Why You Might Want to Tour Europe By Train, Not Plane
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Last month, Eurostar launched twice-daily direct train service from London to Amsterdam. Taking just three hours and 41 minutes from city-center to city-center (and offering complimentary Wi-Fi), this service is serious competition for nonstop flights.
Although nonstop flights take only about an hour and offer 30 to 50 options daily, travel time to and from the airports — to say nothing of the shrinking seat pitch — can make the train ride a more attractive for some travelers.
This isn’t the only route in Europe where trains compete with planes. Indeed, there are many train options in Europe that can compete with flights, especially for travelers with specific travel needs.
For example, I recently traveled by train from Rome, Italy to Hamburg, Germany with overnight stops in Bologna, Italy and Munich, Germany. The entire journey cost me slightly less than a nonstop flight while offering me more room, excellent scenery, the chance to see more cities and zero bag fees. It was also a significantly more comfortable trip for my cat, Grace.
For some travelers, taking a train ride can be better than flying. To help you have the best European vacation ever (by land and by sea), we’re teaching you how to best search for different options on routes and how to buy train tickets (that means determining when a rail pass or discount card might be a good idea).
When to Use Trains
Depending on the details of your trip and your personal travel style, trains can be a great method of transportation. They’re fast, comfortable and — if you have a fear of flying — they never leave the ground.
To Depart and Arrive in the City Center
In most European cities, the main train station is located in the a central, downtown neighborhood. This means you’ll likely disembark closer to your hotel, popular attractions or restaurants. Centrally located train stations also make it easier to take day trips to nearby cities.
To Sit Comfortably
Most intra-Europe flights — even in business class — aren’t comfortable for tall or larger passengers. Alternatively, most European trains have decent seat pitch and a variety of seating configurations: seats facing each other, seats in compartments, seats in rows and single seats.
If You’re Traveling With Children
Many trains have special family areas, some of which are stocked with toys and games. Travelers may even be able to snag a regular six-seat compartment for just their family. Children (and grown-ups, too) will likely enjoy looking out the windows and paying visits to the dining car. Most trains also have storage areas for strollers.
Once a child is over the age of two, flying as a family can become very expensive. Some train operators, however, offer family tickets, while others offer discounted fares for children.
If You’re Traveling With Pets
Traveling with a pet is certainly easier and cheaper by train than by plane. Small pets in carriers usually ride free while larger pets on a leash can typically ride for a child’s fare — but always check the policies of the specific train company and train type before booking a trip. One major European rail service that doesn’t allow pets is, unfortunately, Eurostar.
Train travel is less stressful than plane travel for most pets (and their owners). Animals won’t have to endure a security check, altitude acclimatization or be kept squeezed under a seat. Although pets should remain on their leash or in their carrier, it’s acceptable to hold the pet in your lap or set the carrier on the table.
Or You’re Traveling With Extra Luggage
Baggage fees can add up quickly on many domestic flights in Europe, but there’s effectively no luggage limit on most European trains. This being said, travelers must find acceptable places to store their belongings on the train such as luggage racks, under or behind seats and in designated luggage areas.
Larger items — including bikes, skis and fishing rods — can usually be transported with few or no fees. And unlike air travel, it’s totally fine to keep that bottle of wine you picked up in France in your carry-on during a train ride.
You’d Rather Not Fly
Trains can also be a good option if you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint from flights. According to Eurostar, their high-speed London to Amsterdam train ride emits 80% less carbon, per passenger, than the equivalent flight.
To Travel During the Night
Sleeper trains run between many of Europe’s larger cities. Tickets can be reasonably priced, especially if bought well in advance. Plus, you won’t need a hotel for the night you spend on the train (especially helpful for travelers on tight schedules or looking to save money).
European sleeper trains usually have three options:
- Seat: You’ll spend the night sitting upright in a seat. This is the cheapest option and is similar to sleeping in economy class on an aircraft. Although the seats may recline, this isn’t guaranteed.
- Couchette: Couchette cars have four to six bunks in each compartment. These compartments are usually mixed gender, although there are reports that female-only compartments can sometimes be arranged at the station. A sheet, blanket and pillow are typically provided for each bunk. The price difference is often minimal between four- and six-berth couchettes, so pay a little more for a four-berth compartment to reduce noise and have more room for luggage.
- Sleeper: Sleeper cars usually have one to three bunks in each compartment. Sometimes sleeper car passengers have access to a shower, and some sleeper compartments may have private ensuite toilets or sinks. Sleeper compartments are generally gender-segregated unless an entire compartment is booked by a group. A sheet, blanket and pillow are provided for each bunk.
You Want to Enjoy the Scenery
Europe has many scenic rail routes. With a good podcast or audio book, even long train journeys can pass quickly while admiring the passing landscapes.
Or Want to Have a Picnic
One final benefit of traveling by train instead of plane is that you can bring a picnic on board. There’s often a dining or snack car attached to long distance trains, but since you rarely have to pass through security you can, more or less, bring whatever you want. Most trains even allow passengers to bring on their own wine and beer.
How to Determine the Best Route
If you want to take a train between two cities, you have to determine the best route. Especially when planning train travel in an unfamiliar part of Europe, start by considering the options provided by Google Maps, Deutsche Bahn (DB) and Rome2Rio.
Google Maps has a surprising amount of European train schedule data, especially for connections between larger cities. Its results are great for determining how frequently trains run, and how long of a journey you might face.
There’s also a handy “Tickets and information” section at the bottom of the left-hand panel once you select an option. Sometimes there’s a “Buy tickets” option, while other times the operator’s website is linked or the operator’s name is given.
Deutsche Bahn (DB) is a German railway company — it’s also the largest railway operator and infrastructure owner in Europe. The DB website and app are easy to use for routing and schedules. DB provides train schedules not just for the trains they operate and but also for most European trains.
Rome2Rio is particularly useful for finding transport options when visiting more “off the beaten path” or rural destinations.
When I recently visited Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, Google Maps showed no trains between Sarajevo and Mostar, and DB didn’t have data for either city. Yet Rome2Rio showed twice-daily trains — which did exist and were both brand new and affordable.
Rome2Rio also intelligently combines train, bus, shuttle, ferry, air and taxi options.
During a recent stay at Holiday Inn Nola – Naples Vulcano Buono (a Spring 2018 IHG Points Breaks 5,000 point property) Rome2Rio provided me with public transport options from Bologna Centrale via both trains and taxi, while Google simply claimed no routes existed.
How to Buy Tickets
Once you’ve found a route, it’s time to determine how much the tickets will cost and how best to purchase them.
First, find the official channel for buying tickets. This can be difficult, as there are often many travel agencies and official-sounding services that will gladly sell you tickets at marked-up prices. And sometimes, there will be multiple official, direct channels for buying — yet they may each charge a different price.
One example of this is the EuroCity train between Munich and Bologna. The train is operated by both Austrian Federal Railways (OBB) and Germany’s DB, so tickets can be bought from either company. When I checked dates about a month out for the exact same train and product, however, DB was selling tickets from 39.90 euros (about $48) while OBB was selling tickets from 59 euros (about $70).
Prices are dynamic for many European train tickets, so don’t be surprised if the fares increase over time as the train becomes more full. But dynamic pricing can sometimes yield first class tickets priced similarly to — or even less than — a second class ticket.
On the other hand, some fares may require purchase a set number of days before your journey, which can leave only expensive fares for last-minute purchases. Saver fares for Germany’s DB, for example, must be purchased at least three days before departure.
Some trains include seat reservations in the price of the ticket while other trains don’t offer seat reservations at all.
There’s a third variant to consider, too: trains that offer, but don’t require, the purchase of a seat reservation. I’m personally most familiar with this concept on Germany’s InterCity Express (ICE) trains. Seat reservations cost 4.50 euros (roughly $5.30) on these trains, so I usually buy one to ensure I get a seat. If you decide to travel on a train like this without a seat reservation, there’s often a panel above each seat noting if it’s reserved for any particular segments.
Finally, some operators offer passengers the opportunity to buy a discount card or join a frequent traveler program. Although certain programs are only open to residents of the operator’s home country, such as Trenitalia’s CartaFRECCIA program, others are open to anyone. One such example is DB’s BahnCard subscription, which can occasionally save you money even in one booking.
When to Buy a Rail Pass
Rail passes can also hold great value. Although a rail pass won’t make sense for all travelers, it can make sense if you either plan to visit multiple cities by train and these routes are usually expensive, or you want to be flexible on your travel dates and destinations.
If you plan to visit many cities by train — and have, or are willing to have, a set schedule — price out how much it would cost to buy each ticket individually. If it’s similar or more than the cost of the pass, buy the pass. If you want to travel flexibly, a rail pass can certainly make sense but it’s more difficult to calculate the break-even point.
There are two main types of rail passes available to US residents: the Eurail Pass and passes from individual rail companies. Remember that these passes aren’t necessarily accepted by all operators, so be sure to consider this when comparing options. It’s also important to note that passes usually need to be bought and shipped to your home in advance of your departure.
For either type of rail pass, you’ll still need to pay for seat reservations — which are sometimes mandatory — and surcharges for couchette or sleeper bunks on night trains.
There are three main types of Eurail passes: Global, Select and One Country. The Global pass allows access to up to 28 countries in Europe, while the Select pass allows access to 2, 3 or 4 bordering countries. The One Country pass, as its name implies, allows access to a single country.
The Eurail website has a handy tool that allows you to find the best Eurail pass for your trip based on the length of your time in Europe, the number of travelers (and whether these travelers will always travel together, which gives a 15% discount), which countries you’ll visit, how long you’ll spend in each country and how many travel days you’ll need in each country. Using this tool can help you decide whether a Eurail pass is right for your trip.
Passes from Individual Operators
If you’re planning on spending most of your time in one country, but planning to travel by train on at least a few days within that country, do a quick search to see if any of the train operators in that country offer train passes.
As an example, DB offers Flexi passes where you travel three to 15 days spread out over one month. If you buy the right number of days and use the pass on days where tickets would otherwise be expensive, you can come out ahead — especially if you’re traveling in high season or as a pair. By way of example, for seven days of travel within a month, one second class adult would pay 280 euros (about $335) while two adults traveling on a “twin pass” would pay only 416 euros (about $498).
How to Decide Between Trains and Planes on Specific Routes
On many European routes, trains are competitive with flights.
Below are five major European routes where this is the case. For each of these routes, train and flight prices listed are the cheapest I could find on a direct route, on the same date, about one month away. “Trip Time” is the duration of flight or train ride, while “Total Time” accounts for required check-in time and average transit time on either end of the flight or train to reach the city center. We’ve also taken into consideration the seat pitch.
|London to Amsterdam||Plane||Train|
|Lowest Cost||$29 for flight
(before train +
|Extra||36m train + bus to LTN,
7m train from AMS
The second route is from Brussels, Belgium to Paris, France:
|Brussels to Paris||Plane||Train|
|Lowest Cost||$336 for flight
(before taxi +
|Extra||21m taxi to BRU +
1h30m checkin +
27m taxi from CDG
The third route is from Madrid, Spain to Valencia, Spain:
|Madrid to Valencia||Plane||Train|
|Lowest Cost||$66 for flight
(before taxi +
|Extra||15m taxi to MAD +
1h30m checkin +
16m taxi from VLC
The fourth route is from Rome, Italy to Bologna, Italy:
|Rome to Bologna||Plane||Train|
|Lowest Cost||$91 for flight
(before taxi +
|Extra||1h taxi or train to FCO +
1h30m checkin +
30m taxi from BLQ
|Berlin to Munich||Plane||Train|
|Lowest Cost||$49 for flight
+ baggage costs)
|Extra||24m bus to TXL +
1h30m checkin +
40m taxi/train from MUC
On some of these routes, such as Brussels to Paris; Madrid to Valencia; and Rome to Bologna, taking the train is quicker, cheaper and more comfortable. On others, however — including the increasingly competitive London to Amsterdam route — the decision comes down to whether convenience, legroom or other factors (including your pet, luggage, and interest in watching the passing scenery) are more important.
Certain travelers — including those that are exceptionally tall, have lots of luggage, are traveling with children or are traveling with pets — may find trains simply make more sense than planes when exploring Europe, even if the train costs more or takes a bit longer.
Even for travelers that simply care about using the fastest form of transport possible — until the Hyperloop opens, that is — rail services can often win over airlines due to high speed trains reaching up to 360 kilometers (224 miles) per hour and centrally-located train stations.
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