Car vs Train vs Plane with toddlers
April 9, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Least stressful way to transport a family from London to Toulouse? Car vs Train vs Plane!

I live in the US, but will be travelling back to Europe this summer to visit family. His parents still live near London, my parents recently moved to a small town near Toulouse. We have already booked our LAX-LHR return flights, but now need to figure out how to get ourselves from London to Toulouse. At the time of our travel we will be two adults, a 3 year old, and a 15-month old. We will need a rental car in London and Toulouse, since all the parents live in places that are awkward for public transport. We plan to stay with his parents for a week after we arrive, then travel to Toulouse for a week, then back to the UK for a few days before flying home.

I have not previously travelled in France, so I'm unfamiliar with the ins and outs of car/train/plane travel there. I left the UK long ago, so I'm not up to date on the current state of train and cheap plane travel either.

Our options seem to be:
a) hire a car at Heathrow for the entire holiday, drive around the UK while staying with his parents, then drive to Dover/Folkstone and take a ferry or chunnel across and drive to Toulouse. Probably the cheapest and least complicated option, but I think it sounds horrific. Spouse prefers this idea, and wants to do it overnight, so the kids can sleep in the back of the car. I think I will be too tired to help with driving, we will be on the "wrong side of the road" in a UK rental car, it will be dark, we will be tired, its 10 hours drive, and anyway what if the kids don't fall asleep and scream all night? Even if its daytime it sounds awful to me.

b) Return the rental car at Heathrow, take the Heathrow Express into the centre of London, get to the Eurostar terminal on public transport, take the train to Paris, then a TGV to Toulouse, hire another car. The public transport bit in London sounds a bit stressful with 2 kids and all the luggage and car seats (maybe a taxi instead?). The TGV Paris to Toulouse is not high speed and takes 6 hours. Not very fast, but probably more pleasant than being in a car for 6 hours.

c) Drop rental car at Stansted, take an EasyJet flight direct to Toulouse, rent another car there. Theoretically much quicker than the other options, but the airport security procedures may add an equal amount of time? Never flown EasyJet before, is it going to be hellish with two toddlers?

d) Some other option I haven't thought of, possibly including a stop-over in Paris to break up the journey, but my assumption has been that a stopover in a hotel in a major city with 2 toddlers won't really be very restful, and it would be better to just get to our final destination as fast as possible.

Bonus extra question, I was planning to bring our US car seats with us for the kids, as we will use them on the LAX-LHR flight anyway, and we can install them in the rental cars. US cars are generally bigger than European ones, is it going to be a struggle to fit them (Britax Diplomat and Britax Boulevard) in a rental car? The baby is still rear-facing in his Diplomat, but I gather this is weird and unheard of in Europe.
posted by Joh to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total)
b) Return the rental car at Heathrow, take the Heathrow Express into the centre of London, get to the Eurostar terminal on public transport, take the train to Paris, then a TGV to Toulouse, hire another car. The public transport bit in London sounds a bit stressful with 2 kids and all the luggage and car seats (maybe a taxi instead?). The TGV Paris to Toulouse is not high speed and takes 6 hours. Not very fast, but probably more pleasant than being in a car for 6 hours.

Seems to me that train travel with young kids, especially in Europe, would be easier than car travel, if only because the kids don't have to stay belted in their car seats, can wander the train if their restless, etc. It's easier to entertain them.

On the other hand I'd think a plane flight would be much quicker.
posted by dfriedman at 12:16 PM on April 9, 2010

Mmmn.. tricky - if it was just you and spouse I would vote plane but given your children car will be less stressful. Driving on the wrong side is a little weird but the motorways in France are really good. Otherwise TGV. I don't like the sound of Easyjet with babies / toddlers personally.
posted by laukf at 12:16 PM on April 9, 2010

Theoretically much quicker than the other options, but the airport security procedures may add an equal amount of time? Never flown EasyJet before, is it going to be hellish with two toddlers?

I don't know how the airport security procedures could possibly add anything close to the 6 to 10 additional hours it will take you to either drive to Toulouse or take the TGV. FWIW (and I have no real experience here, just my opinion as someone who's traveled a lot and via planes, trains, and cars) take option (c). You will not fritter away a day or more of your trip on driving or on navigating public transit/wrangling toddlers and luggage/sitting on a train--all exhausting prospects with two little ones. (If the kids were older, I'd say the train or driving might be a nice option, but they're not and they won't appreciate the scenery at this age.)
posted by devinemissk at 12:17 PM on April 9, 2010

Oh also, I have not flown EasyJet but my expat brother has and he compares it to Southwest Airlines here in the States in terms of comfort.
posted by devinemissk at 12:21 PM on April 9, 2010

Definitely easyjet.

They are effienct and it will be the most painless option.
posted by zia at 12:34 PM on April 9, 2010

And I can't spell
posted by zia at 12:34 PM on April 9, 2010

I've done both train and plane with infant/toddler so memail me if you want more details.
posted by zia at 12:36 PM on April 9, 2010

Train travel is an absolute breeze compared to air travel.

Seriously. I've not flown Easyjet, but I have flown RyanAir, which I understand is comparable, and it's sort of an elbow-throwing nightmare even without little kids. Firmly in the train camp.
posted by Skot at 12:40 PM on April 9, 2010

If you want information on rail travel in Europe, Seat61 is the place to go.

In fact, they have a guide to the exact itinerary you're planning.

Remember that the TGV trains don't meet at any one central point in Paris -- there are several stations, some of them quite far apart (requiring a trip on the Metro). Changing at Lille instead might be a better plan. I believe there are also conventional (ie. non-TGV) trains to Toulouse.

Also, the Heathrow Express takes you to Paddington, which isn't particularly close to St. Pancras (the Eurostar terminal). You're better off taking the Underground, which will take you directly from Heathrow to St. Pancras (London people feel free to chime in if this is bad advice). (Also, could you possibly arrange to have your Father's family drop you at St. Pancras, and then return the car themselves?)

Easyjet's easy, but air travel can be a pain. Driving across France is also a painfully boring experience.
posted by schmod at 12:53 PM on April 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and train travel in Europe is much nicer than it is in the US. The seats are big and comfy, and the trains are fast, quiet, and reliable. On-board food is usually decent too.
posted by schmod at 12:55 PM on April 9, 2010

Riding the Eurostar is a dream. Quieter than an airplane, very comfortable.

Using the Tube in London and the Metro in Paris can be stressful. Make sure you can lift your luggage and/or make sure the individual stations you plan to use have elevators.

Also, check the status of the various Tube/Metro lines and stations the morning of your travel. There are strikes and various other complications occasionally. Have an alternate route planned, or a way to just get a taxi.
posted by amtho at 1:00 PM on April 9, 2010

I'm jealous! I looooove Toulouse. Spent a year there. There's an airport there and I believe direct flights from London to Toulouse. You could take the TGV (bullet train) to Bordeaux and then drive to Toulouse. Enjoy la ville rose!
posted by dmbfan93 at 1:23 PM on April 9, 2010

On the car seat question, won't the baby be forward facing by then? And, we have found it much easier with a 3 year old to lug a backless booster instead of a full car seat - he/she should be old enough/big enough to fit in one and they are cheap.
posted by Sukey Says at 1:23 PM on April 9, 2010

Using the Tube in London and the Metro in Paris can be stressful. Make sure you can lift your luggage and/or make sure the individual stations you plan to use have elevators.

This, more than anything, is why I recommend flying. The plain fact is that if you take the train, you will have to transfer, at least once, from one train to another, and that/those transfer(s) will involve using some other form of public transit (Tube, Metro) or a taxi. Either way, you are going to be wrangling two small children and all of your luggage--including carseat--between train stations. This, to me, sounds like a nightmare.

In contrast, with air travel, you arrive at the airport, check your luggage to your final destination, and get on the airplane. Will you have to go through security with your children? Yes. Is that stressful? Yes. Might the airport be crowded? Yes. Might your plane be crowded? Yes. But approximately two hours after you get on the airplane in London, you'll be getting off the airplane in Toulouse, where you will collect your luggage, hire a car, and be on your way.

Were this me, or me and my spouse, or me and my spouse and our (hypothetical) primary-school-aged children, my answer might be different--I love the train and love public transit, and those things are great adventures for older children. But you have toddlers--they will need to be carried for a lot of this transport stuff, and they require a lot of additional gear--and, at 3 years old and 15 months old, they will not really care that the Paris Metro is a great adventure and you will be too tired to show them that it really is a great adventure.
posted by devinemissk at 1:25 PM on April 9, 2010

The rental car the whole time seems like a simple plan, but 10 hours in a car with two little ones sounds like a nightmare. Doing all the driving at night? Sounds worse. Sure the kids MIGHT sleep, but both of you will be so exhausted from the driving that it will be a hellish first, and possibly second day with your parents. You could make it less painful by breaking it up and making it a 5 hours ride stopping for the night and then the rest of the drive, but it's still going to end up taking 2 days of your trip.

The train sounds lovely - as everyone's said the trains will be more spacious than a plane, and will probably run on time. Probably. You will have to change and that may end up being a giant headache with luggage, car seats, children, frayed nerves, etc. In order to catch the train though, I would suggest, if possible? Only one adult needs to be involved in that - perhaps drop one adult and the kids off near the train station, drop the luggage off at the train station where the luggage can be stored, and return the car solo while the kids and mom or dad can go occupy themselves with something nearby the train station (a park?) for an hour or so. That way it's less harried on the underground back to the train station. Trains are very relaxing to me, but they don't take the shortest amount of time.

To be honest, I'd probably just go with the plane option, with rental cars on both sides. It's quicker - and who wouldn't want to just get the traveling part overwith ASAP? - and probably easiest. By the time you've gotten to LHR you'll have an idea of the pains of the traveling with all the luggage and what not (if you don't already know) and will be a pro at it. Give yourself a little extra time - since it's within Europe maybe about 2 hours at the airport to check in and go through security. And then know that the flight will only be about 2 hours and you're done, and you're there.
posted by kirstk at 1:47 PM on April 9, 2010

The advice asking for his mums & da to drop you off at the train makes a ton of sense if it's possible.

As far as the ferry, I'm not sure if things have changed, but it used to be that passengers disembark the vehicles & ride in a passenger "great room." Not exactly conducive to baby travel.

If you do have issues as a family traveling with the youngsters (and at times with our two I would have traded places with the condemned) then the airline flight will be the fastest, but not necessarily the most convenient or accommodating. My youngest, now fully grown, booked a flight from Dublin to Seoul, which included EasyJet from Dublin to Paris. He arrived at the airport with two carryons and one large suitcase--and yes, it was large but not excessive by traveling-with-two-toddlers standards--and the extra baggage charge was going to be £70. If that's not an issue, then flying is fastest. Train will be comfiest. Car will be most scenic but problematic with what to do with the toddlers on the ferry and then, if traveling by day, the lack of access to paregoric for either the kiddies or the parents.
posted by beelzbubba at 2:14 PM on April 9, 2010

e) Return rental car at King's Cross, get train? Europcar does not seem to have any problem offering this as an option, and it doesn't seem to cost any more either. Looking at the map and given small children, I suppose it actually translates as 'drop most people off at St Pancras, one person goes to return the car', but that shouldn't be a problem either....
posted by Lebannen at 2:17 PM on April 9, 2010

Train or car would be my bets. For any long travel you're imposing a huge burden on a young child's ability to behave sitting around and doing nothing. Trains are hugely more friendly for moving around had having space than planes, no stupid check-in wait. Cars let you stop whenever they need to stretch their little legs and take a break.

Downside of car is that it takes longer. Trains through France are a hell of a fast - think 4 hours for Paris to Marsailles.
posted by rodgerd at 6:30 PM on April 9, 2010

Best answer: Driving sounds like madness. It's nine or ten hours from Calais to Toulouse if the conditions are good and you don't take any breaks. That is, if you are a childless robot. You would be doing this _after_ a drive from somewhere near London to Dover, plus a ferry. Not so long ago I drove from Liverpool to Paris and back, at the weekend, in almost preternaturally perfect conditions (roads clear round London, arrived early for ferry to find there was space on earlier ferry, etc) and it was 12-13 hours each way. We were three adults in the car--such perfect conditions cannot exist when travelling with young children, who simply (and quite reasonably) don't have the same capacity to sit and do nothing all day. Add in any kind of summertime tailback and it sounds pretty grim to me. If you are at a station and your train is delayed you can go for a walk outside or find them a sandwich somewhere--if you are on a train you can at least walk up and down. If you are stuck in a car there is nothing but increasingly desperate games of "I Spy", which your children are a bit too young for. Doing it at night means doing it when you are tired and hoping that they will sleep. Sounds risky to me.

The plane has advantages. It's much quicker. EasyJet is generally (this is my experience) a good deal nicer than Ryanair, and they're both cheap. But it's true that on both you pay through the nose for luggage, and tedious security procedures can be hard for children to understand.

The train would take longer than a plane but much less time (and much less effort) than a car. I don't think your children would pay, though you might want to pay for at least one extra seat. is suggesting travel times of nine or ten hours from London to Toulouse, including a transfer at Lille (good suggestion, schmod) or Paris. (You're right, it's a shame the Toulouse train isn't a TGV--but it's fast enough.) These seem to include enough time to sit down and have a light lunch and give the children a break from being on a train. The two stations at Lille are a couple of hundred yards apart, separated by a park--a taxi will cost very little (and one parent could taxi with the luggage while the other walks the children through the park). Or, if you change at Paris, the taxi would be a bit more expensive, but not outrageous.

I'd say the choice is between train or plane, with the plane having the time and probably price advantage (tickets only), but the train being probably more pleasant and having the very great advantage--as parents of young children--that you can take a lot of baggage at no extra cost.

Remember also that if you hire one car to do the whole trip, you may have to pay extra if you're planning to take it out of the country of hire.

Not sure if I've added anything other than opinion (informed, hopefully!). Still--good luck, and I hope it all goes well!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:39 PM on April 9, 2010

Best answer: I priced out a random week in late June.

British Airways flies from Heathrow to Toulouse non-stop. You'd pay £514-£632 round-trip for the four of you (depending on whether or not the 15-month-old is in a seat).

Easyjet flies to Toulouse from Gatwick, which is much more accessible on public transport than Stansted is. You'd pay £317 for four seats with four checked bags (pre-booked) weighing up to 80 kg.

Return tickets for the four of you on Eurostar and the TGV, on the TGV-Europe site, are €556/£486, with a change in Lille on the way there and Paris on the way back.

If you think your youngest can fly without a seat/on a lap/in a sling, by all means, go for the ease of returning the car at the same airport you're flying out of and take the BA flights.

However, if someone else can return the car - your husband's parents? - and you can bundle them into a taxi/coach/combination thereof to get home - then go for the EasyJet flight from Gatwick.

Alternatively, could you just return the car to Gatwick?
posted by mdonley at 1:31 AM on April 10, 2010

Suggest you spend a bit of time carefully checking the various airtravel options as you'll be able to travel from most London airports and work out the least painful option.

Don't get hung up about where you pick up/drop off your hire car - one way charges in the UK are quite reasonable - think it was about £10 the last time I checked (admittedly a couple of years ago).

With assorted extra luggage beware that budget airlines now charge for each piece of checked luggage and will rigorously enforce the one piece of handluggage policy so be realistic when you book your flights...
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:41 AM on April 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the helpful feedback! I had previously priced out the BA Heathrow-Toulouse flight, and it came out at $1200 - eek. But after reading mdonley's comment I went to British airways website, and booking direct with them it only comes out to $700. Weird, and much more reasonable (while still an insane amount of money for such a short flight).

The parents cannot drop us off anywhere, they only have a very tiny car and are basically too scared to drive anywhere in London itself, or even drive a rental car.

Looks like we might go for the BA flight, and pay a little extra for the convenience of flying from the closest London airport, not worrying about paying extra for checked bags, and elbowing everyone out the way to get on the flight.

I would love to do the trains, but maybe in a couple of years time when the boys will be old enough to appreciate it.
posted by Joh at 10:10 AM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: Follow-up time! In the end we went for the easiest and of course, most expensive option. We booked the BA flights from Heathrow to Toulouse. We got up ungodly early in the morning, but made it through with sanity intact. In the end considering all the luggage fees etc it wasn't much more to fly BA and much more convenient since we were staying 20 minutes drive from Heathrow. Hiring three separate rental cars was painfully expensive, but unavoidable, and I figured we were paying to avoid hassle and stress. The BA flight was fine, staff helpful, terminal 5 wasn't the disaster zone I was led to believe (I guess they sorted out all their teething troubles), and the kids were fine.

For future readers, it turns out that using your child's car seat on the plane is a peculiarly American thing, and all the flights we took (Virgin Atlantic and British Airways) don't really support this. So we had to check both the car seats for each flight. I worried terribly that they would get damaged, but they were fine. Actually when we landed in the US, either UK or US customs had disassembled the car seats to search them, and didn't put them back together properly, which was really, really annoying and shitty of them, and not good when you have two jetlagged toddlers and just want to get home. But other than that, everything went smoothly and I'm glad we flew. Next time we take the same trip the boys will be older, and we won't split it into 3 legs.
posted by Joh at 10:54 PM on October 2, 2010

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