Europe: By plane or by train?

Paintings For Sale Along the Grand Canal
03 Jan 2006, Venice, Italy --- Paintings For Sale Along the Grand Canal --- Image by © Hans Georg Roth/CorbisHans Georg Roth
/ Source: Independent Traveler

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. Ryanair has sales that sometimes offer tickets from just 10 GBP (about $18.50 USD), and claims to be 50 percent cheaper than easyJet, its biggest rival. (Not necessarily true — see our findings below!)

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 generally quite as cheap as they appear. Even if you do net an incredibly affordable flight, taxes and fees bump the price up to at least $25 or $30. Then, if you're traveling on Ryanair, you'll have to pay for each piece of checked baggage — 8 GBP per item (about $14.90) if you book it ahead of time when you make your reservation, and 16 GBP for each unreserved item ($29.75) that you bring to the check-in counter. These fees are charged per one-way flight; carry-on baggage is free. Ryanair also charges "handling" or "transaction" fees if you book your tickets using some credit or debit cards; these are 4 GBP (about $7.40) per one-way flight.

One more factor to take into account? Discount airlines tend to fly into smaller airports that can be 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 Eurail to see who had the lowest price, the most convenient connections and the quickest journey. We tested prices using the same dates over a two-week period in February, though we sometimes had to tweak our dates a bit when pricing train tickets — most European rail operators don't allow reservations more than 60 days in advance.

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. It offers direct flights for each leg of our itinerary, so booking was a breeze. The total price with taxes: $161.30, with a total of about five hours in the air. easyJet's site was also the easiest to use, allowing us to search "all London airports" when booking. Note: We had to fly in and out of five different airports —Charles de Gaulle and Orly (Paris), Luton and Gatwick (London), and Ciampino (Rome).

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The winner: Eurail won this round by a landslide, offering both the shortest total travel time (9 hours and 56 minutes) and the lowest price. We priced each leg individually and came up with a total of $178, which is less than it would cost you to buy an Italy Pass for $225. However, the prices were so close for our travel dates that it's worth checking both options when you book. 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. Ryanair gets our vote for runner-up with a total price of $261.34. The travel time was almost twice as long the train's, not because of time in the air but because of lengthy 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 only direct flight available for any of these city pairs was between Venice and Rome, which we priced at just $14.61 with taxes. But we ran into trouble booking flights between Rome and Pisa (Ryanair doesn't go directly to Florence) and between Pisa and Venice. In both cases we had to test each possible connecting city to see which one yielded the best schedule and lowest total price. We ended up connecting through Brussels Charleroi for one leg and London Stansted for the other. Another drawback is the inconvenience of the airports —the Pisa airport is a good 50 miles away from Florence, and connecting between Rome's Ciampino airport and Rome's major international airport, Fiumicino, requires a convoluted and lengthy transfer process. And don't forget that extra fee for baggage — about $149 to take two pre-reserved bags on five flights.

The loser: easyJet's flight schedules were even less convenient than Ryanair's, resulting in a total price of $304 for six flights. When booking, we again faced the painstaking process of searching connection cities one by one — in this case for all three legs, since there were no direct flights between any of the cities on our itinerary. We ended up with layovers in three different cities (Berlin, Bristol and London Gatwick). Like Ryanair, easyJet flies to Pisa rather than Florence and to Rome Ciampino rather than Fiumicino, making for some inconvenience in transferring during and at the end of the trip.

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 a relatively low total cost ($247.66) and direct flights for two out of three legs: Paris Orly to Barcelona, and Lisbon to Paris Charles de Gaulle. (The latter Paris airport is the one most U.S. travelers will use for international flights, so keep this in mind when planning your trip.) We found a connection in Geneva to get from Barcelona to Lisbon.

The runner-up: Eurail comes in at a distant second place, at $504 for a Eurail Selectpass Saver. We added up a total of about 48 hours (including two one-hour layovers) of travel time. The overnight train is a potentially economical option, allowing you to save time (and money on a hotel room) by traveling at night. Priced individually, we couldn't get an exact cost; two of the tickets were not yet available for sale.

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 Girona -- but Beauvais is more than an hour by bus from downtown Paris, and Girona is a similar distance from downtown Barcelona.

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. But keep trying — it will pay off in the end!

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 too 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.

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, "free" flight offers aside, beware of the hidden costs that could 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.