How to Travel Car-Free With a Family

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When I moved to New York and started a car-free travel blog in 2007, I was a recovering Los Angeles transplant, keen to ditch driving and atone for my environmental sins. I hiked the Appalachian Trail off the Metro-North train, surfed via the Queens-bound A subway and biked into the Hudson Valley from the Bronx’s South County Trailway. No car? No problem!

Then I became a mother, breastfeeding on buses and potty training on trains. I’ll admit I felt less like a weekend warrior and more like a peripatetic parent. However, seeing how much my son loves riding the rails and engaging with different people continues to be more rewarding than any adventure in an automobile.

Here are a few tips, for biking and using public transit, that have helped me avoid the simple mistakes and fuel the fun.

Pack less, see more

After a bit of trial and error, you’ll find car-free travel is a liberating choice that forces you to schlep considerably less. Take only two pairs of shoes, bid adieu to the car seat and gain back the time wasted mulling over “just in case” outfits or scavenging for souvenirs. My son, now 3 and a half, and I share a 100-liter hybrid duffel backpack and he enjoys carrying the essentials in his own “Kikki” backpack. Using packing cubes and choosing lightweight, water-resistant and convertible luggage can also make life easier. If possible, leave the stroller at home — the peer-to-peer rental marketplace goBaby rents strollers and other baby gear from more than 100 locations throughout North America.

Pass the road test

Before committing to a long vacation, get the entire family in a go-with-the-flow groove to better handle the inevitable car-free setbacks: delayed buses, stuck trains, no available seats, overly ambitious parents. A few summers ago, with our then 1-year-old, my husband and I were hoping to shorten our cycling route through France’s Pays de la Loire region and incorrectly assumed that the local trains would allow bike trailers on board. Following our France fiasco, we experimented with car-free excursions closer to home, and now research policies for buses and trains ahead of time and carry information for just-in-case taxis and tour companies.

Before all aboard, check the tourism board

Cities with efficient mass transit systems and widespread bike share programs are a boon to car-free travelers. Destinations like Los Angeles, Connecticut, Banff and Scotland are part of a growing tourism movement celebrating the road less driven with digital car-free brochures. You can continue your research with Bikabout, which offers family guides to bike-friendly towns, hotels and Airbnbs in North America.

For other places to go and apps to use, Wanderu, a car-free booking site, finds the most affordable transit options in addition to providing handy travel tips such as under $20 getaways from major cities in the United States, and the bus companies that accept mobile tickets. And Hipcamp, an app with more than 300,000 public and private campsite listings, has a search tool that allows you to filter for sites that don’t require a car.

Discover the family-friendly deals

Train travel in particular offers excellent family-friendly savings. The Family Eurail Pass allows up to two children, ages 0-11, to travel for free per adult in Europe, and Amtrak in the United States offers 50 percent off for children along with a newly expanded bikes-on-board reservation system.

Once the destination has been selected, plan for what could be big travel snafus: Are guides needed to reach certain attractions? Does the bus have a bathroom or require a booster seat? I also strategize ways to make the transition between modes of transit less stressful.

Put the children in charge

Your children, believe it or not, can help with those transition points.

On a recent outing to Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colo., I designated my son as our guide, “Ranger Remy.” When we switched from bike to shuttle bus, he couldn’t wait to lead the way, first stopping at the ranger center near the Chautauqua Trailhead to borrow a goodie-filled discovery backpack. But in San Francisco, we had to jump from the BART train to Amtrak and my son wasn’t in the mood to be the station navigator. So I successfully teased the journey with Amtrak’s Trails & Rails program, when National Park Service guides give on-board show-and-tell presentations about landmarks along the route. Older children can keep things running smoothly as snack supervisors or travel planners, charged with picking out the next activity from the guidebook.

Lauren Matison is a Brooklyn-based journalist, editor, brand consultant and environmental advocate. She specializes in outdoor adventure, sustainability and family travel.

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