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Is it cheaper to rent a car or travel by train in Europe?

Even after recent fare hikes, getting to Europe this summer will cost you less than staying there a week or two. That’s why you need to plan carefully about how you want to travel in Europe once you get there. A reader’s question puts the main options in perspective: “Am I better off buying a rail pass or renting a car?” As usual, the answer is a lot more complicated than the question. But I can easily identify the basics.

Let’s look at costs for a couple, traveling together, for both a one-week and a two-week trip. Here’s a basic first-cut estimate of what you’d pay, total, for two people, with a rental car at $300 a week, plus operating costs, or two three-country Eurail Selectpass Saver Passes:

One week Two weeks
Car 1,200 miles $540 $840
Car 2,400 miles $780 $1,080
Eurail Selectpass Saver Pass $650 (five days of travel) $856 (eight days of travel)

Renting a car

Although rental rates vary by country and by city within a country, I’ve found you can rent a compact car for under $300 a week in most of the popular European countries, and for around $250 in a few (Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, when I checked). These rates include tax but not any collision insurance, which I presume, as loyal visitors to SmarterTravel.com, you know to cover through your credit cards. I also figure the operating cost of a compact car to be about 20 cents a mile.

Virtually all European compact and larger rental cars now come with air-conditioning—you no longer have to pay extra. But you’ll still pay a premium of $50 to $150 a week for an automatic transmission.

You can cut your rental costs by going down to an “economy” car class, but I don’t recommend doing that. They’re too small and underpowered for extended driving.

Rentals that originate at some airports incur heavy extra fees and charges. When you’re checking rates, take a look at the breakdown of fees. If it shows some heavy airport charges, try the “downtown” rates for a possibly better deal.

Extras to figure: parking (city hotels and near major urban sightseeing centers); highway and bridge tolls.

Traveling by rail pass

Instead of paying by the size of the car and the miles you cover, as you do with a car, with a rail pass you pay by (1) the number of days of train travel you’re allowed during a one- or two-month period, and (2) how much geography the pass covers. I used the three-country Eurail Selectpass Saver Pass (available in first class only) as a typical best buy for a couple; “saver” passes throughout Europe require that both of you travel together whenever you take a train.

You can cut rail pass costs by limiting the number of days on which you can travel. All Eurail Selectpasses provide a minimum of five days; some national passes require only three days, with extra days on a per-day basis.

Saver passes are a good deal for many couples. But if either of you wants to take some solo excursions, you’ll have to buy the more expensive individual passes.

Extras to figure: Transport between rail stations and hotels and between rail stations and important visitor centers; seat reservation costs (not trivial on top trains).

The choice by dollars

In our table, the rental car beats the rail pass for the one-week, short mileage trip, and it effectively ties rail pass for the two-week, shorter mileage trip. Rail pass, on the other hand, does better for either longer mileage trip.

  • In general, rental cars look good for (1) short-duration trips, (2) trips where you move around a lot but don’t log a lot of miles, or (3) trips involving several different countries. The figures above are for a couple sharing a compact car; the cost per person for four people sharing a midsize car would be sharply lower. Conversely, a car is an extreme extravagance for a solo traveler.
  • Rail passes look good for (1) trips that log a lot of miles, (2) extended duration trips with a relatively limited number of days of heavy train travel, or (3) solo travelers.

Clearly, potential trips to Europe involve so many variables that you have to cost out your own specific itinerary. You can check car rental rates through SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool (be sure to include Auto Europe as one of the suppliers) and rail pass rates from Rail Europe, Eurail, or several other online sources.

Non-dollar factors

Cost isn’t the only basis for deciding between renting a car and traveling by rail pass:

  • A car is better for exploring small towns and the countryside and getting easily to out-of-town visitor attractions; you can also find lower-cost accommodations and meals in small towns than in cities.
  • The train is better if you’re interested mainly in staying and visiting attractions in the centers of major cities.

The least-cost alternative

However you do it, traveling inside Europe will add $500 to $1,000 to your total trip cost. You can avoid renting a car or buying a rail pass entirely by heading for just one major city and using local transport to get to the environs, as you need.

Even if you want to visit two cities, you’ll usually be better off by buying an open-jaw air ticket from your home airport to your first destination, returning from your second destination, and traveling between destinations by low-fare airline or one-ticket train trip.

But then you’ll also miss out on some of the fun. Your choice.

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