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.)