. It is also possible to purchase a 3-year railcard for £70.

There are broadly four ticket types:

  • Anytime – these are flexible tickets which allow for travel on any train.
  • Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak – these are semi-flexible tickets only allow travel on certain trains. You can, however, get a reservation in addition which you are not compelled to use.
  • Advance – these are the cheapest tickets, but they are limited to a specific train.
  • Group Tickets – these are discount tickets which are available for groups travelling together. However, since they are already discounted, the Friends and Family Railcard may not apply.

For more information on the rich array of ticket types visit the National Rail website. ‘The Man In Seat 61’ has prepared an exhaustive guide to ensuring you get the best ticket price. However, if we have one top tip—book early! The best value fares sell out quickly.

eTickets can be loaded onto mobile devices that can be scanned at ticket gates and onboard the train. However, some parents find it easier to choose paper tickets when travelling a family to avoid the added stress of negotiating the ticket barriers if all tickets are loaded on a single mobile telephone.

Will I need a reservation? How do I get one?

For many metro services a reservation is unnecessary. Many recent commuter trains were designed for standing commuters so there is ample space for a pram with appropriate seating nearby.

We recommend making a seat reservation on longer-distance journeys. For some train operating companies (see LNER for example) you can select the exact seat. That means if you’re travelling with toddlers who need space to colour in you can select a seat at a table or if you have a sulky teenager who wants nothing to do with you they can have their own seat at the other end of the carriage. Equally, you can ensure you’re close to a toilet.

Families travelling with children under 5 may still want a seat reservation for young children who do not need a ticket. We are aware that some Train Operating Companies have booked free seat reservations on less busy services over social media (GWR and LNER for example). However, this cannot be guaranteed. If a seat reservation is essential for you, you will probably have to buy an additional child ticket. However, an adult and child ticket bought with a family and friends railcard often works out cheaper than a single adult ticket.

Preparing for your journey

Do I need to plan ahead, can’t I just turn up and go?

Plan, plan and plan. You should not have to, but that is the reality. The ‘Victorian’ rail network was not designed for those with prams or any other accessibility requirements. We are campaigning for universal step free access so that the railways truly provide a stress-free and step-free experience.

The National Rail website has extensive information on accessibility such as step free access, the location of lifts and toilets.

You will also need to think about your travel at the other end of your trip; for example, you may be travelling somewhere where you need to use a taxi. Unfortunately, it is not mandatory for taxis and mini-cabs to have enough room for pushchairs or wheelchairs so you may need to book a taxi in advance.

We’re encouraging railway companies to put aside dedicated space for children and young families at large stations. At Reading Station, for example, there is a family room.

When should I travel?

It is usually a good idea to avoid the rush-hour – there’s less space and passengers are less tolerant. LNER has a handy tool to see which services are likely to be less busy.

Does my train station have baby changing facilities?

All big interchange train stations will have changing facilities, but some smaller stations might not.

You can find out what’s available where you’re travelling on the National Rail website – just type in the name of your station, and scroll down under the ‘Facilities’ tab. ‘Baby changing facilities’ is about halfway down that section, and it will give you a little summary of where they are. There is also often a station map if you want to have a look in advance.

If you’re travelling in London, Transport for London have a map showing the specific toilet facilities at every station.

If your train station doesn’t have baby changing facilities then the NCT’s Babychange app might help you find somewhere nearby to help.

Does my train station have step free access?

As above, you can find details of what’s available at all stations via the National Rail website by typing in the name of your station and looking under the ‘Accessibility and mobility access’ tab. For most stations they are quite specific about which platforms have step-free access and which don’t, which can be helpful.

There is also a helpful map here – so if you need step-free access but the station you were planning to get off at doesn’t offer it, you can easily see if the next station down the line does.

If you’re travelling in London, Transport for London have made a special step-free Tube map available here.

At the Station

Can I book help and/or priority boarding with my pushchair?

Passenger Assist is a service available for older and disabled passengers travelling on the rail network. However, some train operators and Network Rail have indicated to us that this service should be available to anyone who needs it, including families. To book assistance contact the train operating company you will be travelling with.

GWR offer a priority boarding service especially for families on selected services from London Paddington. You can find out more about this service here.

Station staff and members of the public are usually happy to help, so don’t be afraid to ask!

The Traksy website provides the platform that a train is booked to arrive at (this can change at the last minute) so that you can position yourself.

How do I get a buggy on and off a train?

This is one of those things that you just don’t think about until you have to do it yourself – but once you’ve figured it out it will become second nature

Make sure your baby is strapped in to avoid any accidents.

Before you board or disembark try and position your pram so it is perpendicular (or square-on) to the train, don’t try and join at an angle as the pram may tip. It’s easiest to get on forwards and get off backwards. To get off the train step down yourself first, then lower the back wheels of the buggy down until they’re touching the platform. Push down and lift up the front wheels and reverse until the whole buggy is on the ground.

ScotRail have produced an exciting video that explains it all:

On the train

Where can I park my buggy?

The train operators say that you must fold down your buggy and store it in the luggage racks. We think this is unrealistic for many parents and space for unfolded buggies is the main thing our campaign is asking for! However, on some services it may already be possible to travel with an unfolded buggy.

Metropolitan and commuter services tend to have better facilities as they already have a reduced number of seats to accommodate standing passengers, which by accident creates a good space for pushchairs. On these services it is usually not too difficult to find somewhere to put an unfolded buggy.

Depending on operator, you may be able to use the wheelchair space if it is not in use. However, wheelchair users have priority by law and you MUST move to allow a wheelchair user to use the space. Some train operators do not allow pushchairs to use the wheelchair space, even if it is otherwise unoccupied.

The bike storage area may be a good place to put a buggy, if it is not in use.

Long distance services on LNER and GWR currently have very poor provision for unfolded pushchairs and the only space for them is usually in the vestibule areas.

If you want to see where these areas are on specific lines, or which seats are closest to the toilets, the Man in Seat 61 train travel website has helpfully collected together seat maps of all the majority of train operators in the UK.

Will my train have baby changing facilities?

It’s rare now to be on a train in the UK that has no baby changing facilities whatsoever. However, there may only be one and it’s down the opposite end of the train to your seat or out of service.

If you want to see what specific operators generally offer, you can look at the seat maps linked to by Man in Seat 61. Newer trains, such as LNER’s Azuma services, or Hull Trains Paragon, usually offer baby changing in every toilet – although it is often quite small and cramped and impossible to bring a second child in with you.

How can I make the journey more comfortable?

Your child’s needs will obviously vary depending on their age so we’ve broken down our top tips by age.

0 to 18 months

Feeding: we believe that all mothers should be free to breastfeed anywhere in the UK including the UK rail network; however, we know that some parents do prefer privacy. It may be useful to purchase a modesty bib for a long journey. At the moment, we are not aware of any train operating companies with milk warming facilities; we have raised this with them as we know some trains in France for example do make this facility available. Accordingly, it will probably be best to heat milk at home and use an insulated bottle bag.

Sleeping: your child will need to sleep and this is why we are campaigning so hard to have dedicated pram spaces. Particularly since babies should be able to lie flat every two hours. Whilst the vast majority of railway staff are understanding, the policy is that prams have to be folded away. Accordingly, the only advice we can give you is to try and travel outside nap times. We know that is not always possible and we wish we could provide more advice.

18 months plus+

The older your child gets, the more they eat. You can never have too many snacks.

As well as feeding your child and letting them sleep, they’ll now be at an age when they need to be entertained. Never ever get all the toys out at once, sequence them—you need to eke out as much joy and pleasure from each individual item as possible.

The following toys and books are great on trains:

  • Playdough – you don’t have to clean the mess out of the carpet.
  • Top Trumps
  • I-Spy books
  • Colouring Pens with cap-ring so the lids don’t get lost
  • Writing Tablets

A train journey is a great time to share a new toy or magazine.

Is it okay to use my phone or a screen to entertain my child?

Yes, yes, yes. Whatever rules you have at home about limiting screen use throw out the window during a train trip. Freely use screens to distract and entertain your child. Your fellow passengers will thank you. You will be grateful and your child will consider it a treat. Do not feel an ounce of guilt for using screens. The vast majority of passengers are understanding if your child listens to their screen quietly without headphones.

Make sure you download programs and charge your screen the night before. Mobile phone reception is notoriously bad on trains and Wi-Fi signal may be patchy. Whilst many trains have power sockets they may not have enough power to charge and use a device at the same time.

If you have any other top tips on travelling with families please contact us!