On my first trip to Europe with my Mom, I rented a car so we could get around. It worked out pretty well, although we got lost a couple of times. On my second trip, my husband and I also rented a car. We had a little trouble understanding the road signs, but got along okay.
When my daughters and I went to Europe in 2009, they insisted that we use the rail system for our transportation. Since that time, I have also used one of the low cost airlines to get from one place to another. There are advantages and disadvantages to each mode of transportation.
Renting a Car
Renting a car is a good budget option if there are three or more people in your group, because you can split the cost. A car is sometimes the best – or only – way to visit small towns in a timely manner. When we visited relatives in their small town, we rented a car because the closest train station was 20-30 minutes away from their home. Renting a car meant our relatives did not have to pick us up or drop us off at the station.
One of the problems with renting a car, though, is that someone has to drive. The driver has to pay close attention to the road rather than just looking around at the views. Although the road signs are usually easy to understand, if you are not familiar with the geography, it can be tricky. We found the exit signs directed us to a city much further away and didn’t mention the close one we were looking for.
Another potential problem is paying for gas (petrol) or tolls. Some stations do not have attendants and only accept credit cards that work with a chip and pin. Toll booths accept cash (sometimes coins only) or chip and pin cards. If you don’t plan ahead, you may be stuck. Chip cards are more readily available now, but not all of them work with a pin. If you are driving, be sure to check with your credit card company to see what your options are.
Riding the Train
The rail system in Europe is fantastic! You can take public transportation almost anywhere. The prices are reasonable, especially if you buy your ticket early. Overnight trains can save the cost of a hotel. The trains are generally clean and comfortable. Everyone can enjoy the ride.
The disadvantages of train travel are few. Tickets purchased on the day of travel or for a group of people can be expensive. There are ways to reduce the cost even in these circumstances, though. German “Lander” tickets allow up to five people on one ticket. In Switzerland, the purchase of a “Swiss Pass” can give you free or discounted fares for 3-15 days, so if you are staying awhile, this pass can be a way to save.
If you are traveling from place to place by train, you will have to bring your luggage with you. Most train cars have luggage racks near the entrances. Be sure to lock your luggage – you can also use a cable lock to attach it to the luggage rack if you want. Use the same care as you would at home.
If you are stopping somewhere for the day before moving on, check to see if the train station has lockers – many do – so you can check your luggage for the day. One time we stopped in Monte Carlo, Monaco, on our way to Nice, France. That train station does not have lockers, so we had to take our luggage everywhere we went. It was inconvenient, so we didn’t stay as long as we would have liked.
There are several regional airlines, like German Wings or Ryanair that offer cheap flights throughout Europe. These flights are time-saving and budget friendly if you pay attention to the rules. We flew from London to Dublin in much less time than it would have taken to take the train to the port and then the ferry across the Irish Sea.
We flew out of Gatwick – a short train ride from central London. The low-cost airlines usually do not fly out of major airports. Be sure to check which airport is used and what kind of transportation you will need to get to that airport. Sometimes getting to the airport costs as much as the flight.
Low cost airlines keep the flight prices low but add on fees to make up the difference. If you want to check a bag, make sure you pay the fee during the booking process. If you pay at the airport, you can be charged double. Fees are charged for choosing a seat, for checking in at the airport instead of from your hotel, and for bringing sports equipment or musical instruments. Again, if you pay during booking, you will save money.
Planes, trains or automobiles? You have several choices for how to get around Europe and each situation is different. Check out your options and then book your tickets!