Years ago, it was easy to decide how to get around in Europe. If you planned to visit major cities and intended to travel in Europe for a few weeks, you bought a Eurail pass and took the train. If your itinerary included small towns or rural destinations, you rented a car and cringed as you paid for your expensive gasoline. Travel to islands involved overnight ferries or costly airline tickets.
These days, you have more affordable transportation choices. The advent of Ryanair and Europe’s other budget airlines means that flying may be your best choice for long-distance travel. The Eurostar Chunnel train and hydrofoil ferries offer faster, although pricier, alternatives to slow, all-night ferry trips.
When planning your trip to Europe, consider all the aspects of your trip, not just your transportation alternatives:
A rental car can be a huge liability in cities. In some places, such as London and Milan, you will pay a pollution fee when you drive downtown. Other cities, including Rome and Paris, are famous for their traffic, one-way streets and excitable drivers. Parking can be difficult to find, and it’s nearly always expensive. If you plan to visit several different cities on your trip, consider taking trains or budget airlines between them. You may pay a little more for your train ticket than you would to rent a car, but you will save yourself hours of driving-related headaches.
If you plan to take the train to smaller towns, remember that train stations aren’t always in the town center. In Italy, for example, you’ll often find train stations at the base of a hill, with the town perched up above. You will need to take a bus or taxi to your hotel unless you like to hike. Train arrival times aren’t always convenient, so you will want to spend some time learning to read train schedules before you get to your first train station.
On the other hand, trains don’t go everywhere, and airplanes can only fly to cities with airports. If you long to visit French vineyards or travel along Italy’s Amalfi Coast, a car might be your best choice. You’ll need to invest in a good set of maps – buy them in a European bookstore when you arrive – or bring along your GPS unit, with appropriate map software installed. Be aware that you’ll need to carry your GPS with you rather than leave it in your rental car.
Buses are another option, especially if the thought of driving in Europe is intimidating. You should be able to find long distance bus routes and schedules online. You can easily criss-cross any major European city by bus. Taking the bus lets you see how the locals get around, and you’ll get a great view of city neighborhoods and monuments. Of course, if you take the bus during peak commuting hours, crowded conditions and slow travel will be part of your travel experience.
The size of your travel group will be an important factor when you choose your ground transportation. Solo travelers will probably find that train and airline travel are affordable options, because they would bear the entire cost of renting a car alone. Couples and small groups will need to break out the calculators to identify the most cost-effective alternative.
In some countries, renting a car is quite expensive, especially if you need a car with an automatic transmission. If you know how to drive using a manual, or “standard,” transmission, you’ll save money and you’ll be able to rent a smaller car that gets better gas mileage. Everyone in your group will need to agree on the driving itinerary and seating arrangements, and you’ll all need to pack light. European rental cars are usually small, and some compact cars don’t have trunk space for large suitcases. Vans are available, but they are usually quite expensive, and you won’t be able to drive or park them easily in tiny hill towns. You'll usually save money by making your rental car reservations before you leave the U.S.
ViaMichelin’s website has a useful calculator that will show you how much it costs to drive a given itinerary. You can enter your route preferences and type of vehicle in the “Options” section. The website will not only provide you a map and driving directions, but also tell you how much your gasoline will cost and how much you will pay in tolls.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Time is money,” and it’s especially true when applied to transportation. You’ll typically pay more to reach your destination quickly. When you compare the cost of renting a car to the price of a train or bus ticket, you’ll probably save money by taking public transportation. Your trip will take longer, though, if you are trying to get to a small town. If your travel time is limited, renting a car might be a better option because you will be able to drive directly to the sights you want to visit, without worrying about train connections, layovers or multiple stops along the way.
The exception to this “rule” is city-to-city train travel. It’s much faster, for example, to take a fast train between Rome and Naples than it is to drive - and it's safer, too.
If you plan to visit Europe during the summer months, consider using budget airlines instead of trains between cities. Airfares are very low if you purchase your tickets several months in advance. You’ll still need to take a bus, rental car or taxi to your hotel, but you’ll be traveling between cities very quickly at a reasonable price.
Some travelers prefer to leave the driving to someone else. The thought of getting behind the wheel during rush hour in Paris is just too intimidating. Reading road signs while trying to comprehend the locals’ driving style can be quite stressful. Renting a car in the United Kingdom or Ireland also involves learning to drive on the other side of the road. If you’d rather not face these challenges, you’re not alone. It’s relatively easy to create a workable itinerary around train and bus schedules; thousands of tourists do it every year.