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Great car-free vacations

There are alternate ways to travel without getting in your car and in most cases, with very little flying. We look at private luxury railcars, bike and barge tours and more.
For carefree car-free travel on two wheels, book a luxury bicycle tour. Try a six-day bicycle tour of Umbria, through truffle forests and vineyards and medieval towns.
For carefree car-free travel on two wheels, book a luxury bicycle tour. Try a six-day bicycle tour of Umbria, through truffle forests and vineyards and medieval towns. Backroads
/ Source: Forbes

As the world knows, fuel prices have made travel much more expensive. While fuel prices have dropped about 10 percent from their earlier summer highs, there's no guarantee they won't jump right back up. But even if the cost of crude oil remains relatively flat, it's unlikely that gas stations and airlines will offer refunds to those customers who had little choice but pay at the pump and ticket counter.

In many cases, the cost of travel has become ridiculous. I thought my recent New York-to-Washington shuttle flight was expensive at $839 roundtrip. Until, that is, I flew one-way from Aspen to Denver. The cost of this 32-minute-long flight? More than $1,000! And believe me, the high cost did not buy me any kind of airborne luxury.

As summer travel gives way to autumnal outings, we’ve little choice but to adjust our expectations. But don’t despair. There are alternate ways to travel—in style, even—without getting in your car and in most cases, with very little flying. It's not that every car-free trip will cost less; they don't, in many of the examples that follow. But there's adventure to be found in these alternate means of travel you may not have considered otherwise.

For starters, you can rent a private luxury railcar that is then attached to an already-scheduled Amtrak train. Trips on VIA in Canada and on the Mexican national railways are also possible. These cars are privately owned so you need to contact the owner directly, but most information is available through the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners. Private rail cars are not cheap; they run between $5,000 and $7,000 per day. But if you travel with a group of friends or family, the amortized expense becomes far more reasonable. A group of eight, for example, may end up paying $600 to $800 per day. This includes a gourmet chef and an attendant, and it's truly all-inclusive, with all meals and all alcohol part of the deal. In fact, the chef will contact you ahead of time to arrange the menu.

These private railcar journeys are a great leisurely and luxurious way to see America, so it's no surprise that the scenic routes are the most popular. Oakland to Chicago over the Rocky Mountains, for example; or the Los Angeles to Seattle route. It may even be possible to uncouple the car from the main train at select cities along the way—then hop back on eight or nine hours later and continue your journey. But it needn't be a long journey—a short roundtrip jaunt between Los Angeles and San Diego aboard the Pony Express costs just $5,000 roundtrip. That's just $128 apiece for you and 39 friends.

For an even more incredible experience, rent a private domed railcar. On Amtrak, the Vista Dome, the Birch Grove and the Oliver Hazard Perry cars travel behind the "regular" train along the Cardinal Route through Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. A double bedroom aboard the Birch Grove costs $2,500. Or, for $10,750, charter the entire Oliver Hazard Perry, which accommodates six passengers (in three double bedrooms) and comes with a private chef and flat-screen TV.

To avoid fossil fuels altogether, there are luxury bicycle trips. Backroads arranges outdoor adventure tours in more than 90 destinations in 37 countries worldwide. Don't worry about lagging behind the group—tours are tailored to different fitness and skill levels, and you can opt to stay in basic or luxurious accommodations. Want to go just a bit off the beaten bike path? Try a six-day bicycle tour of Umbria, through truffle forests and vineyards, over hills and into medieval towns. Or fly down to northern Argentina. Okay, you’ll have to pay the airfare for Umbria and Argentina, but once you’re there, go for a challenging ride through adobe villages and along some of the highest-altitude vineyards in the world.

If two-wheeling your entire vacation doesn't sound appealing, Backroads and other tour companies also arrange walking and biking tours. Want to head to Croatia? How about Slovenia? Adventure Travel Group  offers a 10-day island hopping tour off the Dalmatian Coast, averaging about 40 miles a day on hilly terrain (you can opt for less if you want). Rates start at $3,195 and include overnight stays at unusual properties that include family-owned inns and even a working sheep ranch. A dramatic “grand tour” of Slovenia starts at $2,995 and will take you through stunning Julian Alps, medieval villages and even spa towns. If you have a partner who doesn't want to bike, Adventure Travel Group has options for non-cycling companions who can ride along in a support vehicle (presumably one that gets good mileage).

Cruise ships are by no means immune to the fuel crunch, but it's still possible to travel on the water in style. Luxury barges float along at a few miles per hour, most often through the canals and rivers of France, Holland, England, Scotland or Ireland. You can charter an entire barge that holds between six and 20 passengers and comes complete with captain and chef. Barges travel only a few miles an hour, which means that you can hop off and walk or ride your bike alongside it, or sit back and take in the scenery while you eat lunch prepared by the on-board gourmet chef. The best part about these small vessels is that they can access areas that you might not otherwise get to see, such as small villages and vineyards.

There are several booking companies that work with the same barges, so you have plenty of options. In France, Barge Company handles the 20-person Litote, which travels through the Burgundy Canal; tickets start at $1,915. In the U.S., the luxury travel outfitter Abercrombie & Kent has several barge options. Feeling more adventurous? Try your hand at actually driving the barge. Viking Afloat has self-drive barges that you can drive through England and Wales—with all the instructions you'll need. (It's easier than it sounds.) They also provide a list of points of interests, local pubs and restaurants.