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updated 5/20/2011 9:37:11 AM ET 2011-05-20T13:37:11

Europe's extensive network of railroads was once the only affordable option for folks traveling around the continent, but lately the rails have lost their supremacy. Discount airlines like Ryanair and easyJet have made jetting around the continent quicker and cheaper; in fact, Ryanair often offers sales with fares as low as 8 pounds (about $13.36 US).

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With fares this cheap, does it make sense even to consider traveling by train anymore? The answer: It depends. For one thing, the discount airlines aren't actually quite as cheap as they appear. Even if you do net an incredibly affordable flight, government taxes and fees bump the price up to at least $25 or $30.

Then come the airlines' own fees. On Ryanair, there are so many that the airline has put together a handy table so you can see at a glance what you'll be charged for checked bags (with higher rates during the summertime and December holiday "peak" periods), online check-in, priority boarding, even purchasing a flight (you'll pay an "administration fee" of 6 pounds unless you make your booking with a MasterCard prepaid debit card).

EasyJet charges similar fees for checked baggage and for booking with certain types of credit or debit cards.

One more factor to take into account: Discount airlines tend to fly into secondary airports that are an hour or more outside of the city you're trying to visit. Trains, on the other hand, typically arrive in or near the center of town, and usually link up easily with the city's mass transportation system.

We tested fares on easyJet, Ryanair and Rail Europe to see who had the lowest price, the most convenient connections and the quickest journey. See below to see how each travel provider stacked up on three common European itineraries.

London - Paris - Rome - London
This popular itinerary was our first test subject since London is the cheapest gateway to Europe for most Americans. It's important to note that London has four different airports, and that most Americans will fly into Heathrow or, less commonly, Gatwick. The discount airlines, meanwhile, fly from Stansted, Luton or Gatwick, not Heathrow — so be sure to allow plenty of time to transfer between airports if your itinerary so requires.

The Winner: EasyJet edged out Ryanair for first place based on convenience and total travel time. EasyJet offers direct flights for each leg of our itinerary, so booking was a breeze, and the travel time was a little less than six total hours in the air. The price with taxes: $317.94 (if purchased with a Visa Electron card, which is not available to Americans), $332.64 if purchased with a Visa debit card or $341.53 (if booked with another type of credit card). These prices include one checked bag on each flight, prebooked on the easyJet Web site. (Check your bag at the airport and the fee doubles.) EasyJet's site was easier than Ryanair's to use, allowing us to search "all London airports" when booking.

Note: For our three flights, we had to fly in and out of six different airports — Charles de Gaulle and Orly (Paris), Luton and Gatwick (London), and Fiumicino and Ciampino (Rome).

The Runner-Up: Ryanair offered somewhat similar pricing to easyJet — $309.59 with a single checked bag up to 15 kilograms (33 pounds) or $376.35 with a single checked bag up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) — but, surprisingly, offered no direct flights from London to Paris. Because the search function on Ryanair.com won't make connections for you, we were forced to try out a variety of connecting cities one by one. We found the best deal on flights from London Stansted to Glasgow Prestwick and then on to Paris Beauvais, but the extra flight and layover boosted our total travel time significantly. A few other caveats: Beauvais is probably the least convenient airport for Paris-bound travelers, requiring a shuttle bus ride of more than an hour to get into the center of the city. And while Ryanair.com was easy to use, there was no option to search all London airports; instead, we had to test each of the three individually.

The Loser: The train was the clear third choice for this itinerary since the cities involved are so far apart. The total estimated time of all three legs was a vacation-eating 28 hours — and the price couldn't compensate for the transit time, adding up to $412 per person.

Rome - Florence - Venice - Rome
This itinerary is a common one for first-time visitors interested in seeing Italy's highlights. We assumed here that our test traveler flew from the United States into Rome, usually the cheapest Italian gateway city for Americans. Because of the relative proximity of the three cities involved, this turned out to be a much more train-friendly itinerary than our first test case.

The Winner: Eurail won this round by a landslide, offering the shortest trip and most convenient itinerary. The lowest available price was $137 for this itinerary, with a travel time of 12 hours. Cut the travel time down to seven hours (by taking high-speed express trains) and the price goes up to $313. Eurail was the only option of the three that served all three of the cities we wanted to visit (Ryanair and easyJet fly into Pisa, not Florence). One final perk of taking the train? In most cases you'll arrive at a train station near the center of each city, with quick, easy connections by subway to hotels and sightseeing.

The Runner-Up: Neither airline really shone in this comparison, with no direct flights between any of the cities on our itinerary. However, Ryanair gets our vote for runner-up because we did eventually manage to piece our itinerary together with 17 hours of flights and layovers. (That doesn't even take into account how early you need to arrive at the airport before your flights to get through security!) The initial fare quote was $298.82 for six flights — 65 bucks more than the fast trains — and that's not including the checked bag fees. Checking a single bag for all of those flights will set you back an additional $222.36 to $266.52 (depending on weight and whether you travel during peak or off-peak seasons), for a total price up to $565.34.

The Loser: EasyJet loses out because we couldn't find a way to get between Pisa and Venice on our selected travel date; we tried layovers in several different cities, but the flight times were simply incompatible. Our only choice would have been to stay overnight in the connecting city — or to have skipped Florence altogether and just flown on the convenient, nonstop flight from Rome to Venice.

Paris - Barcelona - Lisbon - Paris
This itinerary is a bit less common than our first two, and it proved impossible to book on Ryanair, which doesn't offer flights to Lisbon. We used Paris, another common gateway for U.S. travelers, as a starting point. Because the cities are relatively far apart, this itinerary favored easyJet over Eurail.

The Winner: EasyJet came out on top with an affordable total cost ($304.90 if booked with a Visa debit card or $313.79 with a non-Visa Electron credit card) and direct flights for all three legs. The fare above includes a single checked bag of no more than 20 kilograms.

The Runner-Up: Rail travel comes in at a distant second place, at $481 for a Eurail Select Pass, which allows five days of train travel in three countries and is several hundred dollars cheaper than booking point-to-point tickets. We added up a total of about 47 hours of travel time. While that's significant, keep in mind that overnight trains are an option; these allow you to save time (and money on a hotel room) by traveling while you sleep.

The Loser: Ryanair is the loser by default, as the airline doesn't fly to Lisbon. It does fly elsewhere in Portugal, to Porto and Faro, both about three hours away from Lisbon by train. Ryanair flies direct between Paris Beauvais and Barcelona's main international airport — but Beauvais is more than an hour by bus from downtown Paris.

The Bottom Line
We learned quite a few things in the oft-laborious process of testing all these itineraries — first, that finding a good deal takes time! Though easyJet.com, Ryanair.com and RailEurope.com are relatively easy sites to use, it often takes a bit of manipulation to get the itinerary you want, especially when connections are involved.

Our second lesson was that although discount airlines may be on the rise, you shouldn't dismiss the train option altogether. Particularly for itineraries where the cities aren't far apart, the train may still be your most economical and even your quickest choice. However, the more distance your itinerary covers, the more appealing a plane is likely to look (unless you're willing to consider overnight trains).

You might also want to consider combining your options. EasyJet may offer the cheapest fare for the first leg of your trip, but the next leg may be better served by train. If easyJet doesn't fly to your city of choice, there's a chance Ryanair might. To search more than one discount airline at a time, try SkyScanner.net, which shows you estimated prices for routes within Europe on various airlines including Ryanair, easyJet, bmi, Aer Lingus and more.

Finally, ultra-cheap flight offers aside, beware of the many hidden costs that could significantly boost your price tag — everything from baggage fees and credit card surcharges to the price of transferring from one London airport to another. Keep in mind that flights may look shorter on paper, but you'll also spend more time going through security and transferring into the city you're visiting than you would for a journey on the rails.

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