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Europe: Rail or road? 10 tips

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Not everyone agreed with my recent appraisal of train and car travel in Europe. Yes, rental cars can be a better bargain than rail passes, but there are still plenty of reasons to take the train, I was told. Quite right. So, in the interests of evenhandedness, I give you five reasons to ride and five reasons to drive.

Some readers took my recent column on train and car travel in Europe as a general train trouncing. It wasn’t meant to be.

Train travel has a long, distinguished and sometimes romantic history in Europe, and it was once the cheapest mode of transportation short of lacing up your hiking boots or sticking out your thumb. Today, rail passes are no longer the bargain they once were (in fact, the conclusion of that first column was that the cost of rail and auto travel is now comparable when two or more people are traveling together), but there are still plenty of reasons to take the train.

The truth is, there’s no “best way” to travel through Europe. Sometimes it’s better to rent a car, and sometimes it’s better to hop on the train.

Here are 10 European travel situations, with advice on which way to go.


  • Traveling alone. Rail is almost always the better deal for the solo traveler, especially if you can use a discounted train pass. In most cases, the cost of a rental car, tolls and gasoline will be about twice as much as the cost of the train.

  • Visiting only a few major cities. Train travel between the major cities of Europe is generally fast and easy, while getting into and out of the cities by car can be a chore. In town, stick with local transportation. Compare the cost of rail passes and regular train tickets carefully; the passes are not always the best deal if you are visiting only a handful of cities.

  • Visiting only one major city. Never rent a car if you intend to stay in one city. Parking is next to impossible and/or expensive in almost every European capital, and driving through the old city centers is often tortuous and confusing. Besides, Europe’s urban mass transit systems are excellent.
  • Traveling through Switzerland. The deciding factor here is the difficulty of the driving on mountain roads, which takes concentration and sometimes real skill. Trains allow visitors to really see the spectacular mountain scenery. Moreover, the Swiss train system is linked to the Postal Bus system, which reaches every nook and cranny of the country.

  • Traveling on the day of arrival. Many people think they can bull their way through the day after their overnight flight to Europe, but I can’t recommend it. Take a train from the airport to the first stop on your itinerary; you’re more likely to arrive safe and rested. If you want, rent a car a few days later.


  • Exploring small towns and the countryside. A car is the only way to reach many small towns, inns and castles, historical sites, natural attractions, roadside shrines and other interesting places not served by timely train transportation. And, except in Switzerland, a car is the only efficient way to wind one’s way through Europe’s mountains.

  • Traveling with family. Whenever three or more people travel together, a car becomes the most economical way to get around Europe. After arriving in a city, park the car and take public transportation. If the kids are determined to ride a train, take them on a short excursion.

  • Rambling. Timetables! What if you don’t want to leave Rome at 6:40 p.m.? Or arrive in Paris at 9:10 in the morning after a sleepless night on the train? What if you want to just ramble? Travelers who want to wander according to their whims really need to have a car, as do travelers who like to decide on their destination at the last minute.

  • Eating and drinking off the beaten path. Many of the top restaurants and vineyards of Europe are well off the rail lines; in fact, the Michelin Red Guides list hundreds of eateries and lodges that are not reachable by train. Vineyards and wineries are even more secluded, and many see no public transportation at all.

  • Escaping other tourists. Travelers with cars can literally steer clear of major tourist centers, and so have the opportunity to discover parts of Europe that are little visited by American tourists.

Train or car? It depends. Not so much on your pocketbook (unless you are traveling alone) but on where you are going and how you like to travel.

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." or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .