Inspired by my 6-year-old son, I took a night train from Budapest instead of flying.

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Being from Hungary but living in France, airport hotels have become my second home.

Delays and missed connections saw me sleeping in a soulless room near the runway five times in the last year alone.

‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could be magically transported to my destination during my sleep?’, I thought.

It was my six-year-old son who figured out a way to make that happen. Engrossed in a picture book about trains, he came across one that depicted a family sleeping peacefully in a couchette.

I decided it was time to give night trains a go.

Travelling from Budapest to Lyon by train

There’s no direct flight from Budapest – where I’m from – to Lyon, where I live. So I’m used to making nail-biting or painfully long connections in airports across Europe.

Likewise, there are no direct trains between the two cities, and with Europe’s fragmented rail booking systems, working out my route took a little more effort.

I could not book my entire journey with one provider, so I had to buy my ticket from Budapest to Zurich with one and my Zurich to Lyon tickets with another.

But once we were on board, the journey came as a pleasant surprise.

On a crisp winter’s night, we set off on the 8pm night train from Budapest to Zurich. Watching the remaining Christmas decorations and ice rink glitter by was a magical experience.

Tucked up in our sleeper compartment, we had plenty of space to stretch out. It was worth every euro to secure a private room rather than sharing a four or six-person berth.

My son fell asleep soon after we left the station, and I had to wake him up when we got our breakfast – a selection of juice, hot drinks, bread rolls and jam, delivered to our cabin by a friendly train attendant.

Compared to flying it was noisier, but it was amazing and comforting to have our own ‘moving’ hotel room. I woke up several times during the night, most of the time when we stopped at a railway station. But I felt refreshed in the morning as we enjoyed our breakfast with views of a beautiful sunrise over a lake we were passing by.

We arrived in northern Switzerland just before 3pm the next day. Next, we took the TGV from Zurich to Dijon, and finally a TER from Dijon to Lyon.

The journey took 18 hours in total – this proved a struggle for my son, who told me that we should fly next time as it’s quicker.

Travelling by train felt easier and friendlier

Lengthy as our train journey may have been, there are countless reasons I’d choose to do it again.

The perks start before you even set off. Since there are fewer baggage restrictions, packing was easier. I didn’t have to crush our belongings into a small suitcase or decant our liquids into 100 ml containers. There was no waiting in line for security checks.

One of the biggest advantages of travelling by train is how simple it is. You don’t have to go outside the city, you don’t need to arrive hours before you’re due to leave. You can have your loved ones close, waving goodbye to you as your train leaves the platform. From this point of view, it is a much more personal and family-friendly experience.

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As a parent, I found it easier than flying for a lot of reasons. One is that during most of the trip, my son was sleeping. With fewer baggage restrictions, I was able to pack plenty of games to keep him entertained when he was awake.

We had far more privacy, with a door that we could close and no strangers sitting next to us. And we were not restricted from using the toilets due to turbulence, which can be a major issue when flying with kids.

How does the cost of taking the train compare to flying?

One of the biggest deterrents to train travel in Europe tends to be the price – how can rail compete with budget airlines? But in my case, travelling over the busy Christmas period on a disjointed route, the train worked out much cheaper than flying.

It was €369 in total for our train journey (the night train was €160 for me and €90 for my son), while flight prices for the same date started at around €250 per person. And I only booked my train tickets 1.5 months before I travelled.

It’s likely that the flight would have been cheaper at a quieter time of year, but when you factor in extra baggage costs and the price of a hotel for the night, I still think the night train offers good value. For larger families, the price becomes more competitive, as they can opt for a more economical four or six-berth booth – plus, kids pay a much lower fare, unlike with flying.

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Not to mention the money you’ll save by avoiding the inflated food and drink prices at the airport.

All in all, for longer trips I would definitely consider taking the train again. For shorter trips, like one I have planned in April, I am taking a combination of plane and train.

Flying has lost its charm

Practicalities aside, I have fallen out of love with flying.

My mother worked for the Hungarian airline Malév from 1973 until it went bankrupt in 2012. I got used to flying long before it became affordable for my friends. Before it was drastically changed because of security issues after 9/11, and before low-cost airlines.

Flying was not only the fastest (and sometimes the only way) to get somewhere, but it was also a special occasion, at least for me.

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Nowadays I feel like it’s losing its charm. You see more and more passengers misbehaving, not caring about others, and airline services are degrading too.

I remember when you had a meal even on a two-hour flight with cutlery and a drink and coffee or tea included. Now, you’re considered lucky if you arrive on time to your destination.

Although for me it is hard to let go of that nostalgia of flying, I want to show a better example to my son, by choosing greener alternatives as often as possible.

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