Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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By Travel columnist
updated 4/10/2006 2:01:23 PM ET 2006-04-10T18:01:23

Back in the days of free love and VW buses, the Eurailpass was the only way to travel through Europe. It was the bargain to end all bargains — especially if you slept on the trains.

But today, it’s almost always cheaper to rent a car. Eurailpass prices have increased a lot in the last 30 years, and rental car rates have come down. Solo travelers will usually spend more for a car than a rail pass, but for two or more people traveling together, a rental car is almost always the better deal.

Back in the heyday of the rail passes, auto travel through Europe was an arduous affair. True, there was a small network of superhighways in France, Italy and Germany, but for the most part, the roads in Europe a quarter-century ago were almost exclusively two-lane affairs — and that goes for Great Britain and Ireland, too.

Today, high-speed roadways link all corners of Europe. Trips that once took two days can now be driven in less than 10 hours, and daylong journeys are now four-hour jaunts. Sometimes you have to look hard to find a less-traveled byway.

The rail-pass world

This year, the venerable Eurailpass costs $605 for 15 days of travel anywhere in Europe except the United Kingdom. Discounted Eurailpasses are available for $513, but two people must travel together. Train passes are also available for various country combinations; for example, a France/Spain combination pass sells for $522 (first class) or $459 (second class).

There are also some 10-day in-country passes available; generally, these must be used within one or two months. A 10-day pass for Germany costs $464 (first class) and $324 (second class); a pass for Spain costs $470 (first class) and $385 (second class); and France has similar pricing. The BritRail pass, good for 15 days, costs $702 (first class) and $469 (second class).

This means that two people traveling together for 10 or 15 days will spend between $648 and $1,404 on a rail pass, depending on where they purchase their pass and whether they purchase a first- or second-class ticket.

The car rental world

American drivers can rent cars throughout Europe with their valid state driver’s license and a credit card. However, an International Driving Permit is recommended.

AutoEurope is the best one-stop source for rental cars, and it has the best rates bookable from the United States. (You can also rent cars from AutoEurope while you are traveling by calling toll-free numbers available on their Web site or by making the reservations online.)

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AutoEurope has a lowest-price guarantee and it guarantees that your price will not increase after booking. In many cases, you will pay less for a car by renting through AutoEurope (even with their three-day minimum) than you would by renting a car for a single day directly through an agency in Europe.

Renting a compact car for 15 days in most of Europe costs between $400 and $525. In Italy, the cost is higher, around $700, because collision and liability insurance are included by law. In Germany, expect to pay $512 for 15 days; in France, $417; in Spain, $475; and in the Netherlands, $450.

So, let’s do the math. Two 10- or 15-day rail passes cost between $648 and $1,402. The lower-priced pass covers train travel in only one country (in this case, Germany).

Mind you, gasoline costs around $6 per gallon throughout Europe. Assuming that travelers drive 125 miles a day for 15 days, the cost of gasoline will come to around $500. Add in tolls (which are quite high in Italy, France and Spain) and the bottom line is still good: the cost for a 15-day compact rental car from AutoEurope including gas for two weeks ranges between about $900 and $1000-no matter how many people are in the car. Plus, your travel is not restricted to any one country or group of countries.

More than euros and cents

The economic case for renting a car in Europe is surprisingly easy to make. Of course, the ability to sleep on trains while covering long distances is still a money-saving bonus for those who want to board in Paris in the evening and wake up in Rome the next morning, and train travelers don’t have to worry about drop-off charges. Many people also swear by train travel as a wonderful way to meet other travelers and to get tips from locals.

But there are more important reasons than simple economics for intrepid travelers to choose a rental car over a train pass.

  • Wider sightseeing. Train travelers too often spend their vacations within a mile radius of the train station. With a car, you can head out to explore a castle that appears on the horizon, search for a famous country pub or visit towns that are off the tourist route.
  • Savings on hotels and shopping. A car allows travelers to stay in small towns on the fringes of major cities, where room rates are lower. A car can also take you to shops at commercial centers on the edge of town, where the pricing is not so much driven by tourist dollars.
  • Easy parking. If you travel by car, you can park at your hotel, where the charge is often included in your room rate. Excellent public transportation throughout Europe will take visitors to almost any city center.
  • Less lugging of luggage. A car makes it easy to move from town to town without having to drag your suitcases down platforms, onto buses and trams and up hotel stairs.
  • Master of your own fate. A car puts travelers in control of their own itineraries. Eat, stop, start and shop according to your schedule, not the railroad timetable.

My advice for travelers planning to visit the European countryside or several different European cities over a couple of weeks: Rent a car. You’ll get more for your money and better memories, too.

Miscellaneous notes

  • There are age limits in Britain, Ireland, Greece and Cyprus due to local insurance laws. The limit is 74 years of age.
  • The least expensive rental cars in Europe usually have manual transmissions. Cars with automatic transmissions are more expensive.
  • For longer rentals — from 17 to 175 days — travelers can consider the AutoEurope/Peugeot Buy-Back Program which a brand-new Peugeot direct from the factory. The lead-in rate for a Peugeot 206, gasoline engine, manual transmission for $900 for a 17-day rental.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.


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