When we think about traveling around Europe, most of us immediately think of choosing between taking trains—usually with a rail pass—and renting a car. These days, however, a bunch of new low-fare airlines are rewriting the book about intra-European travel. Especially over long distances, flying is now often cheaper than taking trains.
A reader’s recent inquiry about a specific trip illustrates this point. “We are a family of five (two adults, three children ages nine, seven, and three) going to Europe for five weeks next year,” emailed the reader, continuing, “We would like a week each in London, Paris, Cinque Terre, Rome, and Vienna. What would be the cheapest and easiest way to get between these cities: rental car, rail, or air?”
The sample trip
Since the reader didn’t go into any more detail, I’ve assumed that the family will fly to Europe on “open-jaw” air tickets: Fly from their home city to London, return from either Munich or Vienna. Within that context, the family would have two basic options:
- A primarily driving trip, spending some time in the countryside between city visits.
- A primarily rail or air trip, relying on public transportation for inter-city travel and local sightseeing.
The first week would be the same for either trip. Given that it will be in London, renting a car wouldn’t make sense. Moreover, it wouldn’t make sense to rent a right-hand-drive car in the U.K., then to take it to the Continent, paying the stiff ferry charges. But the final four weeks could take either of two forms. (All cost figures are for two adults and three children, as of mid-May. I do not include incidental local transportation costs that would be common regardless of basic trip design.)
The family would start out taking the Eurostar train from London to Calais or Lille, where they would pick up a car for the remainder of the trip. The train fares would be about $325.
The best deal on a car for four weeks would be a French lease. The cost for a car suitable for a family of five would be $1,600-$2,000, including the fee to return the car in Munich rather than in France (return is not available in Vienna). The cost of fuel would be around $500. So the transportation cost of the driving trip would be, say $2,000 to $2,500.
Air or rail trip
The family could start out by flying from London to Paris. However, the best airfare deal I could find (on easyJet) would run about the same as Eurostar train tickets, and taking the train would be much easier and faster—and less expensive, given the cost of getting to and from airports. So figure on $350 for train tickets.
Flying the family from Paris to Pisa (the closest airport to Cinque Terre) would cost about $350 on easyJet, plus around $40 for airport access; train tickets from Paris to Pisa would cost about $550. The train trip would take more than 12 hours and might entail sitting up all night in second class—not a happy prospect. Here is a clear case where a low-fare airline beats the train in both cost and convenience.
Once in Pisa, the family would take trains to Cinque Terre and from Cinque Terre to Rome. Figure on about $200 for those local trains.
Flying the family from Rome to Vienna would cost about $350 on Blu-express (a new low-cost Italian airline) plus another $40 for airport access. Train tickets would cost about $200 (on a special “value” fare), but again possibly requiring an overnight sit-up trip. This is a case where a special rail fare beats the best available air deal.
Total transportation costs by one mode: Mainly air, about $1,330. Mainly rail, about $1,300—essentially a tie. However, there’s little chance that the family would have to pay much more for rail tickets, no matter what, while air costs could increase dramatically depending on when they buy tickets and the flights they select.
But there’s no reason the family would have to stick to a single mode. If they combined the air trip from Paris to Pisa and the rail trip from Rome to Vienna, the total cost would fall to $1,140.
How about rail passes? Once in France, the family could use three-country (France, Italy, Austria) Eurail Selectpasses for $1,100 instead of buying individual rail tickets. However, the total cost with Eurostar plus rail passes, at $1,450, is actually higher than the cost with individual tickets.
For travel around Europe, this sample trip illustrates some of the tradeoffs you encounter:
- Low-fare airlines are re-writing the book on cheap, long-haul travel within Europe. They’re often less expensive than trains for such trips as Paris-Pisa.
- But to get those low fares, you have to book well in advance and be willing to fly at off-peak hours. I could have easily doubled the airfare cost by booking close to the departure date or insisting on prime-time flights.
- Moreover, trains can still be less expensive on some long-haul routes. You can’t assume either will be best; you have to check each trip.
- On shorter trips, trains are usually less expensive than flying, especially with the added costs of getting to and from airports. For these trips, European trains are also usually faster, door-to-door, and always more comfortable.
- Other than for a trip mostly driving through the countryside and staying in smaller towns—or a trip with a car, full time, in each city—renting a car can be an expensive way to travel through Europe.
- Although rail passes are great for some kinds of trips, buying individual tickets is often less expensive than buying a pass.
Clearly, every trip is unique. But this sample should provide a pretty good idea about how to compare costs. Probably the easiest way to get reliable cost estimates is to use Auto Europe as a source for car rentals and Rail Europe for the prices of individual train tickets and rail passes.
For air trips, one way to get fare information is to enter trip details in SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool specifying a search that includes the Kayak, Mobissimo, or Yahoo FareChase fare search systems. However, that approach might not catch all of the new low-fare lines, so after finding a quote through BookingBuddy.com, check on other airlines by logging onto flycheapo.com, a locator site for European low-fare lines.