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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: What’s the Best Way to Travel Around Europe?

A person taking a photo of a snowy mountain peak through a train window.

Image source: Getty Images

Traveling around Europe is many people’s idea of a dream vacation. And if you have the time, it’s certainly doable. Countries in Europe aren’t that far from each other, and there are affordable transportation options. You could easily spend time in four or five countries over a two-week trip.

Flights, trains, and cars are three of the most common ways to get around, and each has its pros and cons. Figuring out the right option for each leg of your trip could help you save money and have a better time traveling from place to place.

My wife and I spent three months in Europe last summer. During that time, we took a few flights, went on several train rides, and rented a car at one point. If you’re deciding how to get around, here’s what I recommend.

For longer journeys: Planes

If you want to arrive as quickly as possible, flying is the best choice. It’s also more convenient for long trips that would take six hours or more by train. Taking a flight, on the other hand, could likely get you there in under two hours.

You can compare flights and trains for where you want to go online — I recommend Google Flights and Trainline. Enter your trip details on each one, and you can compare prices and travel times. You’ll be able to see if going by train is a viable option, or if a plane is the only way to arrive in a reasonable amount of time.

Somewhat surprisingly, flying is cheaper than train travel in most of Europe, according to recent research by Greenpeace. This isn’t always the case, though. I made a lot of last-minute bookings, and trains were normally more affordable. It’s also budget airlines that offer the cheapest airfare, and many of them charge extra for each piece of luggage beyond a personal item.

However, if you use travel credit cards and have miles available, you could redeem those to save on flight costs. Short-hop flights costing 100 euros to 200 euros are sometimes also available for just 5,000 miles to 8,000 miles.

For a relaxing travel experience: Trains

Europe has an excellent rail system, and I’d highly recommend using it if you can. It’s the quintessential European travel experience. You can settle in with a coffee or a drink, and watch the countryside pass by.

As far as when to use it, that depends on how far you’re going and how much train travel you’re open to. My general rule of thumb is to go by train when it’s less than five or six hours and doesn’t require any train changes. For anything longer or more complicated than that, I prefer flying, since it’s more convenient.

If you’re traveling within one country, the train is usually a good option. Trains are also perfect for day trips to cities that aren’t too far from each other. And they can also work well for trips between countries, too. For example, you can get from Paris to Amsterdam by train in under three-and-a-half hours.

When comparing how long it will take to fly compared to taking the train, keep in mind that travel times don’t tell the whole story. You don’t need to arrive that early when traveling by train, because there’s no extensive security check like there is at the airport. Train stations are also often conveniently located within major cities, not on the outskirts like many airports are.

For anything off the beaten path: Automobiles

In most of the United States, you get used to driving everywhere. If you’re planning to visit major cities in Europe, don’t feel like you need to rent a car. In fact, it may be better not to. It’s easy to get around with public transportation, and often faster than driving. Traffic is brutal in big cities, as is finding parking. The subway or the bus are both good alternatives. Many cities also have bike and scooter rentals available.

The exception is when you’re traveling to small towns and anywhere that doesn’t have fast public transportation. For example, when my wife and I stayed on a farm in Tuscany, renting a car was the only realistic option. If you’re not sure whether a car will be necessary, try searching online. You can also contact the host of your accommodations or the hotel where you’ll be staying.

If you rent a car at any point, make sure to read up on the traffic laws in the area you’ll be driving. There are plenty of stories out there about travelers who received tickets in the mail for breaking traffic laws, such as inadvertently driving in a restricted zone. I’d also recommend paying with one of the many credit cards that offer complimentary rental insurance.

The right way to get around Europe depends on where you’re going and your travel preferences. Personally, I found that I took the train the most, only flying if it would’ve been an arduous train trip. A car isn’t needed in much of Europe, but for certain destinations, it’s practically a must.

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