What’s better for traveling in Europe — train or rental car?

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Train or car in Europe? It is not an easy question to answer.

I spent much of my youth living in Europe as a military brat. One of the big bargains then was the Eurailpass. I clickity-clacked through Europe for months. In those days, there were few bargains as fancy-free, dramatic or romantic as the Eurailpass. It was once the cheapest mode of transportation short of lacing up your hiking boots or sticking out your thumb. Car rentals were rare and very expensive. These days, however, Eurailpasses cost far more and have restrictions galore. Today, for many travelers (especially those traveling as a family or couple), the best bargain may be a rental car.

The truth is, there’s no “best way” to travel through Europe. Sometimes it’s better to rent a car, and sometimes it’s better to hop on the train.

Here are 10 European travel situations, with advice on which way to go.

Five reasons to take a train

• Traveling alone. Rail is almost always the better deal for the solo traveler, especially if you can use a discounted train pass. In most cases, the cost of a rental car, tolls and gasoline will be about twice as much as the cost of the train.

Visiting only a few major cities. Train travel between the major cities of Europe is generally fast and easy, while getting into and out of the cities by car can be a chore. In town, stick with local transportation. Compare the cost of rail passes and regular train tickets carefully; the passes are not always the best deal if you are visiting only a handful of cities.

Visiting only one major city. Never rent a car if you intend to stay in one city. Parking is next to impossible and/or expensive in almost every European capital. Plus, driving through the old city centers is often tortuous and confusing. Besides, Europe’s urban mass transit systems are excellent.

Traveling through Switzerland. The deciding factor here is the difficulty of the driving on mountain roads, which takes concentration and sometimes real skill. Trains allow visitors to really enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery. Moreover, the Swiss train system is linked to the Postal Bus system, which reaches every nook and cranny of the country.

Traveling on the day of arrival. Many people think they can bull their way through the day after their overnight flight to Europe, but I can’t recommend it. Take a train from the airport to the first stop on your itinerary; you’re more likely to arrive safe and rested. If you want, rent a car a few days later.

Five reasons to rent a car

Exploring small towns and the countryside. A car is the only way to reach many small towns, inns and castles, historical sites, natural attractions, roadside shrines and other interesting places not served by timely train transportation. And, except in Switzerland, a car is the only efficient way to wind one’s way through Europe’s mountains.

Traveling with family. Whenever three or more people travel together, a car becomes the most economical way to get around Europe. After arriving in a city, park the car and take public transportation. If the kids are determined to ride a train, take them on a short excursion.

Rambling. Timetables! What if you don’t want to leave Rome at 6:40 p.m.? Or arrive in Paris at 9:10 in the morning after a sleepless night on the train? What if you want to just ramble? Travelers who want to wander according to their whims really need to have a car, as do travelers who like to decide on their destination at the last minute.

Eating and drinking off the beaten path. Many of the top restaurants and vineyards of Europe are well off the rail lines; in fact, the Michelin Red Guides list hundreds of eateries and lodges that are not reachable by train. Vineyards and wineries are even more secluded, and many see no public transportation at all.

Escaping other tourists.Travelers with cars can literally steer clear of major tourist centers, and so have the opportunity to discover parts of Europe that are little visited by American tourists.

Train or car? It depends. Not so much on your pocketbook (unless you are traveling alone or too young to rent a car in Europe) but on where you are going and how you like to travel.

After traveling to Europe, searching for bargains and renting a car for almost two decades, I can heartily recommend AutoEurope. They are rental car consolidators, based right here in the United States (in Portland, Maine). They guarantee the lowest rental car prices. AutoEurope also provides renters with toll-free numbers that work from Europe in case of any problems and they stand behind their customers in case of any conflicts with rental car companies in Europe. Contact them by telephone at 1-800-223-5555 or on the Web at www.autoeurope.com. (AutoEurope can also help with virtually every train pass and city card available.)

How did you travel on your last trip to Europe?

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  • Stuart Gustafson

    Another benefit of train over car is when you’re staying put for a while — why have the car just sit there racking up daily charges when you’re not using it?

  • Frequent traveler

    You are SO right! The truth is, there’s no “best way” to travel through Europe. Sometimes it’s better to rent a car, and sometimes it’s better to hop on the train. The U.S. is miles behind Euyrope when it comes to the efficiency, cl;eanliness, ubiquitousness and on-time record of trains in much of Europe. But of course, you can’t drive a train to that isolated
    Tuscan hilltop town you’d like to visit or the out-of-the-way vineyard in France. So, as you wrote, ride the rains and take to the road, as your preferences and itinerary dictate.

  • Graham Harrison

    I can’t emphasise enough how car unfriendly many Europen cities can be. It’s partly about the (lack of) design of the cities and the random nature of so many streets. What that has led to is many cities making it as difficult as possible to get into the centre and then out the other side. Parking in city centres is discouraged by high prices and simply not allowing long term (overnight) parking. Instead they install large parking lots around the city and lay on buses into the centre at reasonable prices.

    Then there’s a size issue. Our cars are smaller but then so are the roads. Add to that very few automatics in rental fleets and I’m afraid I’ve seen some (but by no means all) US and Canadian drivers suffer in a variety of ways. One guy I followed kept bumping the kerb – I thought he might be unwell so when he stopped so did I. No, he was fine, just having difficulty adapting.

  • sanibelsyl

    Having just returned from traveling through Italy by car for 5 weeks; I voted driving. Would do so again in a heart beat for the kind of travel we prefer, largely little villages, countryside and small towns. It was comfortable, economical (not so in France where there are many more expensive tolls) and the travel mode let us go to very off the beaten path locales. Just make sure you are covered for body damage to the car. It happens.

  • TonyA_says

    I can’t emphasize enough how much more walkable many European cities are compared to American cities.

  • TonyA_says

    Most if not all of the above is my answer.
    And it really depends on where you are going.
    For example, Corsica. I assume you would really want to rent a car.
    Recently we have been renting a car AND a driver.
    Maybe one day I can just uber between towns.

  • bodega3

    If you are only doing the major cities, then train travel is great as it is city center to city center. However, if you are visiting outlying areas, you have to look at what the other options are. In Europe, you can get to just about anyplace with public transportation, where you are even allowed to hitch a ride on the postal bus, but it could take you all day to get there. Most train stations have a rental car desk in the station or nearby, so combining these two is easy.

  • The Grand Tour

    Is a tricky dilemma, being under 25 rental is not a good option for me but I do love using ride-sharing websites such as BlaBlaCar. That way still get the speed of the car and get to meet new people! Only good solo or with one person so no use of families i dont think

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    We used a mix-and-match approach on our last trip to Europe, when we visited Ireland. Our first two days were going to be solely in Dublin, so we skipped the car and relied on mass transit (there was a bus stop right in front of our hotel, which was convenient). Then on Day 3, we went back to the airport, rented a car, and drove to the other side of the country to see Connemara and the Burren.

    I can only further emphasize what others have posted – driving in large European cities is not a good idea. In addition to narrow streets, traffic can be maddening, and you have to deal with numerous traps for the unwary like speed cameras, video-enforced bus and bicycle lanes, confusing parking regulations, and central business district congestion charges, all of which can carry draconian penalties for those who run afoul of the rules, even inadvertently (plus, the rental company will almost certainly add on an additional surcharge). On the other hand, driving through the countryside can be a wonderful experience. Having a car allowed us to find many “hidden gem” parks and historical sites in Connemara, and for that matter, driving through the emerald-green Irish countryside was often breathtaking by itself.

  • bodega3

    I actually have found a lot of our major cities to be very walkable. SF, BOS, CHI, NYC, SEA, BNA, WAS, SAN. LA not so much.

  • AH

    i drove on my last trip (germany, with side trips into france and switzerland), but it was mostly because i was visiting a friend who was stationed there with the military, and had his own vehicle. we got to drive through all kinds of neat little towns and villages, and stop when we wanted.
    however, on my previous trip (england and wales), i used a combination of rail, tube and rental car. oh, and bus tours!
    we chose those methods based on itinerary and the places we wanted to go. had my military friend not had his own vehicle, our itinerary might have been totally different, or we might have opted for a combination of various forms of transportation.

  • TonyA_says

    I used to be the designated driver. Now, I simply refuse.
    You really miss a lot if you are the driver. Also, you get tired.
    So I demand we hire a driver. Allows me to drink as much as I want, too.

  • VELS14

    I’m with you. There is no best way, but I do think using a bus is the worst way. It has all the disadvantages of cars and trains, with none of the advantages of either.

  • Bill___A

    This article seems to be good advice. As one who has traveled both ways, what is said makes sense. Thank you for clarifying it for those who need to learn.

  • mike313

    “Design of the Cities” – excuse me!
    Most European towns/cities were founded as small villages that merged together in the middle ages (1400’s – 1700’s) to form today’s towns and cities. In those days cars and trucks did not exist. People walked, or rode horses, everywhere. Cities in those days were never “designed”. Streets did not form neat grids (as they do in the USA). Cities were never intended to cope with automobiles, My advice – get out of the car, meander, and enjoy the ambiance.

  • Graham Harrison

    What do you think “(lack of)” is supposed to mean?

  • homebuilding

    River cruises are great…..you generally stop at or within easy walking distance of the altstadt-or old city. From there, you can often see many things with a relatively short walk, but in larger cities, all other transportation options are available too. The “walking only” option saves a lot of money and time, whilst leaving all your stuff on the boat gives you a great freedom

  • http://www.transitionsabroad.com/ Gregory Hubbs

    Since age 30 only drive unless staying in Paris, Rome or other great cities where there is so much to see and do (or not do, if you want to take it slow and soak it in). Ideally, set up a home base via a home rental or two and then use the car to take excursions when and if the mood suits. Eat out at times or cook in at times, see great sites or explore countryside at times, or look out and daydream at the local landscapes and hang out with the local people. Driving offers so much freedom, especially with a family and a spouse who packs enough for a major move… I am not one for group travel, though I understand the reasons people enjoy it. One group trip for a day to Delphi, Greece my entire life, and it was the worst experience in many, many years of traveling and living in Europe. You don’t want to be rushed through a sacred site…